Dusty Baker has won more games than he's lost in a successful managing career with the Giants and Cubs over the past 15 seasons. Well, it's 14 seasons, actually, because he skipped 2007, working here at the Worldwide Leader, and major league prospects everywhere were again safe to get playing time. Now Baker will manage the Reds and wouldn't you know it, the No. 1 prospect in the game is on that team (Jay Bruce), as well as one of the top young pitchers (Homer Bailey) and a few others of note (Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto). So the big question is: Will Dusty play them?
Maybe it's a bit unfair to judge Baker until we see how he develops these prospects, but the fantasy world is eager to see them play, and that's the biggest story coming from Cincinnati. The Reds have middle-of-the-order pop in the corner outfield slots in Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., so if Bruce is going to play, he's going to need to do it in center field. Votto should, by most accounts, play over Scott Hatteberg at first base, but it's not guaranteed. Bailey could be the team's No. 3 starter and Cueto is a rotation candidate at some point this season unless his progress gets stunted.
The Reds don't figure to challenge for the NL Central title this season; the team hasn't changed much from last season, when they posted a 72-90 record. Francisco Cordero is the new closer, getting a four-year deal for $46 million. Of course, closing wasn't the biggest problem for the team, but getting games to closer David Weathers was, so now the bullpen is, on paper, stronger. The rotation and offense could be too, if the team takes the long-term approach and lets the kids play.
Ballpark: Plenty of runs are scored in Great American Ballpark, especially via the long ball, but the Reds have a homer-laden team, so this is no surprise. Dunn, Griffey and Brandon Phillips combined for 100 home runs, and the team certainly hopes Votto and Edwin Encarnacion will join them as 30-homer options soon. Reds pitchers, however, give thos dingers back. The Houston and Tampa Bay pitching staffs were the only ones to allow more home runs in 2007. Knowing that balls fly out of the stadium, it makes it more enticing to draft Reds hitters ... and wonder what Francisco Cordero might have been thinking in choosing Great American for the next four seasons. Regardless, in choosing fantasy players, especially on a daily basis, you want the hitters who will frequent this ballpark.
Top sleeper(s): We'll discuss the kids who need opportunities a bit later, but what about a veteran guy who normally has value but has fallen off the proverbial face of the fantasy earth? You know, like scrappy Ryan Freel? He had an injury-plagued 2007, and there's no reason to ever expect 150 games from him, given his all-out style. However, if Bruce does not make the team, Freel stands to become the everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter. Freel stole 36 or more bases three straight seasons until last season and he still ran plenty in 2007 despite the injuries, getting 15 steals in 75 games. Freel doesn't offer the handy infield eligibility anymore in many leagues, having played 19 games at third base (man, isn't that a crusher, being one game away?) and two games at second base, but it's always nice to see a 36-steal guy there in the final round of a draft, or in free agency. Edwin Encarnacion is another fella who should be stepping up, but that's not as much of a surprise to people; to some, he's already considered a top-15 third baseman. Bronson Arroyo is an innings-eater who took a big step backward in 2007, but his second-half ERA was 3.55 and his K rate was solid. He's not an ace, but chances are you'll get him later than you should.
Intriguing spring battle: While center field (Freel versus Jay Bruce) is a place to look, so is first base. The Reds exercised their option to bring back Scott Hatteberg for another year, and while it doesn't necessarily imply he will play, certainly a team with pitching needs and a top first base prospect could have spent the money better. Hatteberg remains a productive player for what he does well. He had a .902 OPS against right-handed pitching, using his plate patience to draw walks, and if Votto were to be traded or demoted, the team could use Jeff Keppinger against lefties to make for a pretty nice platoon. Votto, like Hatteberg a left-handed hitter, will have to win this job.
Schedule preview: The Reds are going to hit home runs, and give them up, but they don't have a particularly friendly first month in that regard, so fantasy owners of certain Reds might not get all the production they hope for. Cincy opens at home against pitching-laden Arizona and none of the five road series the team will play in April are in hitters' parks. Also, the final two series of the season are on the road, at Houston and St. Louis, and neither of those ballparks were in the top 20 for 2007 park factors. So, fantasy owners might not get great starts or endings from their Reds hitters.
Backups to watch: Freel is going to find a way to play, whether it's in center field over Jay Bruce and Norris Hopper or backing up at third base or a corner outfield spot. Hopper will be 29 by Opening Day, so he's past prospect status, but he batted .329 in 121 games in 2007, plus he steals bases. Keppinger is the main backup for oft-injured shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and he hit .332 in 67 games, walked 24 times versus 12 strikeouts and hammered lefties for a .986 OPS. He's not Gonzalez's equal in the field, but since Gonzalez has averaged only 116 games the past three seasons, it's a good bet Keppinger will play.
Fantasy studs: Four years ago, who would have guessed that Brandon Phillips and Aaron Harang would be the first two Cincinnati Reds to be taken in a draft? Phillips was failing in Cleveland, buried for two seasons and eventually given away for a player to be named later. Harang was trying to make the Oakland rotation, but and was eventually dealt for Jose Guillen. Now these guys are valuable, with Phillips arguably the No. 2 second baseman in fantasy after his 30/30 season and Harang a top-15 starting pitcher known for durability and striking out more than 200 hitters in back-to-back seasons. There's no need to worry about Phillips, by the way, as he took his breakout 2006 season to another level last season. Whither Adam Dunn and his four straight 40-homer seasons? He's a distant third in the Cincinnati fantasy race, mainly thanks to his paltry batting average.
Prospects to watch for 2008: Bruce is a power-hitting outfielder who hit .319 with 26 home runs at three levels of the minors in 2007, advancing more quickly than the Reds thought he would. Chances are, unless he has a big spring, he's ticketed for Triple-A. Then again, Josh Hamilton had a big spring in 2007 and ended up the regular center fielder when he was healthy. He was traded to Texas for Edinson Volquez, who is past prospect status and should battle for a rotation spot, to make room for Bruce. Bruce isn't really a center fielder, having rarely played the spot before, but that's where he would have to play. Votto, meanwhile, emerged in September and is ready to play right away.
Bailey should have little problem earning a rotation spot, but he will have to be more consistent and have better command. Bailey walked too many hitters at Triple-A Louisville, then missed time with a groin injury and kept walking people in the majors, 28 of them against 28 strikeouts in 45.1 innings. He has a bright future and could be a fantasy sleeper this season.
Prospect to watch for the future: Cueto and Matt Maloney are both likely ticketed for Triple-A Louisville. Cueto is 22 and has only four starts at Triple-A to his record, so he's likely going back. He fanned 21 hitters against two walks in those four starts, so his call-up at some point is imminent. Maloney is a crafty lefty who keeps ringing up lofty strikeout totals, 177 in the minors in 2007. The Reds acquired him from Philadelphia in the Kyle Lohse trade, and Maloney should make his major league debut in 2007 as well.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.