The image of shortstop stability- Zack Cozart.
One could be forgiven for waxing Dickensian on the Cincinnati Reds' 2012 campaign. It was one of the best regular season performances in recent history for the franchise—with the club notching its highest win total in 36 years—but it also featured a painful ending that could qualify as the "worst of times" for our more hyperbolic brothers and sisters in Redlegs Country.
Regardless, the fact remains that this Cincinnati ball club won 97 games last season and is welcoming back 20 players from last season's Opening Day 25-man roster. Regression is a fact of life in baseball and circumstances such as having the Opening Day rotation accounting for all but one start the entire season almost certainly won't happen again, but the Reds took care of business in November and December by trading for Shin-Soo Choo and re-signing Jonathon Broxton to allow Aroldis Chapman an attempt at a full season in the starting rotation.
General manager Walt Jocketty's shrewd off-season (a phrase we're all happy is becoming a recurring theme in December articles about the Reds) and a solid nucleus under team control for the foreseeable future indicate this team may be even better than 2012s, much as Tyler Duma elucidated in his earlier article. To add to his great points and the ever-increasing chorus of Reds optimism, here are five reasons Cincinnati could break 100 wins in 2013 and put themselves in the driver's seat for a National League pennant.
This one is obvious, of course. 2010's National League Most Valuable Player will have had several months to ensure his knee heals properly, which should mean not only an everyday Joey Votto but also a return to his slugging ways.
Upon his return in 2012, Votto didn't come close to his usual threatening presence in the lineup. From Sept. 5 to the end of the regular season, Votto's OPS was a decent .926 (though nothing special compared to the 1.069 mark he held from Opening Day to his trip to the DL on July 15), but that mark is a bit deceptive considering a substantial drop in his slugging percentage—.421 after the injury compared to .604 before.
Depending on how much stock one puts in Wins Above Replacement, Votto could add two wins (or almost 20 runs if you're more of a VORP kind of person) just by dressing in 30 more games. Furthermore, his neighbors in the lineup will see more pitches in the zone with Votto firmly entrenched in the three-hole.
This doesn't require a leap of faith to hope for, but everyone will know for sure if his left knee is fully healed within the first month or two of the 2013 season. A full season of Choo-Phillips-Votto-Ludwick-Bruce facing pitchers three to four times per game is something to be thrilled about and it is perfectly excusable to begin imagining many first innings beginning with Votto up with Choo and Phillips on, nobody out and Ludwick and Bruce salivating nearby at the thought of plentiful RBIs.
More cause for excitement is the assurance that the Reds' stars are going to be here for a while, with Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Johnny Cueto all under contract through 2015 (Cueto's $10 million club option for that year will be picked up barring the unthinkable). For a team whose chemistry was constantly an asset in 2012, getting most of the band back together for 2013 is a big positive, especially with very little of the nucleus having to worry about financial uncertainty.
It's well-documented these guys get along and motivate each other. Between the many of them who came up through the farm system together and the character guys who keep the team loose and focused at the right times.
A roster that includes Hulk Hogan-quoting Ryan Ludwick, the infectious smile of Brandon Phillips and the underappreciated intellect of Ryan Hanigan is just the sort of diverse, throwback clubhouse that gets teams through and out of rough patches over a full season. The camaraderie that helped keep this team afloat after Votto tore his knee can only help their cause again this season.
At this moment, Jocketty's attention has turned to locking up a couple more key players, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos. The former leads us to the player whose improvement may be the most pivotal in the Cincinnati Reds taking another step forward.
During the doldrums of the mid-2000s, in the depths of an era more notable for trotting out the likes of Elizardo Ramirez and Norris Hopper amidst Marty Brennaman's weekly torch-and-pitchfork themed Adam Dunn diatribes, 2007 featured a welcome flicker of excitement and optimism—the debut of Homer Bailey. Bailey and prospect classmate Phil Hughes had been hyped as the next young aces to take their respective leagues by storm most of that year and the one prior.
