Jocketty's retooling is the right plan for Reds
GM willing to deal prospects to make run at NL Central title
At one point last summer, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty asked injured third baseman Scott Rolen to accompany the team on the road, even though the veteran was unable to play.
"I thought his presence was important," Jocketty said.
He was looking for any kind of spark in a bitterly disappointing season, one that began with such optimism about the Reds' chances of winning the National League Central in back-to-back seasons.
They'd ridden a wave of youth and 45 come-from-behind victories to their first playoff appearance in 15 years in 2010 and had begun last season confident that the pieces were in place to do it all over again.
And then ...
Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey got hurt in Spring Training. Rolen played just 65 games. Bronson Arroyo finished with his worst ERA in a decade.
Rookie shortstop Zachary Cozart came up from the Minor Leagues, and just about the time he seemed to be fitting in, he also got hurt.
The Reds are a reminder that sometimes stuff just keeps happening to teams, and some years it's too much to overcome.
Cue the frustrated general manager.
"I've been around long enough and had this happen more than once," Jocketty said. "It's very tough. You try and do the best you can and keep your people positive, especially the manager and coaching staff."
Jocketty tried everything he knew, but slumps, injuries and an inability to find a trading partner made 2011 a huge disappointment.
That was then. In an offseason that has seen a significant remake of the NL Central, Jocketty believes he has again positioned the Reds to make another run in 2012.
He has deepened the rotation by acquiring Matt Latos from the Padres and strengthened the back of his bullpen by getting Sean Marshall from the Cubs. This week, Jocketty appears to have made another impact acquisition by coming to terms with closer Ryan Madson. That deal will not be officially announced until Madson has taken a physical, and the contract is signed, sealed and delivered.
"We feel like we've addressed our main concern," Jocketty said. "We feel we've got a good club and a competitive club. We're still a young club. We should be there for a couple of years."
He has been second-guessed by some who wonder whether giving up seven players -- five prospects among them -- was too much to pay for Marshall and Latos.
This is a silly criticism. The Reds have a window of opportunity with a nice combination of youth and experience. With Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips on the right side of the infield, with Rolen back, with a healthy Cueto at the top of a decent rotation, the Reds appear to be capable of winning again.
In the end, a significant portion of their improvement must come from within. Drew Stubbs, who led the NL in strikeouts, is attempting to clear his head and regain his confidence.
Jocketty took a chance in giving up five prospects in the deals for Marshall and Latos, but as he correctly points out, the Reds aren't one of the clubs who can fix all their problems through free agency.
He gave up those young guys because he sees 2012 as an opportunity to win, and if you're a Reds fan, wouldn't you rather have a general manager willing to take a chance and to win now?
"You have to take some risks to improve," he said. "You can't stay with the status quo. We feel we've put ourselves in a better position to win. We gave up young players, but we have depth in certain areas. We felt we could reach down and do these things. It's part of the process having to do with being a small-market club."
He'll begin Spring Training with six pitchers competing for five spots. Cueto and Latos are locked in at the top of the rotation. Bailey, Mike Leake, Arroyo and Aroldis Chapman are going for the remaining four spots.
Chapman is the wild card. He'll be moved to the rotation, and if he doesn't win a job in Spring Training, he'll probably begin the season in the Minors. His bullpen days appear to be over. The Reds are also counting on two young players: Cozart at short and Chris Heisey in left field.
"Our division is an interesting mix," Jocketty said. "It'll be fun to see how it plays out. There have been dramatic changes in St. Louis, especially with Tony [La Russa] being gone. He was the glue, the guy who made it all happen. He's a difference-maker, and it's going to be different for them. Albert [Pujols] is one of the best -- if not the best -- hitters in the game. They've done some things to overcome the losses with [Carlos] Beltran and [Lance] Berkman. [Adam]Wainwright is going to maintain their pitching strength."
Jocketty is curious to see the new-look Brewers, saying, "They're going to miss Prince [Fielder], but they did a good job getting [Aramis] Ramirez to play third. He'll pick up some of the slack. They're going to play well. And then you've got Houston and Chicago in transition, and Pittsburgh making strides to get better."
Jocketty said he wasn't prompted to make changes because of Pujols and Fielder exiting the division. He said it was much more basic than that. The GM believes he has a good club and had a chance to improve it.
Baseball feels right when the Reds have a good team. It seems to enliven the entire sport. As Jocketty learned last summer, plans can come undone, but with Spring Training approaching, he feels good about his team.
"It'll still be a tough race," he said, "but I think we've put ourselves in the mix."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.