As is their custom each January, the Cincinnati Reds came Saturday and warmed the hearts of baseball fans in Lexington.
Before a meet-and-greet with about 1,000 fans at Fayette Mall, the Reds Caravan warmed the day for patients at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips and the Reds' No. 1 draft pick in 2007, catcher Devin Mesoraco, handed out gift bags and signed autographs.
Also obliging were Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman, Assistant General Manager Bob Miller, TV analyst Chris Welsh, Reds Hall of Famer Lee May and team mascot Gapper. Reds CEO Bob Castellini joined the Caravan at Fayette Mall.
As is par for most baseball teams, high hopes overflowed.
"We're pretty happy," Miller said. "We wanted to strengthen up the middle. We went out and got a center fielder and a catcher, got a leadoff hitter with (Willy) Taveras out in center. And, hopefully, (shortstop Alex) Gonzalez will be back this year. And with Brandon at second, that's pretty good up the middle."
The new catcher is Ramon Hernandez, acquired in a trade with the Orioles.
Gonzalez missed the 2008 season because of a compression fracture in his left knee, and underwent surgery July 7.
"Pitching-wise, I think we're the best we've been in a long, long time," Miller said. "There's literally one position available, the fifth starter. And you've got Micah Owings, who we traded for in the (Adam) Dunn deal, and we got (Nick) Masset, who we traded for in the (Ken Jr.) Griffey deal."
Four starters back in the rotation are right-handers Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. Owings and Masset are among the candidates for the fifth spot, with Homer Bailey, Daryl Thompson and Ramon Ramirez.
The bullpen is set and, other than Arthur Rhodes and David Weathers, both 39, young. Of the others, none is older than 33.
Brennaman says he "can never remember in 35 years with this club" that the Reds have gone to spring training with a staff so clearly set.
"I think that bodes pretty well," he said. "This club's got a chance to have a heck of a pitching staff, I think. I know there are a lot of people concerned about scoring runs, and I don't totally discount that concern, but if you play better defense, you get better pitching, you allow the other team less runs. So the absolute need to score as many runs as they did last year is not there."
Concern about scoring is due to the loss of power hitters Dunn and Griffey.
"I think our offense is going to be different than it's been in the past," Miller said, "but that doesn't mean it's going to be worse. I think we'll score from first base now on doubles, and we'll be able to steal. I don't know what the batting order will be but between Taveras, (Jerry Jr.) Hairston and Brandon, 120 steals is pretty easy to get if they just do what they had last year."
One more morsel to warm the spirit: spring training opens in 21/2 weeks.
WVLK-FM 101.5 in Lexington will be the newest affiliate of the Reds Radio Network. The network is heard on 56 stations in seven states.