That week, there was a buzz in the city as diehard fans rubbed their hands together at the possibility of their very own Roger Clemens (minus the Congressional hearings, posterior injections and awkward Andy Pettitte moments) making his glorious arrival in the Queen City. The sidewalk vendors on the way to the ballpark proudly displayed the new Bailey 34 jerseys while AM talk radio worked the fanbase into a lather. Bailey won his debut but hardly set the world on fire, then spent the next three seasons mired with injuries and under-performance in the face of otherworldly expectations.
Something happened when everyone stopped over-analyzing the future of Homer Bailey—he started to improve. At first it was subtle, pitching a shutout against the Pirates in May 2010 before going down with an injury that limited him to just 12 more starts over the course of the season (though he pitched to a 1.17 WHIP from the shutout onward in 2010). 2011 had a similar theme; good but not great numbers interrupted by another injury.
In 2012, Bailey came as close as he ever has to putting it all together, posting career-best numbers in almost every category. Most notably, Bailey broke 30 starts for the first time in his career and turned in his best year in ERA+ and WAR while doing it. The cherry on top was his no-hitter against Pittsburgh (who else?) in late September. None of this necessarily means Homer Bailey is going to be a 20-win, Cy Young contending pitcher in 2013, but he's still only 27 and now surrounded by quite possibly the best team he's played on. Firmly entrenched behind Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, Bailey could emerge as the best third starter in baseball with some slight improvement.
The Reds have seen a sizable chunk of their farm system shipped out in trades over the last few seasons and many of the rest have already jumped to the Major League level. That being said, there is still a healthy crop of young up-and-comers ready to contribute soon.
Everyone who is keen to minor league prospects knows who Billy Hamilton is by now. A legendary season accelerated his national profile to the point of people clamoring for him to take Drew Stubbs' place in center field this coming season. The Reds have been good about practicing patience with their prospects in the 10's and Hamilton won't be rushed to the majors.
After Hamilton, there are few blue-chip prospects in the upper levels of the Reds farm system. But the major league season is long and provides chances for those who are ready to seize them. It would be too much to ask for the Reds to have as few injuries as last year, thus it may be necessary to plug some holes in the middle of the season with some talent from Louisville or Pensacola.
In the field, Henry Rodriguez has already made his debut with the big club and will continue to learn from Jim Riggleman and Ryan Jackson while waiting for his next chance. Meanwhile, young Neftali Soto continues to develop as a power-hitting corner infielder—though his days as a top prospect may have passed. Pitchers Tony Cingrani and Daniel Corcino should make strides forward as well and may be the first to be called upon for emergency spot starts.
Todd Frazier had an exceptional rookie season in 2012, but it was lost in the (rightful) mania that was a generational talent making his debut (Bryce Harper). Even with his production, Frazier lost a spot in the starting nine when Joey Votto and Scott Rolen returned last season. Now he will take his place as the starting third baseman and six-hole hitter. We've already seen his power—he sported a .498 slugging percentage last year in 465 trips to the plate—if he can add a little more plate discipline, opposing pitchers won't be done sweating after they've faced Jay Bruce.
Zack Cozart's main task is to be a stable, sure-handed shortstop and double play partner with Brandon Phillips above all else. Cozart's 2012 UZR of 7.7 was seventh in the majors among shortstops while posting a better OPS than all but five of those ahead of him on that list. He's also at nearly the same career progression as Frazier, which means he probably won't improve his game significantly from these numbers but will certainly get more consistent with experience. Considering he might be the eight-hitter on days Ryan Hanigan is catching, any struggles at the plate will be easy to tolerate, but one would hope he can improve upon his Stubbsian .288 on-base percentage from 2012.
Devin Mesoraco is the most intriguing of these third-year players. Though perhaps having the most potential of the trio, The Groundhog is not likely to take over the starting gig at catcher just yet. Hanigan is arbitration eligible for 2014, which makes this season a crucial one for Mesoraco to learn as much as possible from such a studious, intellectual backstop. Expect the two to continue their platoon through this season with Dusty Baker's decision on who to start behind the plate hopefully getting tougher due to Mesoraco's bat living up to the hype.