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Chapman decision sets Reds' hopes in motion

Keeping lefty at closer follows formula that helped clinch NL Central in '12

Chapman decision sets Reds' hopes in motion

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The ramifications of the most important decision the Reds made all spring -- to return Aroldis Chapman to the closer's role and not use him in the rotation -- may not be felt until sometime in October.

In making Mike Leake the fifth starter and Chapman the bullpen's anchor, the Reds are just trying to reach October first and foremost as repeat National League Central champions. To the club's brass, and some members of the roster, this is the safer route and the proven entity.

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"It's the same five as last year. I think it's a comfortable rotation," No. 2 starter Mat Latos said. "It's the saying, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.' That rotation gave us 1,000 innings. It [stinks] that Chappy won't be in the starting rotation, but it is what it is. We've got five guys that can go out there and do the job. We proved it last year. We just need everybody to be healthy."

That's exactly what the Reds' starting five was last year -- healthy and of high quality. Johnny Cueto, Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Leake accounted for starts in 161 of the 162 regular-season games. All five made at least 30 starts and all but Leake reached the important 200-innings plateau.

In Cueto, Latos and Bailey, the Reds have three power arms. Cueto is the true ace and won 19 games while posting a 2.78 ERA. Latos went 14-4 in his first year with the Reds and Bailey seemed to put it all together at the end of the season, which included a no-hitter on Sept. 28 at Pittsburgh. In Arroyo, usually a lock for 200 innings each year, and Leake, they have finesse. Leake was inconsistent last year but won 12 games in 2011 and is an above-average fifth starter.

"We've got a great staff," Leake said. "We have a few different types of pitchers. It's nice to see we don't have one type of pitcher, [like] all overpowering and kind of dominant. I think we can go up with the best of them."

Indeed, as this was the same rotation that led the Reds to 97 wins and the NL Central title.

"It worked great last year," right fielder Jay Bruce said of the rotation. "You had to see what opportunity was there with Chapman."

With Chapman considered to be possibly their best reliever, and the best starter on the staff, the Reds again explored the idea of finally moving him into the rotation. It's been an organizational goal since he signed a six-year, $30.25 million contract in 2010 as a Cuban defector. To protect themselves for the ninth inning, Jonathan Broxton was re-signed to a three-year, $21 million contract as Chapman was told to prepare for starts.

Teams that hold their best arm for save situations run the risk of marginalizing their best weapon. It was so during the five-game NL Division Series loss to the Giants, as Chapman worked Games 1, 3 and 5 and had no save situations. Having Chapman's arm every fifth day for up to 200 innings in a season could maximize his effectiveness.

"We wouldn't have gotten 200 innings out of him this year," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said.

The Reds were 60-8 in games last season in which Chapman appeared. Now he moves back to a stacked bullpen that was the best in baseball with a 2.65 ERA.

Jocketty left much of the roster from a year ago intact but made an upgrade in the Reds' biggest offensive shortcoming -- the leadoff spot -- by trading for Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians with his career .381 on-base percentage. His ability to get on base should create more run-producing situations for the middle of the order.

The biggest health question mark -- the condition of first baseman Joey Votto's surgically repaired left knee -- has been answered. Votto has had a very strong and setback-free Spring Training. Cincinnati was 32-16 during Votto's extended stint on the disabled list last season, but the lineup becomes even more dynamic with its best No. 3 hitter.

In right field, Bruce's production has continued to trend upward each season. He had 34 homers and 99 RBIs last season -- once again, career highs. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick resurrected his career in 2012 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs and was rewarded with a new two-year, $15 million contract.

Behind the plate, catcher Ryan Hanigan deserved share of the credit for the pitching staff's success. Hanigan and second-year player Devin Mesoraco will again form a tandem as Mesoraco seeks to bounce back from a subpar rookie year.

In the infield, second baseman Brandon Phillips and Votto form an airtight right side defensively. Phillips will be moving to the No. 2 spot in the order. On the left side is less experience as shortstop Zack Cozart and third baseman Todd Frazier are entering their second full years. Cozart experienced some inconsistency at the plate but made all of the plays in the field.

A breakout star last year while filling in admirably for Votto and now-departed third baseman Scott Rolen, Frazier has a set spot in the lineup. He hit 19 homers in 2012, including eight during Votto's absence.

"Basically, we have the same team that won 97 games last year," said Broxton, who is returning to a setup role in the bullpen. "We've got a new center fielder and the third baseman is going to play every day instead of jumping back and forth. The pitching staff is unbelievable. I think we have all the pieces we need right now. Everybody just has to stay healthy, that's the biggest thing."

The Reds are widely predicted as the favorites in the NL Central but will be challenged in a division that should be made more difficult with the move of the Astros to the American League. The rival Cardinals, especially, will always be lurking.

But while Jocketty and manager Dusty Baker were thinking primarily of just reaching the playoffs when making the Chapman decision, the players know they need to do even better.

Throughout camp was the air of unfinished business from last season. The Reds were up 2-0 on the Giants in the 2012 NLDS only to lose three straight and the series. San Francisco went on to win the World Series.

Cincinnati would like to be next to claim that trophy, which would be the team's first since 1990.

"We have everyone back. We expect a certain level of execution out of ourselves every single day," Bruce said. "It's been built over the last two or three years. There's a level of expectation we have on ourselves that, in my opinion, far exceeds what anyone from the outside expects of us."

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.

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