1. Aroldis Chapman is ready to bring it
There he was, under an oatmeal-colored sky and a light drizzle one day last month, smiling brightly as he skipped out to the mound for his second bullpen session as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. In Reds camp all eyes are on the franchise's $30 million pitcher, Aroldis Chapman. The early reviews are in. Raves all around.
GM Walt Jocketty: "Very impressive. I kept reading reports about his maturity and his command, and I haven't seen any of that. He's got a nice, loose, quick arm, and everything's been around the plate. What's surprised me is his athleticism -- how well he fields around the mound. And he's very intelligent. [Pitching coach] Bryan Price was really impressed how quickly he picks things up."
Shortstop Paul Janish: "With some hitters, the ball sounds differently off the bat. When he's on the mound throwing, the pop of the ball into the mitt sounds different. He's special."
Pitcher Aaron Harang: "Just watching him play catch, you see the loose arm. Everyone says he's really improved his mechanics from when people saw him at [the World Baseball Classic]."
In his bullpen session over the weekend, the 21-year-old fired 35 pitches: four-seamers, changeups, sliders, the occasional two-seamer. Chapman, who makes his spring training debut against the Royals on Monday afternoon, enters camp as a candidate for the Reds' fifth starter slot, but there are still big questions about his command. The Cuban will most likely start the year with Triple-A Louisville, though, Price says, "We won't be shy about turning him loose, letting him compete, and seeing what he's all about."
2. New home, bigger expectations
After 12 years in Sarasota, the Reds moved into their new $23 million digs, a glistening facility in the shadow of the Estrella Mountains. "I came in, walked around and got lost," says Harang. "It's beautiful. It's a place that just makes you want to play baseball. It's got everything -- one field is exact replica of the Great American Ballpark. You gotta love the big flat screens, the charging docs for iPods and iPhones. The whirlpool in back is great. It's first class."
You get the sense that the Reds are rejuvenated -- both by their move west and their front office's surprising winter spending spree. "You heard all winter about how we had no money to spend," says Janish. "And then we go out and get a guy like Chapman. Jay [Bruce] texted me when we got him and I thought he was kidding. It's exciting for everyone."
3. Jay Bruce is on a mission
If you haven't noticed, the Reds, who finished the season 27-13 over the season's final six weeks, are a popular sleeper pick in the National League. They are dangerous -- but it's hard picturing Cincy dethroning the Cardinals without a big season from Bruce. The phenom broke his wrist in July, but came back strong in September (.353/.463/.765). Bruce skipped winter ball to clear his mind, and spent a quiet offseason at home in Beaumont, Texas. He reported to camp early and each morning was always one of the first players hitting the cages. "He was telling me that for the first time in his life, he faced some real adversity," says Janish, his roommate in Cincinnati. "I think he's going to use his struggles last year as a positive and come back with a big year."
According to Ultimate Zone Rating, the Reds were baseball's third-best fielding team last year, second only to the Mariners and the Rays, and much improved from 2008. "That was by design," says Jocketty. The GM thinks that new shortstop Cabrera -- who will take playing time away from fielding whiz Janish -- will give the defense a boost. "People talk about all the errors he had last year," says Jocketty of his new addition's 25 miscues. "But I still think he's a very good fielding shortstop." UZR disagrees: Cabrera was below average according to that metric last season, and at 35, he is at an age where players regress defensively.
Among those vying for the vacant left field spot: Chris Dickerson, Wladimir Balentien, Laynce Nix, Chris Heisey, Todd Frazier, Josh Anderson and Juan Francisco. Enter Jonny Gomes, who signed a one-year contract as camp was getting started. Gomes, who arrived at camp with a freshly-cut Mohawk, is intriguing because he gives the Reds the right-handed power bat they so desperately need. In 281 at-bats for Cincy last year, he hit 20 home runs with a .338 on-base percentage in 98 games.
There's a sign in manager Dusty Baker's office that reads: "The most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen -- not necessarily in that order." All the main components of a bullpen that finished third in the league with a 3.56 ERA are back. The key last year was Nick Masset, who emerged as a surprisingly effective setup man to Francisco Cordero. One option that has been floated around Goodyear is breaking Chapman in as a reliever. The Reds signed Angels reliever Jose Arredondo, but the right-hander is scheduled to have elbow surgery and won't help the team until 2011.