MLB

Reds return intact looking for deep playoff run

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CINCINNATI (AP)

Same starting five in the rotation. Same back end of the bullpen. Same starting lineup, except for one spot.

On the surface, not much has changed with the Cincinnati Reds, and that's exactly how they wanted it. The NL Central division champions have brought their team back virtually intact for another run at their elusive goal.

Another division title is only an initial goal for a team that won 97 games last season. They're looking way beyond that first champagne celebration.

Instead, they've got their eye on late October.

''I want to get to the next round of the playoffs,'' second baseman Brandon Phillips said. ''I want to start there. Of course the goal every year is to win the ring, but I feel like you've got to take steps.''

The Reds have taken huge steps in the last five years, reconfiguring themselves from perennial also-ran to consistent playoff contender. They went nine years without so much as a winning record, and 15 years between playoff appearances before winning the division as an up-and-coming team in 2010.

They got swept in the playoffs by the Phillies that season, then slipped the following year under a lot of injuries. They were back on top last season with a team built for long-term success, but fell in the first round of the playoffs again, this time to the Giants in five games.

Everything about the offseason has gone into giving them a better chance to not only reach the playoffs, but to keep going.

''We're a team that's built for now,'' general manager Walk Jocketty said. ''We're built to win now.''

They think some modest lineup tweaking could make them a bit better.

One of their biggest weaknesses for years has been the lack of a leadoff hitter, which forced manager Dusty Baker to use Phillips and others in the top spot. They got Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians to replace Drew Stubbs, who struck out too much to be effective. Choo could be a short-term fix, with Billy Hamilton - who set a minor league record with 155 steals last season - playing center field and batting leadoff for Triple-A Louisville this season.

The other change is at third base, where Todd Frazier gets the job full-time for Scott Rolen, who decided not to return for another season. Frazier filled in at third base and at first base when Rolen and Joey Votto were hurt, and ended up third in NL Rookie of the Year voting after batting .273 with 19 homers and 67 RBIs.

Cincinnati thinks the offense will be even better with a healthy Votto around from the start of the season. The former NL MVP tore cartilage in his left knee while sliding into base on June 29 and needed two operations. Votto was gone for 48 games and wasn't himself when he returned, reduced to hitting singles the rest of the season because of the weak knee.

During spring training, he hit his first homers since June 24, an indication his knee is fully healed.

Votto's first significant injury has given him a different outlook.

''People's injuries resonate with me more because of my experience,'' he said. ''It probably made me a better teammate.''

The Reds got through last season with all five starters healthy and were the only team in the majors that used as few as six starters - they had to call one up for a doubleheader. The streak of good luck ended when Johnny Cueto pulled muscles in his side during the first inning of the opening playoff game in San Francisco, leaving Cincinnati's pitching plans in flux for the rest of the series.

Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake each made 30 starts last season. Bailey in particular showed improvement, throwing a no-hitter in Pittsburgh. All are back and healthy.

The Reds' biggest decision in spring training involved the closer's spot. The Reds got hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman ready to make a long-awaited transition to the rotation, with Jonathan Broxton available to finish off games, but the left-hander expressed a preference to keep closing.

Chapman had 38 saves after moving into the role in May, converting a club-record 27 in a row even though he'd never been a closer. He'll have a better feel for the role this season.

''I have a lot of years ahead,'' Chapman said. ''I'm happy to be the closer now.''

Baker got a two-year contract extension after missing the Reds' division championship celebration last year because he was hospitalized for treatment of an irregular heartbeat and a mini-stroke. The 63-year-old manager feels fine and shares the big expectations for this season and beyond.

''I talked to the owners,'' Baker said. ''They asked a lot of questions and made statements. They're enthusiastic about our progress.

''We've come a long way in a short period of time, over three years. It's about being able to sustain high excellence.''

And it's about taking that next step deeper into the playoffs.

---

AP freelance writer Gary Schatz in Goodyear, Ariz., contributed to this report.

Tagged: Reds, Joey Votto, Homer Bailey, Aroldis Chapman

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