These are the Cincinnati Reds who last spring at this time prompted a comment that they looked to be the most improved team in Arizona, to which a GM responded, "Have you lost your mind?"
We aren't even at April Fool's Day. The rumors of the decline and fall of the Cardinals and Brewers seem premature, and the Cubs do appear re-energized and improved. But this is precisely what owner Bob Castellini envisioned when he got Walt Jocketty to bring his championship resume to Cincinnati.
Jocketty took over as GM from Wayne Krivsky on April 23, 2008, not because of Krivsky's failings -- he turned around a culture of a team that neglected defense and pitching and hadn't seen .500 since 2000 -- but because Castellini believed Jocketty could manage the franchise.
"What I see is a team that is very deep," says one GM in Arizona. "The pitching is deep, the bench, and Walt and Dusty [Baker] clearly respect one another." Jocketty knows that the players respect and trust their manager, and the manager trusts Jocketty to get him players.
Johnny Cueto isn't going to be ready to open the season because of forearm stiffness? Baker had six starters, with Mike Leake and Tim Wood competing for the fifth spot, so both can open in the rotation with Bronson Arroyo -- the National League runner-up in wins and the leader in innings during his five years since the Wily Mo Pena trade with Boston -- as well as Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey. Dusty has three lefties, including Aroldis Chapman, and two righties in front of Francisco Cordero. Jay Bruce may be on the verge of stardom with Joey Votto, and they have depth in the outfield, infield and behind the plate.
"We're OK," says Jocketty. "We'll see."
Adam Wainwright is obviously a huge loss for the Cardinals. Rockies, Brewers and Cubs players all put him close to the Roy Halladay level, but even with his loss and some question about the St. Louis infield aside from Albert Pujols, we have learned never to underestimate a Tony La Russa team.
"If Colby Rasmus breaks out with Pujols and [Matt] Holliday," says an American League GM, "they may be a lot better than people think."
So, too, may be the Cubs. The players clearly like the energy Mike Quade has brought them. Exactly what they'll get out of Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome and Aramis Ramirez is subject to question, but Starlin Castro -- compared by some to Edgar Renteria when he was with the Marlins and Cardinals -- brings energy, as does Carlos Pena and the ever-enthusiastic Marlon Byrd. The rotation is deeper, especially if Andrew Cashner makes it, and Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall are more-than-adequate setups for Carlos Marmol. OK, second base and the top of the order are to be determined, but they begin the season without the curse of "next year."
Which brings up this a sentiment offered by three scouts watching the Brewers:
Milwaukee may be awful. They got a lot of hype, and between their defense, lower velocity from their relievers and all the injuries, they could be in for a long year in which most of the talk is going to be about Prince Fielder's impending free agency.
"I realize that we haven't had a lot go right this spring," says first-year manager Ron Roenicke. "We need to get healthy. Then we'll see what we have."
Zack Greinke cracked a rib playing basketball, which didn't exactly set off fireworks over Lake Michigan. Greinke had let it be known to the Royals that he wouldn't go to Spring Training because he wanted to be traded since their ETA and his ETD coincided. "What's Greinke going to be like when he comes back if they get off to a bad start and the defense is bad?" asks one scout.
They need Shaun Marcum to get healthy, and it didn't help that Manny Parra came down with a bad back. Or that Corey Hart pulled a side muscle. Or that LaTroy Hawkins has been slow coming off shoulder surgery. Or that Mark Rogers came down with shoulder stiffness in his first full Spring Training in five years. Or that Jonathan LuCroy fractured a finger.
"Whatever we do, we are going to hit, and hopefully that carries us until we're healthy," says Roenicke. Just watch a round of batting practice with Rickie Weeks, Casey MeGehee, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. "The job of some of the veterans is to try to slow Carlos Gomez down so he gets on base more consistently," says one teammate. "That would really help the big guys."
Even more impressive than Weeks' slashing, attacking style and his astounding power is the workload of the right side of the infield. Yes, Weeks led the NL in outs, but he has speed, power, aggressiveness and has worked extremely hard.
But no one has outworked Fielder. "I'm not even thinking about the free agency thing," he says. "I just want to go out, have a big year, see if we can win and see what happens. The hitting is one thing. But what I've really tried to do is work on my defense. I'm proud of the fact that I've cut my errors from 17 to seven to four the last three years."
Meanwhile, he's hit 162 homers over the past four years and averaged 160 games a year the past three seasons.
"I'm really impressed by the way he works," says bench coach Jerry Narron. "He really cares about his game. He's made himself a good first baseman on sheer determination."
If they get Greinke and Marcum healthy, Hart returns to the lineup, and John Axford and Zach Braddock regain their velocity, they may survive. "No one's gotten down here," says Fielder, which may well be related to the positive energy brought to them by Roenicke after what was a negative 2010.