7 Reasons to Be Optimistic for the Cincinnati Reds' 2014 Season

Tyler Duma@@TylerDuma_BRFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

7 Reasons to Be Optimistic for the Cincinnati Reds' 2014 Season

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    The Cincinnati Reds kicked off their 2014 season March 31 with a rough game against the St. Louis Cardinals. The team lost 1-0, and the offense was shut down by the Cardinals ace, Adam Wainwright.

    Fans took to social media, and a firestorm of complaining ensued, most of it aimed at 23-year-old rookie Billy Hamilton. Don't fret though, Reds fans, this wouldn't be the first time a team was shut out by Wainwright, and it certainly won't be the last.

    In addition to that, there were some positives to take from that game, and in addition to those positives, there are quite a few reasons to be optimistic for the upcoming season.

    So, to try and get you all back on the optimist's bandwagon, here are seven reasons why Reds fans should be optimistic for the team's 2014 season.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs unless otherwise noted.

Billy Hamilton

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    So, Hamilton's 2014 season didn't get off to the best start Monday. The speedster kicked off his rookie season with an 0-for-4 performance including, you guessed it, four strikeouts.

    Hamilton has the ability to put incredible amounts of pressure on infielders looking to throw him out on an infield ground ball, but the crux to all of that is he needs to put the ball in play. Last season, he didn't do a whole lot of that and worked to a disappointing .256/.308/.343 slash line at Triple-A Louisville.

    But, it's just one bad game, and it shouldn't deter fans from getting really excited about a guy who could, quite possibly, be the fastest player to ever set foot on a baseball field.

    Hamilton's speed is legendary, literally, and it pretty much breaks the 2-8 scouting scale for grading a player's tools.

    Hamilton is going to have his troubles this season, but even a .300 on-base percentage could result in a 60-steal season. If he even approaches a .350-plus OBP, Hamilton could run away—pun intended—with NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Joey Votto Is Healthy...and He's Still Pretty Good

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    Last season, Joey Votto appeared in his first full season following surgery during the 2012 campaign. The 30-year-old had a down year in terms of power production, posting the lowest slugging percentage of his career.

    This year, Votto has no lingering injury concerns and entered the 2014 season with a clean bill of health.

    Much will be made about Votto's approach at the plate and how much he'll miss Shin-Soo Choo at the top of the Reds lineup, but he's still going to offer a .300-plus batting average, a .400-plus on-base percentage and a .500-plus slugging percentage, making him one of the most valuable players in all of MLB.

    Votto, as a hitter, is so revered that the pitches he sees within a given at-bat are a direct product of the players around him. Votto will need Hamilton, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce to all play at their absolute best if he is going to see more than a single pitch to hit in an at-bat; he led the league in intentional walks in each of the last two seasons.

    Even with limited opportunities, Votto will still contribute in a more traditional sense by driving in runs. Over the course of his career, Votto has been an uncommonly gifted player in terms of hitting with runners in scoring position. Over 989 plate appearances in these situations, Votto carries a .340/.477/.590 slash line with 40 home runs, 64 doubles and 361 RBI.

    Votto can carry the offense in a multitude of ways that most players around the league aren't capable of, and that's something that fans can get excited about for years to come.

Jay Bruce Will Bat 4th...Sometimes

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    Sticking with the theme of offense, fans should get excited about the prospect of having Jay Bruce bat fourth in the lineup.

    Manager Bryan Price, via ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, made it very clear this spring that Bruce would get plenty of opportunities to hit fourth in the order this season. The move makes sense, as Bruce is arguably the second-best offensive player on the team and a player who is very much suited to hit fourth.

    Over 514 career plate appearances in the four hole, Bruce owns a stat line including a .243/.343/.434 slash line, 20 home runs, 21 doubles, 68 RBI and 66 runs scored. Over those same 514 plate appearances, Bruce also shows improvements in his strikeout and walk rates, posting a K% of 23.5 percent and a BB% of 12.1 percent; his career K% and BB% are 24.0 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively.

    Bruce sees slight dips in his batting average and slugging percentage as the No. 4 hitter, but that will change this season, and he'll benefit from hitting directly behind Votto.

    Hitting behind or in front of Votto brings hitters considerably more hittable pitches, as teams choose to force other players beat them, rather than letting Votto do immense levels of damage (see Brandon Phillips' 103 RBI in 2013).

    Batting behind Votto will provide Bruce with a wealth of opportunities to hit with runners on, and more importantly, with runners in scoring position. If he's up to the task, 2014 could bring about the breakout season we've all been waiting for Bruce to have.

Bryan Price

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    I hinted at this in the previous slide, but Price has a large group of fans feeling very optimistic about the 2014 season and the future in general.

    As I mentioned in the last slide, Price will answer the calls echoed by numerous fans last season (see every late-season article I wrote) for Bruce to move up into the No. 4 spot in the starting lineup. In doing so, Price is able to strengthen the top of the order by affording himself the opportunity to hit Phillips second, while simultaneously dropping Zack Cozart lower in the order.

    Cozart struggled mightily last season; he slashed .254/.284/.381 while serving over half his time as the team's No. 2 hitter. Moving him down in the order will help him and the Reds, as his free-swinging nature is far better suited for a spot further down the batting order.

    Price has also made it clear that he's planning to take a different approach in using the Reds bullpen.

