Narron: Not for me, it hasn't. We just haven't had the players here that do that. We had pretty much been a one-dimensional team. Over the last year, Brandon Phillips came in and was a very athletic guy. Josh Hamilton came in the winter and we already had Ryan Freel -- some very athletic guys. You have to have a combination of both. You can't be an all small-ball team or an all slug-it-out team. We're trying to do that.MLB.com: So you feel like this team is more balanced than the one you had going into last year? Narron: I really feel like we're moving in the right direction that way, yeah. MLB.com: You talked a lot about Aug. 24 last year when the club began fading and everything that went wrong after that. How much do you think the guys that returned have learned from last year? Narron: I hope they learned a great deal. The big thing at that time is we lost [closer] Eddie Guardado. I think our team, psychologically, took a hit from that. We probably had some guys mentally and physically tired going into September. One thing about August last year is we had that one off-day in the middle of the month. It was a grinding month and it took a lot out of us. Hopefully, everybody learned from that. I'm going to try and make sure I keep guys rested, not only physically but mentally. Before the season last year, I was hoping to go into September with some meaningful games to play and we did. MLB.com: Did knowing how close you guys came to getting to the playoffs linger with you personally over the winter? Narron: Yeah, that's something we've talked about all along. Guys aren't going to realize or understand how important one pitch is until you end up going into late September with one game meaning something. You figure out you were one or two games from making the postseason and you look back at not only games, but a pitch here or a pitch there if you played it differently, or how you could have been locked in differently. As a pitcher, hitter or a fielder, you realize how important one pitch is over the course of a season. MLB.com: To this point, has the pairing of Alex Gonzalez and Brandon Phillips in the middle infield make you feel good about how your defense is coming along? Narron: This is my 24th year in the Major Leagues and I still see things that Alex does here in spring that amaze me. He's just an outstanding shortstop. Brandon has a chance to win a Gold Glove at second base. He's very talented and a guy with a lot of range and a great arm. He can be as good as he wants to be. He's that talented. MLB.com: In your mind, what are the team's strengths that could make you a contender?
Narron: Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang at the top of the rotation. Our bullpen with some young guys and some veteran guys. There's a good mix there. A big key will be Dustin Hermanson, if he can close games for us. Kyle Lohse is another key in the middle of the rotation. Brandon Phillips, Alex Gonzalez and Ryan Freel in the middle of the field, defensively. Our defense automatically is better with those three guys. And Josh Hamilton has shown he can play center field. Every outfielder we've got has been a center fielder, so we have a lot of depth in center field.MLB.com: How much has Josh Hamilton been a surprise and how much was expected? Narron: When I first saw him this past December, I knew that he still had the physical tools. The bat speed was outstanding, even in December. The thing that has surprised me more than anything is his plate discipline. He does not look like a guy that has laid off for three years when he steps into the batter's box. He looks very sure of himself. He looks very patient. There's no hurry to his game at all. It gives him a chance to hit. MLB.com: So you would have no trouble putting him in the starting lineup on a given day? Narron: Shoot, I think he has the physical ability that if he struggled early in the season, that he could catch up. He is that talented. MLB.com: Does Hamilton's off-the-field issues present you with a unique challenge? Narron: Not really. If I could see him be successful on the field or off the field, I'd take off the field success for him. I know that he's fully accountable for his past. He wants to help other people in similar situations. I'm very happy right now with where he is with his life. For me, personally, and the challenge of it, I care about every one of these guys on the field and off the field. So that's no different from anyone else. MLB.com: The attention he's gotten this spring will probably quadruple in the regular season, especially the underdog comeback aspect of it. Narron: A lot will depend on how he does on the field. This game is bottom line by how you do on the field. The biggest for him is success off the field, away from the ballpark. MLB.com: This year, as with last year, it seems that your division is wide open. Does that give you more encouragement that the playoffs are there for the taking? Narron: I think everybody here that was here a year ago knows that we can play with anybody. We're not going to be intimidated by anyone in our division. Our division, I think, is the most balanced in baseball. I know everybody is picking us fifth or sixth and I saw this (picks up a copy of the Sports Illustrated baseball preview off his desk). I think it's an outstanding division. Every game is usually close. We didn't miss the postseason by the way we played in our division. We missed it because of the way we played against the National League West in August and September. MLB.com: Do you use bad predictions or low expectations as a motivator? Do you like the underdog role? Narron: I would rather have a $300 million payroll and be picked No. 1, personally (laughing). I could care less how they pick us. They're being objective and picking us on what they see. There's a lot to this game over 162 days. There are a lot of intangibles involved. I know we'll do everything we can do to get 25 guys to work at it, play the game the right way and play it hard. If we can't get 25, we'll get 24. If we can't get 24, we'll get 23. MLB.com: Adam Dunn is a laid-back personality, usually. But he seems to be more dialed in this spring? Narron: For him personally, it's a big year. I know we've got an option on him for next year. If not, he could be a free agent. So it's a huge year for him. I think he understands that his value goes up even more if the Cincinnati Reds want to keep him here. It's a big, big year for him. MLB.com: Was having 140 different lineups last season out of necessity because of changes, injuries and having interchangeable or versatile players? Narron: It was definitely out of necessity. It wasn't that I was trying to do anything special, believe me. I would love to have the same eight guys in there and just write down a different pitcher every night. Players like to know their roles and how they're going to be used. I think they do best when they don't have to worry about being in the lineup or how they're going to be used. MLB.com: Do you feel like the 3-4-5 spots of the rotation will pick you up? Narron: For us to be a contending team, they have to pick us up. It's as simple as that. MLB.com: If they don't, does Homer Bailey get called up? Narron: Homer Bailey has to pitch better than he did this spring. We all want Homer to come here and be a Cy Young Award winner. This spring, he pitched about three times. He's going to go to the Minor Leagues and hopefully, he can make some adjustments, get better and be here. If it's May 1, that would be great. If it's May 1, 2008 or '09, that would be great. We want the best for Homer Bailey.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less