Funny how one line drive can change a lot of things.
Up until a March 19 spring game with the Kansas City Royals, the Cincinnati Reds were perceived consistently among the cognoscenti: solid team, a few all- star caliber players, but one - after two straight impotent playoff appearances in 2012 and 2013 - that needed to hold all talking until October.
In the immediate aftermath of that exhibition with the Royals, however, the consensus that another postseason re-do is an automatic has been significantly impacted.
When closer Aroldis Chapman was drilled by a comebacker after Kansas City's Salvador Perez turned on a 99 mph fastball and left him in a writhing heap on the Arizona mound, the immediate question marks about Chapman's health and long-term prospects became significant items on the Reds priority list and the team's out-of-the-gate ability to do without him became instantly magnified.
Initial diagnoses veered from facial lacerations and contusions all the way to bone fractures, which, in either case, will put fellow relievers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall - who combined for just 50 appearances in 2013 thanks to their own sets of injuries - on the spot to finish games until his return.
Broxton had significant closing experience prior to a late-2012 trade that brought him to the Reds, including a 36-save season for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009. Marshall has had a prolonged stay in the majors as a left- handed setup man, but has saved 16 games in 322 career relief appearances.
Elsewhere on the field, the pieces seem a little more certain for first-year manager Bryan Price, who was elevated from pitching coach upon the exit of veteran skipper Dusty Baker.
Perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto is back at first base after hitting .305 with 24 home runs and 75 runs batted in last season, in which he played 162 games after being held to only 111 a season earlier. He was the National League's MVP in 2010 and has been among the top-15 vote-getters for the award in every season since, including a sixth-place standing after 2013.
Slugging right fielder Jay Bruce got some MVP love of his own, finishing 10th in the voting, after reaching the 30-homer plateau for the third straight season and driving in a career-best 109 runs. He'll presumably be helped by the full-time return of left fielder Ryan Ludwick, who played just 38 games last season after a banner 2012 in which he hit 26 homers and drove in 80 runs.
Center field is finally the domain of minor-league base-stealing sensation Billy Hamilton after Shin-Soo Choo signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers. The youngster swiped 13 bases in 13 games with the Reds last season and had 395 steals in 502 games across six stops in the minors. If he hits - he batted .368 in the brief audition last summer - the Reds won't miss Choo nearly as much.
2013 FINISH (90-72) - Third Place (NL Central, lost wild-card game to Pittsburgh)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Skip Schumaker (OF/2B), Brayan Pena (C)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Bronson Arroyo (P), Shin-Soo Choo (CF), Ryan Hanigan (C)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Billy Hamilton (CF), Brandon Phillips (2B), Joey Votto (1B), Jay Bruce (RF), Ryan Ludwick (LF), Todd Frazier (3B), Devin Mesoraco (C), Zack Cozart (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Johnny Cueto (RHP), Mat Latos (RHP), Homer Bailey (RHP), Mike Leake (RHP), Tony Cingrani (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jonathan Broxton (RHP)
MANAGER: Bryan Price
WILL THE ROTATION MISS BRONSON ARROYO?
He didn't compete for Cy Young awards and he wasn't a fixture on All-Star teams, but Key West-born righty Bronson Arroyo was just as valuable during an eight-year stint with the Reds in which he won double-digit games six times, never made fewer than 32 starts and never pitched fewer than 199 innings. His spot will be taken by lefty Tony Cingrani (7-4, 2.92, 120 strikeouts in 104 2/3 innings), who pitched well enough while filling in for an injured Johnny Cueto to convince the team it was OK to let Arroyo walk as a free agent. If Cingrani can translate those numbers to a full year as a full-timer, the decision to set the 37-year-old, who was sidelined in spring training with back problems, will look even better.
WILL HOMER BAILEY PITCH TO THE CONTRACT?
Right-hander Homer Bailey was a No. 1 draft choice in 2004, signed right out of high school and was immediately portrayed as the next big thing in Reds- land. Instead, he struggled mightily for five seasons and didn't hit double- digits in wins or get his ERA below 4.00 until going 13-10 with a 3.68 in 2012. He won another 11 games last season while paring the ERA to 3.49 in 32 starts, and, perhaps fueled by the two no-hitters he's thrown in the last two years, the Reds locked him up for the long term with a six-year deal worth in excess of $100 million. Guys who make that sort of money do it with elevated expectations, so it's clear the front office is expecting Bailey to graduate from solid No. 3 behind Cueto and Mat Latos to a legitimate No. 1 option that'll make the Reds staff among the best in the majors. If he does, Walt Jocketty will look prudent. If not, it's a contract that'll follow him for a long time.
WHICH BRANDON PHILLIPS WILL APPEAR?
He's been a fixture at second base in Cincinnati since the Reds pilfered him from Cleveland, but the vibe surrounding Brandon Phillips throughout 2013 was a curious one. He seemed likely to be shipped out during the offseason after his batting average continued a plummet to .261 last season after reaching .300 in 2012, but he's in the fold in Arizona this spring after no deals were struck and he's got four years remaining on a 2012 contract that'll pay him $50 million through the end of 2017. Other issues aside, he's still a quality all-around player, as evidenced by a fourth Gold Glove in 2013, a home run total that's locked at 18 for four straight seasons and an RBI count that rose to a career-best 103.
X-FACTOR: CHAPMAN'S HEALTH
In past seasons, the Cuban-born closer has been a preseason X-factor thanks to a lingering feeling that he'd be better utilized as a starter. This season, as mentioned earlier, it'll center around his health. Even if he emerges from the line-drive incident with a clean bill of health, a mental hurdle will remain when he retakes the mound, particularly because his near triple-digit fastballs will often yield the same types of liners that took him down against the Royals. On paper, Broxton and Marshall, along with middle men J.J. Hoover, Alfredo Simon and Sam LeCure, seem capable of handling the roles in Chapman's absence, but it'll be compelling to see how it all comes together if he is either out for a while or struggles upon returning.
Going into a season with a perception that your biggest flaw is postseason performance isn't such a bad thing. The Reds have largely the same makeup as they did when winning the NL's Central Division by nine games in 2012, and they'll have their ace starter, Cueto, back this season after he made just 11 starts for a team that won 90 games in 2013. When he was healthy in 2012, the Reds won 97 times, so it's no stretch to think approaching that number and concentrating on playoff improvement - assuming the bullpen stays solid - is a legitimate expectation for this time around.