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04/02/12 12:00 AM ET

Reds confident they can contend, win Central

Despite losing Madson, Cincinnati has high hopes in '12

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Following a string of aggressive winter transactions, the Reds felt like the key parts of their roster were perfectly planned out.

A blockbuster trade with the Padres brought Mat Latos, who joined the rotation. Free agent Ryan Madson fell in their laps late and became the dependable closer. Lefty Sean Marshall was to be the lockdown guy for the eighth inning and Ryan Ludwick the extra bat for the outfield. It all added up to make the Reds a popular pick to win the National League Central.

Terrible news came on March 24 when Madson learned his season was over before it could begin. A torn ligament meant he would need Tommy John surgery.

"That hurts to lose Madson," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "The best laid plans of mice and men, right?"

Since the Reds can't win a division title with the best offseason, they can't lose it during Spring Training -- even without the services of Madson, who was signed to a one-year $8.5 million contract, money that cannot be recouped.

Life, and the season, goes on.

April 5: Reds 4, Marlins 0
W: Cueto (1-0)   L: Buehrle (0-1)
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"I think we have a good team, without a doubt," Reds third baseman Scott Rolen said. "I talk about on paper all the time and on paper, we have a very good team. I hope that everybody, in the attempt to be positive, doesn't downplay the loss of Ryan Madson because he's one of the best closers in the game, to his credit."

Cincinnati's bullpen, one of the biggest strengths coming in, will begin a little short. Besides Madson, right-handed setup man Nick Masset will start the season on the disabled list because of a sore shoulder. Masset isn't expected to miss much time, however.

Marshall, one of the best setup men the last two seasons with the Cubs, appears to be the de-facto closer -- although a final decision has not been revealed.

Cincinnati, which did not defend its 2010 NL Central title by finishing third last season with 79 wins, feels it still has enough weapons to contend well against the defending World Series champion Cardinals and the pitching-rich Brewers.

"I think our depth is strong," said first baseman Joey Votto, the Reds' offensive leader. "I think we've got a competitive player at every position. At nearly every position, we have a potential All-Star. I think we have several starting pitchers that will get us deep into the game. And we've got an offense that can outscore quite a few teams. I think the most important component and the likeliest reason we'll be successful is how strong we are defensively and how fundamentally sound we are as a team."

Defensively, the infield features three Gold Glove winners in Votto, Rolen and second baseman Brandon Phillips. Outfielders Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce have displayed skills that could eventually net Gold Gloves as well.

"If we're healthy, we're probably one of the best, if not the best defensive team in baseball," Votto said.

The Reds were second in runs scored last season, but seemed to come up short at key moments. The lineup will benefit from the return of a healthy Rolen, who was limited to 65 games last season and batted .242 because of a shoulder injury. Phillips, who is playing out his $12.5 million option year this season, will be the leadoff hitter from the start. He will be even more motivated for a big season as he could possibly head to free agency if an extension can't be worked out with the club.

Bruce is coming off a season where he set career highs with 32 homers and 97 RBIs. Now 25, he is looking for consistency at the plate over an entire season and dropped 15 pounds to set his body up for success. Stubbs will be trying to shake off a club record 205-strikeout season. Few in baseball produce more all-around offense than Votto, who becomes one of the NL's premier first baseman now that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are out of the league -- and just as important, out of the NL Central.

Cincinnati has turned to a pair of rookies to man key positions in the field with shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco. Cozart had a superb spring -- both offensively and defensively -- and looks 100 percent healthy after a left elbow injury limited him to 11 big league games after his July call-up last season.

Mesoraco, who did not hit well in camp but was solid catching, will likely share time behind the plate with veteran Ryan Hanigan. The more Mesoraco hits, the more his playing time will likely be.

General manager Walt Jocketty focused much of his offseason attention to improving the pitching staff. The rotation, which was battered with injuries and disappointing performances, ranked 13th in the NL with a 4.47 ERA in 2011.

Coming off his best year, Johnny Cueto missed some games with injuries, but developed into a No. 1 starter. He will pitch Opening Day against the Marlins. Latos, who had a strong spring, will be the No. 2 starter and at 24, has the makings of a future ace. Bronson Arroyo, coming off the worst season of his career, wants to show he still has it. Mike Leake rallied for a strong second season to lead the team in wins and strikeouts in 2011. Aroldis Chapman showed in camp that he belongs in a rotation and with improved tempo and command, cut down on his walks.

Now the question that can't be answered on Opening Day, but will be known by Game 162: Does it all add up for the Reds to get back to the playoffs?

"I think we already have that belief now we are going to win," said left fielder Chris Heisey. "I think that's half the battle. Expecting to win as opposed to expecting to lose. Losing Ryan, it was definitely a big blow to lose your closer. But we'll definitely rebound from it and move forward. I really feel like we can still have a lot of success."

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.