Don't look now, but the Cincinnati Reds are the underdog favorites to win the National League pennant in 2009. Can the Reds follow the Rays' success by taking the baseball world by storm?
Similar to a year ago, when experts and columnists were writing about the Rays being a year or two away from competing, the Reds find themselves in the same fork in the road. Management have put together a team to win in the future, but the future may be this year. With pitching being the Reds' Achilles' heel since moving to the Great American Ball Park, they need to strike now with the best staff that they have assembled since 1990.
On offense, the Reds have one of the best lineups in baseball, especially if they are able to find a slugger to hit in the cleanup spot between the two studs, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. I'm expecting that spot to be occupied by Edwin Encarnacion. Expect Encarnacion to be in the All-Star Game this year and hit over 30 home runs with over 100 RBI. The time is here for Encarnacion to shed the "next" Aramis Ramirez tag and to out-produce him.
The table setters are expected to be Willy Tavares (68 steals in '08) and Brandon Phillips (21 home runs and 23 steals). Ramon Hernandez, Alex Gonzalez, and either Chris Dickerson (cousin of Eric) or Jerry Hairston Jr. complete this well-balanced lineup.
The bench is pretty deep, especially if Dickerson wins the left field job and Gonzalez is healthy. Jacque Jones, Jonny Gomes, Jeff Keppinger, and Daryl Ward will provide the defense, power, speed, and leadership that are necessary to balance the youth in the starting lineup.
The bullpen is anchored by flamethrower Francisco Cordero (78 Ks in 70 IP, 33 saves). To help get to Cordero is the incumbent setup man Dave Weathers (3.25 ERA). Included in the bullpen are righties Mike Lincoln, Jared Burton, and lefties Bill Bray, Aaron Fultz, and specialist Arthur Rhodes.
The rotation, as mentioned above, seems to be best group of pitchers that the Reds have put together since Tom Browning, Jose Rijo, and "Wildman" Jack Armstrong were pitching the Reds to the World Series in 1990.
The rotation will be headed by Aaron Harang. Expect a bounce-back after he went 6-17 after winning 16 games the past two years. His strikeout total (153 Ks) and K/BB (3/1) were strong, so I will chalk last year up to "bad luck."
Joining Harang are two young pitchers who can bring the heat and remind Reds fans of Mario Soto. Edinson Volquez (17 wins) was able to tap into his potential last year, which reflected the reason why the Reds traded Josh Hamilton for him. Johnny Cueto was not as polished as Volquez, but management have to feel intrigued and confident that he will follow in the footsteps of his peer.
Bronson Arroyo has been one of the better trade acquisitions that the Reds have received in many years. Traded for Wily Mo Pena, Arroyo has brought a laid back, winning atmosphere to the team. Aside from Alex Gonzalez, he is the only other player to win a World Series.
The battle for the fifth spot is between Homer Bailey and Micah Owings. I'm expecting Owings and his terrific bat to win the spot coming out of spring training. Bailey needs to go back to the minors and gain his lost confidence.
As I'm writing down the reasons why they may make the huge step forward, I feel this team is better on paper than the Tampa Bay Ray team was in the beginning of 2008. Aside from the fifth spot, there are no holes or question marks that jump out at me.
Don't forget, the team manager is Dusty Baker and the GM is Walt Jocketty; both bring tremendous experience to postseason play.
So place your bets in Vegas; the Reds will win the division and face the Mets in the NLCS.