Charlie Clifford, Columnist

A team that has won 90-plus games in three of the last four seasons, the Cincinnati Reds find themselves in Goodyear, Ariz. this spring still looking for the swagger of a winning ballclub. The playoff failures of 2012 and 2013 cost manager Dusty Baker his job this offseason, but that is not the only change looking ahead to 2014 in the Queen City.

Pouring out the big bucks for former Reds farmhands is becoming an addiction for GM Walt Jocketty.  Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Homey Bailey, Aroldis Chapman and Jay Bruce are all locked up for the long term. It is a solid core no doubt, but is it worth the combined $544 million and change guaranteed? Time will tell, but as of now, it’s a hefty investment for a group that has never won a playoff series.

With the departure of Shin-Soo Choo after one successful season, first-year Reds manager Bryan Price will turn to rookie speedster Billy Hamilton in the leadoff and center field spot. Speedster is a term that gets throw around often by scouts, but Hamilton is the fastest player in the big leagues. After stealing a record 155 bases in the minors last season, the question remains as to how often the rookie can reach first base this season. After all, you can’t steal first.

Other question marks include the Reds starting rotation. Long-time Red Bronson Arroyo left for the Diamondbacks and gosh would the team might want to take back the Travis Wood – Sean Marshall trade. Mat Latos looks to be the favorite for opening day, and Bailey, fresh off a six-year, $105 million extension, is primed to come into his own as one of the top starters in the NL Central. Outside of these two starters, the Ohio River turns murky for pitching coach Jeff Pico.

Much of this pressure falls on Johnny Cueto. Only making 11 starts last year due to injury, Cueto’s 2014 season is off to a rough start after getting shelled in Tuesday’s spring training outing. Can Cueto regain his dominant form of 2012? Can rookie lefty Tony Cingrani and righty Mike Leake shore up the back end of the rotation? All of this remains to be seen…

What is for certain? The NL central will be tougher than ever. Pittsburgh, coming off its first playoff appearance in 21 seasons, is looking to take a step closer to a World Series title. St Louis’s only goal is to get back to the final series in October for the third time in four seasons. And to get their players off Twitter…  

Milwaukee gets Ryan Braun back and is much improved by adding three big names in Matt Garza, Mark Reynolds, and Lyle Overbay.

Can Bryan Price lead the Reds to the promised land? One good strategy: use the nastiest pitcher in the game, Cuban-defector Aroldis Chapman, as much as possible. Why not use him like closers of the past, and bring him in for the final 9 outs? Look no further than an old Super Smash Bros rule: Use your flame-thrower and see what happens.

Regardless if Reds change the late inning strategy, much rides on the 2014 season. The players have been paid, and now its time for Reds fans to see some return on investment with these big time contracts.

My Prediction: Reds take second in the NL Central and lose in the NLDS for the third time in five seasons.