CINCINNATI — Same starting five in the rotation. Same back end of the bullpen. Same starting lineup, except for one spot.
On the surface, not much has changed with the Cincinnati Reds, and that’s exactly how they wanted it. The National League Central champions have brought their team back virtually intact for another championship run.
Another division title is only an initial goal for a team that won 97 games last season. They’re looking way beyond that first champagne celebration. Instead, they’ve got their eye on late October and what they hope will be their first World Series title since 1990.
“I want to get to the next round of the playoffs,” second baseman Brandon Phillips said. “I want to start there. Of course the goal every year is to win the ring, but I feel like you’ve got to take steps.”
The Reds have taken huge steps in the past five years, reconfiguring themselves from perennial also-ran to consistent playoff contender. They went nine years without so much as a winning record, and 15 years between playoff appearances before winning the division as an up-and-coming team in 2010.
The Reds got swept in the playoffs by Philadelphia that season, then slipped in 2011 because of injuries. They were back on top last season with a team built for long-term success, but fell in the first round of the playoffs again, this time to the San Francisco Giants in five games after being up 2-0 in the series.
Everything about the offseason has gone into giving Cincinnati a better chance to not only reach the playoffs, but to keep going.
“We’re a team that’s built for now,” general manager Walk Jocketty said. “We’re built to win now.”
The Reds think some modest lineup tweaking could make them a bit better. One of their weaknesses for years has been the lack of a leadoff hitter, which forced manager Dusty Baker to use Phillips and others in the top spot.
They got Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians to replace Drew Stubbs, who struck out too much. Choo could be a short-term fix, with Billy Hamilton — who set a minor-league record with 155 steals last season — playing center field and batting leadoff for triple-A Louisville this season.
The other change is at third base, where Todd Frazier gets the job full-time in place of Scott Rolen, who decided not to return for another season. Frazier filled in at both corner infield positions when Rolen and Joey Votto were hurt, and ended up third in NL Rookie of the Year voting after batting .273 with 19 homers and 67 RBI.
Cincinnati thinks the offense will be even better with Votto healthy from the start. The former NL MVP suffered torn cartilage in his left knee while sliding on June 29 and needed two operations. Votto missed 48 games and clearly lacked power upon his return. He homered in spring training, though, an indication his knee is fully healed.
Votto’s first significant injury has given him a different outlook.
“People’s injuries resonate with me more because of my experience,” he said. “It probably made me a better teammate.”
The Reds got through last season with all five starting pitchers healthy and were the only team in the majors that used as few as six starters — they had to call one up for a doubleheader. The streak of good luck ended when Johnny Cueto suffered pulled muscles in his side during the first inning of the opening playoff game in San Francisco, leaving Cincinnati’s pitching plans in flux for the rest of the series.
Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake each made 30 or more starts last season. Bailey in particular showed improvement, throwing a late-season no-hitter in Pittsburgh. All are back and healthy.
The Reds’ biggest decision in spring training involved the closer’s spot. They got hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman ready to make a long-awaited transition to the rotation, with Jonathan Broxton available to finish off games, but the left-hander expressed a preference to keep closing.
Chapman had 38 saves after moving into the role in May, converting a club-record 27 in a row even though he had never been a closer. He will have a better feel for the role this season.
“I have a lot of years ahead,” Chapman said. “I’m happy to be the closer now.”
AT A GLANCE
CF Shin-Soo Choo
2B Brandon Phillips
1B Joey Votto
LF Ryan Ludwick
RF Jay Bruce
3B Todd Frazier
SS Zack Cozart
C Ryan Hanigan
OF Chris Heisey
IF Cesar Isturis
IF Jack Hannahan
C Devin Mesoraco
OF Xavier Paul
RHP Johnny Cueto
RHP Mat Latos
RHP Bronson Arroyo
RHP Homer Bailey
RHP Mike Leake
LHP Aroldis Chapman
LHP Sean Marshall
RHP Jonathan Broxton
Record: 97-65 (first, NL Central)
Batting average: .251 (ninth, NL)
Runs: 669 (ninth, NL)
Home runs: 172 (third, NL)
ERA: 3.34 (tied second, NL)
Saves: 56 (first, NL)
Attendance: 2,347,251 (10th, NL)