The Cincinnati Reds were one of the best teams in baseball last season, which isn't half bad considering they're such a small market team. This 2013 season will see the Reds looking to grab their third NL Central title in four years. The talent is there. The pieces are in place.
As good as they are, and as good as they should be, one can't help but look at the team and see a handful of weaknesses that might just keep them from being repeat NL Central victors.
The strengths of the team are obvious, but will the be enough to help the team overcome these five weaknesses?
Zach Cozart was poised to have a breakout season in 2012 with several experts predicting him to win Rookie of the Year for the National League. Cozart, a second round draft pick out of Ole Miss, had been very promising in the few opportunities he was given in 2011 prior to his injury.
Unfortunately Cozart was largely a disappointment. Usually finding himself high up in the batting order, the Reds prospect batted a dismal .246 on the year with a very unsatisfactory .288 OBP. He was just one of many players who failed to make a statement from the lead-off spot.
That said, Cozart has only played one full major season so he still has time to develop. He's not particularly young at 27 years old but there is always room for improvement in America's past time. His power numbers were actually pretty good with 15 HRs (eighth among MLB shortstops) and a .399 slug percentage (10th among MLB shortstops).
Cozart's defense wasn't too spotty either as he posted a 7.7 UZR (seventh among MLB shortstops). That's good news for those who might have preferred the now-traded Didi Gregorius who was touted for his defensive prowess.
Zach isn't a major weakness for a team without many obvious weaknesses, but he has a lot of room to improve. If he's able to get on base more often he'll be a tremendous help to a team that struggled at the top of the order all season.
Before the 2012 season the Cincinnati Reds opted to let Ramon Hernandez and Yasmani Grandal leave as they went all in on prospect Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco was ranked among the top 10 Triple-A players in baseball and was far and away the best catching prospect. Grandal was also a highly touted catching prospect while Hernandez was a veteran coming off a season where he batted .282 with 12 HRs.
Mesoraco was then set to pair up with Ryan Hanigan. Before I go on, I must state I have nothing but praise for Hanigan. He was phenomenal in 2012 both behind and at the plate. The only question I have about him is whether he can handle playing 100 or more games a season.
I'm focusing largely on Mesoraco who was undoubtedly the most disappointing player on the Reds' roster last season. Mesoraco was picked over Grandal. Grandal was sent to San Diego as part of a trade for Mat Latos. Let's compare the two rookies' numbers.
Take these with a pinch of salt as Grandal was suspended for steroid use, but it's hard to imagine that PEDs have made Grandal that much better than Meso. Devin was atrocious in 2012. It's probably not fair to comment on his defense (he failed to shine but wasn't given many chances) but there is no reason to believe that Meso is going to improve upon .212 average
The health of Joey Votto may be the single most important factor to the Reds' success. Despite the team's terrific performances without the 2010 NL MVP, there is no denying the Reds need their number one hitter.
Votto batted .337 in his 111 games last season, easily the best on the team. His .474 OBP was over .100 more than the next closest Red. He's a hitting machine and last season was on pace to break MLB's doubles record and still managed to hit a ridiculous 44, good enough for seventh in the majors.
His is therefore quite obviously crucial to a repeat playoffs appearance for Cincinnati. But there are a few sides to a season with an unhealthy Votto. In one scenario, Votto's knee restricts his games or maybe sees him out with recurring injury. In the other, Votto's power completely deserts him.
Last season, when Votto finally was given a clean bill of health, he, in all his at bats, did not manage a single home run. Having hit 29 long balls in 2011, it was surprising and somewhat frightening to many fans that he finished 2012 with just 14.
A final scenario is probably the most worrisome: Votto's injury follows him for his career. Having just signed a huge 10-year deal, this kind of injury would haunt the Reds for Joey's career.
The Cincinnati Reds let a good amount of players go during the break. Scott Rolen, Miguel Cairo, and Dioner Navarro just to name a few. Navarro was probably the most useful of those players considering he was the Reds second best catcher.
Walt Jocketty has done well to bring in a few minor league players as well as signing utility player Jack Hannahan, but is that enough?
There are a few big question marks on this Reds team for me where depth is necessary. The first and most obvious is first base. Hannahan, a career .234 hitter is no replacement should Votto go down for an extended time.
Some might say Todd Frazier can step in at first, which is true, but then who plays third? Hannahan might be good to play 40-50 games on the year (including coming off the bench) but to be a daily starter? What is Frazier's production doesn't resemble last season's? Do you platoon him with Hannahan? What if Frazier and Votto get injured?
Then there's shortstop where Cozart must prove himself this season, yet he has no competition or cover.
If Hanigan or Meso get hurt, who is there to step up at catcher? All the best catching prospects have been traded away.
The Reds are a young team but there are definitely players who will have injury concerns entering the 2013 season. How does the team plan on addressing those?
The only good news depth-wise is that there is plenty of pitching depth for both the bullpen and rotation. Armando Galarrago was recently brought in on a minor league deal. Mike Leake will be pushed out of the rotation by Aroldis Chapman. Tony Cingrani has already proven himself ready for at least bullpen work.
Bob Castellini has done wonders with the Reds team and has shown that his is willing to spend. The team's payroll has been steadily increasing since Castellini's arrival and is set to break $100 million for the first time in the club's history.
Defying popular expectations, Joey Votto was re-signed to a huge 10-year deal, and, despite what many thought impossible, Brandon Phillips was also re-signed. Five years earlier, the team would never have found the cash to keep both superstars.
So it currently is a good thing that the Reds are retaining their stars and that the team has so many players who want to be in Cincinnati. But you have to question when Castellini's wallet will close.
There are several players up for arbitration this year (Latos, Leake, Simon, Choo, Heisey, Bailey). Latos and Bailey will both be players the team looks to lock down on long term deals (the players are 25 and 26 years of age, respectively). Beyond that, the team will likely be hoping to keep players like Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, and Aroldis Chapman for their careers.
Are they going to be willing to spend? And, if not, will the hefty contracts of Votto and Phillips haunt Cincinnati until the two retire? Will a new owner step in who will seek to cut salaries?
I love to see the Reds keep their players. I love looking at the roster for any given day and seeing as many as seven home-grown players. But I also have to question how feasible this policy is. Will the team get overwhelmed with contracts? Will they be willing to keep spending? We'll have to wait and see.