The 2012 Reds won more games than any team in Cincinnati in 36-years, but it's the season's final three losses that set the story for the 2013 season.
"I just remember how quiet and how stunned I was," said former MVP Joey Votto at spring training. "I don't think we'll get over it until we have an opportunity to make up for it, you know, hopefully in October."
The Reds won 97 regular season games in 2012, the most since the Big Red Machine won 102 in the World Series season of 1976. But, after winning the franchise's first playoff game since 1995, the Reds lost a two-game lead to the San Francisco Giants and lost the National League Division Series.
The expectation for the 2013 Reds, returning every major piece, is to take the next step. After two division titles in three-years, the Reds are expected to contend for the National League title.
"Outside expectations are one thing," said relief pitcher Sam LeCure. "But, the expectations we have here in the clubhouse are what we plan to accomplish this year. I don't think anything is going to drive us harder than that."
The foundation of the Reds success last season is expected to be the strength again in 2013. The club's starting pitching rotation started every game, but one (the second game of a double-header) last season and is considered one of the deepest in baseball. Despite experimenting with closer Aroldis Chapman in the rotation during spring training, the Reds will begin this season with the same rotation. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake pitched injury free in the regular season, a statistical anamoly, but a major reason the Reds won the NL Central.
"We've got five guys who know what it's like to start game and know what it's like to go full seasons, know what it's like to pace themselves," said Homer Bailey, who threw a no-hitter last season. "With what we did last year, the odds of it happening again, where you only use five starters, is slim. But, if there's any team that's going to do it, I would say it's us."
But, the pitching weapons doesn't stop in the rotation. The Reds also feature one of the National League's best bullpens, anchored by one of the most electrifying arms in Major League Baseball. The team tested Aroldis Chapman in the starting rotation during spring training, but after much debate and Chapman expressing his desire to close, the Reds decided to start the season with Chapman in the same role as last season. Sean Marshall is back for a second year with the club, Jonathan Broxton returns on a new contract and steady middle reliever Sam LeCure are the major pieces of a bullpen expected to excel again.
The major off-season move, though, is in the Reds everyday starting line-up. The club shipped Drew Stubbs, as part of a multi-player trade, to Cleveland in exchange for Shin-Soo Choo. Choo, with only a handful of Major League starts at centerfield, will be the Reds starting centerfielder and lead-off hitter. The team didn't get much production from the all important lead off spot in 2012 (a collective .208 batting average) and expect Choo's high batting average and on base percentage will help the offense generate more runs consistently.
The other major change is a third base. Scott Rolen did not officially retire from baseball, but is not with the club. That means Todd Frazier will start the season as the team's everyday third baseman along side second-year shortstop Zack Cozart.
"I'm a lot more comfortable this year," said Cozart at spring training. "It makes it a lot easier coming in and knowing you have a spot, but also that the team knows you can help them win."
The questions surrounding the Reds offense are can Frazier and Ryan Ludwick (26 home runs) repeat their success from last season and will Joey Votto stay healthy. The former MVP missed more than 50 games last season because of a knee injury that required surgery. Votto returned for the end of the season and the playoffs, but didn't hit a home run the final three months. A productive spring training with multiple home runs, has answered some of Votto's questions.
But, the biggest question for the 2013 Reds is can they repeat as division champions and can they win a playoff series? The likelihood of a healthy pitching rotation for an entire season a second straight year is slim, but the Reds did upgrade the offense with the addition of Choo. If Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick can produce similar power numbers this season and the team's stars stay healthy, the Reds should be the best team in the NL Central. Winning more than 97 games is a big number, the safer bet is 93-95 wins and another division championship. But, this team won't be judged until October and if it wins in the playoffs. A season with anything less would be a disappointment to its players and fans.
"It's just a sense that everybody expects to win," said outfielder Chris Heisey. "And, it's a lot easier to win in that environment. I definitely think we're going to build on last year and get back to the playoffs and from there anything can happen."
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