Young core gives Reds immediate hope

Baseball fans in Cincinnati haven't suffered in recent years on the same grand scale as their fellow Rust Belt die-hards in Pittsburgh. But the town that gave us Johnny Vander Meer, the Big Red Machine, Marty and Joe and the Nasty Boys has definitely seen better decades.

When former general manager Jim Bowden acquired Ken Griffey Jr. in February 2000 and declared that "baseball is back in Cincinnati," he neglected to mention that it would be a mostly uninspired brand of ball.

The Reds enjoyed an 85-win season after acquiring Griffey from Seattle, then followed up with eight straight losers and an aggregate 588-708 record. The organization is now on its seventh manager and third GM this decade, and Griffey, Barry Larkin, two Boones and Cinergy Field have all drifted from the scene.

How long has it been since the Reds' most recent winning season? Steve Parris led the pitching staff with 12 wins and a 4.81 ERA, Adam Dunn was denting bleacher seats for the Dayton Dragons in the Midwest League and Bowden was still referred to as the "Boy Wonder."

Is this the year for a reversal of fortune? Judging from the talk in Sarasota and Cincinnati, there's reason to hope.

Scouts and talent evaluators in Florida are calling the Reds a team with genuine dark-horse potential, and the enthusiasm is starting to build on Mount Adams and in Fountain Square. At the very least, the Reds should be good enough to take attention away from Chad Ocho Cinco's offseason antics, which is definitely a good thing.

"I've seen a lot of our fans in spring training and I've gotten e-mails and letters, and people really like the direction we're going in, with a young team and an emphasis on pitching and defense and speed and aggressive play," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "We're building from within. In our market, we're going to have to do it a lot like the Twins and some other teams and build through the farm system."

Cincinnati isn't the only National League team capable of springing a surprise this season. San Francisco has enough pitching to be a player in the NL West. Atlanta will be significantly better than last year's 72-win debacle, and the Marlins, always an afterthought in March, have Hanley Ramirez and some scintillating young pitching to compensate for a meager payroll and several winter roster subtractions.

But the Reds win out because of their surplus of arms. Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo and Micah Owings make for one of baseball's best 1-through-5 starting contingents. As astute Reds fans and Scrabble devotees have pointed out, you can take the first letters of their last names and spell "HAVOC."

The bullpen gives manager Dusty Baker a lot of options, with Arthur Rhodes and Bill Bray from the left side; Dave Weathers, Mike Lincoln and Jared Burton from the right; and 34-save man Francisco Cordero at the back end.

"Their pitching is going to make life miserable for some teams," said a National League scout in Florida. "They could definitely be a factor, in my opinion. The only thing that gets in the way is their lack of depth if they have injuries. They have no margin for error."

Of course, getting a positive vibe from watching a team in the Grapefruit League and crunching the numbers are two different things. Statistically oriented Web sites are less than wholehearted in their support of a Reds breakthrough in 2009.

In late February, Baseball Prospectus projected the Reds with 79 victories and a 16 percent chance of making the postseason. When Dan Szymborski, editor-in-chief of the Baseball Think Factory Web site, ran 1,000 computer simulations of the 2009 season using the Diamond Mind software, the Reds came out with an average of 77.1 wins. According to Szymborski's projections, they'll finish fourth in the NL Central behind the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers.

But since many of Cincinnati's pivotal players are so young and have such scant track records, there's a greater degree of variability and more upside potential than you might find with, say, the Yankees and their vast array of players in their mid-30s.

Second baseman Brandon Phillips is 27. Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and left fielder Chris Dickerson are 26. First baseman Joey Votto is 25, and right fielder Jay Bruce -- Cincinnati's first-round draft pick four years ago -- turns 22 on Friday. Volquez and Cueto both have electric stuff and are 25 and 23, respectively.

Walt Jocketty I think our guys have quietly said to each other, 'We're pretty good,' and they're enjoying it.

-- Reds general manager Walt Jocketty

Naturally, a few of those players could hit a bump in the road and backslide. But the possibility also exists that they'll continue to progress, and two or three could bust out in a big way.

"I can't think of a scenario in which they'll run over the league," Szymborski said. "They're not going to be the 2008 Rays. But I can see the offense coming together and the rotation staying relatively healthy and them winning 90 games. I don't think that will win the division, but it would give them a good shot at the wild card."

