Big Red Machine could be humming again
Cincinnati steps up in hopes of taking advantage of opportunity
The Cincinnati Reds aren't playing around.
A host of bold winter moves having fortified a talented core with power pitching, power hitting and depth everywhere, the Big Red Machine could be back in business.
It certainly doesn't hurt Cincinnati's chances that high-profile personnel has departed the National League Central, notably with the reigning World Series-champion Cardinals and defending division-champion Brewers.
Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan and Albert Pujols -- St. Louis pillars -- leave behind a glorious legacy and a tough act to follow.
Prince Fielder has traded Milwaukee for Detroit and its riches, while bash brother Ryan Braun confronts a 50-game suspension.
Two playoff teams atop the division have been severely depleted, any way you slice it or spin it. Cards rookie skipper Mike Matheny and the Brewers' Ron Roenicke, who pushed all the right buttons in his debut season, face fresh challenges inside -- and outside -- their clubhouses.
While the Cubs, Pirates and Astros remain works in varying degrees of progress, the Reds clearly have loaded up, sacrificing potential for proven merchandise.
The message in Ohio rings loud and clear. This club is going for the gusto behind Dusty Baker, one of the game's elite managers, and general manager Walt Jocketty, among its shrewdest judges of talent.
The Reds have covered all the bases this winter.
Since a disappointing 2011 ended with a 79-83 record, Cincinnati has acquired top-shelf starter Mat Latos and elite closer Ryan Madson, late-game shutdown lefty Sean Marshall and a power weapon for left field in Ryan Ludwick.
Latos, who cost the Reds three premium prospects and starter Edinson Volquez in a trade with San Diego, fronts a deep rotation that might include Aroldis Chapman. If the big Cuban lefty steadies his command and finds himself, Cincinnati could have one of the most lethal rotations in the game.
Madson, who withstood the pressures in his emergence with Philadelphia, replaces Francisco Cordero. Marshall, a breaking-ball artist known to bust up rallies, will be the primary setup man in a bullpen rich with young power arms.
Baker, whose managerial career began with San Francisco in 1993, is a baseball lifer who teaches with a firm hand but is fiercely supportive of his athletes, most of whom will run through walls for him.
"I think we have an excellent chance and an excellent team," Baker said. "I'm very happy. These are the most moves, combined, in an offseason since I've been here.
"You're always wishing for some more. You don't know ever if you have enough until you get into the season to compare with other teams. Walt and his cabinet worked tirelessly to try and improve and make deals."
Relentlessly positive on his turf, Baker always likes his team's chances.
His management of Chapman's innings and pitch counts will be closely monitored. But that too is nothing new for Baker, a man who has pretty much done, seen and heard it all.
In response to the bashing Baker took in the Windy City for his use of young Cubs starters Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Greg Maddux -- arguably the game's leading authority on the craft of pitching -- will passionately defend his former Chicago boss.
"It's a joke," said Maddux, now a consultant with the Rangers. "It's not right. I've seen the pitch counts a lot of those guys [in Chicago] had. Prior did everything he could to get his arm right, went down and hurt his shoulder again. Dusty Baker had nothing to do with that.
"It's just the luck of the draw. I would be very surprised if there was a single time those guys asked to come out of a game. Every time you step out of this dugout and go to the mound, that's your choice. Nobody is making you do it.
"They did a study of pitch counts in Chicago and found that a high percentage of the highest ones, something like 14 out of 20, were for me and [Rick] Sutcliffe. So what does that tell you?"
A "young 62" in his words, Baker has remained a pet target of snipers in spite of stellar work in three cities with every type of cast imaginable.
In 2010, when the Reds ended a 14-year postseason drought, they claimed the division with an offensive powerhouse supporting solid starting pitching from Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and young Mike Leake. Those three are still dealing for Dusty, who could run out a veteran lefty in Jeff Francis, a free agent with whom they reportedly agreed to terms last week.
The attack, featuring the great Joey Votto, remains essentially intact. Ludwick, whose signing is pending a physical, has struggled with the Padres and Pirates the past two seasons, but he should be thrilled to be back in the NL Central. Carrying a .600 career slugging percentage in Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, the 33-year-old averaged 30 homers and 105 RBIs with the Cards in 2008-09 before being dealt to San Diego -- and the vast expanses of Petco Park.
Brandon Phillips is an All-Star at second base, and Zack Cozart will get first call at shortstop with Paul Janish and Wilson Valdez in support. Drew Stubbs in center and Jay Bruce in right have star qualities, and Chris Heisey is solid in left.
The health of club leader Scott Rolen at third is always a concern, but Todd Frazier, Juan Francisco and Miguel Cairo provide depth. Valdez and Willie Harris, multi-position veterans with game, have climbed aboard.
Ramon Hernandez departed for Colorado, but Cincinnati is in good hands behind the plate in underrated Ryan Hanigan and veteran Dioner Navarro, with the gifted Devin Mesoraco knocking on the door.
They will be handling a pitching staff that has the potential to be dominant.
"I'm trying to hold back my excitement," Baker said, "because we have a ways to go before we go to Spring Training. I'm loving the moves we have made."
He should have a lot of company on the streets of the gritty city where legends named Bench, Rose, Morgan and Perez once roamed.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.