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Could the Reds finish last?

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — As I sit on the back patio a few feet from the swimming pool, a Montecristo White Label Churchill in one hand and a golden beverage in the other, my cell phone tells me that it is 82 degrees in the Valley of the Sun.

Now that I have angered those of you who just finished shoveling snow, again, and are fighting frost bite and your cell phone tells you it is 11 degrees, if you are a Cincinnati Reds fan I’m going to anger you even more.

I’m avoiding sun burn and dehydration because I am in Goodyear for the start of Spring Training, 2015, and before I see a single person in a baseball uniform throw a single ball, I’m predicting the Reds will finish last in the National League Central

THIS IS A TEAM that lost 86 games last year, finishing next-to-last and beating out only the Chicago Cubs. While the Reds have done virtually nothing consequential to upgrade the product, the Cubs have spent more money than the Peruvian gross national product to put something special on Wrigley Field.

Of course, the Cubs are the Cubs and the forever cursed team usually finds a way to mess it up. But if there ever was year in which the Cubs have placed themselves on the highest level, this is it.

The Reds? They traded two-fifths of their starting rotation, ridding themselves of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon to dump salary. There seems to be a cast of thousands lined up to grab the two vacancies, none of whom stirs thoughts of Cy Young or even Anthony Young (he was 15-48 for his major league career).

TONY CINGRANI IS the glossiest candidate because of his early success with the Reds. But there hasn’t been much success from the big left hander lately due to a bad shoulder and difficulty finding a reliable second pitch and usable third pitch.

They talk about David Holmberg and the young Cuban, Rasiel Iglesias. And they talk about a couple of journeymen who have bounced from team to team in Paul Maholm and Jason Marquis.

Believe me when I say the St. Louis Cardinals are not quivering in their Nike baseball spikes.

And speaking of bouncing from team to team, to fill the black hole in left field the Reds acquired 37-year-old Marlon Byrd. While he has had two straight solid seasons, with three different teams in those two seasons, the Reds are his seventh team in 12 years. At 37, who knows what’s left in those arms and legs.

ONE OF THE PROJECTS that needed attention was fixing the bullpen, one of the worst in baseball last year. To do that, they’ve brought in Burke Badenhop and Kevin Gregg. More important than any success of Badenhop and Gregg is the return to form of Sam LeCure and J.J. Hoover and the continued invincibility of Aroldis Chapman.

It is just the start of spring training and the Reds have a chance to prove me and a slew of other dissenters that we are wrong, that this team can contend. Injuries wrecked the Reds last year and injuries could wreck them again. It is extremely difficult over a 162-game season to avoid injures – virtually impossible. What counts is when it happens and to whom it happens.

Manager Bryan Price wants talk of 2014 obliterated.

“I’d like to stay away from talking a lot about 2014, as if that epitomized the Reds,” said Price. “We lost 86 games and we know that. But we’re not playing to exorcise the demons of 2014. We’re playing because we’re very enthusiastic about our ability to go out there and win a lot of games in 2015 and that’s what we will focus on.”

To be competitive, the Reds need the return to form of first baseman Joey Votto. They need Jay Bruce to eradicate the memory of a disastrous last season to live up to his athletic ability They need third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco to improve upon last season’s breakout years. They need center fielder Billy Hamilton to put the ball on the ground, keep it out of the air, and they need him to improve his on-base average.

THAT’S A LOT TO ask of a team that didn’t really grab national headlines with a major signing or a major trade, especially from a team that finished 10 games under .500 last year.

But that’s why they play the games. Just as some teams underachieve, some teams overachieve. And it is for sure the Reds will have to overachieve this year to finish ahead of St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Chicago.

CHICAGO? WHO WOULD HAVE ever have thought that. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo says his team is going to win it all. I haven’t heard anybody from the Reds say that, but maybe they haven’t been asked.

Price realizes the prognosticators have relegated the Reds to the pits and is unconcerned what others believe.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter where we are picked to finish,” he said. “It matters where we do finish. Anybody that comes into our camp not believing that we have a good team doesn’t know our team well. You have to play the season to see where we end up.

“What has happened is that we lost 86 games and we’re missing two of our starting pitchers from last year’s rotation and we had some chinks in the armor of our bullpen,” Price added. “We couldn’t stay healthy.

“What they see is that three teams came in ahead of us last year and nobody thinks they aren’t going to be good again in 2015,” said Price. “And the Cubs have gotten better. So we are an easy target to be a second division ball club. I think we have a chance to have a great year with a big improvement over 2014.”

WE’LL WATCH THE Reds closely this spring, see who is in the rotation, see how the bullpen does, see how Byrd fits into the lineup and the clubhouse, see how the returning regulars perform Then maybe I’ll change my prediction. Maybe.

Before I left for Arizona, when I bumped into fans at Kroger or Starbucks or Chipotle or La Fiesta, Beau Townsend Lincoln or M.L.Dunn, they’d always ask, “Well how are the Reds going to do?”

I would shrug my shoulders, shake my head, and says, “That’s why they play the games.” Right now that’s the best we can say about this team — wait until they play the games.

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