CINCINNATI -- How much longer?
That's the question on the minds of many Cincinnati Reds fans going into the 2017 season. While most pundits agree the Reds still are a year or two away from being reasonably close to wrapping up their rebuilding process, there are a few pieces of the puzzle that should fit better this summer.
For one thing, the everyday lineup is pretty much set now that the club dealt Brandon Phillips to the Atlanta Braves and handed the second base job to talented prospect Jose Peraza. It's still possible that shortstop Zack Cozart could be traded, which would open up the position for 23-year old Dilson Herrera. There is not much suspense left in the batting order.
Center fielder Billy Hamilton is coming off a breakout year offensively. Left fielder Adam Duvall was a National League All-Star who hit 33 home runs and drove in 103 runs in his first full season in Cincinnati. And, Joey Votto was, well, Joey Votto, hitting .408 after the All-Star break.
The Reds' rebuild focuses mostly on young pitching, and if you trust the scouting reports, they have an abundance of quality arms.
Over the past two seasons, rookies started 166 of 324 games for Cincinnati, including a club-record 110 in 2015. And, there are several young arms that could crack the rotation this season, including left-handers Amir Garrett and Cody Reed, who's coming off a rough major league debut last year but had a strong spring.
Heading into the final week of spring training, as many as seven pitchers were vying for three spots in the rotation, a testament to the Reds' pitching depth and how they performed in the spring.
"I'm not looking at 2017 to be a replay of 2016, because we say it's a rebuild," manager Bryan Price told MLB.com. "I'm looking for 2017 to be a significant improvement over 2016. In order to do that, you have to have pitching depth in the rotation and bullpen. I think we've satisfied some of those issues we had last year. Now we have to stay healthy."
That's been an issue. Cincinnati's retooling process might be further along if it hadn't been for injuries. In the past three seasons, 36 different players have made 57 separate appearances on the disabled list. That streak of bad luck will extend into this season.
Right-hander Homer Bailey, who signed a six-year, $105 million contract in 2014, will begin the year on the DL again after undergoing forearm and elbow surgeries last year. Raisel Iglesias who could be the club's future closer, came down with back issues and a sore elbow late in spring training. Anthony DeSclafani, the projected Opening Day starter, will begin the season on the DL and catcher Devin Mesoraco is being brought along slowly after hip and shoulder injuries limited him to just 16 games in 2016.
Due to injuries, 34-year old veteran right-hander Scott Feldman will get the start on Opening Day, a move more out of necessity than one intended to be part of the grand plan. That said, Feldman has made two prior Opening Day starts: in 2010 for Texas and 2014 for Houston.
"His experience and the way he commands the strike zone, I think really makes him the best candidate," Price told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "He's exactly the guy we were looking for and targeted -- a veteran guy with presence that commands the zone and has a veteran savvy that will serve us well. That will work well in an Opening Day environment."
If the pitching holds up and the club can get healthy, the Reds could surprise some folks by improving on last year's 94-loss performance. It won't be easy.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle confronting Cincinnati in its quest for contention is the NL Central itself. The defending world champion Chicago Cubs have a core of young players locked up for the foreseeable future. The St. Louis Cardinals are perennial contenders.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers are trying to beat Cincinnati to the finish line with rebuilds of their own, but the Reds still have 19 games each against the Cubs and the rival Cardinals. Not an easy task.
Price and the entire coaching staff were brought back for 2017, but beyond that is anyone's guess. Dick Williams, who assumed the general manager's chair in taking over for Walt Jocketty, will want to see improvement in his first season at the helm.
"The last couple of years, we were preaching that we would have to make tough decisions, trade players, restock the system," Williams told MLB.com. "I think people are starting to see the fruits of that labor. We're starting to get some of these exciting young players opportunities. This year, we'll learn about what those guys can do."