Walt Jocketty mentioned the other day that it appears the Reds are prepared to start the season with the current roster. I feel that means third place at best. Your opinion?
-- Neal B., Silver Grove, Ky.
I understand Reds fans' frustration throughout the winter, especially after last season's bad ending and an offseason that has been far from scintillating, exciting or thrilling. At the same time, look at the aggressive moves that were made last year and the final outcome. It shows that the games still have to be played and you can't assume anything. The losses of Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo can't simply be brushed off, but doom and gloom can't be assumed, either. The 2012 Reds lacked a successful leadoff hitter and managed to bang out 97 wins and a division title. Billy Hamilton is still not a proven player, but in the leadoff spot this year, he could add a type of speed not seen in the Majors for quite some time.
The Cardinals have had a very nice offseason of shoring up holes, but they also lost Carlos Beltran. The Pirates arguably had a worse offseason than the Reds -- losing Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd (and likely A.J. Burnett), while signing only Edinson Volquez. Pittsburgh will have to count on everyone in its rotation -- likely minus Burnett -- to have career years again. The Brewers are an X-factor of sorts in they got Ryan Braun back, but how will he respond after a 65-game performance-enhancing-drug suspension in 2013? Matt Garza should improve their rotation, but it still lacks depth. The Cubs again have much rebuilding to do.
The Reds still have a good strong core of starting pitching and position players to be very competitive in the National League Central. All teams' fortunes are also predicated somewhat on having good health, something Cincinnati certainly lacked in 2013. It's a little too early for me to make a prediction, but I don't sense an abysmal year ahead.
Do you think losing Ryan Hanigan will affect the pitching staff?
-- Jon S., Worthington, Ky.
I'm sure it will somewhat, but business and catcher Devin Mesoraco's readiness had to trump the concern for the staff when the Reds traded Hanigan to the Rays in December. Anytime there is change, there is an adjustment period. However, that period should be expedited, since Mesoraco has experience working with all of the pitchers on the staff. He's also matured and improved behind the plate greatly during last season. Mat Latos liked working with him, and starters like Homer Bailey or Johnny Cueto should be able to adjust. The club also added an experienced backup in Brayan Pena, about whom I've heard good things. I would imagine that Pena will also be an asset.
How do you think that Bryan Price's management style will be different than Dusty Baker's?
-- Ed C., Lynchburg, Ohio
It's hard to say, because everything is still in theory until the 2014 Reds actually take the field. I think the changes will largely be subtle, at least in the beginning. Baker did a good job for the Reds in his six seasons, and he deserves credit for his part in getting the team competitive again. But Price will have a different voice and probably a somewhat different approach. I could see him experimenting with the lineup a little bit and incorporating a little more advanced statistical analysis into his decision-making.
Like Baker, Price likely won't take up issues with players in public very often, and he will hold players accountable from within the clubhouse rather than demonstratively on the field. He can come across as mild-mannered, but with his communication skills, he can also get his point across to a player very effectively and light proverbial fires under behinds when needed. With the new video replay challenge rules going into effect in 2014, you probably won't see Price run onto the field to argue, scream or yell at umpires about bad calls too often. But that could be a change for all Major League managers this season.
Outfielder Donald Lutz seems to have lost his place on the prospects list, though he remains on the 40-man roster. What is the read on him?
-- Bob V., Middlesboro, Ky.
I don't think Lutz has lost his place nor has he a diminished outlook. He was called up essentially in an emergency and was pressed into big service from Double-A before he was ready. At first, he had some success, but his lack of experience vs. big league pitching eventually caught up. Lutz needs more at-bats, and he got some this winter in Mexico and will get more at Spring Training and probably Triple-A. I can envision Lutz returning to the big leagues later this year if he keeps improving and a spot opens.
What about working out a deal for Ichiro?
-- Mark C., Beattyville, Ky.
Ichiro is 40 years old, is owed $6.5 million from the Yankees this season and is limited to corner outfield spots. That's just not happening for the Reds.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.