Cactus League baseball has come to an end for the Cincinnati Reds.
Good freaking riddance.
What for some serves as the dawn of a new year became some grimacing House of Horrors, and the month of March dragged on ceaselessly with bad news emanating out of every sun soaked pore. I think we'd hoped that March would yield enough good play to distract the spotlight from an underwhelming offseason, but in reality, the tone of the team went from no news to bad news. The idle Winter gave way to a slew of action, though it unfortunately was defined by injury after injury after injury.
The big headlines were rough. That's undeniable, but if you take the time to read past the page one headlines, you'll actually find that a few positive storylines emerged from an otherwise ragged Spring. For optimism's sake, let's give those some play, shall we?
Billy Hamilton Stole 1st Base
Not literally, though if anyone was capable of such a feat, it'd be Billy.
The most scrutinized player in Reds' camp was certainly Hamilton, upon whose lithe shoulders rest much of the hope of the Reds' upcoming campaign, and after hearing from each and every talking head who could reach a microphone that he faced an uphill transition to the big leagues, he showed glimpses of the excitement we fans can look forward to. Billy's .308 OBP in Louisville last year has been beaten so deeply into our brains that we don't even have to look it up anymore, and while that's a sample size large enough to cause concerns, Billy did his best to dispel the notion that he'd have issues getting on base against Major League pitching by posting a .327/.381/.527 line in his 63 Spring PAs. His walk rate sat just shy of 10%, he clubbed a HR and a three triples, and he kept his K rate at a manageable 14%.
It's Spring, so none of that counts, of course, but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. While that kind of production is surely unsustainable, Billy does deserve credit for performing well under the microscope he faced all Spring. That's a damn positive development.
Chris Heisey Was a Neti Pot
The perennial 4th OF knocked the snot out of the month of March, slugging a ridiculous .741 and honking 6 dingers over his 58 Spring PA. Heisey has mashed Cactus League pitching before - most notably when he slugged .731 with 5 HR in 52 PA in 2011 - but what's exciting about this season's slugging binge is the much simpler batting stance he's adopted. Heisey lowered his hands, shortened his swing, and saw immediate results, and he's got renewed optimism in his ability to regain the power stroke we saw when he swatted 18 HR in the same 2011 season as his last Spring hot streak.
With the health and power question marks facing fellow LF Ryan Ludwick and the youth and exposure issues looming over Billy Hamilton, Heisey's powerful Spring was a quite welcome development from a depth perspective. Few, if any, teams have the kind of luxury the Reds have with Heisey, a relatively cheap veteran who can cover all spots in the OF and - if this Spring is actually an indication - can turn the LF bleachers into Kleenex.
Brandon Phillips Found Swag
After Phillips was plunked on the wrist early last Summer, his power numbers dipped precipitously (as did his entire local persona, but that's another story), and after he was unsuccessfully shopped to each and every team in baseball over the Winter, there were serious questions about what ability the stalwart 2B still had left. Was last season's power outage a mirage? Was it due to his injured wrist? Was it actually a sign that the now 32 year old was going to decline much more rapidly than the Reds' pocketbook had hoped?
Well, if his March is any indication, we shouldn't have to worry much about how much pop his bat has left. A slow start depressed his overall numbers, but Phillips caught fire towards the end of camp to finish with 5 HR on his Cactus League ledger. Also encouraging were his 6 walks in 59 PA considering he'll be hitting more in the 2 spot in the order than his 2013 season.
Bryan Price Looked the Part
Sure, he opted to roll North with Ramon Santiago's noodle bat on the bench, and he even dropped a few quotes talking about grit and bunts, but aside from a few snippets of coach speak, the new Reds' manager has looked, sounded, and acted like he's got a decade of experience under his belt. Price brings a level of calm intensity (if that's a thing), accountability, and professionalism that the guys in the dugout seem to embrace, and he's so far done a great job managing the maelstrom of injuries in a diplomatic, yet reassuring, way.
He'll have his work cut out for him from day one of the 2014 season, though, and it'll be hard for him to learn on the fly with 7 key players on the DL and a schedule featuring the best in baseball from the outset, but despite the early turmoil seen in camp, there's been nothing about the way he handles things that has me worried. The guy gets it, and while it's not terribly important that we pick up on that, it is vital that his players do, and that's something that has never been a question from the outset. Parting ways with Dusty was tough, but Walt Jocketty, Bob Castellini, & Co. deserve a solid bit of credit for identifying Price's quality and ensuring that his voice leads the Reds into this era-defining season.
Nerts is the best. Seriously, he's one of only two guys who could make me feel better about Ryan Hanigan being a Ray. The other, of course, is Corky Miller, so the Reds lead the universe in the backup catcher department.
T-minus 3 days until real, live, actual baseball.