I know, I know, it's only the first-game of a very long season, played only partially with the expected regulars, but some very obvious themes emerged from the Cincinnati Reds first Spring Training game.
The Reds took down the Cleveland Indians 8-3, a team that is no average foe, but it was the way they did it that forecasts some interesting storylines.
Here are 9 themes for the Reds that you can expect to follow as Spring Training rolls on:
1. Billy Hamilton's first at bat was 9 pitches long, and he drew a walk. Looking at his stats in AAA (and to some extent AA), Hamilton's on-base percentage never screamed "battle at the plate" (A measly .308 in AAA). And it wasn't that the opposing pitcher, Trevor Bauer, was throwing him junk either, Hamilton was actively fouling off pitches too close to take, but not close enough to get a handle on it. Watching Hamilton last year, you didn't get a sense of that "smart" bat speed, but he sure did show it, pardon the pun, right off the bat. If that's the Hamilton that represents the Reds from the lead-off position, fans will forget we ever had Shin-Soo Choo. Combine this sense of patience with his game-altering speed, and Hamilton is going to score a lot.
2. Joey Votto can hit a fastball. This is a "no duh" kind of theme, but with the way Votto struggled with RBIs last year, it sure was good to see him send one straight back into the outfield when it counted in the 3rd inning. This theme hinges on Hamilton's ability to get on base, because if it gets to Votto and he is still on first or second, pitchers have to throw fastballs to keep Hamilton where he is. That's good news for Joey's numbers.
3. Jay Bruce is the most improved player in the MLB the past five years. There, it has been said. The way he has increased his patience and sharpened his eye at the plate has been the best asset the Reds have developed since he came up with them six years ago. Every year, there are more and more pitches just outside the zone that he takes and the thought crops up "He would have swung at that last year." Don't write him off to contend for MVP this year behind Votto (Dusty Baker haters rejoice! A lefty-lefty lineup!).
4. Ryan Ludwick is officially healthy. The few times he appeared at the plate and jaunting out in the field, he looked strong, confident and ready to get back to every day baseball. You could tell at the end of last year there was something holding him back, but his RBI single in the 3rd showed he's back. At the 5th spot in the lineup, Ludwick is a deadly weapon to finish off a big inning from the first four.
5. Chris Heisey wants it. Heisey is in a "make or break" year in his career with the Reds. While Hamilton is the front-runner (pun intended) for the center field position, Heisey showed up to camp stronger than he has looked in year's past, and his home run Wednesday that he took an inside fastball and absolutely crushed it gave Bryan Price something to think about. Heisey never did well as a consistent starter, but you can bet him and Hamilton will split time throughout Spring Training, and he just may be able to prove his worth.
6. Skip Schumaker does too. Skip has fallen from grace after superstar-caliber seasons from 2007-2009 with the Cardinals, but you can tell he wants to hit the reset button with Cincinnati, and get back to that form. He scored twice in the game against the Indians, and picked up a hit of his own. It's guys like these you love to watch in Spring Training, because they want to do it all just like it was October to see more playing time. His chances of a regular slot as Ludwick's off-day replacement are slim with the stacked outfield the Reds have available to them, but he could become Chris Heisey 2.0, as another great threat off the bench in late-game pinch-hit situations.
7. Speaking of all-in, Brandon Phillips' head is in the right place. Despite telling WCPO's Ken Broo that he found out baseball was a business for the first time this offseason, he did echo he's excited to be where he is, and his effort in the field, and on his head-first slide into second base (something he only did XXX times last year) gives a good sign as to his commitment level to this team.
8. Zack Cozart is still the man at shortstop. Despite questions about his offense from last year, he is one of the top 5 defensive players at his position. He made an incredible throw look easy on a ground ball through the hole that showed off his often-overlooked arm strength. Cozart did pick up a hit also, and with his new spot in the lineup, the pressure should be off, allowing him to relax into hot streaks throughout the year.
9. The pitching depth is still there. Alfredo Simon was the only regular Cincinnati Reds pitcher who appeared Wednesday, and the staff still held a very formidable Indians offense to only three runs. Fans have known for years that the Reds have a top 5 pitching staff, but what might not be evident is the depth in the minors. The Reds are giving Simon a chance to find
a spot in the starting rotation (although unlikely so long as Tony Cingrani continues his corner-painting magic), but there are open spots in the bullpen for any and all to be considered for. Unfortunately for late call-up Curtis Partch, he struggled down the stretch in 2013, and did so against the Indians giving up a run, but many of the other men who took the mound Wednesday made their case to take a spot in GABP's bullpen. An eye is to be kept on who can round out the pitching staff into the regular season, and it's promising to see such active young arms that would seem to fit well regardless of the name on the jersey.
Yes, it's only one game, with limited playing time and limited talent of opponents, but don't expect these themes to go anywhere once the real competition starts.