Questions remain as Reds camp nears end

Questions remain as Reds camp nears end

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Wednesday marked the lone off-day of Spring Training for the Reds. When they get back to work on Thursday, it will be the final stretch of camp, and the decision-making process for the club will really accelerate.

Some of the question marks coming into camp have been answered, while others remain.

"I didn't have a bunch of questions," manager Dusty Baker said. "We still have to get [Bill] Bray, [Ryan] Madson and [Nick] Masset together. That didn't start out as a question. Sometimes things develop into a question."

The bullpen is expected to be a major strength of the club, but it has missed its back end for much of camp. Masset, the right-handed setup man, just returned from a sore shoulder on Tuesday after not pitching since March 7, and he should be back on track. There is optimism that Madson, the new closer who had irritation in his right elbow, can be ready for Opening Day. Bray, who missed time with a groin strain, is cautiously optimistic he can be ready. Both Madson and Bray will see action in a Minor League game on Friday.

Third baseman Scott Rolen, one of the biggest keys to the team, was limited to only 65 games last season because of left shoulder surgery. Rolen struggled with a .242 average before being shut down for the year in late July.

This spring, not only has Rolen shown that he's healthy, but he's looked very good swinging the bat and playing the field. Through 11 games, the 36-year-old is batting .333 (8-for-24) with one home run and five RBIs.

Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price have a pretty good idea of what their rotation will be, especially on the back end. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey have combined to allowed three earned runs over 20 innings in their last five games.

No one is saying yet what is next for lefty Aroldis Chapman, who appears to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the rotation. Especially if Bray is not ready to open the season, Baker would not mind having Chapman and his fastball velocity in the big league bullpen. However, conventional wisdom seems to favor having Chapman go to Triple-A Louisville to keep working as a starter.

Two of the most important defensive positions on the team, shortstop and catcher, will have rookies in the lineup a significant amount of time this season. At shortstop, Zack Cozart has only solidified his standing as a regular player, batting .419 (13-for-31) this spring while playing strong defense. At catcher, Devin Mesoraco has yet to get going offensively, as he's batting only .136 (3-for-22). Mesoraco will likely split time with veteran Ryan Hanigan.

Competition remains hot for the final bench spots, including the so-called 25th man. Utility man Miguel Cairo is locked in comfortably.

Wilson Valdez, Willie Harris, Todd Frazier, Juan Francisco and Paul Janish are among those in the hunt for the extra spot. With four homers and a .281 average, Frazier has been the most impressive, and he can play every infield spot and the corner outfield spots.

Francisco, once figured to be a near-lock because he was out of options, could back up Rolen at third base and has booming left-handed power, but he has only hurt his chances. Francisco came to camp overweight and injured after not getting proper rehab on a strained right calf. Through 12 games, he's batting only .172. If Francisco is not retained, that could help Harris, since the Reds would need a lefty hitter for the bench.

Since the club wants a true shortstop to back up Cozart, either Valdez or Janish figure to be in the running. Valdez is out of options, while Janish is not.

"These are very important positions on your team," Baker said. "We don't have a whole bunch of time to make up our minds. As usual, these final cuts are definitely the toughest ones."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.