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Spring postcard: Reds bring core crew back to defend title

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- A few observations after spending time in Reds camp:

The defending National League Central champions will more truly be "defending" their division crown than any club in recent memory because the Reds retained almost every single player from last year. Other than letting free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera leave and signing the Giants' World Series MVP, Edgar Renteria, to be the backup at shortstop to Paul Janish, Cincinnati remained static this offseason.

"I was just telling some buddies of mine that this is the most comfortable camp I've ever been in because you look around and there are just no new faces," said veteran starter Bronson Arroyo. "There are a couple of young guys who have made their way into [big league] camp and there's Edgar Renteria, but everyone else has been here for years."

For a team that just made its first playoff appearance in 15 years, most clubs would been more aggressive in adding pieces through free agency if they could afford to add payroll or by trading prospects if they couldn't. The Reds did neither, spending only to lock up several young players: starter Johnny Cueto (four years, $27 million) and rightfielder Jay Bruce (six years, $51 million) signed extensions that cover at least one free-agent year and NL MVP first baseman Joey Votto (three years, $38 million) to bypass his arbitration years. Cincinnati also re-signed Arroyo for three years and offered starter Edinson Volquez a four-year contract, which he rejected.

The young core includes three position players and five of the six starting rotation candidates who are 27-or-under (Votto is 27; centerfielder Drew Stubbs, is 26 and Bruce is 23; among the pitchers Volquez is 27, Cueto is 25, Homer Bailey and Travis Wood are 24 and Mike Leake is 23). Many of the Reds are only beginning to enter the prime years of their career, so general manager Walt Jocketty's plan of progression by development may be smart, not to mention cost-efficient in terms of not spending free-agent dollars and trading prospects.

"We felt like our young guys would all continue to mature and get even better than they were," general manager Walt Jocketty said.

Having so many returning regulars means that position battles in Reds camp are scarce. The only true competition is over the fifth starter spot. With Volquez, Arroyo and Cueto set for the first three slots and with Homer Bailey a near-lock to be the fourth starter, that leaves righty Mike Leake and lefty Travis Wood vying to crack the final rotation spot.

Leake began last year in the rotation a year after having been drafted out of Arizona State and with exactly zero minor league innings under his belt. Through his first 18 starts he was 7-1 with a 3.45 ERA before fading in late July and August. Wood, meanwhile, didn't make his first big league start until July 1 but carried a perfect game against the Phillies into the ninth inning of his third start and went 5-4 with a 3.51 ERA in his 17 starts.

"At the end of the day there's going to be a guy or a couple guys working out of the bullpen or starting the year at Triple-A that don't deserve to be there," Arroyo said. "That said, how many staffs go with only five guys the entire season?"

It's a remarkable safety net to have that kind of rotation insurance for injury or ineffectiveness without even tapping into the rocket-launching left arm of Aroldis Chapman, who will stay in the bullpen at least one more year before being shifted into a starting role.

Of the stockpile of talent, pitching coach Bryan Price said, "It's a place that every organization is trying to get to and some are there -- and I think we're one of those teams -- with not just prospects but guys who have pitched at the big-league level and already had some success."

Other than staving off the complacency of assured playing time, Reds' main concern will be a matter of ordering the roster -- in the lineup, rotation and bullpen in front of closer Francisco Cordero -- to maximize its potential. Most notably, manager Dusty Baker is looking for the best fit to be his leadoff hitter.

Asked what qualities he's looking for atop his lineup, Baker's first reply was simply "Rickey Henderson." Baker expounded on the point by noting his desire for a good average and on-base percentage, along with some speed.

Jocketty acknowledged that this was one need he explored this offseason. The market was barren for that type of hitter except, of course, for Red Sox signee Carl Crawford who was undoubtedly way too expensive for Cincinnati.

"If there were a clear-cut, bona fide leadoff hitter, we would have pursued," Jocketty said. "We looked at a couple of things, but it really didn't make sense, whether financially or whatever."

Instead, Stubbs, second baseman Brandon Phillips or outfielder Fred Lewis will likely fill that role (or potentially all three in a platoon of sorts). On Friday morning Baker indicated there was a leader for the job: "probably Stubbs." No matter how it turns out, the drama-free feeling of consistency is new in this clubhouse and appreciated.

"It's nice to be in that position," Votto said. "In the past it was, 'Are we going to be a .500 team? Are we going to stay healthy all year? Who's going to play half the positions?'"

Don't blow an early-round pick on Chapman, whose potential (and 105-mph fastball) make him an exciting player, but that won't translate to fantasy success in 2011. That's not to say he won't have a high strikeout rate -- he struck out 19 in 13 1/3 innings last year -- but the decision was made in the offseason not to convert him to a starter until 2012 and he also won't be closing games anytime soon. The Reds have incumbent closer Francisco Cordero, who saved 40 games ago, under contract for another year (with a $12 million option for 2012) and Baker doesn't want to rush his prodigy. If you play in a long-term keeper league, Chapman's likely off the board already, but if you play in a league with holds, then he could be valuable, with reliever Arthur Rhodes having left as a free agent.

"Someone will have to take Rhodes' spot in the eighth," Baker said.

Bailey and Wood each took their own bow-hunting trips this offseason. When the two were asked who bagged the biggest game, Bailey proud raised his hand, noting the he got an elk and a 180-class mule deer. To be fair, Bailey conceded that he had an advantage of time: Wood became a father to a baby boy. . . . The Reds have to be one of the major league leaders in bringing their former greats back to camp. Among the alumni spotted in camp were Joe Morgan, Barry Larkin, Ken Griffey Sr., Eric Davis, Billy Hatcher and Sean Casey. . . . Baker noted that, just like last year, reliever Arolids Chapman has been a little inconsistent in the early part of the spring. "When a guy throws 100," Baker said, "it's like trying to tune a racecar." . . . As hard as Bailey worked out this summer, he said his legs were a little sore after some of the mundane spring drills. "You can't really prepare for standing in the outfield, shagging flyballs for five hours," he said with a laugh.

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