By Cody Leist
Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and for pitchers and catchers in the Cincinnati Reds organization, it marks the end of their offseason and begins their preparations for the 2014 season.
One of the final steps taken every year before the trip to Spring Training is the Reds caravan. Thursday marked the start of the franchise’s goodwill tour with one of the first stops taking place in Portsmouth.
The group that ventured into Scioto County comprised of relief pitcher Logan Ondrusek, minor league infielder Seth Mejias-Brean, broadcasters Chris Welch and Jeff Piecoro and new manager Bryan Price. The theme for those who talked with reporters involved turning the page from a disappointing finish to the 2013 season and thoughts of optimism for a 2014 campaign with some new faces.
“There are certain limitations to what we can do, we can’t always play with the big boys when it comes to the big contracts,” Pryce said. “We have certainly made some commitments to some of our core players. The good news is that we’ve got a lot of players that we like to keep, the bad news is that we can’t keep them all and be competitive with the salary structures and challenges that are out there.”
Pryce was promoted from pitching coach to manager after Dusty Baker was fired following the conclusion to last season. As Shin-Soo Choo and Ryan Hanigan have found new homes and Bronson Arroyo still looking to find a place to call home for this season, signs are pointing to Billy Hamilton, Devin Mesoraco and Tony Cingrani filling those spots in the Cincinnati lineup on a permanent basis.
One change Pryce hopes to make a change from his predecessor is the mindset offensively.
“We’ve got to find a way to extract more on the base paths,” Pryce said. “I thought if that was an area that we can definitely improve upon, even if we didn’t get any faster, is the way we ran the bases.
“I think you get to a situation where you worry about maybe running into an out in front of a hitter that might be able to hit a ball out of the ballpark (whether it) be a Joey (Votto) or a Jay (Bruce), we didn’t have (Ryan) Ludwick for most of the year last year. Some of the guys who can hit some homers, I would prefer to have a guy in scoring position but we’ve got to have the ability to do that. So for Spring Training, it’s going to be somewhat of an open season for our base runners to go out there and test the waters and do what they think they are capable of doing on the bases.”
When the topic of closer Aroldis Chapman came up, Pryce feels his left-handed reliever has built the comfort for his role but would like to get more innings out of each appearance. Pryce also said tensions between the front office and second baseman Brandon Phillips have cooled off since his feelings of displeasure were documented in a Cincinnati-area publication.
If there’s one thing Piecoro believes will help Phillips will be the addition of more African-Americans such as Hamilton and Derrick Robinson to the clubhouse.
“For years, Brandon was the only black guy that the Reds had so he was kind of to himself,” Piecoro said. “You don’t really think about that but the Hispanics kind of all cling together, pitchers tend to cling together and the catchers kind of hang out together and the rest of the team, there’s a lot of clicks. He was the only guy and what we kind of take for granted, where you go to get your hair cut, things like that, it was left up to him.”
Piecoro said Phillips is one of many on the team that gives back to the community, whether it’s through social media interactions or visiting patients in area hospitals without notice.
“Brandon is probably the leader on that and what he’ll do a lot of times is go to a Chipotle or something like that and he’ll say (on Twitter) okay I’m here for the next 30 minutes, the next 20 people that come up here I’ve got wristbands, the fighting necklaces and things like that he gives out,” Piecoro said.
For Ondrusek, he hopes last year’s back-and-forth journey from the minors to the big club will not happen again this year and a permanent spot in the Reds bullpen. As someone who sees himself coming into the game during the middle to late innings, Ondrusek believes that one day he has what it takes to become a closer.
“I just have to kind of bide my time until that happens,” Ondrusek said.
Until then, he is glad for whenever situation he is called to do.
As the team’s Minor League Player of the Year last season, Mejias-Brean spent the year with the Dayton Dragons, the team’s low-A affiliate. This year, the first baseman hopes he can work his way up through Bakersfield, Calif., and Pensacola, Fla., getting one step closer to Cincinnati. Until then, he hopes to listen to those above him and learn how to become a better player.
“So far, I’ve got some good advice,” Mejias-Brean said.
The Tuscon, Ariz., native only has a two-hour drive that separates his hometown from the Reds’ Spring Training facility in Goodyear. One thing his is unfamiliar with are the cold temperatures that are normal during the Ohio winters.
“I can’t tell you the last time I was in 10 degree weather,” Mejias-Brean said.
Lastly, Welch was glad to once again make the trip to Portsmouth and see how much passion there is for the sport.
“This is a hot spot for baseball,” Welch said. “You can start from amateur baseball to the history that Portsmouth has in the area and all of the names that connect baseball with Portsmouth.”
Cincinnati opens the 2014 season March 31 when the defending National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals come to town.
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 294, or on Twitter @CodyLeist.