Contention a possibility for new-look Reds

Jeff Neal

If you grew up in central and southern Ohio, you know that today is truly a holiday.

It's like Christmas in April, complete with all the fun and pageantry.

It's the opening day of the baseball season in Cincinnati, complete with parades, lots of food and lots (and lots) of beer.

And for the first time in nearly two decades, there is reason for some serious optimism for those of us who have waited patiently for the clock to roll back to the mid-70s when our Reds ruled Major League Baseball.

As a new century began in 2000, people in Reds Country were thrilled when Ken Griffey Jr. came to the Reds in a blockbuster offseason trade. One local columnist (ahem, yep guilty) called Griffey the "Michael Jordan of baseball" and predicted the move would catapult Cincinnati into immediate contention. Instead, Junior stayed banged up during his tenure in Cincinnati and never sniffed the postseason in a Reds uniform.

Since then the Reds have been mired in mediocrity, save a season or two under Dusty Baker when the Reds put a solid team together and challenged for the NL pennant. But Dusty never could get over the hump and the window closed quickly after a postseason collapse against the eventual World Champion Giants in 2012.

The last few years have been a collective nightmare. But, finally, the Reds have shaken off those small-market blues and are spending some serious cash to get competitive again.

Gone is cardboard cutout manager Bryan Price, who presided over three throwaway seasons in Cincy. Replacing him is young David Bell, who has deep roots in Cincinnati -- his grandfather, Gus, was an All-Star outfielder in the 50s, while his father, Buddy, patrolled third base for the Reds in the 80s. I'm also excited about the addition of David Bell's two bench captains -- pitching coach Derek Johnson and hitting coach Turner Ward.

Ward came over from the Dodgers, where he helped build a solid offense. And joining him via trade are two former Dodger mainstays -- outfielders Yasiel Plug and veteran Matt Kemp. There's no question Kemp will lend leadership to a crowded Reds outfield where he will likely platoon with young rising star Jesse Winker.

Plug tore it up in the spring, and is a MVP caliber player if his attitude is right. He appears set to have a big season in Cincinnati. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

The Reds will miss speedy center fielder Billy Hamilton's Golden Glove-caliber defense. But his on-base percentage was a mediocre .298, which negated his propensity to swipe bases. He will be replaced out of the gate by Scott Schebler, who swatted 30 home runs in 2017.

The rest of the Reds' offensive attack is solid. First baseman Joey Votto, third baseman Eugenio Suarez and second baseman Scooter Gennett form an impressive threesome, although Gennett will start the year on the disabled list.

But the biggest improvement on the Reds roster is in the starting pitching rotation, where they secured Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood in offseason acquisitions. Gray is a former All-Star and Roark (3.66) and Wood (3.29) have excellent career ERA. Wood, however, has a bad back and, like Gennett, will begin the season on the shelf.

Realistically, it will be tough for the Reds to win the National League Central. It's one of baseball's best divisions. But if we can get our injury bug cured early in the season and if all the key components chip in with big years, contention is a real possibility.

And that's what we're starved for in Reds Country.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Contact him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.