"We're going to have 25 guys on our team. We're going to be as optimistic with the 25 that we take out of here as it would be if we didn't have a single injury on this club," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "That we're going to go out there and be a team that nobody wants to play. I really believe that, sincerely. I don't believe we lower our expectations because we've been challenged with some of the injuries. We have enough depth. We have some outstanding core players and some great character. We'll weather the storm."
Price, who was promoted to replace Dusty Baker after four years as the Reds' pitching coach, is a first-time manager, but he's quickly learned to improvise like any skipper must when things don't go as planned.
It began on the first day of camp, when No. 2 starter Mat Latos needed left knee surgery to repair torn meniscus cartilage. Setup men Jonathan Broxton (right forearm) and Sean Marshall (left shoulder) were still trying to return from injuries that knocked them down last season.
The scariest moment came when closer Aroldis Chapman was struck in the face by a line drive vs. the Royals on March 19. Chapman needed surgery to stabilize fractures above his left eye and nose, and he could be out until mid-May. Relieved that the injuries weren't life or career-threatening, the Reds will press on without a dedicated closer in the interim.
Utility player and free-agent pickup Skip Schumaker dislocated his left shoulder trying to make a diving catch a couple of days later. Latos, Broxton, Marshall, Chapman, Schumaker and backup third baseman Jack Hannahan are all slated to begin the season on the DL.
There were other scares as starter Homer Bailey strained his right groin while playing catch, but he only missed a start. Rotation-mate Mike Leake missed a start with an abdominal strain that proved to be minor. Ace Johnny Cueto felt irritation in his right scapula, missed a start and is being watched closely. Catcher Devin Mesoraco strained his left oblique last week, and it'll be a close call whether he can avoid the DL before the season opens.
Fortunately for the Reds, none of the injuries are viewed as serious or long-term setbacks. No one is an obvious candidate for the 60-day DL.
"You see guys around the league are going down with Tommy John surgery. This could be a lot worse," Bailey said. "You still have to go out there and play. It's a setback, but I'd rather deal with them early. I'd rather have guys in Arizona dealing with a few issues here or there. What if we're in August and guys are dropping like flies? Now we've really got a problem. I'd rather get it out of the way now."
Schumaker, who could be back by the end of April, remembers how his former Cardinals club rebounded from a worst injury situation.
"In 2011, we lost [ace starter] Adam Wainwright for the whole year," Schumaker said.
St. Louis, minus Wainwright after his Tommy John surgery, went on to defeat the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
"A couple of these injuries that we've had here, hopefully for us they will be back in a month or so and we can deal with them," Schumaker said. "There are a few guys that are barking. Hopefully in about a month, we'll be OK."
The Reds aren't considered the favorites in the NL Central, especially with the strong defending NL champion Cardinals in the division, but they still have plenty to feel good about after a six-plus-week camp. Center fielder Billy Hamilton, their biggest offensive question mark, exceeded expectations about what he could do from the leadoff spot. Hamilton has excelled at reaching base, has shown strong skills at bunting for hits and the ability to work counts and battle with two strikes.
"He's been very impressive in every facet of the game to me," Price said.
Core players in the lineup like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are expected to be hitting back to back in the third and fourth spots, respectively. Between Hamilton and Votto in the two-hole will be Brandon Phillips, who has shown he's over the left forearm injury that affected his 2013 season down the stretch.
After being injured on Opening Day and needing right shoulder surgery, Ryan Ludwick will be expected to supply the 26-homer production he had in 2012. Young hitters like Todd Frazier, Zack Cozart and Mesoraco will be counted on to show continued growth at the plate.
Four of the five members of the rotation -- minus Latos -- are expected to be ready. Cueto will get the most attention because a strained right lat muscle limited him to 11 starts last season. Bailey, who is coming off two of his best seasons that each included a no-hitter, is freshly signed to a six-year, $105 million contract and in it for the long haul. Latos, also coming off two very strong seasons for Cincinnati, could be back some time in April.
The bullpen dynamic is the most complicated without Chapman, Broxton and Marshall in the late innings. Matchups and availability could determine who closes games. Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover and lefty Manny Parra will be asked to step up again in higher-leverage situations.
"I think that the guys we have in the back end of our bullpen are very capable guys," Price said. "I think the challenge is if our starters don't get off to a good start to the season. That's where we might be challenged, simply because we'd be running out less experienced [pitchers] into the games those middle innings."
The Reds, who haven't won the World Series since 1990, have won 90 or more games in three of the past four seasons and have made the postseason in three of four as well. Price is now the manager, because the Baker-led clubs were unable to win a playoff series. Before the injuries, the expectation was to take the next step. After the injuries, the expectation is to take the next step.
"The other teams aren't going to take it easy on us because we have so many guys hurt," Mesoraco said. "I think we have very capable guys in this room and guys that we count on. It's the next guy up. No matter who it is, we expect them to be able to do the job."