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12/30/11 11:00 AM EST

Upgraded Cincy set to seize control of Central

Latos, young Cozart, Mesoraco could help spark playoff run

CINCINNATI -- With one large trade, the Reds pronounced their intentions to reclaim the National League Central in 2012.

By sending premium prospects Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal and Brad Boxberger and former ace Edinson Volquez to the Padres for Mat Latos, the Reds showed the future they're most concerned about is next season. They also acquired lefty reliever Sean Marshall from the Cubs for left-handed starting pitcher Travis Wood, young outfielder Dave Sappelt and Minor League infielder Ronald Torreyes.

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty indicated he wasn't finished making more improvements. So while the makeup of the roster remains a work in progress before Spring Training, let's get a head start on the projections.

Here are 10 key questions to consider about the Reds as they head toward the 2012 season:

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A look ahead
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Important dates

10. What will the rotation look like with Latos?

The short answer is young, but talented. The Reds could have three starters under 25 come Opening Day, and ace Johnny Cueto will be 26. At 35, only Bronson Arroyo will be over 30. After Cueto, Latos and Arroyo, Mike Leake should be back after a strong sophomore season, and Homer Bailey will be looking for a completely healthy campaign. Of course, a very big question is ...

9. Can Aroldis Chapman make the rotation?

If Chapman does make the starting five, and if he's successful, it would give the Reds a very imposing rotation. But it's far from a guarantee that Chapman makes the club. His efforts to transition from reliever to starter took a hit this fall, when a sore shoulder during the Arizona Fall League prevented him from pitching winter ball in Puerto Rico. If Chapman doesn't look ready to be a big league starter from the get-go, the Reds could have him begin the season at Triple-A Louisville.

8. Who will be the closer?

This will have to be to be announced, for now. The Reds let incumbent Francisco Cordero test the free-agent waters, and he joined a myriad number of closers on the market. In fact, there were more closers available than jobs when free agency opened. A number of chairs have been taken already, and it will be curious to see who lands where when the music stops. If the Reds come up empty, they would be forced to look within, but have limited names that present with closer's stuff.

7. Can Drew Stubbs cut down on Ks?

Center fielder Drew Stubbs swung himself out of the leadoff role with a club-record 205 strikeouts last season. The Reds remain high on Stubbs and believe he can be more effective putting the ball into play, any way possible. As far as manager Dusty Baker is concerned, Stubbs' speed and defense make him too good to not have in the lineup every day.

6. Is Zack Cozart ready to be the regular shortstop?

Until a season-ending left elbow injury, Cozart was impressive for the Reds, batting .307 with two home runs and playing well defensively. But he only had 11 big league games to show what he could do. It's enough to give him the inside track on the job heading into camp, but the Reds are looking around for a backup just in case. Paul Janish, who lost the starting job last season, is looking for a turnaround year and could be an alternative.

5. Can Scott Rolen stay healthy and productive the whole season?

The answer to this question from this time last year proved to be no. Rolen batted only .242 in 65 games as he struggled with a left shoulder injury that eventually required surgery and cost him almost the entire second half. Turning 37 just before Opening Day, Rolen is in the final year of his contract. Having his bat and glove at full speed, plus his leadership, would make the Reds a better team all around.

4. What will it be like behind the plate?

With Ramon Hernandez allowed to leave via free agency, Ryan Hanigan and top prospect Devin Mesoraco will handle the catching duties. Hanigan and Hernandez formed one of the better offensive tandems for three seasons, but Mesoraco's potential could easily pick up the slack. A balance of playing time hasn't been determined and could be predicated on matchups and pitcher preferences. Hanigan is well regarded for his game management and working with pitchers. Mesoraco got a chance to get comfortable with the Reds' staff as a September callup, which should give him a head start for 2012.

3. What's going to happen in left field?

The Reds still have a move to make in this area, but whoever is added, he would likely form a platoon with right-handed hitter Chris Heisey. Complicating things a little is that Heisey is actually stronger vs. right-handed pitchers (.288 lifetime) than lefties (.180). If the Reds can't get someone of note, Heisey will have a great chance to make his case to be an everyday player. He certainly has the glove to do it, but now must even up his overall numbers vs. both types of pitchers.

2. Does Baker get an extension?

The Reds manager's contract expires after the 2012 season, which makes him a so-called "lame duck" manager for the second time during a tenure that started in 2008. The last time Baker was in this situation, the Reds won the NL Central in 2010, and he was rewarded with a two-year extension. A slow start by Cincinnati would easily begin the distraction and speculation about change.

1. Can the Reds win the NL Central?

It's certainly there for the taking. Last season's NL Wild Card winners, and World Series champion Cardinals, are still adjusting to the losses of super slugger Albert Pujols and longtime manager Tony La Russa. The Brewers have already braced to lose Prince Fielder and could lose Ryan Braun to a 50-game suspension. The top two dogs are limping, which gives the Reds a chance to pounce. Their rotation is better and they always have a potent offense capable of scoring a lot of runs. The disappointment of not repeating as division champs stung the Reds last season. Rebounding in 2012 isn't the goal, it's the expectation.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.