Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh did what they could to improve their images in the off-season, if not the likely Opening Day rosters. While appearing on a Houston sports-talk radio show in February, new Astros owner Jim Crane offered to play catch with a caller before a game at Minute Maid Park if he bought season tickets. Chicago splashed first-year, no-nonsense manager Dale Sveum on Windy City billboards with the slogan baseball is better here. "We want to change the culture," Hoyer says. "Emphasizing the manager above individual players is a good way to focus on the whole team as we embark on our first season."
During a Feb. 28 open house at McKechnie Field, the Pirates' spring training home in Bradenton, Fla., the team's director of Florida operations Trevor Gooby helped deliver a baby in a stadium breezeway. It's the kind of p.r. gold that can't be spun—new life at Pirates camp! A week later Pittsburgh sent an even livelier message when it signed All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen to a six-year contract extension worth $51.5 million.
So who will still be playing ball in October? The Cardinals reloaded as best they could, and the Brewers remain in the playoff hunt thanks to a deep pitching staff that had the league's second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.9 to 1) last season, but the division crown is Cincinnati's for the taking. Yes, the Reds finished with a sub-.500 record last season. And yes, it was their 10th losing campaign in 11 years. But while St. Louis and Milwaukee bid farewell to irreplaceable bats, Cincinnati G.M. Walt Jocketty revamped a pitching staff that was decimated by injuries last season, one year after the Reds had won the division and first baseman Joey Votto beat out Pujols for the MVP award.
In December the Reds acquired 24-year-old righthander Mat Latos (3.37 career ERA) from the Padres, giving Cincy two potential aces now that Johnny Cueto, a 26-year-old righty, has fully recovered from last season's lat, biceps and triceps injuries. Aroldis Chapman, a 24-year-old southpaw who hits triple digits on the radar gun as casually as he chews sunflower seeds, could move into the starting rotation with the additions of lefty reliever Sean Marshall (2.45 ERA, 169 strikeouts in 150 1/3 innings for the Cubs over the past two years) and closer Ryan Madson, who converted 32 of 34 save opportunities for the Phillies last season. The bullpen will be one of the league's deepest and best.
The Reds' offense was not an issue in 2011, ranking second in the NL in runs scored (735) and homers (183). Cincinnati also had the best defense in the NL, turning batted balls into outs 71.8% of the time. Assuming the irritation Madson felt in his right elbow during spring training won't be a nagging problem, the Reds will not repeat last season's struggles in close games, when they had 33 one-run losses, most in the majors. "We have no excuses not to get back to the playoffs," second baseman Brandon Phillips says. "We have the ability to bring a championship to the Queen City."
The only place where the organization appears to be thin is in the marketing department, which has yet to launch a campaign to raise Votto's national profile. Along with winning a Gold Glove last season, the 28-year-old hit .309 with 29 home runs and 103 RBIs. His pure, lefthanded swing produced more line drives than any other hitter in the majors, and he also led the league with 40 doubles, 110 walks and a .416 on-base percentage.
Everywhere he travels, Votto takes with him a copy of Ted Williams's 1971 book, The Science of Hitting. He's also read more than a dozen books about the Splendid Splinter. "I strive to be the best player in the game," Votto says. "Pujols is clearly better than everyone else, but I'm like one of those greyhounds chasing that mechanical rabbit."
Cincinnati hasn't won the pennant since 1990 or been a consistent playoff team since the days of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s. But this year in the NL Central, the Reds are the mechanical rabbit.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]