After a 14-year postseason drought, the Cincinnati Reds have reached the playoffs three times in the past four years, winning a pair of NL Central titles during that time as well.
While that may look like a successful run on the surface, the team failed to advance beyond the NLDS in each of those three trips. This past year saw them ousted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card Round after a third-place finish in the division landed them the No. 2 wild-card spot.
That lack of October success was enough to get manager Dusty Baker the boot this offseason, with pitching coach Bryan Price now at the helm.
The question now is: Will the team be able to get over the hump in 2014, or has their World Series window already closed?
The 2012 season looked to be their year. They won 97 games, the most since the days of the Big Red Machine. Their offense was solid from top to bottom, and their starting rotation stayed remarkably healthy, as five guys started a combined 161 games.
They entered the playoffs hot, closing out the season 13-8 to win the NL Central by an impressive nine games over the wild-card St. Louis Cardinals, and they looked to be ticketed for the NLCS.
They jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in their NLDS series with the San Francisco Giants and found themselves heading back to Cincinnati needing to win just one of three games. However, an extra-innings loss in Game 3 was followed by an 8-3 loss in Game 4.
A six-run fifth inning by the Giants in Game 5 proved to be too much to overcome, and just like that, the Reds were eliminated from the postseason. The Giants, meanwhile, went on to win their second World Series title in three years.
With essentially the same team returning this past season, the Reds were again poised to make a playoff run. If anything, they looked like a better team on paper thanks to the addition of Shin-Soo Choo atop the lineup.
Cincinnati's leadoff hitters batted just .208/.254/.327 for an MLB-worst .581 OPS in 2012, so adding an on-base machine like Choo to the top of the order was a huge upgrade.
They were right in the thick of things all year, but a breakout Pittsburgh Pirates team left them as the third wheel in the NL Central race when all was said and done.
A three-game sweep at the hands of the aforementioned Pirates to close out the year forced the Reds to the road for the Wild Card Round, where the Pirates bested them for a fourth straight time and ended their season.
So, with that 6-2 loss in the Wild Card Round, has the Cincinnati Reds' window to contend for a World Series title ended? There is certainly talent returning on the roster, and they should again be in the running for a playoff spot.
|2014 Cincinnati Reds Projected Roster|
|Starting Lineup||2013 Stats (*Triple-A stats)|
|1. CF Billy Hamilton||*504 AB, .256/.308/.343, 18 2B, 6 HR, 41 RBI, 75 R|
|2. SS Zack Cozart||567 AB, .254/.284/.381, 30 2B, 12 HR, 63 RBI, 74 R|
|3. 1B Joey Votto||581 AB, .305/.435/.491, 30 2B, 24 HR, 73 RBI, 101 R|
|4. 2B Brandon Phillips||606 AB, .261/.310/.396, 24 2B, 18 HR, 103 RBI, 80 R|
|5. RF Jay Bruce||626 AB, .262/.329/.478, 30 HR, 109 RBI, 89 R|
|6. LF Ryan Ludwick||129 AB, .240/.293/.326, 5 2B, 2 HR, 12 RBI, 7 R|
|7. 3B Todd Frazier||531 AB, .234/.314/.407, 29 2B, 19 HR, 73 RBI, 63 R|
|8. C Devin Mesoraco||323 AB, .238/.287/.362, 13 2B, 9 HR, 42 RBI, 31 R|
|C Brayan Pena||229 AB, .297/.315/.397, 11 2B, 4 HR, 22 RBI, 19 R|
|UT Skip Schumaker||319 AB, .263/.332/.332, 16 2B, 2 HR, 30 RBI, 31 R|
|IF Jack Hannahan||139 AB, .216/.317/.288, 5 2B, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 12 R|
|IF Ramon Santiago||205 AB, .224/.298/.288, 8 2B, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 27 R|
|OF Chris Heisey||224 AB, .237/.279/.415, 11 2B, 9 HR, 23 RBI, 29 R|
|Starting Rotation||2013 Stats|
|1. RHP Johnny Cueto||11 GS, 5-2, 2.82 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 51 K, 60.2 IP|
|2. RHP Mat Latos||32 GS, 14-7, 31.6 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 187 K, 210.2 IP|
|3. RHP Homer Bailey||32 GS, 11-12, 3.49 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 199 K, 209 IP|
|4. RHP Mike Leake||31 GS, 14-7, 3.37 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 122 K, 192.1 IP|
|5. LHP Tony Cingrani||23 G, 18 GS, 7-4, 2.92 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 120 K, 104.2 IP|
|LR RHP Alfredo Simon||63 G, 6-4, 1 SV, 2.87 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 63 K, 87.2 IP|
|MR RHP Logan Ondurssek||52 G, 3-1, 0 SV, 4.09 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 53 K, 55 IP|
|MR LHP Manny Parra||57 G, 2-3, 0 SV, 3.33 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 56 K, 46 IP|
|MR RHP Sam LeCure||63 G, 2-1, 1 SV, 2.66 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 66 K, 61 IP|
|SU LHP Sean Marshall||16 G, 0-1, 0 SV, 1.74 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, 10 K, 10.1 IP|
|SU RHP J.J. Hoover||69 G, 5-5, 3 SV, 2.86 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 67 K, 66 IP|
|CL LHP Aroldis Chapman||68 G, 4-5, 38 SV, 2.54 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 112 K, 63.2 IP|
The biggest question mark surrounding the lineup is at the top, where Billy Hamilton replaces the departed Choo, who signed a seven-year, $130 million deal with the Texas Rangers in free agency.
