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02/01/10 11:00 PM EST

Recent moves have Reds believing

Club could be a sleeper in the NL Central this season

CINCINNATI -- When it came to offseason transactions for most of this winter, the Reds mostly stood frozen like department store mannequins while big names -- and little ones, too -- passed them by.

In the end, that appeared to have been part of the master plan.

This slow-starting offseason, which was consumed with rumors of salary dumps and later about pinching pennies, has recently taken a decidedly more appealing turn. Reds fans have been given a shot in the arm and more reasons to invest their emotions into the team before it heads to Spring Training.

In the last three weeks -- beginning with the surprise Jan. 11 signing of Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman through Monday's signing of veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera and the trading away of Willy Taveras -- Reds general manager Walt Jocketty has moved Cincinnati from likely also-ran to a potential preseason sleeper.

"I'm excited about it," Jocketty said on Monday. "Obviously, we've been able to do some things to improve our club that I wasn't sure we'd be in position to do. A lot of it was being patient and waiting for the market to drop to our level, I guess, where we could afford to do some things."

Perhaps the pieces really started to fall into place last summer at the Trade Deadline, when the Reds dealt underachieving third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and two pitching prospects to the Blue Jays for veteran Scott Rolen.

Although quiet, Rolen provided veteran leadership in the clubhouse and professional at-bats for a young team in desperate need of both. After he was beaned in the head and returned from a disabled-list stint, Cincinnati went 27-13 over its final 40 games. The deal was criticized at first because of Rolen's $11 million salary for 2010. That issue was somewhat mitigated in December when Rolen, who turns 35 in April, and the club restructured his contract. In exchange for agreeing to make $6 million this season and defer the rest of the money, he was given a two-year extension through 2012.

Like the dumping of Encarnacion, Monday's trade of Taveras was another case of addition by subtraction. Taveras, along with infielder Adam Rosales, was dealt to the A's for utility infielder Aaron Miles and a player to be named later.

After getting his chance in August, Drew Stubbs proved to be a better leadoff hitter and defensive player than Taveras. It also became clear that the one-dimensional Taveras would not be useful as a bench player. Following Stubbs will be Cabrera as the No. 2 hitter and the team's best hitter in the No. 3 spot, Joey Votto.

Although one could dispute the merits of adding Cabrera over defensive whiz Paul Janish, Cabrera is an offensive upgrade over Janish and is still a former two-time Gold Glove winner that will join other Gold Glovers in second baseman Brandon Phillips and Rolen.

"I think this puts us in pretty good position. I really do," Jocketty said. "You look at the infield, we have [Ramon] Hernandez, Votto, Phillips, Cabrera and Rolen. These are all quality, quality players. We've got a young outfield with huge upside. That was another reason adding another veteran guy in the infield is important."

In the next few days, power-hitting left fielder Jonny Gomes could be brought back on a Minor League contract after he was non-tendered in December. Talks are ongoing, but it can't be overlooked that Gomes hit 20 home runs in 281 at-bats as a platoon player last season. With Stubbs, Jay Bruce and Chris Dickerson, the outfield would appear more solid offensively if Gomes was a part of it.

For the starting rotation, the Reds' best moves might have been the ones they didn't make. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo were at the center of November trade rumors when speculation was rampant that Jocketty was looking to unload big contracts like theirs. That didn't happen and the Reds still found a way to achieve most of their goals in the offseason.

While coming off back-to-back bad seasons, Harang is still a two-time 16-game winner. Arroyo has won 15 games the past two seasons and has pitched at least 200 innings in each of the past five. The two right-handers can be the veteran foundation while Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey try to build off the success they had at the end of last season. Edinson Volquez isn't expected back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery until mid-to-late summer.

The ultimate rotation X-factor is Chapman, if he's even part of it to open the season. No one has any clue yet exactly what the lefty and his reported 100-mph fastball can do. Turning 22 this month, Chapman might still require more polish in the Minors, but his addition was a bold move that earned points with the players and fans.

Granted, the Reds aren't a finished product as a whole and will still be a work in progress heading into camp. But it's not like their rivals in the National League Central blew away the industry with their moves.

The defending division-champion Cardinals largely stood pat but remain the team to beat. They re-signed Matt Holliday to bat behind Albert Pujols and support a pitching staff led by Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny. It doesn't get more imposing than that.

The Cubs remain a suspect team after a lackluster winter. They were able to move their problem, Milton Bradley, for Seattle's, pitcher Carlos Silva. But their additions of center fielder Marlon Byrd and Xavier Nady, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery, fall into the "remains to be seen" category.

The Brewers spent a lot of money trying to improve a poor rotation but only came up with lefties Randy Wolf and Doug Davis while adding 37-year-old LaTroy Hawkins to the bullpen. Milwaukee lost Mike Cameron in center field and added former Twins player Carlos Gomez.

After they lost closer Jose Valverde and shortstop Miguel Tejada, the Astros added third baseman Pedro Feliz but appear headed for a rebuilding season. The Pirates have not shown any indication this winter that they are prepared to contend in 2010.

Much still must go right for the Reds to challenge the Cardinals in 2010. They were ranked 15th out of 16 teams in hitting last season. Scoring runs, especially in clutch situations, was a constant issue. With the exception of Votto and Rolen, there weren't enough hitters with plate discipline.

Perhaps as early as this season, the Reds will have the ability to reach into their own system for an offensive boost. Chris Heisey, Yonder Alonso, Todd Frazier and Juan Francisco are all trying to push their way into a big league scenario.

Can the Reds challenge in the NL Central this season? The opportunity appears to be knocking. Are the they ready, and able, to open the door?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

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