Reds expect spirited competition for bench work
Cairo appears to be lock, while several will vie for few spots
CINCINNATI -- Often overlooked but quite indispensable.That is generally the way of life for the average bench player in the Major Leagues. Bench production was a strength that the Reds appreciated greatly in 2011. During Spring Training, there should be plenty of jockeying for the precious final spots on the 25-man roster to make up the bench for the 2012 team. Last season, Cincinnati's pinch-hitters led the National League in numerous categories, including average (.286), runs scored (32), slugging percentage (.432) and on-base percentage (.356) and tied for the league lead with eight home runs. Assuming the Reds go with 13 position players out of camp and remain healthy, they should have six position players locked into their spots regularly, with Chris Heisey and free-agent acquisition Ryan Ludwick splitting time in left field and Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan sharing catching duties. That accounts for 10 spots filled, three to go. Utility player Miguel Cairo was superb off the bench in a variety of positions last season, including 58 games at third base when Scott Rolen was injured. Cairo also batted .379 (11-for-29) as a pinch-hitter and .265 with eight homers overall. Barring a catastrophe, he should be locked in. Two spots left. There is no shortage of contenders to claim them. Juan Francisco is the organization's top third-base option, behind Rolen, and brings a booming left-handed power bat that would mean instant offense off the bench. Francisco would be a good backup to take up games that Rolen doesn't play, but complicating his situation is that the 24-year-old is out of options. He has also been plagued by injury and had two extended stints on the disabled list last season. Todd Frazier, ranked No. 6 by MLB.com on the Reds' Top 20 Prospects list, is also in the running. Frazier played 41 games in the big leagues last season but batted only .232. The right-handed-hitting Frazier has a glove for just about any occasion and played first base, second base, shortstop, third base and left field last season. Paul Janish, who was the regular shortstop for the Reds to begin last season before struggles cost him his spot, is vying for the backup job behind Zack Cozart. Janish, who batted only .214 last year without a home run, saw his chances get more difficult last month when the club traded for Wilson Valdez from the Phillies. Both Janish and Valdez can play around the infield. And Valdez, 33, is out of options while Janish is not. The Reds signed former Mets utility player Willie Harris to a Minor League contract last month. Harris would be another left-handed hitter for the bench, and while he is not known particularly for his bat, the 33-year-old can play all three outfield spots, second base and third base. Chris Valaika is a versatile infield prospect who can play second base, shortstop and third base. He can also hit well, as shown by his .280 average over 14 games in two big league stints last season. Valaika, 26, is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee but is expected to be 100 percent for Spring Training. He will need to try and earn a spot. Should something happen to one of the two catchers, there is some veteran depth signed to Minor League deals. Corky Miller isn't known for hitting but has been a well-regarded part of the organization for his workmanlike personality and excellent game-calling skills. The club also signed Dioner Navarro in the offseason. And while Heisey and Ludwick should be on the 25-man roster, both can bring pop from the right side. Heisey is a .321 hitter as a sub over his two big league seasons and has six homers as a pinch-hitter. Ludwick is a .295 hitter when he's been a sub and has four career homers as a pinch-hitter. Expected to be a contending team in the NL Central, the Reds won't be giving away any roster spots -- even on the bench. The battle to be the 24th and 25th men should have manager Dusty Baker and general manager Walt Jocketty holding spirited meetings during camp. Don't be surprised if these decisions go down to the very end.