Different approach The Reds will have a new hitting and pitching coach this season, as Brook Jacoby replaces Chris Chambliss and Dick Pole steps in for the late Vern Ruhle. Jacoby has never been a full-time hitting coach in the majors but plans to emphasize situational hitting to a roster that has struggled in that department. Pole, entering his sixth different stint as a big league pitching coach, will lend some stability to that position. Ruhle missed all of 2006 after being diagnosed with cancer. He died in January.
Long haul The November trade that sent catcher Jason LaRue to Kansas City made Ken Griffey Jr. the Reds' longest-tenured player. Griffey arrived before the 2000 season.
Change of heart After undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow in August, veteran reliever Kent Mercker said he planned to retire. It didn't last long. The Ohio native is expected at Reds spring training to continue his rehabilitation and could be available by midseason.
New-look booth The Reds raised the profile of their broadcast team by hiring longtime Diamondbacks and Fox TV announcer Thom Brennaman to join his father, Hall of Famer Marty Brennaman, in the booth. The Reds later added Jeff Brantley to round out their new team.
Taking a chance Josh Hamilton was the best amateur baseball player in America in 1999, the year Tampa Bay made him the first overall pick in the draft. The outfielder's career quickly took a dark turn, though, as he became addicted to drugs and was barred from baseball for three years. The Reds believe he has turned the corner, and they acquired him in a Rule 5 draft trade. He'll have a chance to continue his recovery but must stay on the big league roster all season for the Reds to keep him.
The Reds stunned the baseball world by remaining in playoff contention into the final weekend of last season, but they remain a flawed team. Normally active GM Wayne Krivsky mostly sat out the winter spending frenzy that dominated his first full offseason in charge. That decision may prove prescient in a couple of years when other teams are saddled with bad contracts, but the flip side is the Reds don't appear to have done much to improve themselves while division rivals have spent big.
Thanks in large part to the spring training acquisition of Bronson Arroyo, the Reds' starting pitchers exceeded expectations in '06. The rotation lowered its collective ERA by more than a half-run per game and was particularly strong down the stretch. In Arroyo and Aaron Harang, the Reds have one of the most durable one-two combos atop any rotation; they just need help. Eric Milton will attempt to return to form after a pair of surgeries truncated a season that showed definite signs of improvement over his dreadful 2005. Midseason acquisition Kyle Lohse can blow hitters away as well as anyone on any given night, but the Reds would like to see those nights come more often. The fifth spot will go to potential over track record, as someone out of the group of Kirk Saarloos, Matt Belisle, Elizardo Ramirez, Bobby Livingston and Phil Dumatrait likely will win the job in spring training. All eyes will be on Triple-A Louisville, where top prospect Homer Bailey will continue to push for a promotion.
For the third straight season, the Reds will enter spring training without a defined closer, but they still feel good about their mix of experience and potential. David Weathers and Mike Stanton will hold down the end of games, sharing ninth-inning duties based on matchups. Veteran Rheal Cormier is back as a lefty specialist, but much of the burden in the middle innings will fall to a number of talented younger arms. The centerpieces of last summer's trade with Washington, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, should settle into important roles in 2007. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Bray pitch late in games, as he has proven effective against both left-handed and right-handed batters. Todd Coffey isn't getting much buzz as a future closer anymore, but manager Jerry Narron trusts him to work out of a mid-inning jam.
This pairing is completely different from spring training 2006. Second baseman Brandon Phillips and new shortstop Alex Gonzalez are known for their defense -- quite the opposite of last year's expected pairing of Felipe Lopez and Rich Aurilia. The Reds know they can't expect as much offensive production out of these spots, though Phillips contributed more than his share with the bat last season, but they'll make that sacrifice in an effort to help their pitching staff.
First base is traditionally a power position, but the Reds have learned how to do without a big stick there. Scott Hatteberg is back after agreeing to a contract extension last season, and the Reds will lean on him for selectivity at the plate and his ability to put the ball in play. The right-handed half of the first-base platoon, Jeff Conine, is a similar player. Edwin Encarnacion will man third base after a solid 2006. His bat will be fine, but his defense figures to improve working alongside Gonzalez, whom the Reds view as a role model when it comes to work ethic. Gonzalez should also get to more balls in the hole than his predecessors, easing the burden on Encarnacion. When the Reds have late leads, slick-fielding Juan Castro will often replace Encarnacion.
Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. will hold down the middle of the order again, but the big question is where Griffey will play. The Reds approached him in the fall about moving to right field to ease the pounding on his body, and both parties agreed to see how things played out in spring training. The broken left hand Griffey suffered in December might limit him in spring training, but he'll be ready by April. Wherever Griffey ends up, Ryan Freel will get the majority of playing time in the other spot. Freel covers ample ground in center and has plenty of arm for right, leading the team with 12 outfield assists last year. Freel gets worn down when he plays every day for extended stretches, so expect to see some combination of Norris Hopper, Chris Denorfia, Bubba Crosby and Josh Hamilton in the lineup occasionally.
Jason LaRue lost his grip on the starting job with a woeful 2006 and was traded after the season. A breakout year by low-profile acquisition David Ross helped make LaRue expendable, and the former Dodger will have a chance to prove his worth over the long haul. The Reds have a couple alternatives behind Ross in Javier Valentin and Chad Moeller. Valentin was more of a pinch-hitting specialist last season, but he does a solid job behind the plate. The veteran Moeller is known for his ability to handle pitchers and call games.
The Reds led the NL with a club-record 13 pinch-hit home runs last season, but it's hard to find much pop on their bench for 2007 beyond Valentin, who had four of those bombs. Conine will get the key late-game at-bats against lefties when he isn't starting, but he'll have to get used to pinch-hitting again after some time in the AL. Extra outfielders Hopper and Denorfia are contact hitters, and Castro will be used far more for his glove than his bat.
A strong start in 2006 earned a bit more job security for Narron and Krivsky, as new owner Bob Castellini extended Narron's contract through 2008 and exercised Krivsky's option for the same year. Castellini is clearly more willing to spend money than his predecessors, but the Reds didn't do so recklessly during the winter. That puts the onus on Krivsky to continue unearthing steals like Arroyo, Phillips and Ross as the Reds attempt to keep up with the higher-payroll Cardinals, Cubs and Astros. On the field, expect more of the pitching-and-defense approach favored by Krivsky and Narron, with a turn toward manufacturing (and preventing) runs and away from waiting for (and surrendering) the three-run homer.
There's more stability now, but the Reds are still searching for an identity. Pitching had been the missing link, but once the Reds finally found some in 2006, their offense collapsed. Rather than addressing that deficiency, the Reds opted for defense in adding Gonzalez. The Reds have components of a contending team, with a couple of high-impact hitters in Dunn and Griffey, exciting young talent in Phillips and Encarnacion and workhorse starters in Arroyo and Harang. There just doesn't seem to be enough there to overcome everything the Reds lack.