GOODYEAR, Arizona—Dusty Baker was eating breakfast at his desk on a recent morning when a reporter asked if his Reds were hungry after getting to the postseason for the first time in 15 years last season. The veteran manager didn't miss a beat.
"I'm hungry," Baker deadpanned.
It is quite obvious that the Reds have a great desire to repeat as National League Central champions and get back to the playoffs. A franchise that went nine straight seasons from 2001-09 without a winning record is not taking anything for granted.
"I know when I was a player, I came up with the Braves, and all we did was lose," Baker said. "It wasn't any fun. Then I went to the Dodgers, and we won a lot. I know the first time I got to the postseason, I wanted to get back again and again. Once you get that first taste, you can't get enough. Some teams are out of the race by May 15, and that's tough to take unless all you care about is your individual statistics and making as much money as you can. You don't want guys like that on your ballclub, anyway. I know our guys aren't satisfied with going to the postseason once."
The Reds look back on last season with mixed emotions. They were proud of winning 91 games and the division title, yet disappointed to have been swept by the Phillies in the National League Division Series. It was as if six months of work were washed away in a matter of days.
"It's kind of upsetting when people come up to you and tell you that you had a great season but it's too bad it ended early," center fielder Drew Stubbs said. "Just because we got swept doesn't take away from what we did in the regular season. We accomplished something we were very proud of. At the same time, it does sting a little when you get swept like we did. When you add it all up, though, it just motivates us that much more to get back there this October. We certainly feel we have the type of team that is capable of winning more than once."
The Reds have a window to contend for multiple post-season berths despite playing in a small market. Five of their everyday players are in their 20s: first baseman and reigning NL Most Valuable Player Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips, shortstop Paul Janish, Stubbs, and right fielder Jay Bruce. So are four of the five pitchers in the projected season-opening starting rotation: Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Travis Wood. Also on the list of twentysomethings is 100-mph-throwing left-handed setup reliever Aroldis Chapman.
All but Phillips and Volquez were drafted and developed by the Reds, something not lost on general manager Walt Jocketty.
"Ideally, you want to be able to continually develop a nucleus of players through scouting and player development, and that's what we've been able to do here," Jocketty said. "The Reds had a series of good drafts in the years before I got here [early in the 2009 season], and we've continued to draft well and sign players from Latin America who we feel will make an impact at the major-league level."
"We had some growing pains with the young guys," said Baker, who is beginning his fourth season as manager. "But sometimes you've got to take some time and maybe step back while you build something that you think will last for the long haul."
The Reds took some major steps toward keep their young core together in the offseason. Bruce was signed to a six-year, $61 million contract, Cueto received a four-year, $27 million deal and Votto signed for three years and $38 million, which buys out his arbitration years but leaves him eligible to become a free agent after the 2013 season.
Owner Paul Castellini has made the financial commitment to keep the Reds competitive, and Jocketty has been able to assemble a contender with a $75 million payroll. Still, PECOTA projects the Reds to be a .500 team at 81-81. Not surprisingly, Baker and his players aren't buying that prediction, especially after turning a two-team division race with the Cardinals last season into a rout by winning seven games in a row and 14 of 18 following a three-game sweep at home by St. Louis from August 9 to 11.
"It was the first time a lot of us have been in a pennant race, and it was a learning experience," Stubbs said. "I felt we handled it well. A lot of times when you have a team that doesn't have much experience in a pennant race they usually fall short. We were able to not only learn from it but succeed under that kind of pressure."
Which is why Baker believes his team can compete for years to come.
"Reaching the postseason is the hardest part," Baker said. "We've accomplished that. Now the next thing for us is to do something once we get to the postseason."
The Reds haven't won a World Series since 1990, when they went wire-to-wire. Two stars of that team, Eric Davis and Barry Larkin, are working in Reds camp as special assistants. While the Reds aren't openly talking World Series, they can't help but dream after getting a taste of October baseball.
"If you look at the World Series last year, the Giants played the Rangers and I think everyone knows that they probably weren't the two best teams in baseball," Stubbs said. "The big key is just getting to the postseason, because you never know what might happen if you just get there. That's our main goal again this year."
Baker has never won a World Series in 17 years as a manager, coming close in his lone appearance when the Giants lost to the Angels in seven games in 2002. However, he realizes that winning energized the Reds fan base last season and would love to keep that going for years to come.
"Winning makes everyone happy, not just the players and the manager and the coaches," Baker said. "I know guys who have worked in the clubhouse and make peanuts, and they wound up making enough money because of postseason shares to send their kids through college or buy a new house. I've had vendors thank me for giving them an extra month's worth of work. Everybody likes winning. There is no substitute for it."
Rumors & Rumblings:
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro was certainly deserving of the four-year contract extension he received over the weekend, but he will really start earning his money toward the end of the deal. Right fielder Ben Francisco is the only projected Opening Day starter who is under 30—he's 29—so a major rebuild is on the agenda sometime before 2015. … Speaking of Phillies extensions, word has it that negotiations between manager Charlie Manuel and the club got testy before a two-year deal was reached. … There are whispers that second baseman Chase Utley is trying to avoid knee surgery because it could be major and keep him out for a large part of the season. … Rangers CEO Chuck Greenberg, who left the organization over the weekend, was hugely popular with the fans. However, club president Nolan Ryan and certain members of the board of directors did not like the fact that Greenberg was so high profile, as they prefer to things with less fanfare.
One scout's take on Nationals outfield prospect Bryce Harper, who was optioned to low Class A on Saturday: "They are doing the right thing by sending him to the minor leagues, but he could hold his own right now in the major leagues. He wouldn't dominate, but he wouldn't embarrass himself, either." … The Red Sox are overstocked with outfielders and are willing to trade Darnell McDonald and Daniel Nava … Rays left fielder Johnny Damon says he will retire after this season if he doesn't live up to his standards this year. … Look for the Rangers to announce this week that Neftali Feliz will remain their closer, as he has publicly said he does not want to move to the rotation. … Brandon League is most likely to fill in as the Mariners' closer while Dave Aardsma recovers from hip surgery, but former Orioles closer Chris Ray is also in the mix. … Mariners manager Eric Wedge is uncertain about his starting middle infield beyond knowing it will be some combination of Adam Kennedy, Brandon Ryan, Jack Wilson, and Josh Wilson.
Kyle McClellan has pulled away from Lance Lynn in the Cardinals' fifth starter competition. … Brent Morel has an edge on Mark Teahen to be the White Sox' Opening Day third baseman because he is a better defender. … The Cubs have all but decided to go with right-handers Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner as their No. 4 and 5 starters. … With Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook beginning the season on the disabled list, righty Esmil Rogers will begin the season in the rotation. … Mike Morse has become the clear-cut favorite over Roger Bernadina to be the Nationals' starting left fielder. … Yankees corner infielder Eric Chavez is showing a lot of life this spring after years of injury problems, prompting one scout to say, "He's swinging the bat like he did back when he was one of game's better third basemen with Oakland, but he's not much in the field anymore." … One scout on Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard's comeback bid: "He's not the dominating guy he used to be, but he's got his fastball back up to 93 mph and his breaking ball has been good. He'll make that rotation."