If you adhere to the conventional wisdom that the Cubs are an NL Central lock, the big question is whether Cincinnati will generate enough offense to improve significantly on its 74 wins of a year ago. The Reds ranked 23rd in the major leagues in runs and OPS, and that was with Dunn contributing 32 homers and a .528 slugging percentage before Jocketty packed him off to Arizona in late July.

Jocketty appears to subscribe to the Pat Gillick approach, which relies on incremental upgrades at multiple spots. Ramon Hernandez will be an offensive improvement over Paul Bako at catcher, and Willy Taveras, while no weapon of mass destruction with a bat in his hands, should give the Reds more production than Corey Patterson (.582 OPS) in center.

Bruce hit .254 with 21 homers in 413 at-bats as a rookie. He'll have to show better plate discipline and improve upon his .190 batting average against lefties while learning on the fly.

There was a significant new wrinkle to the equation Wednesday when Baker and Jocketty confirmed that the Reds have interest in veteran Gary Sheffield, who was released by Detroit on Tuesday with a year and $14 million left on his contract. Baker told WLW radio that he planned to meet Thursday with Sheffield, who still has to clear waivers. But the two men know each other well, and Sheffield would certainly alter the look of the Cincinnati lineup.

The big question is, can Sheffield still play left field at age 40? Cincinnati ranked 29th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency rankings last season, and some of the enthusiasm over the Reds stems from expectations that they'll be better in the field. With the return of Alex Gonzalez at shortstop and an outfield of Bruce, Taveras and Dickerson compared to an outfield of Bruce, Griffey and Dunn, there won't be as many ground balls finding holes or fly balls falling in the gaps.

John Dewan, author of the newly released "Fielding Bible II," said those changes at shortstop, right field and left field would result in a net gain of 40 runs saved, which translates into four more victories through the defensive improvement at those three positions alone.

Dewan's plus-minus system ranked Dunn as the 30th-best left fielder in baseball last season, while Griffey ranked 29th at two positions: center and right.

The biggest drag on the team's defense is Encarnacion, who hit 26 home runs last season, made 23 errors at third base and is starting to look like a player who'll never quite live up to his early billing.

In his new book, Dewan writes, "Encarnacion is to third base what the bull is to the china shop."

Or as one scout said of Encarnacion, "He's got some ability, but less than he thinks he has."

Like any aspiring dark horse, the Reds have a multitude of questions. Will the carpal tunnel syndrome in Arroyo's right wrist be an ongoing issue? How close is Gonzalez to regaining his old form at shortstop after microfracture surgery on his left knee? Is Harang the guy who won 16 games in both 2006 and 2007, or the pale imitation who posted a 4-11 record with a 5.71 ERA after Baker used him for 63 pitches in an ill-advised relief cameo in San Diego last May?

That's not all. If prospect Homer Bailey fails to crack the rotation, would he be better served pitching in relief for the big club or stockpiling innings for Triple-A Louisville? If Cincinnati doesn't sign Sheffield, can Jonny Gomes give the Reds the right-handed power they crave while sharing time in left field with Dickerson? And if Owings is indeed the fifth starter, how tempted will Baker be to bat him seventh to take advantage of his monster bat?

One other thing: Cordero's spring numbers were downright scary. But he was slow to round into shape after September ankle surgery, and the Reds don't seem overly concerned. Cordero is healthy, by all accounts, and his velocity gradually crept upward as spring training progressed.

For the sake of comparison, Pittsburgh closer Matt Capps' Grapefruit League numbers were also terrible.

"Closers are never coming in with the game on the line, so you can never get them to full adrenaline in spring training," an NL scout said. "They're the toughest guys to evaluate in the spring."

Time will tell what impact the Reds' new caste-free clubhouse will have on the team dynamic. Jocketty is convinced that Votto, Phillips and even Bruce are ready to embrace more prominent roles now that Griffey and Dunn have departed.

"There's a different atmosphere and mood this year," Jocketty said. "More loose and uninhibited, I guess. Quite honestly, I think some of our younger guys were in awe of those players, especially a guy like Griffey, who's a Hall of Famer. I think they feel a little more at ease this year, because they don't have to watch what they do as much."

It doesn't take a baseball sleuth to feel a change in the air in Cincinnati.

"I think our guys have quietly said to each other, 'We're pretty good,' and they're enjoying it," Jocketty said.

To which a beleaguered Reds fan might reply, "It's about time."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.