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Springtime Storylines: Have the Reds built themselves a World Series contender?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Cincinnati Redlegs.

The Big Question: Do the Reds have the pieces to compete for the 2012 World Series title?

Before closer Ryan Madson underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, the answer would have been “definitely.” Now? Well … it’s still “definitely.”

Madson looked like the steal of the offseason at one-year, $8.5 million and would have been excellent in Cincinnati’s ninth-inning role. But a reliever can only do so much. In his best season with the Phillies — 2011, when he registered a 2.37 ERA, 9.2 K/9 and 32 saves in 34 chances — he was only worth 1.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to FanGraphs.

For comparison’s sake Miguel Cairo, a light-hitting utility infielder, was worth 1.9 fWAR last year.

The Reds will survive the loss of Madson. And if Sean Marshall continues to shut down hitters like he did during his last couple seasons with the Cubs, they might even forget about the former Phillly right-hander.

Cincinnati has one of the best first basemen in the sport in Joey Votto, one of the best second basemen in Brandon Phillips and one of the best right fielders in Jay Bruce. Mixed together with developing contributors like center fielder Drew Stubbs, shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco, the Reds undoubtedly have a winning recipe. And if their starting rotation can be somewhat steady, they should be right near the top of the National League Central standings when it comes time to award postseason bids.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Reds posted a 20th-ranked 4.16 staff ERA in 2011. So they decided to do something about that this winter, trading first base prospect Yonder Alonso, right-handed prospect Brad Boxberger, catching prospect Yasmani Grandal and right-handed starter Edinson Volquez to San Diego for Padres ace Mat Latos. A 24-year-old right-hander, Latos registered a sparkling 3.47 ERA and 185/62 K/BB ratio in 194 1/3 innings last season and a 2.92 ERA and 189/50 K/BB ratio in 184 2/3 innings the year before.
  • Votto was signed to a 10-year, $225 million contract extension on Monday. It’s a crazy amount of money, especially for a small-market team like the Reds. And it’s safe to wonder whether a farm system that was decimated by the Latos trade will produce enough cost-controlled talent over the long term to support continued winning. But the Reds have locked up their star first baseman, and that’s something that neither the Cardinals nor Brewers — the Reds’ primary National League Central foes — can boast.
  • Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman was stretched out like a starter this spring and responded with excellent results, posting a 2.12 ERA and 18/2 K/BB ratio in 17 Cactus League innings. And yet he’s being pushed back into a setup role for the duration of the 2012 season. The 24-year-old flamethrower was signed to a five-year, $25.5 million contract in January of 2010 and was expected to grow into an ace. But the Reds have stunted that growth. And it’s awfully hard to understand why.

How Are They Gonna Do?

The Reds’ lineup is loaded with big-time run producers and the Latos upgrade should be massive. Bruce and Votto are capable of MVP-type years and Phillips seems destined to shine brightly in what is likely to be his farewell season in Cincy. This team will come within a win of the National League Central title — falling just short of the first-place Cardinals — before settling for Bud Selig’s new “second” Wild Card.

Tigers to give Omar Infante some work in center field this spring

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Omar Infante #4 of the Detroit Tigers follows through on an RBI single scoring Prince Fielder #28 during the eighth inning against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field  on September 11, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
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Veteran Omar Infante has spent the overwhelming majority of his career as an infielder, but the Tigers plan to give him some playing time in center field this spring. The Tigers’ center field situation is still murky and adding more versatility would increase Infante’s odds of making the roster.

Infante, 35, signed a minor league deal with the Tigers in December. He played 39 games for the Royals last season, batting .239/.279/.321 in 149 plate appearances while playing second base exclusively. Infante last played in the outfield in 2010 with the Braves, and last played center field specifically in ’09 with the Braves.

The Tigers currently have Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Collins, and JaCoby Jones at the top of their center field depth chart. It is not what one would call “optimal.”

Report: Orioles close to acquiring Vidal Nuno from the Dodgers

ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 30:  Vidal Nuno #38 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Texas Rangers in the bottom of the seventh inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on August 30, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Orioles are close to acquiring pitcher Vidal Nuno from the Dodgers in exchange for pitcher Ryan Moseley.

Nuno, 29, went to the Dodgers from the Mariners in the Carlos Ruiz trade this past November. He and the Dodgers avoided arbitration last month, agreeing on a $1.125 million salary for the 2017 season. The left-hander finished the 2016 campaign with a 3.53 ERA and a 51/11 K/BB ratio in 58 2/3 innings spanning one start and 54 relief appearances.

Nuno will provide the Orioles starting pitching depth and could serve as a valuable left-handed option out of the bullpen.

Moseley, 22, played his first season of professional baseball in the New York Penn League last year. In 12 relief appearances, he put up a 3.20 ERA and an 18/9 K/BB ratio across 19 2/3 innings. The Orioles selected him in the eighth round of the 2016 draft.