The Cincinnati Reds finished well short in their quest to defend their NL Central crown in 2011, but they made plenty of moves over the offseason to help themselves get back on top in 2012.
The Reds were very active this offseason, making a couple key trades and some key free-agent signings. They brought in Mat Latos to bolster their rotation, and they now have Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson holding things down in their bullpen. Wilson Valdez and Ryan Ludwick bring much-needed depth.
Make no mistake about it—the Reds have equipped themselves to win the NL Central. The trouble for them is that it's one of the toughest divisions in baseball to win.
Here's a look at how things are shaping up for the Reds this season.
2011 Record: 79-83
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): RHP Mat Latos (from San Diego), RHP Josh Judy (waivers), LHP Sean Marshall (from Chicago Cubs), RHP Andrew Brackman (FA), LHP Ron Mahay (FA), LHP Clay Zavada (FA), C Dioner Navarro (FA), RHP Ryan Madson (FA), OF Willie Harris (FA), SS Wilson Valdez (from Philadelphia), LHP Jeff Francis (FA), OF Ryan Ludwick (FA), RHP Brett Tomko (FA).
Key Departures: 1B Yonder Alonso (to San Diego), RHP Edinson Volquez (to San Diego), RHP Brad Boxberger (to San Diego), C Yasmani Grandal (to San Diego), OF Dave Sappelt (to Chicago Cubs), LHP Travis Wood (to Chicago Cubs), LHP Jeremy Horst (to Philadelphia), C Ramon Hernandez (FA), RHP Francisco Cordero (FA), LHP Dontrelle Willis (FA), SS Edgar Renteria (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Johnny Cueto (9-5, 2.31 ERA, 1.09 WHIP)
- Mat Latos (9-14, 3.47, 1.18)
- Bronson Arroyo (9-12, 5.07, 1.37)
- Homer Bailey (9-7, 4.43, 1.28)
- Mike Leake (12-9, 3.86, 1.17)
- Aroldis Chapman (4-1, 3.60, 1.30)
C: Ryan Hanigan (.367/.356/.357), Devin Mesoraco (.180/.226/.360)
1B: Joey Votto (.309/.416/.531)
2B: Brandon Phillips (.300/.353/.457)
3B: Scott Rolen (.242/.279/.397)
SS: Zack Cozart (.324/.324/.486)
LF: Chris Heisey (.254/.309/.487)
CF: Drew Stubbs (.243/.321/.364)
RF: Jay Bruce (.256/.331/.474)
Closer: Ryan Madson (R) (4-2, 32 SV, 3 HLD, 2 BLSV, 2.37 ERA, 1.15 WHIP)
Sean Marshall (L) (6-6, 5 SV, 34 HLD, 4 BLSV, 2.26, 1.10)
Nick Masset (R) (3-6, 1 SV, 14 HLD, 6 BLSV, 3.71, 1.52)
Logan Ondrusek (R) (5-5, 14 HLD, 3 BLSV, 3.23, 1.35)
Aroldis Chapman (L) (4-1, 1 SV, 13 HLD, 2 BLSV, 3.60, 1.30)
Bill Bray (L) (5-3, 20 HLD, 3 BLSV, 2.98, 1.08)
Sam LeCure (R) (2-1, 5 HLD, 3.71, 1.00)
Jose Arredondo (R) (4-4, 4 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.23, 1.40)
Josh Judy (R) (0-0, 7.07, 1.57)
Andrew Brackman (R) (0-0, 0.00, 1.71)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
In 2010, the Reds were able to win the division despite having a decidedly mediocre starting rotation.
The Reds were not as lucky in 2011. Their starters logged a respectable 90 quality starts, but the Reds had a rotation ERA of 4.47. That was the fourth-highest mark in the National League. The biggest problem was the long ball, as Reds starters gave up an NL-high 138 home runs.
The addition of Mat Latos should stabilize things. The Reds gave up a lot to get him, but they're getting a fireballer with good control who will rack up strikeouts and generally frustrate hitters. In other words, they're getting exactly the kind of starting pitcher they need.
There is a little bit of concern regarding Latos. Though he has the ability to be an ace, I'm not prepared to call him one yet. He's never crossed the 200-inning mark, and I have some worries about his transition from Petco Park to Great American Ballpark. I'll discuss him in more depth a little later on.
Johnny Cueto is the other key guy in this rotation. He's generally been very good when healthy, and he's coming off a season in which he had a very impressive 2.31 ERA in 24 starts.
Nevertheless, I would think twice before slapping the ace label on Cueto. He's another guy who hasn't crossed the 200-inning mark, and his forte is to get by pitching to contact rather than punching guys out. That's not a bad way to go about one's business, mind you, but the signs suggest Cueto was a little too good last season.
A guy who has a 53.7 ground ball rate should have a BABIP much higher than .249. Cueto benefited from a lot of luck last season, as evidenced by his 3.45 FIP. That was over a full run higher than his ERA.
