2011 MLB Preview: 10 Things the Cincinnati Reds Must Do To Win the Pennant

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 9, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: 10 Things the Cincinnati Reds Must Do To Win the Pennant

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    CINCINNATI - OCTOBER 10: Scott Rolen #27 of the Cincinnati Reds fields the ball against the Philadelphia Phillies during game 3 of the NLDS at Great American Ball Park on October 10, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Phillies defeated the Reds 2-0. (Photo by
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    From 2002 to 2009, the Chicago Cubs won three division titles. The St. Louis Cardinals took the other five. The Cincinnati Reds never had a winning record during that stretch. Then, in 2010, they figured it all out.

    Outfielder Jay Bruce stayed healthy and broke out. Joey Votto stayed in the lineup all year and won the MVP award. Scott Rolen continued his career resurrection and continued to provide sturdy defense a third base. And the team's pitching staff proved deeper and stronger than anyone expected. Cincinnati won 91 games and took the NL Central before falling flat in the NLDS.

    Entering 2011, the Reds look to build upon a season in which they led the National League in runs scored and featured a bevy of young players with varied skill sets. They are no clear favorites to repeat as champs after the Milwaukee Brewers moved aggressively this winter, but they certainly remain in the mix. Here are 10 things that must go right if the Reds are to reach the playoffs again with greater success.

    This is the seventh in a series of pieces listing 10 things that would have to go right for each MLB team to win a pennant this season. To find out when your favorite team's article comes out, follow me on the twitter @MattTrueblood, or sign up for your team's Bleacher Report newsletter.

1. Aroldis Chapman Has an Impact

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    DENVER - SEPTEMBER 06:  The scoreboard shows 102 MPH registered on the radar gun on a pitch by relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman #54 of the Cincinnati Reds delivers against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on September 6, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. The Roc
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Reds have been clear on the point that Chapman will not go back to the minor leagues. Peculiarly, however, they have no intention of moving him into their starting rotation. Chapman and his preposterous, never-before-seen fastball will be working the eighth innings for the team this season.

    Is it impossible that he could make a difference there? Not at all. But Chapman must be carefully leveraged by Dusty Baker so that the Reds get the maximum possible return on their investment in Chapman. If he is not pitching in tie games and with narrow leads, coming in with runners on base and sometimes staying on to face tough left-handed hitters in the ninth inning, then Cincinnati is wasting perhaps its most precious pitching resource.

2. Edgar Renteria Proves He Still Has a Pulse

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    GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 27:  Edgar Renteria #16 of the Cincinnati Reds runs out a hit against the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark on February 27, 2011 in Goodyear, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    In the past two seasons combined, Edgar Renteria has just eight home runs. In 196 games with the Giants, he batted .259/.316/.344. Yet, here he is, defending World Series MVP for the second time and the Reds' projected starter at shortstop in 2011.

    Cincinnati will welcome Renteria's thump, after the Reds hit just eight homers as a team at shortstop in 2010. With a much more favorable offensive ballpark in which to work, Renteria should bounce back with a good season when healthy this year. He also fields shortstop serviceably, though backup Paul Janish is superior there. Renteria's bat will be important for the Reds as they try to keep scoring runs this season.

3. Drew Stubbs Makes More Contact

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    GOODYEAR, AZ - MARCH 03:  Drew Stubbs #6 of the Cincinnati Reds runs out of the batters box to first base against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Goodyear Ballpark on March 3, 2011 in Goodyear, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Let's play a game. It's called, "One of these things is not like the others."

    Here are the seven players who missed on the largest percentage of their total swings in 2010. Can you spot the one that is not like the others?

    Player Swing % Contact %
    Mark Reynolds 47.0 62.2
    Adam Dunn 45.0 68.2
    Ryan Howard 47.8 68.2
    Carlos Pena 45.9 69.9
    Mike Napoli 44.7 70.5
    Matt Kemp 46.7 71.8
    Drew Stubbs 43.9 72.3

    Source: FanGraphs

    Most of the guys on that list are lumbering sluggers. Only Matt Kemp approaches Stubbs' athleticism, but whereas Kemp's power is the key to his offensive game, Stubbs is a burner who also happens to have some pop.

    That Stubbs swung at fewer pitches than the others on this list demonstrates his good approach. The problem is that Stubbs, who did succeed insofar as he clubbed 22 home runs in 2010, tried much too hard to muscle up and hit for power. He could do the same thing in 2011, or he could hit just 10-15 home runs but strike out much less often, walk more, hit for a better average and steal 40 bases. Stubbs has value in any event, but the Reds will do best if their leadoff man chooses on-base skills and speed over his middling power.

