CINCINNATI — Reds manager Dusty Baker sat back in his chair at the start of spring training in Arizona and considered that it’s his final season under contract.
Worriedâ¢ No. How a manager does usually comes down to the depth of talent on his roster. And Baker likes what he has to work with this time around.
“It boils down to the more talent you have, the better your chances are,” Baker said. “I genuinely like this team.”
The Reds have done a philosophical about-face. After winning the NL Central in 2010, they kept the roster virtually intact to make a run at another title. Instead, they fell to third place. That prompted a much different approach this past offseason. They changed closers and added a setup man. They traded some of their best young players for a starting pitcher.
No staying pat in 2012. This is a team that thinks it has a legitimate chance to win a second NL Central title in three seasons.
They know there’s a lot riding on this year.
“I’m excited about this season,” said outfielder Jay Bruce, whose game-ending home run secured Cincinnati’s title in 2010. “Right now it’s all just on paper, and we’re getting used to playing together. But if we stay healthy, we can do some really special things.
“We’ve improved our bullpen. We’ve improved our starting pitching. Management has brought in some options for the bench. We have a chance to improve in every aspect.”
There’s a lot to like.
The Reds have one of the best groups of young players in the division, built around Bruce, 2010 MVP Joey Votto and outfielder Drew Stubbs. The offense is never an issue — they score enough runs to be a contender every year.
The rotation let them down last season, when injuries and illness were a major issue. Right-hander Johnny Cueto developed a sore shoulder during spring training. So did right-hander Homer Bailey. And right-hander Bronson Arroyo came down with mononucleosis that left him even thinner than usual and tired well into the season.
With the constant changes in the rotation because of injury, the club never got on a good, long streak.
General manager Walt Jocketty decided the Reds needed another top-of-the-rotation starter, and got Mat Latos from San Diego for a package of players that included two former first-round draft picks and starter Edinson Volquez.
With Arroyo fully recovered from his mono and his bad season — a club-record 46 homers allowed — the rotation seems solid.
“I think we’re in a better position because there is not as much riffraff — meaning, we don’t have 10 guys competing for five spots,” Arroyo said. “We’re pretty solid with six, maybe seven guys.”
The bullpen had the biggest makeover. Closer Francisco Cordero left as a free agent, so Jocketty signed former Phillies closer Ryan Madson, who was 32 of 34 in save chances last season. He traded with the Cubs for Sean Marshall, a left-handed setup man who had a 2.26 ERA last season.
Jocketty also restocked his bench, which was thin at times last season. Baker’s toughest job during spring training was figuring out who to keep.
“We have a lot of options for the bench,” Baker said. “They’re a very important position on this team. These final cuts are usually the toughest. It’s definitely tougher on a good team. If it’s a bad team, you don’t have this many options.”
The biggest questions are the left side of the infield and the sharing arrangement at catcher.
Zack Cozart impressed during an 11-game stint as a rookie that ended when he tore his non-throwing elbow and needed reconstructive surgery. He also had his right ankle cleaned out. He’ll get to start as long as he’s healthy and isn’t overwhelmed by the promotion to everyday player.
Third baseman Scott Rolen turns 37 on April 4 and is coming off surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, which limited him to 65 games last season. If he’s healthy, it’ll be a huge boost for a team that looks to him for leadership.
The Reds allowed catcher Ramon Hernandez to leave as a free agent. They’re replacing him with the tandem of Ryan Hanigan and 23-year-old Devin Mesoraco, a first-round pick in June 2007 who is known for his hitting.
“Mesoraco has been concentrating more on catching,” Baker said. “Their No. 1 job is to catch, to put the right fingers down, to block balls in the dirt, to throw runners out and to be my general on the field.”
The returning players like the way the front office has been aggressive about improving every part of the team.
“The front office did a tremendous job,” Votto said. “It seems to be a trend. We took a lot of chances, but we’ve got a pretty good return. I’m very happy about it.”
The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals lost sluggers Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols as free agents in the offseason, which also would seem to improve Cincinnati’s chances.
“I don’t care about that,” Votto said. “I think we have enough.”