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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Reds camp report: Fruitful winter has Reds eyeing NL Central title

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The Reds are hoping a more relaxed Joey Votto might return to MVP form this season. (AP)  
The Reds are hoping a more relaxed Joey Votto might return to MVP form this season. (AP)  

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Few organizations not printing their own money had better winters than the Cincinnati Reds. General manager Walt Jocketty hit it out of the park.

He dealt for a top-of-the-rotation-type starter in Mat Latos. Turned the bullpen from very good to potentially great by adding Ryan Madson, who fell into his lap when the closer's talks with the Phillies imploded, and trading for setup lefty Sean Marshall. Picked up a down-and-out slugger, Ryan Ludwick, whose bat has an excellent chance of rebounding in Cincinnati's hitterish ballpark.

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Add all this to 2010 MVP Joey Votto, three-time Gold Glove winner Brandon Phillips, eight-time Gold Glove winner and seven-time All-Star Scott Rolen, one outfielder who walloped 32 homers last year (Jay Bruce) and another who stole 40 bags (Drew Stubbs) and a starting pitcher who earned a World Series ring a few years ago (Bronson Arroyo), and the Reds are loaded.

Remove Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder from the division, and the NL Central is there for the taking.

Now, here's the part that is utterly fascinating about a team aggressively trying to regain the throne it abdicated in 2011:

The Reds are depending on rookies at two of the most critical positions on the diamond.

No, the new shortstop isn't Zac Efron -- it's Zack Cozart.

Behind the plate, popping up like a groundhog, is Devin Mesoraco ... from, yes, Punxsutawney, Pa.

Cozart, 26, Cincinnati's second-round pick in 2007, has the unique (and unfortunate) distinction of having had Tommy John ligament transfer surgery on his non-throwing elbow. Recalled last July to give the Reds' lineup a boost, he lasted all of 11 games before his season ended July 23 when his left arm was caught on the wrong end of a Nate McLouth slide on a play at second.

"Ebony and ivory, that's what we are," Phillips says of his new double-play partner. Then, beginning to laugh uproariously, he adds: "We're like Ike and Tina Turner. I'm Ike. He's Tina."

Yes, so far, so good with these two this spring.

Fantasy Writer
Breakout ... Homer Bailey, SP: It has been almost five years since Homer Bailey first arrived as a highly-touted minor-league call-up, and he still has yet to fulfill much of his lofty promise. While Bailey's performance has been spotty, persistent shoulder troubles have been the 25-year-old's biggest obstacle to progress. The Reds have been conservative with Bailey and the team hopes that their caution will pay off this season. If he can stay healthy, Bailey has an excellent chance for a breakout season, as he has made steady improvements in his pitch selection, control and efficiency. Though he may go undrafted in many mixed leagues, Bailey could be one of this year's top post-hype sleepers.
Sleeper ... Zack Cozart, SS: Devin Mesoraco projects to be the more impactful player over the long run, but Zack Cozart will make more noise in 2012. If he can build on the gap power that he displayed in Triple-A last season, Cozart just might hit in the .280s. With regular playing time, Cozart is a safe bet to hit double digits in homers, possibly getting as many as 15. The Reds have a bevy of infielders on their roster, but the biggest impediment to playing time for Cozart is his ability to come back from Tommy John surgery quickly. He should play all or most of the regular season and is worth drafting with a late-round pick in standard mixed leagues. -- Al Melchior
Depth Chart | Reds outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

Mesoraco, 23, the Reds' first-round pick in '07, is universally rated as the club's top prospect and is the reason the Reds let veteran Ramon Hernandez walk after last season.

"He's worked really hard to get where he's at," Jocketty says. "But Ryan Hanigan is here, too. I think that tandem will be equal to what we had with Hernandez: Good offense and good defense."

Wise baseball men going all the way back to Sparky Anderson and beyond always have maintained that championship teams must be strong up the middle.

Even with two greenhorns there, the reason this has every chance to work is because the Reds are so set everywhere else on the diamond. Really, if there ever is a perfect setting in which to break in, this is it.

"This is the situation you hope for," manager Dusty Baker says. "It's difficult in the beginning if you have a whole bunch of guys out there like that. They end up usually taking their lumps, and then if they're strong enough as a unit they get stronger at some point in time and get very good."

Preferable to that, Baker says, is to break in one or two guys at a time.

"These are the kind of teams I've always liked," Baker says. "Some veterans, some rookies, a mesh of both. So the older players can give them wisdom and knowledge and the younger players can give them some energy."

Back in Baker's playing days, his Dodgers produced four consecutive NL Rookies of the Year between 1979 and 1983: pitchers Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Howe and Fernando Valenzuela and second baseman Steve Sax.

"We had veterans, and then we'd bring in a rookie and another rookie and another rookie and next thing you know, in three or four years, you have four, five, six young guys out there who are no longer rookies," Baker says. "But they're young, and experienced."

If Cozart or Mesoraco is in position to win the rookie award come November, the Reds will be in pretty good shape.

If both are in position to win it, the Reds will be in great shape.

Because playing behind the dish can be so brutal, Baker and Jocketty both say Hanigan will get plenty of playing time. Nobody around the Reds is expecting Mesoraco to become Johnny Bench in one summer. But he's got a good bat and decent power. Works hard at handling pitchers, has a fairly strong and accurate arm and is reasonably agile behind the plate.

Like Cozart, Mesocaro knows he's in the right place at the right time.

"In the past, it was more come into spring training and show them what I can do, try to impress," Mesoraco says. "Now, my objective is just to get ready for the season April 5. Hopefully be in Cincinnati and help them win."

This is the third big-league camp for Cozart, who has been in Goodyear all winter rehabbing his surgically repaired elbow. Even though the injury ruined his 2011 season, he's grateful for the 11 games he did play in Cincinnati.

"It wasn't fun, obviously, getting hurt, but I look at it in a positive way," Cozart says. "I got some experience under my belt."

A native of Memphis, Tenn., Cozart grew up idolizing Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and rooting for Cincinnati's bitter rivals, the Cardinals.

"I hate to say it, but my dad was a big Cardinals fan," says Cozart, who has played shortstop his entire life. "Now he's a big Reds fan."

Baker says there really is nothing he needs to see from either rookie this spring, other than them staying healthy. They've served their apprenticeships. It's time.

"Whether people believe it or not, I've given many kids an opportunity to play, pass or fail," Baker says. "Most pass. Some fail. Some have to go back and then come back. I was young once. I had an opportunity at a very young age to play."

As Baker notes, baseball isn't a game "where you can draft a LeBron James and make an immediate impact on your team." Rarely is there instant gratification.

"It takes a while for your draft choices to get there," Baker says. "To decide who you're going to keep, who you're going to trade. And then once you build it, if you do things correctly, you have a chance to sustain it for a while.

"Like I said when I came here, the hope was to build this thing and be good for a long period of time."

With Cozart and Mesoraco on the launching pad, the Reds are on the verge of doing exactly that.

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