According to the Cubs 2007 Media Guide, this season will mark the 36th time in franchise history that the Cubs have faced the Reds on Opening Day. It is said that all but two of those meetings have come in Cincinnati. Monday will also be the third time in the past four years (and fourth time in the past six years) that Chicago has traveled to Cincinnati for the start of their season.
In preparation for the Cubs-Reds series we visited with Mark Schmetzer, the Editor in Chief of Reds Report Magazine, to break down this year's Reds team, what to look for from the Reds in 2007, and more. His answers follow.
Where do the Reds most differ this season from a year ago in your opinion?
Mark Schmetzer: One of the areas where you'll see a big difference in the Reds this year is defense. They acquired Alex Gonzalez to play shortstop and they'll be teaming him with Brandon Phillips at second base. Just on that move alone, with the emphasis on the importance of defense up the middle, I think you'll see tremendous improvement on the Reds defensively, especially with Edwin Encarnacion getting a year of experience under his belt at third base. They moved Ken Griffey, Jr. from center field to right field and they have Ryan Freel in center field. I'm not sure how much of an impact that's going to have defensively, but I just think with the addition of Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, which I consider to be the most important position on the infield, you'll see a much better Reds team defensively. I also think you'll see them continue to improve on the starting pitching. They moved up significantly in that category last year and I think you'll see them get even better this year.
Is this the strongest pitching staff the Reds have had in recent years?
Mark Schmetzer: I don't think there's any question about it that we have a stronger pitching staff than we've had in some time. They put Eric Milton on the DL with lower back problems, but I really think one of the guys that you're going to find helping the Reds this year is Kirk Saarloos. In fact, I really think that he could be this year's Bronson Arroyo for this team. That's assuming they put him in the starting rotation, which is still up in the air. But the way Matt Belisle pitched on Friday, I think the Reds were kind of disappointed in the fact that he didn't show any improvement or changes in his patterns from previous starts. I really think if they give Kirk Saarloos a chance, he can be a boom to this starting rotation.
The one guy everyone has their eyes on is the Reds' top pitching prospect, Homer Bailey. How soon can we expect to see him, and do you think he'll contribute to the Reds rotation in 2007?
Mark Schmetzer: I'll put it this way: I would prefer that the Reds not need to see him this year. I would prefer that he gets a year under his belt at Triple-A. Even after he was sent down to the minor league camp, he still was having some problems down there. He put together some rough innings pitching in the minor league camp, so I think this guy needs more work than a lot of people think. There are some fans and some newspaper writers up here who just keep beating and beating the Homer Bailey drum, but I'm here to tell you this guy needs I think a year in Triple-A. The Reds would be much better off if they could get by without having to call him up.
Keeping with the pitching staff, how about the Reds bullpen?
Mark Schmetzer: Well, Dustin Hermanson was released [Sunday] just out of nowhere. I think he had a bad inning the other day where he gave up four runs in like a third of an inning. It was really awful and I'm thinking they're going back to the plan that they went into camp with where they're going to have a bullpen by committee. Now, that bothers me. I've always liked to see a bullpen where everybody has a definitive job. I've never known a bullpen to work where they've ran the bullpen and the closer by a committee deal. Unfortunately, that's what they're stuck with right now, at least that's their plan going in. I think if anything needs to happen, somebody – either David Weathers or Mike Stanton – needs to step up and say, "I'm the closer" and then take it from there. The bullpen is a little bit of a question right now, which makes it even more important for the starting pitching to be as good as I think it can be.
Shifting to the offense, Reds manager Jerry Narron said this past off-season that he wanted to give Adam Dunn more rest this season in hopes that his average won't slack off as much. Is this still the strategy, and if so, is it a good one?
Mark Schmetzer: Yeah, I think every player can stand to have a day off here or there. Now, Adam Dunn is young, strong, robust and big, and he can endure a lot. But yes, I feel he could stand to have a day off every once in awhile just like everybody can. The question is whether they can afford to give him that day off, especially if somebody like Junior gets hurt again and has to spend significant amounts of time on the DL. If that happens, they'll need a bat like Dunn's in the lineup and they won't be able to give him the day off he'd normally get if everybody stayed healthy.
Have you noticed any changes in Dunn since he started working with new Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby these past few months?
Mark Schmetzer: Yeah, he's been trying to spray the ball more. He tried to lay down a bunt the other day. They've got him batting in the No. 2 hole right now, and I think he's trying to be a little more aggressive and not take as many pitches. He laid down a bunt the other day against the shift. It wasn't very good, but at least he tried. I think moves like that can help make opponents think a little bit and end up giving him more holes to hit through.
Josh Hamilton was a Rule Five selection by the Cubs that was given to the Reds and has since had a strong spring. What are your impressions of him?
