On the day of the Cincinnati Reds' first spring visit to HoHoKam Park, the line of questioning was predictable when Dusty Baker gathered for a reunion visit with Cubs media members.
With another new Cubs manager in place, why not turn to one of Dale Sveum's predecessors for some 'what he should know' words of advice — even though Baker's last game in a Cubs uniform is six years in the past?
"I can't tell him anything; we're trying to beat them,'' was Baker's initital response. "I like Dale, but we're still competitors. The better they do, the harder it makes it for us.''
In other words, Baker has enough problems of his own. In fact, his stay in Cincinnati has reached this critical juncture:
It all adds up to the Reds being one of the most intriguing teams to watch, especially coming out of the gate in April. Both individually and collectively, the possible outcomes are wide-ranging. They could be one of the NL's most-improved teams and get back into the postseason, or they could get their manager fired.
For a talented but enigmatic new No. 1 starter in Mat Latos, the Reds sent bounce-back candidate Edinson Volquez and top prospects Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger and Yasmani Grandal to San Diego.
Latos' talent is matched by a guarded personality that hasn't always responded well to instruction.
Alonso is penciled in as the Padres' regular first baseman, Boxberger will pitch out of their bullpen at some point this season, and Grandal will reach the big leagues by 2013 as a catcher.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
"Add Marshall, Latos and Madson, and that's 25 percent of our staff — that's a lot,'' Baker said. "Usually, one addition is pretty good, but we got three. We also have a healthy Homer (Bailey) and a healthy Johnny (Cueto). Last year at this time, we were without both, and Bronson (Arroyo) was sick (battling mononucleosis). By sheer health alone, you gotta like it.
"Volquez already has been an All-Star; Latos is trying to be an All-Star. Volquez is trying to get back to where he was. Latos hasn't been there yet. I think Volquez will have a good year.''
Madson is out for the season, and important left-handed setup man Bill Bray (groin strain) hasn't pitched this spring, which has reignited the starter-or-reliever question regarding Aroldis Chapman.
The Yankees' constant yo-yoing certainly did Joba Chamberlain's career no good, and the Reds could be repeating the pattern with Chapman. The Cuban left-hander wants to be a starter, but has yet to display the necessary pitch assortment and command, and needs time at Triple-A Louisville. No decision about where Chapman will begin the season has been announced, but Baker's words tell you which way he's leaning.
"The team always is more important,'' Baker said. "We're grooming him (to be a starter), but we can always shorten him back up. You can't go the other way.''
As talent-filled as the Reds roster is, they will be trying to get to the postseason with rookies at two key positions — catcher Devin Mesoraco and shortstop Zack Cozart — and that rarely pans out.
They let Ramon Hernandez sign with Colorado to give Mesoraco — their 2007 No. 1 pick — the majority of starts, with defensive standout Ryan Hanigan as the backup. Mesocraco can hit, as 41 homers in the last two seasons attests. And so far this spring, he has displayed much-improved throwing mechanics.
Cozart, the club's second-round pick in 2007, replaces offensively challenged Paul Janish as the regular shortstop despite only 11 games and 35 big-league at-bats last September before needing Tommy John surgery on his left arm. Cozart has had a big spring offensively to date.
A slight oddity of the Reds' 79-83 finish in 2011 was they outscored opponents 735-720. Their run total was seventh in the NL, and there's reason to expect improvement as Jay Bruce, 25, and Drew Stubbs, 27, mature, plus offensive improvements at catcher and shortstop, and the addition of Ryan Ludwick.
But another question mark is how much production the Reds will get from Scott Rolen, who will turn 37 on April 4, and played in only 65 games last season. Rolen is a middle-of-the-lineup key, as ideally, Baker wants a right-handed threat between left-handed-hitters Votto and Bruce. Rolen, coming off left shoulder surgery, has been productive this spring.
"You can project all you want to, but you have to see how things play out,'' Baker said. "That's the tough part for people to predict. That's what the season is about.''
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