CINCINNATI -- When Reds manager Dusty Baker picks up the phone to call the bullpen this season, there is a good chance he is going to like the options available to him on the other end. Cincinnati is in go-for-it mode to try and take the National League Central, and general manager Walt Jocketty has backed up that feeling with action. When upgrading the roster, Jocketty did not cut corners on an area that isn't particularly glamorous, but quite important -- relief pitching. In December, the Reds parted with three young players -- including starter Travis Wood -- to acquire lefty setup man Sean Marshall from the Cubs. In January, Jocketty pulled off one of the best free-agent steals of the winter by getting closer Ryan Madson at a bargain price.
"With the additions of Madson and Marshall, it has strengthened our bullpen," Jocketty said. "Our needs for pitching were addressed." The Reds' bullpen, which has the opportunity to be one of the strongest in the NL, has little in the way of job vacancies as Spring Training opens in Arizona on Sunday. But it's still a group that has room for improvement after ranking ninth in the NL with a 3.55 ERA last season. Although the Reds were 60-6 when leading after seven innings, this was a staff that created some of its own messes. Reds relievers were tied for first in the league in walks (227) and were first in the Majors with nine balks. The Reds were outscored by an 80-58 margin in the eighth inning and opposing hitters batted .234, which ranked seventh out of 16 teams in the NL. Madson, 31, is five years younger than his predecessor, Francisco Cordero, and averages more strikeouts. Last season, Madson's strikeouts-per-nine innings was 9.2, while Cordero was at 5.4 While nailing down 32 saves in 34 chances for the Phillies last season, Madson posted a 2.37 ERA with 16 walks and 62 strikeouts. His services will cost the Reds only $6 million in 2012, with $2 million of that deferred without interest. There is a $2.5 million buyout on a $13 million mutual option for 2013. Cordero earned $12 million in 2011. Setting up for Madson is holdover Nick Masset from the right side and the incoming Marshall from the left. Marshall, 29, demonstrated he was one of the best in the game over the past two seasons with a 2.45 ERA in 158 appearances. Masset was inconsistent in 2011, going 3-6 with a 3.71 ERA in 75 games, his third-straight season of at least 74 appearances. The thinking is that the club can better pick its spots with Masset, who was signed to a two-year, $5.5 million contract last month, making him more effective with less use. Another strong lefty setup choice is Bill Bray, who is coming off his best year with a 2.98 ERA and a club-leading 79 appearances that ranked second in the NL. Assuming that Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price go with a seven-man bullpen, the battle for the remaining three spots could be fierce among several right-handers. Logan Ondrusek, Sam LeCure and Jose Arredondo are all returning from last season. Ondrusek, in his first full season, enjoyed a 29-game stretch with a stingy 0.68 ERA before a strained right forearm put him on the disabled list in August. LeCure, a converted starter, had a nice beginning to his career as a middle reliever and showed some poise in occasionally tough late-inning situations. Arredondo was prone to walks (31 in 53 innings) but was in his first season back from 2010 Tommy John surgery. Jordan Smith, who was sent down to Triple-A Louisville early last season, will also be back to compete. Adding to the mix are hometown Moeller High School product and former Yankees first-rounder Andrew Brackman, who signed as a free agent, and Josh Judy, a waiver-wire pickup from the Indians. Lefties Ron Mahay and Clay Zavada will be in camp on Minor League deals, trying to impress as well. Anyone from this latter group would have to enjoy an exceptional spring to unseat one of the incumbents. Not mentioned is a potential X factor in Aroldis Chapman. The Reds are moving forward with plans to have Chapman compete for a rotation spot, but one has to wonder if the club would be tempted to use him in the bullpen. With the Reds' rotation still a relatively young group, which now includes 24-year-old new acquisition Mat Latos, a strong bullpen can reduce the need for starters to always go deep. A sturdy bridge between the starters and Madson would shorten games and preserve victories. It would also keep the Reds in games if they are trailing. Assuming there aren't many wrong numbers dialed to the improved bullpen, the Reds have another reason to believe they can connect to a line as postseason contenders.