The schedule makers must have loved the three-headed monster that was the National League Central race last summer, because they've wasted no time staging the encore.
It will get started in earnest right out of the gate, with an Opening Day matchup between the Cardinals and Reds that will serve as an early litmus test for these two projected contenders. The 4:10 p.m. ET tilt today at Great American Ball Park -- where Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto will greet St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright -- is scheduled to be the first of six meetings in the season's first month between these two clubs; they'll also each face the Pirates in two series before the end of April.
A slow start by any of these teams could prove costly.
"We've got to go in there," said Reds manager Bryan Price, "and throw the first punch."
Price's ascension to the managerial seat left open by an ousted Dusty Baker was one of several offseason shakeups that will shape the direction this rivalry goes in 2014.
Last September, Billy Hamilton made a dazzling pinch-running debut against the Cardinals, beating the throw from the exceptional Yadier Molina to swipe his first bag. Now, it's Hamilton in a starting -- and starring -- role, replacing Shin-Soo Choo both in center field and the leadoff spot, with the Reds hoping he'll create run-producing opportunities for Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce and that this all isn't too much, too fast for the guy who is simply too fast to contain on the basepaths.
Cincinnati, on the heels of its frustrating finish to 2013, will also be relying on the youth of left-hander Tony Cingrani to replace the innings of departed veteran Bronson Arroyo.
The Cards, meanwhile, have considerably retooled the club that not only edged the Reds and Pirates for the NL Central crown last year but reached the World Series against the Red Sox. Carlos Beltran's free-agent departure opened an everyday opportunity for Matt Adams at first, with Allen Craig shifting to right. Matt Carpenter shifted to third to accommodate Kolten Wong. Jhonny Peralta brought his productive bat to the shortstop slot, and Peter Bourjos' plus glove will now be situated in center.
For all of those changes, though, the Cardinals still believe deeply in their well-documented "Way" of doing business, and they expect it to carry over into another season.
"I think the challenge is with the new guys and that they see what the culture is all about," manager Mike Matheny said. "We've had some really good feedback from guys here for the first time. We're not necessarily looking for validation that things are going well as much as, 'Are we missing anything here that you've seen in other camps?' [What they say they notice is how] our veterans really go about it a different way."
Cincinnati was forced, in recent weeks, to take a different look at its roster, as a result of lingering health issues in spring camp.
Closer Aroldis Chapman, starter Mat Latos, catcher Devin Mesoraco, relievers Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall and utility men Jack Hannahan and Skip Schumaker are all starting the season on the disabled list. Add to that the uncertainty about the status of Homer Bailey (groin) and Cueto (shoulder) in camp's final days, and Cincinnati had more than the usual number of unanswered questions in the final week of Spring Training. The Reds were trying to nail down not just their Opening Day lineup but their Opening Day starter opposite Wainwright. Unwelcome uncertainty for a first-time skipper such as Price.
In that respect, starting off the season with a matchup of this magnitude seems less than ideal, from Cincinnati's perspective, but such things are rarely best analyzed on paper (or via Internet bandwidth, as it were).
"We've had good battles with them," Price said. "They kind of had the edge on us last year, [11-8], and we had some successes the last couple of series, but it's a good battle and we know that they're not just the division champs or the NL champs. We're familiar with them. There's going to be no surprises there."
The Central could be prone to surprises. Who knows how last year's innings impact this year's results for that deep Cards staff? Who knows if the Reds have placed too big a gamble on Hamilton's legs? Who knows if the Pirates' decision to largely stand pat this winter will come back to bite them? Who knows if the Brewers, with a return to health and Matt Garza added to the rotation, will rise up the standings and enter the crowded contention picture?
All we know for sure is that the Cardinals and Reds will get this thing going right out of the gate. And admittedly, we'll probably all be guilty of reading too much into the early results.
But as far as Opening Day matchups go, you really can't ask for much more than what this Central showdown should provide.
Cardinals: Craig back on solid footing
Great American Ball Park was the site where Craig crumbled to the ground in a heap of pain last Sept. 4. The next time he took the field? Game 1 of the World Series.
Craig's ligament sprain in his left foot was a serious one that, under normal circumstances, would have required several months of rest. Of course, the Series is no normal circumstance, so Craig had to compromise some offseason conditioning work for the greater good of trying to help St. Louis win a championship. It was an impressive effort, end result notwithstanding. And when it was over, Craig had to wait another two months before he was ready to run on the foot again.
A healthy Craig is a productive Craig, and the Cards hope to have just that in this new season. He'll return to full-time action by returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and he'll look to prove that last year's incredible production with runners in scoring position (he batted .454, and .448 with RISP and two outs) was far from a fluke.
"I feel like I'm better for [having gone through the injury] right now," Craig said. "It's made me work hard with my body and make sure I'm in shape and really getting back to the basics."
Reds: Hoping not to be 'left' out
Speaking of recent injury history at this park, it was Opening Day last year when the World Series hopes of the Reds met their first substantial struggle -- the loss of Ryan Ludwick to a torn right labrum suffered on a slide at third.
In a related story, the Reds' left field production in 2013 was pretty abysmal: a .250 average, .313 on-base percentage and .374 slugging percentage. Compare that to the average NL left fielder (.263/.328/.417), and that spot was the first step toward Cincinnati's unmet expectations. While it's true that Ludwick did return for the season's final two months, he put up virtually nothing from the power perspective, given his inability to lift weights in the four months prior.
Ludwick is presumably back to full strength now, with the notable caveat that a 35-year-old coming off a shoulder issue has to prove he can provide the power of the past.
"Fortunately for me, it's my non-throwing arm," Ludwick said. "I've been through five other major surgeries. It's not like I haven't been through it before."
The Reds do seem capable of counting on reasonable improvement from left, and that would go a long way toward lengthening their lineup.
Last year, Wainwright was the only pitcher to steal a first-place vote away from Clayton Kershaw in the NL Cy Young Award ballots. That vote came from a Cincinnati-area writer. Ironically, the Reds were one of the few teams to have much success against Wainwright, who went 1-3 with a 7.77 ERA in four starts against them. ... The 95th Findlay Market Opening Day Parade will begin at noon, with legendary shortstop Dave Concepcion serving as grand marshal and famous batboy Teddy Kremer as dignitary. The parade will be routed away from its traditional location along Race Street due to streetcar construction. ... Concepcion and Barry Larkin will throw out simultaneous ceremonial first pitches before the game.