So don't expect Cueto to post an ERA in the low 2.00s again. He's going to level out in 2012. At worst, he'll be as unpredictable as he was in 2008 and 2009. At best, he'll be a dependable starter with an ERA in the 3.00s. That'll do fine given how much thunder the Reds have on offense.
And then there's Bronson Arroyo, who had a bad case of gopheritis last season. He gave up the most home runs in the major leagues—46, 11 more than the next guy. His HR/9 was a ridiculous 2.09.
Surprised? You shouldn't have been. Arroyo was able to fool hitters with his array of breaking balls for a few seasons there, but not in 2011. His K/9 bottomed out at 4.88, and both his line drive rates and fly ball rates soared. Naturally, a lot of the fly balls he induced left the yard. To be exact, 15.9 percent of them left the yard.
Mike Leake is a much better candidate to be this team's No. 3 starter. He had his own troubles with home runs last season, but he got a few more punchouts and walked fewer guys. He also kept his ground ball rate pretty high and pitched 30 more innings than he did in 2010. I view him as a youngster who's on the right track.
I feel kind of the same way about Homer Bailey. It looks like he's not going to develop into the ace we all thought he would be, but he made enough improvements last season to show that he can at least be a productive pitcher at the back end of this rotation. His K/BB of 3.21 was a new career-best, though his improved control led to some hard-hit balls. He'll have to find a good balance this season.
The addition of Latos makes this rotation better than it was a year ago, but there are still more question marks than I'm comfortable with. Things are not going to be night-and-day better than they were in 2011.
Scouting the Bullpen
Cincinnati's bullpen walked way too many guys in 2011. Their BB/9 of 4.09 was the highest mark in the National League.
But hey, Reds relievers did a good job of getting out of trouble. Despite all the walks, this bullpen had a 3.55 ERA. That's not terrible.
The Reds made some upgrades over the offseason. In the closer's role, Francisco Cordero is out, and Ryan Madson is in. This is a good thing.
Madson was the best reliever available on the market this offseason. He only has one full season as a closer under his belt, but he's been a productive reliever for quite a while at this point. He's not going to walk the ballpark when he comes in, and he's going to punch hitters out. That's exactly what you want out of a closer.
It also helps to have a closer that opponents aren't going to knock around. In this case, Madson's BAA of .243 last season might look alarming, but don't worry about that. Look at the fact hitters slugged just .297 off him. A lot of the hits he gave up were singles, and those don't hurt.
Sean Marshall was another huge get for the Reds. He's one of the top lefty relievers in baseball, and he's coming off a season in which he had a studly 4.65 K/BB. He's just the guy the Reds need holding down the eighth inning leading to Madson.
Beyond these two, Dusty Baker has a good collection of arms to use when he doesn't feel like overworking his starters. This is not a bullpen stacked with elite arms, but at least Baker has a nice mix of righties and lefties to work with.
The most important part is that the Reds are all set as far as the late innings are concerned. If these guys get a lead, they're going to hold it.
Scouting the Hitting
Scoring runs was not an issue for the Reds last season. They scored 735 of them to finish second in the National League. The home run ball was a big part of how they conducted their business. The Reds hit a grand total of 183 dingers, second behind the Milwaukee Brewers for most in the National League.
Things will not be any different this season. The Reds have power bats up and down their lineup, and it all revolves around 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto.
I'm going to geek out over Votto at length a little later on in our program, but it suffices to say I'm a big fan of the guy. Over the last two seasons, Votto has a line of .316/.420/.984. He's hit 66 home runs and has driven in 216 runs. He's far and away one of the top hitters in the National League, and the Reds can count on him to be a rock in the middle of their lineup as long as he's still breathing.
The Reds should expect Jay Bruce to have his best season yet in 2012. He's shown flashes of greatness in the early portion of his career, but we haven't seen Bruce have a Votto-like season in which he hits for power and average while driving in a boatload of runs. Bruce has been inconsistent.
Bruce looked like he was on his way to having a brilliant season in 2011, as he hit 21 home runs before the All-Star break with an .852 OPS. Much of his work was done in the month of May, when he hit .342 with a staggering 12 home runs. Outside of that one month, though, he was decidedly mediocre.
Bruce now has plenty of big-league experience under his belt. The time is now for him to develop into a star.
While the Reds will be looking for Bruce to develop into a star, they'll be looking for a handful of other players to trend towards star status.
Drew Stubbs is one of them. He has all the talent in the world, but consistency has eluded him. He'll do himself a big favor if he learns to stop striking out so damn much. He led the league with 205 punchouts last season, and that's just not going to cut it. He needs to be way more selective. If he does that, the sky's the limit.
All eyes will be on top prospect Devin Mesoraco this season. There's nothing left for him to prove in the minors, and the majority of Reds fans would love nothing more than to see him take over as the team's everyday catcher. If he pans out in the majors, he'll be a catcher who hits for average and power. Such creatures are rare.
Beyond the one rock and the breakout candidates, this lineup is solid. The Reds know what they're going to get out of Brandon Phillips; Scott Rolen will at least provide good defense at the hot corner and a few homers at the plate; and guys like Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick will provide additional pop.
