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03/30/10 10:00 AM ET

Reds have ability to meet expectations

Club hopes to graduate from dark horse to legit contender

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Being a trendy pick and tagged as a potential surprise team is certainly better than being nobody's pick at all. Based on some of their offseason moves and increasing maturity of younger players, the Reds have generated that sort of buzz during camp.

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But trends come and go and often fade too quickly, especially once Spring Training stops and the regular season starts. The Reds are seeking more substance.

However, there have been few mentions about big things to come or rhetoric about breakthroughs in Reds camp.

"We haven't had a winning season in this organization in nine years," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "You have to have a winning season first."

Could this finally be that season? There are reasons to believe it will.

The infield features three Gold Glove winners in Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera. The potential speedy outfield tandem of Jay Bruce, Chris Dickerson and Drew Stubbs will cover a lot of ground. Either Stubbs or Dickerson will be light-years of improvement from Willy Taveras in the leadoff spot.

From the pitching staff, the entire bullpen is back intact after it ranked third in the National League in ERA. The starting rotation has something not seen since before the Jim Bowden administration -- depth. It features back-to-back 15-game winner Bronson Arroyo and burgeoning young talent in Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, who both had strong finishes last season. Former 17-game winner Edinson Volquez is expected to return by late summer from Tommy John surgery.

And then there is the 22-year-old Cuban X-factor, Aroldis Chapman, who dazzled in camp until coming down with back spasms on March 22. At some point, Chapman's triple-digit velocity and better-than-advertised command will be in the big leagues this season, and hitters should have their hands full.

"I've seen what we have [in] Spring Training and the way we've gone about our business," closer Francisco Cordero said. "We do have a better team than last year. If we're healthy this year, I think we can do a great job."

There are also enough caution signs to blunt any fans' giddiness. Former 16-game winner Aaron Harang is still viewed as the Reds' No. 1 starter, but he is coming off of two lousy seasons in which he went a combined 12-31.

Cincinnati Reds
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 CF Chris Dickerson
2 SS Orlando Cabrera
3 1B Joey Votto
4 2B Brandon Phillips
5 3B Scott Rolen
6 RF Jay Bruce
7 LF Laynce Nix
8 C Ramon Hernandez
9 P Aaron Harang
Projected rotation
1 RHP Aaron Harang
2 RHP Johnny Cueto
3 RHP Bronson Arroyo
4 RHP Homer Bailey
5 RHP Mike Leake
Projected bullpen
CL RHP Francisco Cordero
SU RHP Nick Masset
SU LHP Arthur Rhodes
SU RHP Logan Ondrusek
MI LHP Daniel Ray Herrera
MI RHP Mike Lincoln
MI RHP Micah Owings
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

And turnover was light in the lineup, which ranked 15th out of 16 National League teams in hitting last season. Top hitter Joey Votto, who missed 21 games to be treated for depression last season, should continue to be a consistent force, but he'll need help. The offense can only go places if Phillips and Bruce are also producing. Bruce has 43 homers in two seasons but took a step backward and batted near the .200 mark until a September surge.

The addition of Rolen at the Trade Deadline proved significant in multiple ways. After he returned from the disabled list from a beaning, the Reds went 27-13 over their final 40 games.

Rolen and Cabrera entered a clubhouse brimming with young talent but lacking in veteran direction. A quiet, but professional, example-setter, Rolen is a five-time All-Star and has a World Series ring. Cabrera, who was signed as a free agent on Feb. 1 to upgrade the shortstop position offensively, also has a ring and has been to the postseason in five of his last six seasons.

"You can force a lot of losses, but you can't force a lot of wins. I look at consistency on a daily basis," Rolen said. "Anybody can win a game against the odds or a comeback win, and that's cool. But what's going to happen the next four games? It's the best teams that play the best baseball -- they get sorted out after 162 games. There aren't any flash in the pans over 162.

"It's about consistency. That's when I look at approach, look at process, look at preparation. I'm not talking about watching video of hitters for three hours. I'm talking about preparing yourself mentally and physically to compete that night."

Consistency can also be a by-product of maturity. Heading into Opening Day, the 25-man roster could contain no rookies once completed. Last season, eight players made their big league debuts in Cincinnati during the season.

"Everybody will be established," said power-hitting outfielder Jonny Gomes, who was re-signed to a one-year contract just before full-squad workouts started in February. "We won't have to hold anybody's hand or pat anyone on the butt and tell them it will be OK. We have to lick our own wounds from Day 1."

While Spring Training optimism is often as plentiful as sunflower seeds and gum in a big league dugout, the flavor also can fade just as quick. Cincinnati has heard it all before only to be disappointed the last nine years. There has to be something real behind the hope, and perhaps the Reds finally have it.

"This team has a whole lot of different angles to win, on paper," Gomes said. "We have speed. We have power. We have left-right combos, a deep bullpen."

Then, Gomes mentions the most unavoidable of facts, yet the one that's eluded the Reds for too many years.

"We just have to do it between the lines. You can't win a game on paper," Gomes said.

And that is the difference between trendy surprise, and actual contender.

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