GOODYEAR, Ariz. The sun beat down warmly on their necks as they went through their early-morning driflls, dew still on the short grass. And the cactus outside the complex let them know: It is time to get their bodies and minds ready for the long, long season.
The Cincinnati Reds, mostly pitchers and catchers this week, began spring training Monday with some things old and a lot of things new.
After winning the National League Central in 2010, the team rested on its laurels in the off-season and didn't do much to alter the face of the team. The laurels collapsed and once again the Reds were under .500.
General Manager Walt Jocketty didn't make the same mistake twice. He was busier than a tax consultant on April 14 during the off-season.
He made trades. He acquired starting pitcher Matt Latos. He acquired relief pitcher Sean Marshall.
He signed free agents. He signed closer Ryan Madson. He signed outfielder Ryan Ludwick.
Was that enough to push the team back to its 2010 level or better? Was the cost of players like Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Brad Boxberger, Travis Wood and Dave Sappelt in the trades too much for the future?
For the Reds, it appears the future is the here and now, all the irons are in the fireplace, tomorrow is today.
That is all based on what Jocketty has done, in the off-season. Now is the time for the Reds to go all-in, take advantae of what has happened in Milwaukee and St. Louis.
Division champion Milwaukee is crippled. The Brewers lost Prince Fielder through free agency to the Detroit Tigers and will lose MVP outfielder Ryan Braun for 50 games after he tested positive for a banned substance. That means the Brewers are without their 2011 one-two punch for nearly one-third of the season, a difficult punch in the gut from which to recover.
St. Louis lost Albert Pujols through free agency to the Los Angeles Angels. Pujols, the heart and soul of the Cardinals, is a heavy hit to St. Louis, but the Cardinals remain pitch-rich in their rotation, especially with Adam Wainwright returning.
But now is the time for the Reds. How it all shapes up begins this week when manager Dusty Baker fits all the new pieces together with the old pieces and see how they fit together.
And questions, questions, questions abound as they always do during spring training. They have six weeks to find answers and often those six weeks aren't enough time.
For example: The Reds traded starter Travis Wood. But they are still talking about Aroldis Chapman as a starter, saying he is fully recovered from a tired arm. But there are six legitimate guys to fit into five slots Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Chapman. And they added veteran Brett Tomko to the mix Monday, signing him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to major-league camp.
Somebody has to go to the bullpen or somebody just has to go. Seven is too many for the mix.
Is catcher Devin Mesoraco ready for full-time duty? Based on what fans saw late last season, the 22-year-old No. 1 draft pick has star' stamped on his catcher's mask. How soon?
Mostly likely manager Dusty Baker will once again have a two-headed catching tandem. Last year it was Ryan Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez. Hernandez is gone, so this year it will be Mesoraco and Hanigan unless one totally takes command or one totally falls on his shin guards.
Can Joey Votto continue to carry the offensive load on his shoulders, as he has done for most of his career? Even though teams have been able to pitch around the 2010 MVP first baseman, he still does most of the damage when damage is needed.
Based on what first basemen Pujols and Fielder received and the lengths of their contracts, most eyes focus now on Votto as far as future available first basemen are concerned via free agency. Although he is signed through 2013 (he'll make 17 million in 2013), this could be his last season in a Reds uniform. The Reds want to keep him, say they want to keep, but cold, hard cash probably will determine that outcome.
How goes it with second baseman Brandon Phillips and the Reds? Phillips wants a contract extension. The Reds haven't given him one, although they have talked. Will that affect Phillips? Does he have a fragile ego? It could work both ways. Phillips could play with an "I'll show you" attitude to get that extension, or he could lapse into an "I'm not appreciated" attitude and sulk through the season.
And without that extension, will he bat leadoff with enthusiasm or will he say he'd rather be batting second. Phillips is a competitor, a guy who likes to win and likes to look good doing it, so he'll probably play his hardest no matter what.
Will Scott Rolen's surgically repaired shoulder permit him to play 125 games. That was the goal last year but shoulder, neck and back problem intervened. For their 8.2 million, the Reds got 65 games. This year they'll only pay him 6.5 million, but hope that'll get them 125 games.
If not, Juan Francisco awaits. The guy is stuffed with talent, but getting it out hasn't been easy. Too often, with his strikeouts and his errors, he reminds people too much of Edwin Encarnacion but never as bad as Brandon Larson. This could be the year, given a chance, that the talent overwhelms everything else.
Shortstop is a curio, too. Zack Cozart was a surprise success story when he was called up late last season after Paul Janish failed to use his bat for anything more than a walking stick. But Cozart tore up his arm making a tag and underwent Tommy John surgery. He is said to be full-go again. Can he match what he was doing before the injury? What's the fall-back plan? Janish?
The outfield won't change much Drew Stubbs in center and Jay Bruce in right. Stubbs needs to cut down on the strikeouts but that's a broken record or stuck record or Memorex. He has needed to do that forever, but hasn't made any progress.
Bruce is another guy with future star tattooed on his forehead. He always seems on the brink but hasn't pushed over the edge yet. He still strikes out too much and misfires in the clutch too often. And they can no longer say, "Well, he's only 21 or 22." He'll be 24 on Opening Day still young, but with a lot of experience on which to pile up some success. And he already has had his big moments.
Left field? Chris Heisey? Ryan Ludwick? Heisey and Ludwick? Ludwick had one monster year with the St. Louis Cardinals, but has fallen to low numbers the last few years. Some fans fear he may be another Corey Patterson or Willy Tavares. Ludwick, though, grew up a Reds fan and seems primed to pump the most out of himself while wearing the wishbone-C.
Left field is one spot where spring training will most likely determine the outcome.
After all, isn't that what spring training is for other than to lay suntan foundations and improve the short game and long irons on the golf course? Oh yeah. There is plenty of time for that once the day's work is done.