Bernie Bits: Jocketty calls Cards favorites in division

2012-01-28T00:30:00Z 2012-02-02T10:18:48Z Bernie Bits: Jocketty calls Cards favorites in divisionBY BERNIE MIKLASZ, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

Cincinnati Reds GM Walt Jocketty says his old team is the one to catch in the NL Central. He cites the highly anticipated return of Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright as the No. 1 reason.

"I still believe the Cardinals, being world champions and Wainwright back from Tommy John surgery, are the team to beat in our division," Jocketty said. "But I like our chances."

It would be a lot of fun to see the Cardinals and Reds going at each other again. The roiling rivalry cooled down a bit in 2011, as the Reds faded in the season's second half. But the peace is probably temporary.

The Reds loom as the Cardinals' primary threat in the NL Central, and Jocketty has received industry acclaim for his offseason maneuverings.

Jocketty traded quality prospects to San Diego for starting pitcher Mat Latos and gave young starter Travis Wood to the Chicago Cubs for Sean Marshall, the superb lefthanded reliever.

Jocketty waited for the price to drop on former Philadelphia closer Ryan Madson and made his move, signing Madson to a reasonable one-year deal. Jocketty has reinforced the Reds' bench by adding outfielder Ryan Ludwick, infielder Wilson Valdez and utility man Willie Harris.

After capturing the NL Central with a 91-71 record in 2010, the Reds sagged to 79-83 last season. But Jocketty's retooling has raised the optimism.

"I'm very happy," manager Dusty Baker told fans and reporters during a Reds caravan promotional tour this week. "These are the most moves, combined, in an offseason since I've been here."

Internally, the Reds are moving MLB's hardest thrower, Aroldis Chapman, out of the bullpen to give him a shot at starting. The Reds believe they've improved a starting rotation that ranked 13th among 16 NL teams with a 4.47 ERA in a disappointing 2011.

Reds starting pitchers also allowed more homers than any NL rotation. To bring that number down, starter Bronson Arroyo will have to pitch to his 2010 level, when he had a 3.88 ERA. Arroyo was pounded for 46 homers and a 5.07 ERA last season.

The Reds also need third baseman Scott Rolen to make a strong comeback from a 2011 season ruined by a reoccurrence of shoulder problems. Though the Reds still finished second in the NL in runs last season, their team slugging percentage dropped 28 points. Rolen slammed 20 homers in 2010 but hit only five last season.

The latest: Rolen told Jocketty that he "feels fantastic."

The Brewers will be diminished after losing slugger Prince Fielder, who signed a huge deal with Detroit. Moreover, 2011 league MVP Ryan Braun is facing a 50-game suspension for violating MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy. (He's appealing.)

The Cardinals' losses give Jocketty hope that the Reds can close the gap. Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels, future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired, and pitching coach Dave Duncan stepped down to tend to his wife's health concerns.

"I think it's going to make a big difference," Jocketty said. "(Pujols and Fielder) certainly had an impact on the division. Also, Tony La Russa was a difference-maker as a manager. So I think our division is wide open."

The Reds need to take their best shot now. First baseman Joey Votto almost certainly will become a free agent after the 2013 season. Second baseman Brandon Phillips can leave as a free agent after this season. Marshall and Madson are on one-year deals.

The Cardinals have pushed back, signing outfielder Carlos Beltran to help fill the void left by Pujols' money grab. They also retained shortstop Rafael Furcal through a new two-year contract.

And it appears that the Cardinals, despite previous denials, are serious contenders to sign free-agent starting pitcher Roy Oswalt.

The Reds figure to push the Cardinals and their rookie manager, Mike Matheny, who isn't bashful. The teams will be able to check each other out in the first month, with three games in Cincinnati April 9-11, and three in St. Louis April 17-19.

Reading Time, 3 Minutes:

The CVC wants to pick a fight with Rams owner Stan Kroenke, eh? Sorry, but the CVC won't win that one, not in the long run. And that's why the Rams will play a home game in London in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Blues captain David Backes deserved to be an NHL All-Star this season. ... Best of luck to Rams media-relations director Ted Crews, who is leaving to accept a similar position with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Congrats to the newest individual members of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, who will be inducted Sunday in Springfield: Jim Edmonds, Mel Gray, Emmitt Thomas, Jon Sundvold, Lawrence Walls, Dick Hantak, Jamie Quirk, Al Onofrio, Mickey Owen, Rex Sinquefield, Ellen Port, Clyde Lear, Dr. Rick Lehman, Jim Pearson and Gene Ruble.

Speaking on KMOX, Edmonds said he'd like to serve as a guest instructor at Cardinals spring training. "My biggest fear is going down there and not really being able to explain to people what I know, or have them not want to listen," Edmonds said. "I know sometimes at some point in your career you kind of think you know it all, and that's the way the game's turned. So I'm hoping if I can go down there, I make an impact."

Cardinals third baseman David Freese will be the subject of an upcoming profile in Sports Illustrated, written by Tom Verducci. ... St. Louisan Fred Wappel, the head athletic trainer at Missouri from 1955 through 1996, is being honored at MU by the University School of Health Related Sciences, which will name a new division on athletic training in his honor. ... St. Louis sports broadcaster Dan McLaughlin has lost 70 pounds as part of a determined and impressive lifestyle change.

Speaking on WXOS (101.1 FM), former New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington said the Rams made a smart choice in hiring Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator. "I think it will be a good fit for (quarterback) Sam Bradford. He'll be challenged as a quarterback." Strengths? "Brian is really detailed," Pennington said. "He helped me increase my preparation. I could just go out there, and no matter what question was thrown at me by my teammates I had the answer for them. He's really big on preparation and knowledge of your own system and being able to make all of the calls."

St. Louisan Bradley Beal, the national high school player of the year last season as a senior at Chaminade, is back in form after a brief slump at Florida. The freshman made only 29 percent of his shots over a four-game stretch after Christmas but is shooting 50 percent over the last four contests. The 6-3 Beal is averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds for the 14th-ranked Gators.

Our town's Blake Ahearn (De Smet, Missouri State) leads the NBA developmental league in scoring this season with an average of 24.6 points a game. There's more: Ahearn has broken his D-League record for making consecutive free throws. He's up to 99 and counting and goes for No. 100 (and beyond) tonight when his Reno Big Horns play at Springfield (Mass.)

The Nice Section

Just a reminder: Please help us raise money for the families of fallen police officers by playing in the 6th Annual Barwick/Newton Texas Hold 'Em tournament to benefit the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. It's Saturday, Feb. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Bridgeton. The fee is $50 per player.

The fund covers travel expenses for family members to visit Washington to participate in annual memorial ceremonies to honor officers killed in the line of duty. It's part of Police Week activities in the nation's capital. Being able to attend the ceremony provides considerable comfort for grieving families.

To register, contribute money or donate auction items, call Bridgeton police detective Chris Welby at 314-954-1555.

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