Cincinnati sports fans are justifiably skeptical of their teams’ yearly promises of greatness. Our recent sports history has left many with a “believe it when we see it” philosophy when it comes to local teams’ on-field success.
The Bengals and the University of Cincinnati’s football team recently have offered brief glimmers of hope, but seem to have quickly reverted to their roots of mediocre results. But when Jay Bruce’s rocket-laser walk-off home run against the Astros on Sept. 28, 2010, caromed off the batter’s-eye pavilion in center field, ending the Reds’ 15-year exile from the playoffs, Great American Ball Park exploded into the greatest celebration it its short history. Having already proven themselves once, the prospect of another Reds playoff run has enlivened Cincinnati sports fans in a way we haven’t seen since the team won the World Series in 1990.
You have to go all the way back to 1999 to remember a Reds season as exciting as last year’s unexpected National League Central Division championship. Since the 1999 loss in a one-game playoff against the New York Mets, Reds fans have endured more than a decade of losing seasons, including the Ken Griffey Jr. era which never panned out the way fans hoped.
Few pundits expected the Cincinnati Reds to contend for postseason play last year, even as a wild card team. And although young teams often surprise the league with successful seasons, not many anticipated that Joey Votto would wreak enough havoc on opposing pitchers to win the National League MVP award and that the cadre of young pitchers on the Reds’ roster by the end of the season would be known as one of the deepest and most talented collection of arms in the league.
Aroldis Chapman’s flame-throwing, late-season call-up electrified fans and made folks in the press box wonder if the radar guns were off or if Chapman had indeed put up numbers as ridiculous as 105 on it. Brandon Phillips had a solid season and certainly (willfully or not) played a role in ramping up what had for a long time seemed a rather one-sided rivalry between the Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals.
The team’s starting pitching depth — anchored by Bronson Arroyo and solidified by Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Travis Wood and Homer Bailey — is incomparable to Reds’ staffs from the last decade, which were largely comprised of reclamation projects and free agents unwanted elsewhere. Even with recent minor injuries causing Bailey and Cueto to start the year on the disabled list, the team is confidently moving ahead with two other talented young players in Mike Leake and Sam LeCure.
The Reds didn’t make any major additions to their roster this offseason, choosing instead to sign several players to contract extensions that will provide the team with salary control for the next several years. During the winter the Reds extended Arroyo (three years, $35 million), Bruce (six years, $51 million), Votto (three years, $38 million) and Cueto (four years, $27 million).
While the Reds did fall to the Philadelphia Phillies in three straight games in the NLDS last year, it’s hard to fault the team for running into the league’s best starting rotation in a five-game series. Looking ahead to this year’s divisional competition is much less intimidating.
The Cardinals entered spring training poised to ride future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and their two big guns in the starting rotation, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, to another top-of-division finish. But a most severe blow was dealt to their plans to retake the division title when Wainwright in February was shut down for the year after a major elbow injury. The Cardinals still have Pujols, Matt Holliday and newcomer (and longtime Reds killer) Lance Berkman anchoring a lineup that will likely keep them in the thick of things. Not to be too dismissive about the rest of the NL Central, but it does seem to be a two-horse race as things stand presently.
The Milwaukee Brewers added talent to their starting rotation, trading for 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zach Greinke and former Toronto Blue Jay Shaun Marcum. First baseman Prince Fielder is in a contract year and could have a monster season partly because of that, but it remains to be seen if the Brewers can improve on last year’s disappointing campaign.
The Chicago Cubs’ new manager Mike Quade seemed to infuse the team with energy when he took over for Lou Piniella toward the end of last year. Cubs fans surely hope this will carry over into 2011. But Chicago is still too burdened by the bad contracts of Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez to move forward any time soon.
The Houston Astros are the NL Central’s team on the rise, although they aren’t quite there yet. By trading Berkman and Roy Oswalt last season, the team’s rebuilding process took several steps forward. They have talent and looked impressive at times, but they seem to be a few years away from things really coming together.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have to be mentioned because they do play in the NL Central, but they haven’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds had a Jheri kurl and played there alongside Bobby Bonilla. Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Andrew McCutcheon are promising prospects, but one does not know if the team will trade them for bags of baseballs in the near future.
When the dust clears, most baseball people expect the Reds to be in the race for a second straight division title or a wild card berth well into late-summer. It’s been a long time since such optimism flooded our local fan base, and the Reds seem primed to follow through with a season worthy of the excitement.