CINCINNATI • One of only two National League teams to sculpt three 90-win seasons in the last four years resides in the Central Division. That club has secured two division titles and won 357 games in the span. The 2013 season produced record attendance for its young stadium.
Say hello to the Cincinnati Reds.
Or should it be goodbye?
A year ago the Reds were what the Cardinals are now — the consensus favorite to retain control of their division.
Last season revealed them as good enough to win 90 games and the NL’s second wild-card playoff spot. Yet management deemed them so underachieving — so stunningly listless when it counted most — that Dusty Baker received a pink slip after his sixth year as manager.
These Reds are much like their 2013 version except for the naming of former pitching coach Bryan Price as Baker’s successor.
Price has no managerial experience, which could be no big deal. He’s comfortable with the media, upbeat and cultivated credibility with his handling of a young, eclectic pitching staff.
He oversees a clubhouse that last year featured a fair amount of contentiousness, which could become a very big deal.
“It’s a more positive atmosphere,” general manager Walt Jocketty said. “Yes, we have an inexperienced manager but we have a guy who is extremely talented. He has a lot of different, new ideas. He’s very positive about our players.”
He’s ready for opening day.
“For me personally, it’ll be a magical day,” Price said. “It already has been to this point. This is something that encompasses the entire organization and all the people who support the Reds. It’s a huge day and I just want to share in a piece of that.”
The franchise’s fan base would like to share in a more satisfying piece of October.
The Reds have won two NL Central titles to the Cardinals’ one in the last four years. During that time they’ve won only four fewer regular-season games, a number explained by the Cardinals’ 37-30 head-to-head edge. Postseason success and failure accounts for contrasting perceptions. The Reds haven’t won a postseason series since 1995 — the season before Jocketty recruited Tony La Russa as Cardinals manager — and were only 2-7 in playoff games from 2010-13.
The Cardinals ground out a wild-card berth on the final day of the 2011 season and another with 88 wins in 2012. But they are a redemptive 27-21 the last four Octobers.
The Reds pressed the Cardinals for the NL Central lead before losing their final five regular-season games in 2013. The collapse culminated in a punchless loss to Pittsburgh in the wild-card game. Skepticism has become a civic birthright.
The Reds last won a World Series in 1990. The franchise has won as many division titles in the last four seasons under Jocketty as in its first 19 seasons following that World Series triumph. Still, debate stirs over whether the Reds’ window remains wide open or is gradually closing.
Everything, including the NL Central, is relative.
The Cardinals enjoy a position of extreme leverage owing to consistent player development and a mature core. The Pirates are coming off a 94-win season. Jocketty is among those convinced the Milwaukee Brewers are a well-kept secret that will be a factor this season. The Chicago Cubs might remain a punch line this summer, but their wave of promising position prospects approaches.
The Cardinals, Jocketty’s employer for 13 years, are “the defending champions,” Jocketty said. “They lost two guys (right fielder Carlos Beltran and third baseman David Freese), but they’ve also made some upgrades. I think it’s only natural they’re rated favorites. They have a strong team. It’s a strong division.”
Most pressing is that the Reds reach opening day with eight players on the disabled list, their closer (Aroldis Chapman) and logical replacement (Jonthan Broxton) among them. Price steadfastly refuses to name his ninth-inning pitcher, perhaps because he’s still deciding for himself.
“I like our team a lot,” Jocketty said late Sunday afternoon, less than 20 hours after the team returned from a Phoenix-to-Pensacola-to-Louisville conclusion to its spring schedule. “We didn’t make a lot of changes to the team that finished last season. The main thing was getting guys back healthy.”
Architect of two World Series teams in St. Louis, Jocketty imported former Redbird Skip Schumaker to upgrade his bench only to lose him for the season’s first month because of a dislocated shoulder. Chapman suffered a line drive to the face that required implanting a plate above his left eye. Mat Latos, who otherwise would have started Wednesday’s game, won’t appear during this three-game series after needing surgery in February to repair the meniscus in his left knee. Lefthanded reliever Sean Marshall remains out because of shoulder inflammation. Broxton is nearing return from elbow surgery he had last season.
“The problem is six of our first nine games are against the Cardinals,” Jocketty pointed out. The Reds’ bruising April schedule also contains seven games against Pittsburgh, three against Tampa Bay and three on the road against Atlanta.
Rainouts might be welcome.
“The key absence is our closer,” conceded Jocketty, who received 112 strikeouts and 38 saves from Chapman in 632/3 innings covering 68 appearances last season. “We’re just going to have to manage things there.”
The Reds possess a dynamic, young starting rotation. An offense that last season ranked third among NL teams in runs scored, second in on-base percentage and seventh in home runs introduces speed burner Billy Hamilton (think Vince Coleman on grass) in center field for free-agent defector Shin-Soo Choo. If he hits, Hamilton should eclipse the team’s 67 total bases from last year by himself.
Jocketty has constructed a track record in Cincinnati. He’s convinced his team will contend. But today the Reds confront a hurdle. Whether it’s high or intermediate is to be determined.