It was one hell of a season for the Cincinnati Reds. Just one year removed from a third-place, 79-83 campaign -- quite a letdown after their title-winning 2010 -- the Reds came back in 2012 and finished in first place again, this time with 97 victories, second-most in the majors. And they did it with their best player -- and arguably the league's best hitter -- missing a significant chunk of time. Winning all those games was, of course, a team effort. But which particular player best symbolizes the Reds' 2012, which ended with a stunning, come-from-ahead loss to the Giants in their Division Series?
Let me explain ...
The Reds play in one of Major League Baseball's smallest markets. Depending on how you count these things, the Cincinnati market is either the third- or fourth-smallest by population in the majors, essentially the same as Cleveland and Kansas City, and comfortably larger than Milwaukee.
But like the Brewers (and unlike the Indians and Royals), somehow the Reds are able to compete, financially, with most of their competitors. If they weren't, they probably wouldn't have been able to entice Walt Jocketty to take over as general manager, shortly into the 2008 season.
And where other small-market franchises hoard young players and eschew big contracts, Jocketty's Reds have taken a different tack. Last April, the club got Joey Votto's signature on a 10-year, $225-million contract extension. This came six months after Jocketty traded four players -- including prospects Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal -- to the San Diego Padres for starting pitcher Mat Latos.
Granted, Latos earned just a pittance of salary in 2012. But he's about to become expensive and the Reds traded those two promising youngsters to get him. Signing Votto to the huge extension and trading for Latos was a clear signal that the Reds were going all-in for 2012 ... and probably for some years afterward.
And so far, it's working. Mat Latos wasn't the Reds' ace this year -- Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto earned that label -- but Latos did go 14-4 with a pitching staff that led the National League in ERA. Which was all the more impressive considering Great American Ballpark was, as usual, quite a friendly yard for hitters.
In case you missed any previous entries in this EXCITING SERIES, here's the archive.