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03/30/07 10:00 AM ET

Reds aim to build on last season's run

This year, club plans to answer when opportunity knocks

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Some preseason predictions have already discounted the Reds from having any chance to contend in the National League Central.

That was fine with rotation ace Aaron Harang.

"Place us where you want. We'll try to prove you wrong," said Harang, the NL strikeouts leader and 16-game winner last season. He is Cincinnati's Opening Day starter vs. the Cubs on April 2.

Joined by fellow starter Bronson Arroyo, Harang and the Reds nearly did that in 2006. Given no chance to compete because it was supposed to be a transitional year with new ownership and new general manager Wayne Krivsky, Cincinnati won 80 games (up from 73 in 2005) and staved off elimination until the season's final week.

The Reds were in first or second place most of last season before finishing third. The Cardinals won the NL Central with just 83 games, then went on to win the World Series.

Many Reds felt it could have been them.

"I think everybody thinks that we squandered an opportunity last year to get to the postseason," reliever David Weathers said. "We would like to have another shot at it. To get another shot, we have to play good baseball."

"After last year, and how good we thought we were and seeing St. Louis win the World Series, you had somebody to compare to that you played all season," catcher David Ross said. "We felt like we were just as good, if not better, than them."

Had it not been for a 13-21 stretch-run nosedive, that began Aug. 24 on a 2-8 West Coast road trip, it might have been. Many Reds did a slow burn this past winter over their big fade and vowed to set the bar high this season.

"We have to get it done," said Arroyo, who led the Majors with 240 2/3 innings in 2006. "We fell short last year. No matter what you say about the season, we didn't make the playoffs. To me, that's the goal on this club. If we had a $200 million payroll, I'd say the goal is to win the World Series. Yeah, the goal here is to win the World Series, but you have to make the playoffs. That's the first step. We have to try and work hard to get there."

To do that, the Reds tried to address some of their shortcomings in the winter. Much of the attention was paid to shoring up the bullpen and defense. Reds relievers were ranked 11th out of 16 NL clubs with a 4.44 ERA. Cincinnati's defense was the Majors' second worst with 128 errors and a .979 fielding percentage.

opening day 2007

One of the best defensive players on the open market, shortstop Alex Gonzalez was signed to a three-year, $14 million contract. Gonzalez and talented second baseman Brandon Phillips are expected to form a solid middle-infield combo. To keep the middle of the field strong, Ken Griffey Jr. was shifted from center field to right field with a speedier Ryan Freel taking over in center field.

"Brandon Phillips, Alex Gonzalez and Ryan Freel in the middle of the field, defensively. Our defense automatically is better with those three guys," Reds manager Jerry Narron said.

In the bullpen, lefty Mike Stanton was signed to a two-year, $6 million deal. Closer Dustin Hermanson, who missed most of last year with the White Sox because of a back injury, was signed to a Minor League deal two weeks into camp and originally looked good -- and healthy -- enough to make the team, before fading near the end and getting released.

It could be closer-by-committee again for Cincinnati, which lacked a proven closer during the first half last season and suffered for it. Two young arms that earned jobs in camp, right-hander Jared Burton and lefty Jon Coutlangus, showed a lot of promise this spring.

Harang and Arroyo were locked up to long-term deals to maintain the top of the rotation for the next four years. The three and four spots, with Eric Milton and Kyle Lohse, are question marks because both have had a rough past few seasons.

"I think the pitching will be more of a strength [as] it's been in the past," Weathers said. "Last year, I think the starting pitching was pretty good all year. Our bullpen, after the end of June on, was pretty good, solid."

Offensively last season, the Reds had trouble scoring runs because hitters were undisciplined in key situations. Right-handed hitter Jeff Conine was acquired from the Phillies. After a nearly four-year stretch out of the game because of injuries and drug use, outfielder Josh Hamilton has been the story of spring. Hamilton, a Rule 5 acquisition and former overall No. 1 draft choice, has led the team in hitting and stunned observers with his poise and plate discipline. He'll be a fourth outfielder this season.

"We've got a lot of good players coming in and the same ones we had success with are back," Ross said. "It's hard not to expect to do more than we did last year. If we don't expect to do better next year, something is wrong."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.