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FROM THE start, the race has been on. During the Reds' first intrasquad game, first baseman Joey Votto launched a monstrous home run well over the centerfield fence at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla. As he approached the dugout, where he received congratulations from Jay Bruce, who was headed for the on-deck circle, Votto smiled and said to the Reds centerfielder, "Copy that s---."
Bruce did not, flying out to leftfield, but their short major league careers have otherwise been reasonable facsimiles of each other, a back-and-forth game of one-upsmanship. Both burst into the bigs in spectacular fashion (Votto hit a homer in his first big league start, Bruce went 3 for 3 in his); both had 20-homer seasons as rookies in '08 (Votto with 24, Bruce with 21); and both had strong springs this year (they each slugged better than .500). With that pair of potent bats in the middle of the lineup for the next several years, and an emerging core of young pitchers to complement them, the Reds are capable of doing something they haven't done in nine years: finish with a winning record, maybe even contend for a playoff spot.
Bruce, 22, and Votto, 25, are not only talented, they're ultracompetitive and despite their youth will be counted on to lead on the field and in the clubhouse. That's a major change from their rookie seasons, when the two youngsters were so shy that they often refrained from even speaking to teammates, much less trying to lead them. "Last year I didn't feel it was my place, I kind of felt everyone was above me," Votto says. "This year I can at least introduce myself. Last year I didn't say a word to those guys for months, other than hello."
"Those guys" were Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, the pillars of the Reds' clubhouse for most of this decade; both are long gone from Cincinnati, having been shipped to the White Sox and the Diamondbacks, respectively, in midseason trades last year. Votto, who hit .297 with a .506 slugging percentage, and Bruce will fill their places in the middle of the lineup and be, as manager Dusty Baker likes to call his "older" players, the team's "lightning rods." In between Bruce and Votto in the lineup is cleanup hitter Brandon Phillips, who though older (27) and more established will nonetheless be asked to improve as much as his younger teammates. Phillips was a 30-30 player in 2007 but slumped to 21 home runs and 23 stolen bases last season, part of a down year across the board that was due in part to a broken finger that ended his season in early September.
Speedster Willy Taveras and his 68 stolen bases and excellent glove were added from Colorado, but his .308 on-base percentage may not be sufficient to jump-start the lineup. Jerry Hairston, whose .427 OBP as a leadoff man was second in the league, is the man at the top of the order who would afford more RBI chances for the triumvirate of Votto, Phillips and Bruce.
For the Reds to be a serious contender, the pitching staff will have to make significant improvements from its lackluster performance of a year ago, when it ranked 13th in the NL in ERA (4.55), 14th in opponents' batting average (.275) and last in home runs allowed (201). Familiarity will help. Baker entered his debut season as Reds manager last year "knowing nothing about [Edinson] Volquez and even less about [Johnny] Cueto." Now that Volquez, an All-Star who went 17--6 with a 3.21 ERA and 206 strikeouts, and Cueto, who struck out 10 Diamondbacks in his major league debut last April, have a full season under their belts, Baker is counting on them to fill out a rotation that includes Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, veterans who still miss plenty of bats.
Harang and Arroyo are two of only eight players on the 40-man roster who will be 30 or older on Opening Day. Such a large group of young talent is sure to struggle at times, so G.M. Walt Jocketty has just three rules for his team: stay healthy, play up to capability and cut down on mistakes. That goes double for Bruce and Votto, who will be asking their teammates—now that they are comfortable enough to speak up—to follow their lead.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
The Reds' big off-season move was bringing in Willy Taveras, 27, to bat leadoff and play centerfield for $6.25 million over two seasons. It's a mistake: Taveras has finished with an acceptable on-base percentage for a leadoff man once in his four seasons, and his career mark of .331 isn't enough to warrant a spot at the top of a lineup. All the stolen bases in the world (Taveras had 68 with the Rockies last year) can't make up for making right turns at first base more than two thirds of the time. Cincinnati's top pick in 2006, 24-year-old Drew Stubbs (left), is likely to hit for a lower average than Taveras but have a higher OBP (.367 in three minor league seasons) and a much higher slugging percentage while playing average defense in center and even stealing some bases (27 in Triple A in '08).