There's been a lot of hype about this coming baseball season. Big trades have occurred. Teams like the Rangers have put their hopes in money as they buy up players and field teams of All-Stars. Quietly, the Cincinnati Reds have been building a side that will control the NL Central.
The proven ace of the Reds' pitching rotation, Johnny Cueto is just 25 years old. Since 2008, his numbers have improved tremendously every year. In 2011, Cueto posted a stunning 2.31 ERA, pitched three complete games, gave up just eight home runs (at Great American Ballpark, no less) and held batters to a .220 average. His extreme delivery, in which he turns his back to the batter completely, has been leaving hitters clueless.
Cueto's return means the Reds have a guaranteed ace at the head of the rotation. Expect his numbers to improve as his health does.
Francisco Cordero did not have a bad season. He's one of baseball's greatest closers, ranked 12th all time in saves and could easily climb the rankings with a good season.
That said, Cordero was one of the most frustrating Reds to watch. Despite picking up 37 saves in 2011, Reds fans are more likely to remember him for his six blown saves and his dreadful habit of walking the first batter he faced or loading the bases only to come back and save the game dramatically. He was the reason for such games as the 18-inning loss to the Phillies, something that should have been wrapped up in the ninth.
The Reds smartly decided against re-signing Cordero and instead opted for Phillies' closer, Ryan Madson. Madson posted 32 saves out of 34 in 2011 and has solid WHIP and strikeout numbers. He also brings a freshness to the bullpen and years of pitching experience.
The Reds will be so effective this year because management has simply trimmed away the fat of the 2010 NL Central champions and added very solid replacements.
At the same time, two of the NL Central's best players have left the National League entirely. With Prince Fielder leaving Milwaukee for Detroit, and Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis for Anaheim, both the Brewers and Cardinals have gotten substantially worse.
The Brewers have the bigger problem as, on top of losing one of their best players to free agency, they also might face 50 games without the NL MVP, Ryan Braun. Braun has infamously been charged with the use of PEDs and, despite appealing, will likely face his suspension if MLB holds him to the same standards they held Edinson Volquez to a few years ago.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are also suffering a bit. While Cards fans will be quick to point out that Lance Berkman will be returning along with Matt Holliday and the newly signed Carlos Beltran. But the truth is, all three players are past their prime and most baseball fans would not be willing to bet that all three will be playing at their peak. Berkman's season looks somewhat like an anomaly, Holliday is good but cannot carry a team the way Pujols can and Beltran, at 34 years old, is well into his decline and is very injury prone. I will admit that if all three players play at their best for the entire season, they can make up the loss of Pujols, but it just doesn't look like that's possible.
But what about Cards pitching? Well, for starters, I'm positive Chris Carpenter will suffer an injury this year. Carpenter turns 37 in April, and while he has pitched well and has been a workhorse for years, his career is coming towards a close. He cannot keep up his numbers forever, and let's face it, his 11-9 record in 2011 wasn't overwhelming. What about Wainwright? We have yet to see how he will fare after returning from elbow surgery, but bear in mind that the 2010 Cardinals, with Pujols, Carpenter, Holliday and Wainwright were second best to a Reds team with few headliners.
On top of being a dominant batting and fielding team, most of the players in Cincinnati are not peaked yet. With a median age of just 26, the Reds are surprisingly young. Some of the biggest names on the team, like Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Drew Stubbs, are all under 30 (they are 24, 28 and 27, respectively). There is so much room for improvement.
Take Jay Bruce. He's one of the most notable hitters on the team, behind Votto and Brandon Phillips only, and yet he was just 21 when he made his debut. At 24 years old, Bruce has shown what he is capable of, leading the team in home runs last year with 32 and adding 97 RBIs. His strikeouts and batting average leave something to be desired but those are areas he can improve in. He reached the All-Star game last year and is arguably the best defensive right fielder in the league.
Now look at the pitching. Johnny Cueto is 25. Mike Leake and Mat Latos are both 24. Aroldis Chapman, a possible starter, is only 23. A starting rotation with these athletes would be one of the youngest in the league and Cueto, Latos and Chapman all possess the ability to be aces while Leake is a highly reliable middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. They all have a lot to learn and can develop tremendously.
The returning stars I'd define as veterans are Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Ryan Hannigan and Bronson Arroyo. Despite off seasons for Rolen and Arroyo, the outlook for all four players looks good.
Rolen, if healthy, is arguably the greatest defensive third baseman of all time and is a solid leader.
Hannigan is a highly underrated catcher with great knowledge of the game who will prove important in directing the young catcher Devon Mesoraco.
Phillips is quite possibly baseball's best second baseman. He's a tremendous athlete on defense and an excellent leadoff hitter.
Bronson's poor performance last season looks to be an anomaly, a result of mono and a back injury that plagued him all season. If he returns to his 2010 form, the Reds' pitching rotation will be outright dominant.
In addition to these players, Miguel Cairo will return. Cairo is capable utility man and one of the team's best leaders. Wilson Valdez joins from Phillies. Valdez is another utility man who adds depth and experience to the young Reds.