Reds Opening Day outlook

Reds Opening Day outlook

Players need to earn spots in Reds Spring Training and not win them by default.

That was the objective of Cincinnati manager Jerry Narron and new general manager Wayne Krivsky. No one took that mantra more seriously than third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. Although on the inside track coming in over Rich Aurilia, Encarnacion led the club in homers and RBIs this spring and removed any question of his readiness.

Several players were added to the camp roster to increase competition. Battles for some spots went until the final days.

While questions about the pitching staff remain, the club mitigated some concerns by adding former Red Sox right-hander Bronson Arroyo to the rotation through a trade in late March. Opening Day starter Aaron Harang had a strong spring and young pitchers Ryan Wagner, Matt Belisle and Todd Coffey were encouraging from the bullpen.

Now we'll see if everyone can carry their spring success into the regular season.

BATTING ORDER
1. Tony Womack, 2B:
The Reds lineup will be flexible and Womack will likely share this spot with Ryan Freel. Womack's on-base track record isn't spectacular, but he has good speed and will be needed to find ways to set the table.

2. Felipe Lopez, SS:
Coming off a breakout 2005 season, the Reds expect Lopez to pick up where he left off last season.

3. Ken Griffey Jr., CF:
After hitting 35 homers in 2005 and having a strong World Baseball Classic and sharp Spring Training, a healthy Griffey appears poised for a big 2006 season.

4. Adam Dunn, LF:
His tenure at first base proved brief. But there's no reason to believe his run of big offensive numbers will end any time soon.

5. Edwin Encarnacion, 3B:
An offensive juggernaut during Spring Training, let's see if the young Encarnacion can carry this tear into the season. After batting eighth in the order much of last season as a rookie, he should provide better results with better protection.

6. Scott Hatteberg, 1B:
A very late offseason free-agent signing, the Reds hope the veteran's disciplined hitting adds balance to the order. Hatteberg's numbers with Oakland were down in 2005, but he's two seasons removed from the best year of his career.

7. Austin Kearns, RF:
A first-time everyday player, the onus has been placed on Kearns to have a big season and prove he belongs in the lineup on a daily basis.

8. Jason LaRue, C:
The longest-tenured Red will likely miss Opening Day because of a knee injury. LaRue established a career high with 60 RBIs last season while hitting 14 homers. Although the starter, he will combine with Javier Valentin to form one of the league's best hitting and catching tandems.

ROTATION
1. Aaron Harang, RHP:
The most consistent starter on the staff, Harang will be expected to continue working deep into games in 2006.

2. Bronson Arroyo, RHP:
Brought in to bolster a suspect rotation, Arroyo is coming off a 200-inning season and will need to do more of the same to help this staff. But there are questions. He would have been in the bullpen with Boston, so can he take care of the No. 2 role in Cincinnati? How will he handle pitching in Great American Ball Park?

3. Brandon Claussen, LHP:
He proved to be dependable during his first full year in the rotation last season. Now he needs to take the next step.

4. Eric Milton, LHP:
After a disastrous 2005, Milton can pretty much only improve his numbers this season. In the offseason, the lefty said he was able to strengthen his legs for the first time since he had 2003 knee surgery. This could bring more power back to his pitches.

5. Dave Williams, LHP:
Acquired in an unpopular winter trade, Williams will have to prove himself to Cincinnati fans after a shaky Spring Training. He lacks a track record on innings but won 10 games last season for a disappointing Pirates team in 2005.

BULLPEN
The Cincinnati bullpen is without an anchor in the closer role -- it's by committee for now. What it lacks in closers, the staff can at least boast experience. In David Weathers, Kent Mercker, Chris Hammond and Rick White, Cincinnati has four relievers over the age of 35. Weathers, who converted 15 of 19 saves last season after Danny Graves was let go, will likely be the first option -- followed by Mercker. Considered a closer of the future, Todd Coffey has impressed this spring and could emerge down the road. Ryan Wagner had another solid Spring Training, but lacks a track record of carrying success into the regular season. Matt Belisle will work a long/middle relief role.

OPENING DELAYED
LaRue had arthroscopic surgery to repair torn medial meniscus cartilage on March 27. After the procedure, he was expected to miss 10 days to two weeks. But LaRue was optimistic he could be ready by Monday.

Starting pitcher Paul Wilson, who is recovering from June shoulder surgery, will continue his rehabilitation at extended Spring Training after the club heads north. A return date is unknown but Wilson will likely have to go on a Minor League rehab assignment before rejoining the rotation.

Reliever Grant Balfour missed 2005 with the Twins recovering from Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Signed by the Reds in January while also rehabbing from shoulder surgery, Balfour is not expected to pitch in games until this summer.

BURNING QUESTION
Will Reds pitchers be more dependable in 2006 than they were in 2005?

Coming off a season where the pitching staff had the league's highest ERA while allowing the most hits, runs and home runs, Reds arms were largely liabilities. By adding Arroyo and Williams to the rotation, the club hopes to be headed in the right direction, but there are still issues, and general manager Wayne Krivsky likely is not finished looking to add more pitching depth. The rotation still lacks a bona fide ace and there is no established closer in the bullpen. One of the biggest keys could be Milton -- if he can return to the types of performances he once posted in Minnesota, the Reds' chances of being competitive improve greatly.

ON THE RECORD
"You need a player, they're going to go get it. In July or August, they'll go get it -- that's important. If we put them in a position that we can get somebody, we have to make it tough on them. If we make it tough on them, they'll make decisions." -- Griffey, on the Reds' new front office's attempts to improve the club

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.