What a difference a year makes.
Entering last year’s spring training, the Cincinnati Reds were again a popular “sleeper” team among various baseball experts and pundits. In past years, they were everyone’s “team on the cusp of success” or “club on the verge of breaking through.”
Baseball is a unique sport because there is tremendous optimism for each of the league’s 30 organizations. It doesn’t matter if said hopefulness is really a pipe dream; that blind faith returns year after year.
Maybe it’s because the start of hardball coincides with the start of spring. Hope literally, and figuratively, springs eternal for baseball fans.
Last season, the Reds finally delivered on their considerable potential by winning the organization’s first division title in 15 years, injecting new life into a fan base disenchanted by the unfilled promise of the Ken Griffey Jr./Adam Dunn/Austin Kearns era.
Unlike their Goodyear roommates from Cleveland, Cincinnati has legitimate postseason aspirations. The Reds can’t afford just a “good year” in 2011. They need to “take the next step,” “rise to the occasion” or “seize the moment.” Pick your cliché. The Reds need to make some noise instead of departing the postseason without a peep.
And make no mistake about it, the current crop of Reds could be a special group. Many equate the 2010 Reds to the 2007 Phillies, who, like the Reds, made the playoffs but were swept by the Colorado Rockies, similar to how the Reds were squashed in three games by Philadelphia last October.
The Phillies have since won four straight National League East titles and captured a World Series championship.
Like those Phillies of four years ago, Cincinnati has a roster teeming with young talent and veteran leadership.
First basemen Joey Votto is the reigning National League Most Valuable Player. The average age of Cincinnati’s likely starting rotation is 27 years old. The Reds ranked second in the NL last season in fielding percentage, and tied for the fewest errors in the NL, with 72, breaking the club record by 17. In 2010, Cincinnati led the NL in batting average, runs, hits, home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage and ranked second in on-base percentage. They won more series than any other baseball team.
Cincinnati also is managed by a skipper itching for a World Series championship. After the Reds win their sixth game of the season, Dusty Baker will have 1,411 career victories, good enough for second most among managers in the World Series era never to have won the Commissioner’s Trophy.
“Hey, my time is coming,” Baker told Sports Illustrated last month. “I always believe that — and more than one.”
So can this current crop of Reds become the next Big Red Machine? It’s possible. No, there aren’t three Hall of Famers on the roster. But the Machine also was known for its solid, but unspectacular, pitching and impeccable defense, a characteristic that also applies to Baker’s bunch.
The Reds won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2011. Now it’s time for Cincinnati to translate what looks good on paper to another Hunt for a Red October.