Even if the breakout candidates disappoint again in 2012, scoring runs will not be this team's problem. This is a deep lineup, one that pitchers will not look forward to facing.
Let's talk about Mat Latos.
Like I said above, I'm a fan. Latos is a hard thrower who makes it very difficult for hitters to make solid contact. He gets by primarily by striking hitters out and getting them to hit fly balls. It's impressive that he's been able to keep his BABIP comfortably under .300 while keeping his HR/FB rate under 10 percent.
However, the transition out of Petco Park and into Great American Ballpark is a concern. Fly balls won't stay in the yard in Cincinnati like they stayed in the yard in San Diego. Per ESPN.com, Great American Ballpark had a home run park factor (or whatever it's called) of 1.314 last season. That was the third-highest mark in baseball.
So Latos would be wise to change up his pitching habits a little bit with the Reds. He still has the stuff to punch hitters out, and he should take advantage of that, but it's not a good idea for him to keep his stuff up in the zone daring hitters to hit the ball in the air. That worked in San Diego. It will not work in Cincinnati.
Still, Latos is the best starting pitcher the Reds have in their arsenal. He doesn't have to put up Justin Verlander-type numbers to justify the trade they made for him. As long as he provides innings and keeps the team in a position to win games, Latos will be worth it.
Time for me to geek out over Joey Votto.
There's nothing not to like about Votto. You want your middle-of-the-order guys to hit for average, get on base, hit for power and drive in runs—and Votto does all those things better than most. Even though his average fell from .324 in 2010 to .309 in 2011, he still finished first in the NL with a .416 OBP and fifth in the NL with a .947 OPS.
Since Votto broke into the league in 2007, he ranks third among lefty hitters with a .313 batting average. His OPS of .955 since 2007 ranks third among all hitters.
Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball. That's not hyperbole. That's fact.
This geek-out session is adjourned.
I've held off on talking about Aroldis Chapman. Until now.
The Reds are going to find out this season exactly what they have in Chapman. They know he's a guy with an absolutely insane fastball, but what they don't know is how his fastball is best put to use.
Presently, the Reds are trying Chapman out as a starting pitcher. In the words of pitching coach Bryan Price, via USA Today, trying Chapman out as a starter is all about getting "a return for your investment."
No kidding. The Reds signed Chapman to a six-year deal worth over $30 million, and that's too much money to be paying a middle reliever. Making Chapman a starter is in their interest.
Whether or not Chapman actually has the ability to be an effective starter is a complete tossup. Chapman's velocity will only get him so far as a starter. In fact, it has only gotten him so far as a reliever.
My hunch is that this is not going to work, but the Reds certainly need it to work. Their rotation is not especially deep. They need as many starting pitchers as possible, so Chapman can do the Reds a big favor by making good on this experiment.
It's not a huge defeat if Chapman doesn't pan out as a starter. If the rotation doesn't get his arm, the bullpen gets his arm. Though Chapman has not proven to be a dominant reliever, his 105 MPH fastball is perfectly suited for the late innings.
Prospect to Watch
Keep an eye on Billy Hamilton, but don't blink. If you do, you might miss him.
Hamilton is the fastest player in the minors, and it's not even close. He's got track-star speed, and he used it to steal 103 bases in Single-A last season.
Yeah, you heard me right. One hundred and three.
Naturally, Hamilton doesn't have a whole lot of pop. His lot in life is to hit it on the ground and leg out ground balls for base hits. Once on base, he'll be off and running.
Think of him as Willie Mays Hayes, except faster.
Hamilton still needs plenty of work as a hitter, so don't expect to see him in the majors anytime soon. Once he arrives, though, he's going to terrorize teams on the basepaths.
What the Reds Will Do Well
This team is going to mash.
It's possible that Votto will be the only guy in this lineup to hit .300 with an above-average on-base percentage. But even if that's the case, the Reds' lineup will still feature six, seven or maybe even eight hitters with double-digit home run totals. There's also pockets of speed to be found in this lineup, giving Dusty Baker plenty of options.
I also like the back end of this bullpen. If the Reds take a lead into the eighth inning, the game is going to be over.
What the Reds Won’t Do Well
I didn't like the Reds' starting pitching in 2010. I liked it even less in 2011.
I like it a little more heading into 2012, but I'm still on the fence about it. I don't trust Cueto or Arroyo, and I have a feeling the Chapman experiment just isn't going to work.
I also fear for these guys under Baker's watch. He just doesn't know when to stop when it comes to his starting pitchers.
Despite my reservations, let's make one thing clear right here and now.
This is a good baseball team. The Reds have more than enough offense to compensate for their lackluster starting pitching, and they're going to have no trouble closing out games this season. They're going to win plenty of games.
But I'm picking them to finish third in the NL Central.
If you're a Reds fan, try not to get angry about this. The truth is that the Reds are right there with the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals. They can win the NL Central, and I'm not going to say you're wrong if you think they will.
I'm picking the Reds to finish third for two reasons: I don't like their starting pitching, and I just have a hunch that's where they're going to finish.
Projected Record: 86-76, third in NL Central
National League Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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