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Cincinnati Reds: Darkhorse Division Contender?

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Cincinnati Reds: Darkhorse Division Contender?
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Every year, I choose two MLB teams, one in each league, and hop onto their bandwagons in March.  Now, I do not confuse my loyalties, as I always remain a Rays and Braves fan, but bandwagon teams make the season more fun.  This year, I have hopped onto the bandwagons of Cincinnati and Seattle.

(For the record, I had hopped onto Seattle's bandwagon after the Chone Figgins signing, before the Cliff Lee trade.)

Seattle seemed like an obvious choice for me, seeing as Griffey is my favorite player of all time, and I love the makeup of their lineup, with Ichiro and Chone Figgins hitting at the top.

Cincinnati wasn't as obvious of a team, though.  It would've been easier to go with Colorado, a team I also like, but I went with the team that wasn't playoffs bound last year.  The reason for my selection?  I believe they could win the NL Central outright.

Yeah, you read me correctly, Cincinnati could jump Milwaukee, Chicago, and Saint Louis and catapult into the playoffs this year.  This article explains why.

We'll start with the offense then go to pitching.

Ramon Hernandez returns as the starting catcher, after a year in which he only had 287 at bats.  In his abbreviated season, he put up a .258 average, five homers, and 37 RBI.  In 2008, he hit 15 homers in a full season, so he is no longer the catcher with 25 homer potential he once was, but he still has some pop.

His platoon mate, Ryan Hanigan, is an outstanding defensive catcher with some average, but minimal, pop.  He complements Hernandez nicely at catcher.

Moving on to first base, we have Joey Votto, a star in only his second full season in the bigs.  He hit .322 with 25 homers and 84 RBI in 469 at-bats, which leads me to believe he could easily hit .315 with 30 plus homers and 90 plus RBI this year.  Votto has become the center of the Cincinnati offense very quickly and is only improving.

At second is Brandon Phillips, a very exciting player who you can already write off to have a 20-20 season.  Phillips had a bounceback season last year and hit .276 to go along with his 20 homers and 25 stolen bases.  He had had a 20-20 season for the past three years, including his 30-30 season in 2007.  He also drives in a ton of runs, proven by his 98 RBI last year.  Seeing as Phillips is taking steps towards improvement, I think a season at .280, 25 homers, and 28 stolen bases is easily achievable.

Looking at the hot corner, we see that Edwin Encarnacion is gone and Scott Rolen is in Cincinnati for a full year.  Rolen only had 137 at bats in a Reds uniform, so his play in the Great American Ballpark is very limited, although I believe he could really be helped by the bandbox he now plays 81 games a season in.  We can't gauge his power yet, but we can see that he still hits for average with a .305 average last year.  I'm thinking .295-.305 with around 15-17 homers for Scottie.

Shortstop is another story, however.  Paul Janish is a superb defensive shortstop but has zero offensive capability.  It has yet to be determined if the Reds go with Janish, Adam Rosales, dip into the minors, sign a free agent, or make a trade, but for now, we'll just skip over shortstop. 

In left is Chris Dickerson, whom I would love to see get a full-time job in Cincinnati.  In 2009, he only had 255 at bats but hit .275 with two homers and 11 steals.  He never put up great numbers in the minors but has actually improved since coming to the majors.  I won't project numbers too highly for Dickerson, but I could easily see .270 with double digit homers and 20 steals. 

Manning center is Drew Stubbs, another youngster who never put up great numbers in the minors, but was rushed to the majors and has shown great promise.  In just 180 at-bats, Stubbs incredibly put up eight homers and 10 steals to go along with his .267 average.  Stubbs was a speedster in the minors but never put up a ton of power.  However, he is 6'4'', and his power has been developing, so I would love to see a .270 average, 15 homers, and 35 steals over a full season.

Before we get to right field, we'll discuss the backups for Cincinnati's outfield. 

Willy Taveras is the 4th outfielder/pinch runner and can come in and play for an injured starter.  He had a bad year last year but is capable of hitting around .260.  However, he can fly and can easily steal 50 bases given a full-time job.  However, if Stubbs and Dickerson can play well enough, Taveras won't have to be given a full-time job, and we won't have to see his .260 average. 

The other two guys, Laynce Nix and Wladamier Balentien, have some pop in their bats.  Nix hit 15 homers last year, and Balentien hit seven in limited time, but either can provide a power bat off the bench, something valuable in Cincinnati's ballpark.

Now to Jay Bruce.  When Bruce came up, he was supposed to be the fan favorite that would hit .320 with 40 homers.  Since then, he has started to swing for the fences and the strikeouts have caught up with him, as he hit .254 his rookie year and .223 in an injury plagued 2009.  The power is there; look for 30 homers in a full year in which he is healthy, but the entire Reds offense gets incredibly better when Bruce is playing well.

If he can turn it around and not try to yank every ball out of the park, Bruce could return to the superstar he was supposed to be, as balls will naturally clear the fences for him; he just needs to realize that.  I won't make a projection on Bruce, but the entire Reds offense depends on his big bat.

The offense isn't the only reason I like the Reds to contend this year; their pitching is just as big of a reason. 

I love Aaron Harang this year, partly due to his semi-bounceback season last year, in which he dropped his ERA almost seven tenths of a run.  I like him to drop his ERA again and get back under three runs per nine innings pitched. 

Edinson Volquez was hurt for a lot of last year, but not pitching could actually help him a little, as he didn't take the load he took in 2008, and that could ultimately help him in the long run.

Bronson Arroyo is a variable because he always has stretches of greatness paired with stretches of incredible vulnerability.  He ended the year on an incredible string of great starts and looks to open the season with some things figured out.

Johnny Cueto looks to build upon his 2009 season that started with dominance and then went the Bronson Arroyo route of inconsistency.  Because 2009 season was just his second year in the MLB, I'll cut him some slack and see if he can drop his ERA under four this year.

Homer Bailey is the most interesting pitcher of the five.  Once the most heralded pitching prospect in all of baseball, he was blown out of the water his first two seasons in the bigs.  When he was called up in 2009, it looked like he was going to be blown up again, but strangely, he came into his own after some bad starts.  He ended the year with nine starts of allowing three or fewer runs and posted a 4.53 ERA to end the year. 

Justin Lehr, Micah Owings, and Matt Maloney also look to compete for starting spots in the rotation.  Maloney is a young lefty that could show enough in Spring Training to let the Reds trade Harang or Arroyo for a shortstop.

The bullpen is somewhat shaky, and I believe Cincinnati needs to sign a reliever.  Francisco Cordero returns as the closer, with Daniel Ray Herrera, Arthur Rhodes, Jared Burton, and Nick Masset bridging the gap to Cordero.  I like Herrera and Masset as the young guns and Rhodes as the seasoned veteran, so this bullpen isn't as bad as it might look at first glance. 

The Reds have a lot of variables, including their entire outfield and their entire starting rotation, but that's what makes this young team so fun.  Cincinnati is a great baseball town and just might see the Reds contending with the Cubs and Cardinals in September, possibly even winning the division.

One thing is for sure though, I'll be watching Jay Bruce.

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