MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Bruce primed to take 'next step' for Reds

All-Star right fielder entering seventh big league season, excited for new era

Bruce primed to take 'next step' for Reds

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Jay Bruce, it can be said, is on the precipice of full stardom.

The Reds' two-time All-Star right fielder is already a major impact player, having averaged 32 homers and 102 RBIs over the past three seasons, including a career-high 109 RBIs in 2013.

And Bruce has his own lofty expectations.

"Expectations for myself are to be better, to be better than I have been ever," Bruce said Sunday in the Reds' clubhouse in Goodyear, Ariz., only hours before his team played the Angels across town at Tempe Diablo Stadium. "I want to continue to get better and never settle for anything. No matter what I've done in years past, I want to stay in the present and take the next step as a player."

That's pretty much what Bruce is anticipating from Cincinnati: to make it back to the playoffs and take at least the next step into the National League Championship Series. Since 2010, the Reds have been knocked out twice in the NL Division Series, and last year they were eliminated by the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game.

Bruce looks around and sees mostly the same cast of characters, sans starter Bronson Arroyo, who signed as a free agent with the D-backs; center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, signed as a free agent with the Rangers; and manager Dusty Baker, replaced by pitching coach Bryan Price.

Left-hander Tony Cingrani seems to have the inside track on the fifth rotation spot. He made 18 starts last year filling in for injured pitchers and had a 7-4 record and a 2.92 ERA. The speedster Billy Hamilton, with 395 Minor League stolen bases and 13 more for Cincinnati last year in 13 big league games, gives the Reds a much different look at the top of the order and in center field.

Bruce says the new dynamic can only help the team improve.

"I don't know how it's exactly going to work out, but Tony is slated to be a starter and we lost Bronson, so that makes sense to me," Bruce said. "Billy has the ability to be up there with the best center fielders in the league. His speed is obviously on a different level. I've never played with anyone nearly as fast as him. That tool at the top of the lineup poses such a threat and a headache for opposing teams, it's going to be good."

And Bruce added this about Price, making his debut as a Major League manager:

"It's a new feel, it's a little different," Bruce said. "I've enjoyed it so far. As a team, there are expectations. I think we understand there needs to be a deeper level of commitment in execution and preparation. That's something Bryan echoes in the way he does things, in the way he goes about his business, and he expects the same thing out of us."

That's not to diminish the accomplishments of the Reds under Baker, who had a .524 winning percentage and three seasons of 90 wins or more in six years managing Cincinnati. The Reds were 90-72 this past season, finishing seven games out and in third place during what most of the season was one of the tightest three-team races with the Bucs and Cardinals in NL Central history.

"It's just different voices," Bruce said about playing for Baker. "Each person speaks to the team differently. Dusty did a great job. He made the Cincinnati Reds relevant again. He was part of a huge culture change here. He really put the Reds back on the map. I enjoyed playing with him and for him. He raised me as a baseball player, really. For that, I'm really, really thankful and I'll always be thankful. I keep in touch with Dusty. I wish him the best. I think he's going to be back at it as well."

The Reds made Bruce the 12th overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, and he was brought up to the big leagues in 2008, Baker's first year in Cincinnati after 10 years managing the Giants and four more with the Cubs.

Price spent the past four seasons under Baker as the pitching coach, so the circle really remains unbroken.

Bruce, at 26, has simply been getting better and better. His .482 slugging percentage and .812 OPS over six years in the big leagues are indicative of his statistical impact, but he's also quickly becoming a clubhouse leader and go-to guy, working with the younger players.

Price said Bruce "embraces that role."

"He wants to set an example for the right way to play as a Cincinnati Red," Price said.

When told that Bruce expects and is ready to "take the next step as a player," Price added:

"Expectations can be unfortunate, because I think he's a terrific player. I think he's a terrific player right now. Anything he does on a positive side wouldn't surprise me, improving his overall production wouldn't surprise me. He's nearing, if not, in the prime of his career.

"He's matured as a person and as a player. He's got a great routine. He just wouldn't surprise me in anything he accomplishes."

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.