A year ago, it was an unusual feeling for the Cincinnati Reds.
Coming off its first postseason appearance in 15 years - albeit an inglorious three-game sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies - manager Dusty Baker's squad was thought by many the class of a perceived downtrodden National League Central Division.
Instead, the Reds failed to capitalize on the momentum of an unexpected rise and drifted back to the pack in the Central, falling 12 games to third behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers and the wild card-seizing St. Louis Cardinals, who rode their own timely wave to a surprise World Series title.
Fast-forward 12 months and the "spring training favorite" label has returned to the banks of the Ohio River, with a flurry of offseason acquisitions and the statistical progression of stockpiled prospects leading many to quickly assume Cincinnati will again be, errr ... hunting for a Reds October.
Clouding the optimism this spring, however, has been an unwelcome spate of injuries.
Right-handed closer Ryan Madson, brought in from the Phillies after saving 32 games in 34 chances, had a sore elbow diagnosed as something far worse and will undergo ligament-replacement surgery that's already shelved him for the 2012 season.
Into his place presumably steps former Chicago Cubs flame-thrower Sean Marshall, who has seven big-league saves and seven blown saves in 234 career relief appearances since 2006.
Baker has yet to commit to one pitcher for the ninth-inning role and may also mix and match with Cuban southpaw prospect Aroldis Chapman or returning right- handed set-up man Nick Masset, who had a 3.71 ERA and a save in 75 appearances in 2011.
Among the new faces elsewhere is 24-year-old righty Mat Latos, who came from San Diego in exchange for long-time prospect Yonder Alonso and one-time all- star Edinson Volquez, who'd won 17 games after coming from Texas in the Josh Hamilton trade, but was subsequently hampered by arm trouble.
Latos won 14 games with the Padres in 2010 and allowed just 168 hits in 194 1/3 innings last season while winning nine times in 23 decisions.
He left an early spring training start with a strained calf and will be watched closely over his initial few regular-season starts, but is expected to approach the 8.57 strikeouts per nine innings rate that was among the best in the NL among starters with at least 140 innings pitched.
Making his Cincinnati debut with bat in hand will be well-traveled outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who's homered 117 times in 790 big-league games with five teams. The 33-year-old Floridian signed for $2.5 million with an option for 2013.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Reds, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (79-83) - Third Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP Mat Latos, RP Ryan Madson, RP Sean Marshall, OF Ryan Ludwick
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP Francisco Cordero, SP Edinson Volquez, C Ramon Hernandez, 1B Yonder Alonso
PROJECTED LINEUP: 2B Brandon Phillips, SS Zack Cozart, 1B Joey Votto, 3B Scott Rolen, RF Jay Bruce, LF Ryan Ludwick, CF Drew Stubbs, C Ryan Hanigan
PROJECTED ROTATION: RHP Johnny Cueto, RHP Mat Latos, RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP Mike Leake, RHP Homer Bailey
PROJECTED CLOSER: LHP Sean Marshall
MANAGER: Dusty Baker
WILL THE STARTERS SUCCEED?
If potential is currency, the Reds are flush with riches. But how exactly those riches translate to reality remains a substantial question. Dominican right-hander Johnny Cueto had a breakout 2011 - winning nine times in 24 starts with a stingy 2.31 ERA - and should combine with Latos for a very effective 1-2 combination. Veteran Bronson Arroyo returns after sliding from a career-best 17 wins to a subpar nine, while 23-year-old Mike Leake was a 12- game winner in his first extended opportunity in a big-league rotation. Rounding out the group is now-veteran former prospect Homer Bailey, who's shown maddening glimpses of ability amid inconsistency and injury since arriving with the Reds as a first-round pick five years ago. The Texan won eight times in 20 starts in 2009, fell to four in 19 starts in 2010 and was 9-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 22 starts last year. If the top-enders reach the middle teens in victories, Cincinnati will fulfill its preseason promise. If Latos's injury lingers and Arroyo/Bailey don't take a step forward, it's more likely a repeat of a third-place effort.
WHO CLOSES THE DEAL?
As indicated earlier, the injury to Madson places the Reds' bullpen in limbo and leaves Baker with a choice between a single unproven closer or a collection of candidates who've had success in myriad other roles. The 29- year-old Marshall, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension upon arriving from Chicago, figured to get the first shot as Madson's successor and is still the option expected by many team observers - but the wily manager may have tipped his hand the other direction in late March when he said, "You just don't throw somebody in that role. A closer ideally can go three or four days in a row, then might not get work for a week. There aren't too many guys out there that have gone three or four days in a row. I've been told about Marshall (that) you try to stay away from him three days in a row." Also dinged up on the back end of the Reds' staff to begin the year is the aforementioned Masset, who'll start April on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation; and lefty Bill Bray, who's been limited in Arizona by a strained groin.
WHAT WILL THE YOUNGSTERS PRODUCE?
The optimistic view for the Reds has the bumper crop of 20-somethings coming together to put up standout numbers both on the mound, where four of five penciled-in starters are 26 or younger; and through the lineup, where rookie Zack Cozart (26) takes over at shortstop, former NL MVP Joey Votto (28) returns at first base and outfielders Jay Bruce (24) and Drew Stubbs (27) hope to better their combined output of 47 home runs, 141 runs batted in and 48 stolen bases from 2011. The pessimistic flip side includes regression from the fresh-faced kids and not enough production from older players like Brandon Phillips (30), Ludwick (33) and Scott Rolen (36). Rolen played just 65 games and hit .242 last season after posting a .285 average and hitting 20 homers as the glue for the Reds' divisional run a year earlier.
X-FACTOR: LHP AROLDIS CHAPMAN
A novelty in the drive to the 2010 postseason with consistent triple-digit readings on radar guns, the now 24-year-old Chapman was less-heralded but still effective in 54 relief outings with a 3.60 ERA through 50 innings a season ago. His roles heading into 2012 could include replacement closer, returning set-up man or rotation newcomer, with the latter becoming a more legitimate possibility after he'd struck out 18 batters and walked just two in his initial 17 spring innings with a 2.12 ERA. Control was a main sticking point for him last season while he walked 41 batters - averaging out to an ugly 7.4 per nine innings. If his big-league precedent is Tampa Bay phenom closer-turned-ace starter David Price, the Reds will reap the benefits of having shelled out big dollars two seasons ago. If it's instead the erratic mystery of former Cardinal prospect Rick Ankiel, Baker might want to get a quick look at the kid with a bat in his hands.
The expectations for the Reds are based largely on forecaster attitude. The glass half-full set will see youth and potential and the sudden departure of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder as signs Cincinnati will make a return trip to the Central penthouse. Meanwhile, the glass half-empty crowd will focus on early-season injuries, unproven commodities and a franchise history that's meant no playoffs for all but two of the last 20 seasons. Reality probably resides somewhere in between, but if Latos and Cueto and their youthful cohorts are indeed an asset and the gold glove-tinged defense keeps the unforced errors to a minimum, there's no significant reason why the Reds shouldn't at least be considered among the favorites to contend for the division and at the very least make a strong run at wild-card playoff entry.