Despite a third-place finish in the NL Central in 2011, the Cincinnati Reds are widely favored to win the NL Central. Not only that, but they are expected to do better than the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and the reigning NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers.
Despite re-signing their face of the franchise, first baseman Joey Votto, to a 10-year contract extension and bringing in a few other players to improve the team, the Reds will still have trouble competing with the Brewers and Cardinals.
Offensively, Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips will both put up great numbers once again.
However, the Reds lineup has a few other question marks to address. Centerfielder Drew Stubbs has become one of the top base-stealing threats in the league, but in order for him to maximize his base-stealing potential, he will need to get on base a lot more than he did last year. Despite stealing 40 bases, he only had a .243 average, a .321 on-base percentage and an alarming 205 strikeouts in 604 at-bats. Stubbs' strikeout rate will have to decrease significantly for him to become a better hitter.
Another Reds outfielder that will need to have a better season is right fielder Jay Bruce. He did hit 32 home runs and drive in 97 RBI last season, but he will need to improve upon his .256 average in order to make a more significant contribution to the team's success.
Yet another critical member of the Reds lineup is veteran third baseman Scott Rolen, who is nearing the end of his career. One shouldn't expect too much, though, from catcher Ryan Hanigan, shortstop Zack Cozart and left fielder Chris Heisey.
On the pitching end, the Reds upgraded their rotation by acquiring Mat Latos from the Padres. If Latos can stay healthy this year, he could turn into a great No. 2 starter behind ace Johnny Cueto.
The rest of the Reds rotation is solid, which includes Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo. If all can pitch the way they are expected to, the Reds will win a lot of games, although it will still be tough to compete with the Brewers and Reds.
But the difference between first and third place for the Reds will come down to their bullpen. They lost closer Ryan Madson for the year during spring training, and only time will tell whether Sean Marshall will become a decent closer or not. Marshall has never been a closer in the past, so he'll likely struggle at times and blow a few too many saves.
At some point, the Reds could possibly put the young fire-balling phenom Aroldis Chapman as the new closer. However, there's also the possibility that Chapman becomes a part of the rotation. Chapman's development and what the Reds ultimately decide to do with him could play a very critical role in how far the Reds go this season.
The Reds have a great team overall, but unless Stubbs and Bruce get on base more and the bullpen doesn't struggle, the Reds are almost certain to finish in third place once again. With the Brewers and Cardinals primed to be contending for at least another few years, this could be a tough time for the Reds themselves to compete. Anything, of course, can happen, but it will take a lot to go the Reds' way in order for them to make the postseason.