The beat crackled, the bass thumping loudly. The music that often streamed through the halls of the Reds Player Development Complex during spring training had a vibrant, youthful flavor.
You might expect these modern tracks streaming from devices owned by Mat Latos or Aroldis Chapman.
But that edgy sound filling the air came via the iPod of 63-year-old manager Dusty Baker, who insists his taste in music is symbolic; the misnomer that he favors veterans over green talent is just that, he said.
And on a team that’s got key veteran parts like Joey Votto, Bronson Arroyo and Shin-Soo Choo, Baker maintains he’s just as quick to favor the youthfulness that guys like Latos, Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart bring to the equation.
“I’ve always said give me a young team and I can teach them. It’s contrary to what most people think, that I don’t like young people. Anybody that knows me knows that’s far from the truth,” Baker said. “You can tell by my music. It’s easier to teach these guys how to play. It’s like a kid, they’re all ears.”
Baker’s hoping the continued development of his team’s young talent is exactly what the Reds need to get over the next proverbial hump, and perhaps make a trip to the World Series.
Last year, a season removed from a National League Central title, the Reds hummed quietly beneath the radar out of spring training. This time through, however, most prognosticators have the Reds picked to repeat as division champs and go deep into the postseason. That puts some of the young players who were thrown into new roles last season in the unfamiliar position of frontrunners.
But Baker said one of the charms of youth is its innocence.
“What good does worrying do? You ever been around young kids? They don’t know what they’re supposed to be afraid of. You don’t know what you’re supposed to be afraid of until you’re older most of the time,” Baker said. “I’m not worried about the young guys.”
All the pieces seem to be in place. Now that Chapman has been shuffled back to the role of closer, the Reds bullpen should again contend for the league’s lowest earned run average. And with a starting staff that still has plenty of upside, that should be a strength, too. Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake are all 26 or under, and ace Johnny Cueto is only a year older.
And while vets like Choo, Phillips, Votto and Ryan Ludwick should handle most of the heavy lifting atop the order, youngsters like Jay Bruce, Frazier, and Cozart should keep things rocking throughout the lineup.
Frazier, for example, came on strong while filling in for Votto and Scott Rolen last year, hitting .330 with six homers and 25 RBIs in August while earning National League Rookie of the Month honors. He’s settled into the every day post at third base now that Rolen has departed, leading the team in homers through the spring, and although he’s not certain what the season might bring, he sure doesn’t seem fazed by it.
“I don’t know what to think now just because I’ve never been there. I try to take it game by game and I don’t really worry about that kind of stuff. I just have to play my game,” Frazier said. “Last year, when I was playing for Votto and Rolen, I knew I wasn’t going to be those guys. I have to just play within myself, just play the way you’ve been playing your whole life.”
There are obstacles, of course. The Cardinals will look to rebound and the Brewers and Pirates could also contend. But if things work out as planned, the high-flying Reds could eclipse last year’s win total (97), and might make amends for last year’s playoff collapse in the first round against the San Francisco Giants.
Ludwick, who emerged as the team’s cleanup hitter and starting left fielder after battling for the job last spring, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the team come out of the NL Central again.
“Look at this team on paper. We’ve got everything. When you look at the core of this ballclub, it’s a team that won 97 games last year and it’s a team that on paper, and for outsiders looking in, it’s a team that has a chance to win a World Series,” he said.
A better offense would help. Last year, the Reds finished in the middle of the National League pack in runs, hits and batting average. But with Votto healthy and poised for a big season, as well as a stronger leadoff man in Choo, the Reds should improve at the plate.
“It’s exciting. Knowing we’ve got everybody healthy right now. Knowing we have a pitching staff back that did most of the work for us last year. If they keep us in the ball game, we’re gonna win a lot of those one-run games,” Frazier said. “I can’t wait to see the way it plays out. We’ve got a lot of bats in this lineup, and it could be something special.”
Baker talked his team before the final week of spring training, asking for more focused effort and better results. While he’s hoping to improve on last year’s 6-9 start through the first 15 games, he knows this is a steady process.
And as for playing the role of favorite? Baker said that’s a tune he just doesn’t listen to.
“You’ve still got to play the game, I don’t care if you’re favored. You can’t use motivation if you’re underdogs, and you shouldn’t play any worse if you’re the favorite. It doesn’t matter what people say or do. The only thing that matters is the end of the season,” Baker said. “If you start off well, that’s great. But look at some of the teams that started off great last year, you couldn’t find them in August. Some of the teams didn’t start off so well, and you look up and there they are.
“We know how to run the race. Some guys here have run the race. Frazier was here last year, Cozart was here last year. That was a valuable lesson for some of these guys.”
Projected Reds lineup
Shin-Soo Choo, CF
Brandon Phillips, 2B
Joey Votto, 1B
Ryan Ludwick, LF
Jay Bruce, RF
Todd Frazier, 3B
Zack Cozart, SS
Ryan Hanigan, C