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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

Reds Opening Day outlook

With improved pitching, club could contend in NL Central

The Reds are out to prove they are better. It starts on Monday.

Manager Dusty Baker and general manager Wayne Krivsky have attempted to assemble a team that fuses the experience of veterans with young products of their development system.

With talented pitchers like Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, a young first baseman in Joey Votto, and top prospect Jay Bruce waiting in the wings, there is some young energy that's been infused to a Reds club that has endured seven straight losing seasons. The young will combo with the familiar, like Aaron Harang, Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and Brandon Phillips.

Add in Baker's philosophy for winning with his complete distaste for losing, and the Reds could be an interesting club to watch in 2008.

Calling card
Despite improvements to the pitching, this team still bashes offensively. Great American Ball Park is a great friend for power hitters, evidenced by the Reds' average of 214 home runs per season over the past three seasons -- most in the National League. Dunn (40 homers last season) Griffey (30) and Phillips (30) form a dangerous heart of the order that could change a game in an instant with the long ball, especially if the Reds' pitchers can keep games closer than they did in the late innings last season.

Projected starting lineup
1. CF Corey Patterson
2. SS Jeff Keppinger
3. RF Ken Griffey Jr.
4. 2B Brandon Phillips
5. LF Adam Dunn
6. 3B Edwin Encarnacion
7. 1B Scott Hatteberg
8. C Javier Valentin
Projected rotation
1. RHP Aaron Harang
2. RHP Bronson Arroyo
3. RHP Johnny Cueto
4. RHP Josh Fogg
5. RHP Edinson Volquez
Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Francisco Cordero
Setup: RHP David Weathers
Setup: RHP Jared Burton
Setup: LHP Jeremy Affeldt
Middle: LHP Kent Mercker
Middle: RHP Todd Coffey
Achilles' Heel
Catching could be a problem, at least in the early weeks. David Ross, who needs a bounce-back season after batting .203 in 2007, missed most of the spring with back spasms. Paul Bako is adequate as a defensive catcher, but he hasn't cracked the .210 mark at the plate the past two seasons. Javier Valentin is a decent hitter, especially from the left side, but he is below average defensively.

You'll know they're rollin' if...


The rotation's back three of Cueto, Josh Fogg and Volquez get it done behind Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Last season, the rotation had a 49-59 record, with nearly one-third of the victories coming via 16-game winner Harang. Cueto and Volquez have electric stuff and throw strikes, but they are also inexperienced.

You'll know they're in trouble if...
Corey Patterson can't prove he's a leadoff hitter. Baker wanted Patterson to be signed so the skipper could use him for the leadoff role, even though the 28-year-old has a .299 career on-base percentage in 160 games at the top of the order. Baker insists Patterson is a different player than earlier in his career with Chicago.

Testing, testing
The Reds will meet the Cubs at Wrigley Field from April 15-17. It should provide an indication of where they stack up against the overwhelming favorite for the NL Central race. Last season, the Reds went 9-9 against the Cubs. It will also be Baker's first visit to Chicago since his dismissal as that club's manager following the 2006 season.

Interleague Play
The Reds have a tough Interleague draw when they face the three best teams from American League East, which include the Red Sox at home (June 13-15) and the Yankees (June 20-22) and Blue Jays (June 24-26) on the road. During the road games, Reds pitchers will be tested against power-packed lineups that offer little breathing room.

The Bottom Line
Baker has a track record of turning around mediocre clubs in a hurry. With exciting rotation additions in Cueto and Volquez, a better bullpen with Francisco Cordero and the always potent lineup, the Reds could be a sleeper in a soft NL Central. At face value, 80 wins look very possible, but with some breaks and few injuries, the wins could jump a few notches higher. That should be good enough to contend.

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