Hamilton made a name for himself in 2012 when he posted a .311/.410/.420 line and swiped a record 155 bases between High-A and Double-A. He continued to impress with his speed in a full season at Triple-A, but his slash line dropped to .256/.308/.343.
That .308 OBP is the big cause for concern, as it's a whopping 115 points lower than the .423 mark Choo posted last year. It's fair to assume that number could dip below .300 as he makes the jump from the minors to the majors, and the old adage that you can't steal first base certainly comes to mind.
Joey Votto and Jay Bruce give the team two of the best hitters in the National League, but Brandon Phillips is coming off the worst season of his career and will need to bounce back.
Zack Cozart (.665 OPS) and Todd Frazier (.721 OPS) were both expected to take a step forward in their age-27 seasons last year, but they wound up as below-average options at their positions. A healthy season from Ryan Ludwick would help in the middle of the lineup, but Chris Heisey could see significant playing time again.
So, while the offense has the potential to be above average, there are also a number of question marks, and the roster's depth could be tested.
Meanwhile, pitching remains the strength of the team. While veteran Bronson Arroyo is headed elsewhere in free agency, the team has an in-house option in Tony Cingrani ready to step into his rotation spot.
A full season of Johnny Cueto alongside the trio of Homer Bailey, Mat Latos and Mike Leake gives the team a staff that's as deep as any in the National League, but the future brings some question marks.
Bailey is a free agent at the end of the 2014 season, while Cueto, Latos and Leake are all eligible to hit the open market following the 2015 season. Chances are the team won't be able to retain all four of those guys, and while top-prospect Robert Stephenson looks to have a bright future, they may need to start making some decisions sooner rather than later.
Their bullpen was seventh in MLB last year with a 3.29 mark, and after re-signing Manny Parra, they will bring back the same group. A healthy Sean Marshall could make that group even better, and the bullpen should remain strong moving forward.
Breaking it down position-by-position, the Reds look like a solid team once again entering 2014. Being a solid team in position to make a run at a playoff spot and contending for a World Series are two very different things, though.
As things stand today, I'd rank the NL teams as follows:
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Washington Nationals
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Cincinnati Reds
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
7. Arizona Diamondbacks
8. San Francisco Giants
9. Milwaukee Brewers
10. San Diego Padres
11. Colorado Rockies
12. New York Mets
13. Philadelphia Phillies
14. Miami Marlins
15. Chicago Cubs
The St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers met in the NLCS this past season, and they look like the cream of the crop in the National League once again in 2014 and for the foreseeable future.
Behind them, a pair of NL East teams in the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves both have the talent to contend for the NL pennant as well. Whoever misses out on the division title there looks poised to battle the Pittsburgh Pirates and Reds for the two wild-card spots.
Add in an Arizona Diamondbacks team that made some significant additions this offseason, a San Francisco Giants team looking to bounce back and a Milwaukee Brewers team that is back at full strength after adding Matt Garza to the fold, and there looks to be nine teams with a legitimate shot at playoff contention.
At this point, the Cincinnati Reds are still in the mix, but their best chance to win it all looks to be in the rear-view mirror. With a rotation that may well be headed for a shakeup of sorts in the next couple years and an offense that could take a step back from where it was last year, just reaching the playoffs in a deep National League will be a challenge.
New manager Bryan Price could bring some needed change from a leadership standpoint, maybe Billy Hamilton will thrive in the leadoff role and perhaps the rotation will stay abnormally healthy once again. From where I'm sitting, though, the Reds' window of time to contend for a title looks to have closed.