Mark Schmetzer: I'll tell you this: I think you're going to see Josh Hamilton starting in the outfield on this team by the end of the first month of the season. This guy is un-believable. He's got tremendous talent and he's very motivated. I think he's got a subconscious feeling that he's got some time to make up for. This guy is an incredible talent and frankly, with the way Ryan Freel plays the game, he's not going to be playing every day because he gets hurt. I really think that eventually you're going to find Josh Hamilton starting in the outfield somewhere – either when Ryan Freel gets hurt or when Junior gets hurt. I don't know if there was room in the Cubs outfield for Hamilton, and the thing is he really fell into a great situation here in Cincinnati in the sense that he knows the Narron's. He knows Jerry Narron and he's worked very hard with John Narron, Jerry's brother, with his off-season workouts and everything. He worked out very hard, so much so that the Reds have hired John Narron as their video guy. Essentially, that's his "official" title and he's going to be working in the clubhouse. But, the general feeling is that he's the coach in charge of Josh Hamilton.
Aside from his move from center to right field, have you noticed a difference in Ken Griffey, Jr. since his off-season surgery?
Mark Schmetzer: No, he's still basically the same Junior. He took his time coming back from the broken wrist that he suffered while playing with his kids over the Christmas holidays on their yacht in the Bahamas. He's got a little testy relationship with the media right now. I'm not sure that he's really down with this move to right field, but he understands that if he tries to come off right now as a prima donna that demands to play center field, it's not going to help his case at all. I think he's pretty much resigned to making this move to right field, but I don't think he's fallen off in center field as much as a lot of other people think he has. I could eventually see an outfield of Dunn in left, Griffey in center and Josh Hamilton in right field, and I'd be very comfortable with that outfield.
It sounds like you feel as though Griffey's move to right is only temporary.
Mark Schmetzer: Well, if he has to stay in right field, I don't think it will be a problem as I don't think there's as much of a difference as a lot of people think there might be. He likes to point out that one of the times he got injured was when he was playing right field in one of his rare appearances there. He always likes to make big things out of little things such as that, but I really don't feel there's that much of an adjustment, especially for a really, really veteran ballplayer like he is. The bottom line is that he's a good ballplayer, so he'll be able to make the adjustment without too much of a problem.
What were the big surprises in Reds spring camp this year – both good and bad?
Mark Schmetzer: I would say the most pleasant surprise was Josh Hamilton. I'm not sure the Reds knew what they were getting from a mental standpoint when they got this guy. Even though they had Narron's background with him to work from, there's always that doubt; that this guy had only played 15 games in the last four years, so I think there was always that little bit of a nagging doubt there. I think the surprise of the camp from a negative standpoint was the absolutely terrible numbers put up by Eric Milton. I know a lot of people believe that with him being in the last year of his contract, that this would be kind of like a walk year for him and he would pitch to that idea; that he would really be good because this is the last year of his contract and he's looking at having to sign a new contract somewhere. But he's put up absolutely terrible numbers and now he's come down with these lower back spasms. It's starting out to be another bad year for him.
Aaron Harang will be the Reds' Opening Day starter again. What can we expect to see from him?
Mark Schmetzer: You can expect to see him throw a lot of fastballs. You can expect him to go six or seven innings probably if everything goes right. He likes to pound the fastball in and he likes to work pretty quickly. He'll give up some hits, but he won't give up walks. I've always liked a guy who gets the batter swinging at the pitches because if you walk the guy, he's got a thousand percent chance of getting on base. So you're going to see a pitcher with a good fastball and good control that's going to try to get batters swinging and keep the fielders alive and in the game.
Give us your prediction on the 2007 Reds. Where will they finish and can they win this division?
Mark Schmetzer: Yes, they can. I really think if Harang and Arroyo perform up to their capabilities and the defense is as improved as I think it will be, I really believe – in fact, I've picked the Reds to win this division. There's nobody in this division that scares me at all. I don't think anybody improved themselves as significantly as the Reds did. Even though people are criticizing the Reds for not making a lot of big free agent splashes, I'm telling you that getting Alex Gonzalez to play shortstop is a tremendously significant move. He set a career low in errors for the Red Sox last year and he's one of only four shortstops I think over the past four years that hasn't committed more than 17 errors in a season.
Off-topic, but the Reds also have a different look – literally – this year.
Mark Schmetzer: I like the style of the lettering on the uniforms. I like that old kind of style that they're wearing, but to be honest I've always been a vest guy. When I started following the Reds back in the 1960s, they wore those vests. Another team I always like to follow is the Pirates and I always liked their vests uniforms back when they won the ‘60 World Series. I've always been a vest kind of guy so I don't mind seeing them at all. That said, if you're going to have sleeved uniforms, I think the Reds uniforms look pretty good. But you know how it is with marketing; you've got to get the fans something new to buy. If you're going to do it, I think the Reds went about it the right way. The only thing I don't like is wearing those stupid color jerseys on Sunday. I hate that. I like home white and road gray.
Chris Denorfia and Todd Coffey display the Reds' new home and away uniforms during a fashion show at Redsfest in Cincinnati. (AP Photos/Al Behrman)
NOTES: Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory will throw out Monday's ceremonial first pitch ... Pop/R&B singer Gia Farrell will lead the singing of the National Anthem ... According to the Cubs Media Relations Department, the team holds an all-time winning record of 1,058-1,031 against the Reds; at Great American Ballpark, the Cubs are 17-16 all-time.