    Dusty Baker was a huge proponent of playing matchups with relievers, looking to exploit a platoon advantage whenever possible. While this strategy has its benefits, Price was quick to point out that, "you don't go out and get Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton so they can come in get one left-handed or right-handed hitter out. I feel very strongly about that," via John Fay of Cincinnati.com.

    In the same article referenced above, Price noted that this will, in the long run, help relievers stay fresh.

    I've said to myself I don't know what it's like to be an everyday player professionally. But I do understand what it's like to be a pitcher and what these guys go through on days they don't pitch. 'Is so-in-so available?' Well, we got him hot three times yesterday and he pitched the two games before. It wasn't really a day off. Sometimes, as a manager (who was a position player), you may see that the guy got loose. But they see it as a day off. It's not. It's completely different. If you don't respect that, you end up over-utilizing your guys – even if they pitch in 65 games.

    Price is bringing some important changes to Cincinnati in 2014, and some of them—Bruce batting fourth, and the method through which the bullpen is utilized, for example—could bring about some major changes in production.

The Starting Rotation Is Still 1 of the Best

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    When Bronson Arroyo left for Arizona, the Reds lost one of their most consistent contributors over the past eight seasons. Even with the loss of Arroyo, the Reds have one of the best rotations in the NL and MLB as a whole.

    The team sports three pitchers, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos, who are all capable of contending for a Cy Young Award. In addition to that core of high-quality starters, the Reds have a four-year veteran in Mike Leake, who is fresh off his best season as a big leaguer, and an up-and-coming lefty in Tony Cingrani, who put up one of the best seasons among first-year players in 2013.

    Consider the team's five starters and their ZiPS projections for the 2014 season.

    Projected SplitsGSIPERAWHIPK/9BB/9K/BBH/9
    Johnny Cueto23136.
    Mat Latos32208.
    Homer Bailey30192.03.561.
    Tony Cingrani25138.0 3.46 1.2510.0 3.9 2.59 7.4 
    Mike Leake29179.
    Totals139 854 3.511.20 7.6 2.5 3.04 8.3 

    Some of the system's projections are a bit more conservative; Bailey's 3.56 ERA and the start totals for Cueto and Cingrani jump right out at you. The projected numbers for the Reds rotation are a huge reason for optimism. As a final thought, consider where these projected numbers would have ranked among NL starting rotations in 2013.

    SplitsERA WHIPK/9 BB/9K/BBH/9 
    2014 Projections3.511.


J.J. Hoover Is a Competent Fill-in for Aroldis Chapman

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    Aroldis Chapman is recovering from one of the worst injuries, per USA Today's Bob Nightengale, that we'll see all season. While he recovers and works through his subsequent rehab, the Reds will turn to a number of pitchers as they look to close out close games.

    Though the team may elect to run with a closer-by-committee strategy in Chapman's absence, the smart money should be on J.J. Hoover to assume the role of closer until the flame-throwing lefty returns.

    Hoover has the arsenal of pitches necessary to be a solid closer at the big league level. The 26-year-old relies largely on a low-90s fastball, which averaged out at 93 mph in 2013, and a solid 12-6 curve.

    Hoover used the two pitches a combined 97 percent of the time in 2013—75.7 percent fastball, 21.4 percent curveball—and the two pitches produced outstanding results. Hoover logged a 2.86 ERA over his first full season of big league work, and his fastball and curveball allowed batting averages of .196 and .219 respectively.

    Hoover also did an outstanding job of limiting extra-base hits with those two pitches. Over 269 plate appearances against Hoover, opposing batters managed slugging percentages of .337 and .154, respectively.

    Hoover's fastball-breaking ball mix should allow him to thrive in the ninth inning, and that's supported by his early career pitching splits. Over 19.2 innings pitched in the ninth inning, Hoover boasts an incredible stat line, including zero earned runs, a slash line against of .134/.216/.194, a 4.50 K/BB ratio and a tOPS of 40.

    Hoover has the ability to function as a solid big league closer. With Chapman out for an extended period of time, he'll get the opportunity to showcase those abilities for the first time.

Todd Frazier Is a Prime Bounce-Back Candidate

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    For the last reason to be optimistic for the 2014 season, we'll return to the offense. More specifically, we'll look at Todd Frazier and his potential to bounce back from a disappointing 2013 season.

    After a breakout rookie campaign in 2012, Frazier struggled through most of the 2013 season. The 28-year-old managed just a .234/.313/.407 slash line with 19 home runs, 29 doubles, 73 RBI and 63 runs scored.

    Frazier's peripheral stats were actually quite good, and his 96 OPS+ suggests that he was right around the league average, despite an otherwise disappointing slash line. What makes Frazier a bounce-back candidate, though, is the fact that he was rather unlucky last year.

    Despite his well-above average line-drive rate, HR/FB rate, home run percentage, extra-base hit percentage and walk percentage—he even improved his strikeout percentage between 2012 and 2013—Frazier saw his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage dip by 39, 17 and 91 points, respectively.

    Frazier's bad luck in 2013 is reflected perfectly by his .269 BABIP. Frazier's four-year average in the category is .288, and the league average last season was .297. A career average or league average BABIP would have provided Frazier with a much more appealing slash line as well as some additional extra-base hits, RBI and runs scored.

    BABIP is one of those stats that tends to regress or progress back toward its mean. So, providing things go the way they should, and Frazier experiences even a modicum of good luck this season, he'll have a much better experience in 2014.

    In fact, to start the year, Frazier already has two hits, a walk and a stolen base in his first four plate appearances of the season.