Cincinnati Reds beat writers---they've been a ragtag group over the past 10-12 years. So the Cincinnati Post finally stumbles onto one with personality, wit, and a well-rounded knowledge of the game, and what happens? The afternoon newspaper finally calls it quits, following in the footsteps of the other dinosaurs of print. Luckily C. Trent Rosencrans is staying local and still covering the Reds through a hodgepodge of media, foremost among them being his blog.
In years past I would have attempted something like this spring preview myself, but it seems I can no longer muster up the pre-season baseball excitement that used to be a constant with me all through the winter. No worries . . . Rosencrans has all the bases covered here. He even likes my boy Johnny Cueto as much as I do:
SARASOTA — Two weeks into spring training games and we’re about to get to the place where we can start making some (albeit guarded) decisions about the 2008 Reds.
* Most impressive player: RHP Johnny Cueto. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — put him in the rotation. Let him take some lumps, the kid can handle it. While there will be some lumps, he’ll learn from them and be ready. He’s also got the kind of stuff that makes you think a no-hitter is possible almost every outing.
* Least impressive player: RHP Sergio Valenzuela was the Reds’ surprise Rule V pick in December. After last season’s Rule V bonanza, the law of averages comes back to get Wayne Krivsky. Valenzuela has looked out of his league even against minor league hitters at the end of games. Rule V picks are a gamble, and you never expect to win every hand at the table. Time to fold this hand.
* Most encouraging sign: Any step Jay Bruce takes. Bruce has an easy swing and all the tools in the world. After the hiccup with a quad issue, Bruce is going to be given a lot of chances to show his ability on the field. Still, expect him to start the season in Louisville.
* Most discouraging sign: 1. Corey Patterson. 2. Jerry Hairston. 3. Is Neifi next? Even the most ardent Dusty Baker backers winced at the Patterson and Hairston signings, thinking there may just be something to the incessant Cub whining about Baker and his penchant for retreads over young players. Expect “I told you sos” from the Windy City when Patterson’s your Opening Day lead-off hitter and centerfielder. If Bruce isn’t in Cincinnati by June 1, you can give up and say, they’re right.
* Biggest mystery: Homer Bailey. Last year Homer was the savior. He’s still No. 9 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list, but he’s not been lights-out in spring. Opposing hitters report a straight fastball, which means outfielders watching the ball go into the stands at Great American Small Park.
* Trade bait? As a veteran and a starter last season, Scott Hatteberg’s supposed to be done with his spring training games in the fifth inning this early in the season. Instead, he’s gotten some ninth-inning at-bats (albeit as a DH) when he should already be out on the golf course. With Joey Votto playing well enough and having nothing left to prove, Wayne Krivsky may see if he can parlay Hatteberg (who hit .310 last season and was signed to a reasonable one-year, $1.65 million deal) into a pitching prospect.
* And you are? Ryan Freel’s been quiet. On the field and off. He could be feeling the pressure of looking in center — where he was the Opening Day starter in 2007 — and seeing Jay Bruce, Norris Hopper and Corey Patterson. He looks at the infield and sees anchors at second and third base, and Jeff Keppinger in his role as backup everywhere in the infield, and trying to figure out where he fits in. A two-year, $7 million extension through 2009 makes him tougher to trade, but a few injuries here and there and Farney and Freel may be in a different uniform come March 31.
* Poised to break out: Edwin Encarnacion should put up 30 homers at Great American Ball Park this year and for the foreseeable future. Encarnacion has had a slow spring, but at this point of his career, it’s not something to get too worried about.
* What about Junior? There’s no overriding Ken Griffey Jr. storyline this spring — and nobody is happier about that than Ken Griffey Jr. He’s healthy, he’s in right field and he’s happy. That’s about all you can ask for. Griffey’s looked fine so far and even had an opposite field rocket of a home run in his second spring training game. Expect No. 600 sometime in early May.
* And Dunn? Dunn seems more relaxed than ever, which isn’t to say he’s nonchalant, but more like he’s not feeling any pressure. That’s shown in his swing, hitting the ball where it’s pitched with men on base. He’s gone the other way for RBI singles more than once already this spring.
* Who starts at short? Jeff Keppinger. Keppinger isn’t going to be the everyday shortstop — if Alex Gonzalez’s knee injury is more serious, the Reds will explore their options, but Keppinger can man the position weeks at a time. He should get 400 at-bats this season, and if he does, you know he’ll give about 390 quality at-bats. Keppinger also solves Baker’s search for a No. 2 hitter.
* Who’s on first? It looks like it’ll be Votto — the question is Hatteberg. If Krivsky can trade Hatteberg, expect a number of others to serve as Votto’s backup or part of a platoon, which leads to the next question.
* Three catchers? Really? Again, it could happen, especially if Krivsky finds a taker for Hatteberg. If they do go with three catchers, expect Javier Valentin to be used more as a pinch hitter who can catch. He’ll be the switch hitter of the bench. Also, both Valentin and Paul Bako have played first base in spring games. Starter David Ross has been slowed by a sore back, so it’s unsure if he’ll be ready.
* Will Mike Stanton be on the Opening Day roster? Yes. His contract is too big and his track record is too good for him not to get a shot to prove himself during the regular season. If he has a disastrous April and one more bad outing in May, he could be jettisoned, but not before that.
* What about Gary Majewski? Majewski has a live arm, experience and options. That makes him valuable. He may start the season in Louisville, but he’ll be back with the Reds this season.
* What’s the rotation? What is it going to be our what should it be? Well, here’s my rotation if I’m filling it out — Harang, Arroyo, Cueto, Fogg, Affeldt — and it may end up being that way, just in a different order.
* Is the bullpen better? In a word, yes. In another word, much.
* Is it enough? Honestly, it looks like the team is still a 78-win, third-place team. But, just a bit of overachieving and in this division, it’s playoff time. But I’m certainly not putting down a deposit on World Series tickets quite yet.