Dusty Baker was watching ESPN the other night, when he caught a SportsCenter segment in which Bob Knight, Digger Phelps, and Dick Vitale were breaking down the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “There was a lot of knowledge there, and it was pretty interesting to watch,” Baker said.

For a moment, it made Baker pine for his job of a year ago when he served as an ESPN baseball analyst. However, the moment was fleeting. “It was a fun job and I enjoyed it but it’s not where I’m supposed to be at this point in my life,” Baker said. “I’m back in more familiar surroundings now, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Baker is set to embark on his first season as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He returns to the dugout after a one-year studio sojourn that followed 10 seasons as manager of the San Francisco Giants and four more guiding the Chicago Cubs. Baker has his detractors, especially among the sabermetric crowd, and among those who feel he refuses to give young players a chance. However, Baker does have a 1,162-1,041 record in 14 seasons, and three NL Manager of the Year awards to his credit.

The Reds certainly feel Baker can restore their organization to prominence and end a post-season drought that extends to 1995 (except for the one-game playoff loss to New York Mets for the NL wild card in 1999). Cincinnati hasn’t had a winning season since 2000. Yet, there are many baseball people who believe the Reds can be contenders in a weak NL Central, a division whose top two teams, the Cubs and Brewers, have holes.

While Baker isn’t ready to talk pennant, he does think his team can be competitive. “The thing I’ve liked the most this spring is that you can see the confidence growing in this team,” Baker said. “We have a lot of young guys who haven’t won at this level, but you can see they are starting to believe a little bit more every day. To me, that’s the beauty of this job. It’s the type of feeling I could never have working in television. To be part of building something excites me. I really feel like I’ve stepped into a good situation.”

Building something in baseball almost always requires using young players. Baker has taken his share of hits over the years for not having patience with youngsters, but he feels the charge is unwarranted. “It’s not that I don’t like young players,” Baker said. “A lot of years, I never had many quality young players to work with. It’s different here. There are a lot of very good young players in this organization, and many of them are going to have the chance to grow this season and I believe contribute to our team.”

While the Reds did send center fielder Jay Bruce–ranked as the top prospect in baseball by BP’s Kevin Goldstein–back to Triple-A Louisville, they will have rookie first baseman Joey Votto in the lineup after he posted a .293 EqA in 89 major league plate appearances last season. The team will also have two rookie right-handers in the rotation: spring sensation Johnny Cueto, and former Rangers prospect Edinson Volquez. Cueto has never pitched in a major league game, while Volquez had 0.5 SNLVAR in six starts and 34 innings for the Rangers last season; the Reds gave up slugging center fielder Josh Hamilton to acquire Volquez in an off-season trade this winter.

“My feeling with young players is that I don’t think you should put them in a position where they are overmatched in the major leagues,” Baker said. “You can ruin a kid that way, and lose him forever. You have to be careful about their confidence level. You have to make sure they can be put into positions where they can succeed.”

Which is why Bruce was sent to Triple-A. While Baker believes Bruce will eventually become a superstar, he thought the 21-year-old was still vulnerable to big league pitching, as he struck out 11 times and walked just once in 43 plate appearances in exhibition play while posting rate statistics of .262/.279/.286. Baker also thought the Reds had enough offensive talent that they did not need to bring Bruce to the major leagues at this time, even if it means going with the perennially underachieving Corey Patterson in center field; Patterson had just a .244 EqA for Baltimore last season then found minimal interest on the free agent market during the offseason.

The Reds averaged 4.8 runs a game last season, which ranked seventh in the 16-team NL, but they also had the benefit of calling the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark home; adjusted for park, they ranked a slightly-lower ninth in the NL in team EqA. Stalwarts as left fielder Adam Dunn (.304), right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. (.288), second baseman Brandon Phillips (.270) and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion (.268) return. Catcher David Ross (.223) and shortstop Alex Gonzalez (.260) will both begin the season on the DL, but that actually figures to benefit the Reds’ attack, as they will be replaced by Javier Valentin (.242) and Jeff Keppinger (.293).

The Reds have been perennially short on pitching, and that again will be the determining factor as to whether they can contend this season. They gave up 5.3 runs a game last season, the second-highest total in the NL, and hope they have rectified the situation with a new closer and three new starters. Right-hander Francisco Cordero was signed away from the Brewers as a free agent for four years and $46 million to anchor the bullpen; he had a 3.220 WXRL last season and will be set up by effective set-up man David Weathers (3.188). Right-handers Aaron Harang (6.1 SNLVAR) and Bronson Arroyo (4.3) are the only rotation holdovers, and they will be joined by Cueto, Volquez, and veteran Josh Fogg (2.3 SNLVAR for Colorado), who was signed to a bargain free agent contract of one year and $1 million after spring training had already begun.

Baker believes Harang holds one of the keys to the Reds’ potential success as someone who has emerged as a No. 1 starter, even if he seems often to be overlooked. “He’s not the type of guy that’s going to impress you with great stuff but he’s a heckuva pitcher,” Baker said. “He knows how to pitch. I know when I managed the Cubs, a lot of our guys took some funny swings against him and came back to the dugout shaking their heads. He may not get a lot of recognition, but I used to talk him up on ESPN last year as one of the best pitchers in the league. If you’re going to put together a winning team, you need to have a guy like that at the front of your rotation, and I’m glad we have him. He’s one of the reasons I was so excited about taking this job.”

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