4. Dusty Baker Uses His Pitchers Wisely

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    PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 08:  Dusty Baker #12 talks with Aroldis Chapman #54 of the Cincinnati Reds in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on October 8, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Ge
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    The story of Dusty Baker and his pitchers is too painful for this Cubs fan to relay in full. Suffice it to say that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood combined to toss 22 outings or 120 or more pitches in 2003, and that neither was ever the same. Baker rides starting pitchers much too hard on a regular basis.

    Part of the reason Baker so struggled to properly handle that pair in 2003, though, was that he had little choice: The bullpen was a mess. He played it much closer to the vest with the Reds last season, when he had a relief corps he knew he could better trust. If that is the case again this season, Travis Wood and Mike Leake should be safe from injury.

    The only possible cause for alarm is that one of the arms Baker must protect most vigilantly is Chapman, a reliever himself. Baker and the Reds will need that high-powered arm to be ready and fairly fresh come October if they hope to take a step forward, so in the early going, Baker should keep a careful log of Chapman's workload and save him for critical situations. Bill Bray should be Baker's choice instead when all he needs is the platoon advantage.

5. Johnny Cueto Learns To Pitch

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    CINCINNATI - OCTOBER 10: Starting pitcher Johnny Cueto #47 of the Cincinnati Reds follows through after delivering the ball against the Philadelphia Phillies during game 3 of the NLDS at Great American Ball Park on October 10, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  T
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Edinson Volquez is Baker's Opening Day hurler and the sophomores Wood and Leake have gotten their share of attention, but the one guy in Cincy's starting rotation who can and must become a dominant moundsman is Cueto.

    He throws his fastball in the mid-90s, developed a cutter that absolutely demolished opponents last season and locates his slider very well. Unfortunately, Cueto lacks a little bit on the mound. His pace is often plodding and arrhythmic. He loses focus sometimes at key junctures. He also pitches to one side or the other with each of his offerings, regardless of which type of batter he is facing.

    Specifically, one thing Cueto should do more is to make the changeup and slider almost mutually exclusive. it was his practice in 2010 to throw both regardless of opponents' handedness, trying to keep them off-balance. With the cutter now mixed in, though, he has no need to do that, and he should instead throw the slider only to right-handed hitters and the change only to lefties. 

    If Cueto improves his "pitchability," he could become a true ace. If he continues with the sort of mental lapses and immaturity that had him kicking opponents in the head last season, the Reds still have a hole atop their rotation.

6. Brandon Phillips Keeps Going Strong

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    GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 05:  Brandon Phillips #4 of the Cincinnati Reds bats against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the spring training game at Camelback Ranch on March 5, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Recently, it has been the habit of many to suggest that Brandon Phillips is losing it. He was always a better fantasy player than real-life player, they say. He is getting older, now, and the skills are deserting him. They point to his age and his apparent decline in 2010.

    Not so fast, haters. Phillips remains a well above-average defensive second baseman. He also has improved his contact rate over the past two seasons, and at age 30, imminent decline need not be assumed. Note that while his power numbers and steals fell off in 2010, he hit .275 with a .332 on-base percentage (almost identical to his 2009 numbers) and scored 100 runs. That was 22 more than he had scored in 2009. The Reds need another 4.0-WAR season from their offensive leader, but there really is no reason he cannot provide it.

7. Jonny Gomes Gets Luckier

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    GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 27:  Jonny Gomes #31 of the Cincinnati Reds takes an at bat against the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark on February 27, 2011 in Goodyear, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Jonny Gomes loads up and cuts loose on nearly every pitch. It can be pretty, in a violent sort of way, or it can be very ugly. He wants the fence on every swing, and opposing pitchers know it: Gomes played his first full season as a starter in 2010 and saw the percentage of pitches to him within the strike zone plummet from over 48 percent to roughly 42 percent.

    Gomes also betrayed his intentions by swinging up and into the ball, resulting in the seventh-highest fly-ball rate among qualifying hitters. Yet, he managed a line-drive rate better than those of Jay Bruce or Joey Votto, and roughly double that of Aaron Hill (who had virtually the same fly-ball proclivity as Gomes). His swing is vicious, and although the number of moving parts will always prevent him from becoming a great hitter, he makes some of the hardest contact of any hitter in the NL Central. Fewer than 10 percent of his fly balls left the park last season, though, so he certainly has upward mobility in the power department.

    A miserable fielder, Gomes will need relief from Fred Lewis defensively, but the bat is real and underrated.

8. Devin Mesoraco Reaches the Queen City

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    GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 27:  Devin Mesoraco #65 of the Cincinnati Reds throws the ball down to second base against the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark on February 27, 2011 in Goodyear, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Devin Mesoraco looked an awful lot like a high-profile bust entering 2010. He held a career .240/.311/.368 batting line and had not gotten above Class-A, despite being a first-round pick in 2007. Beyond the statistical struggles, scouts felt Mesoraco lacked the motivation to consistently keep himself in shape and retain sufficient athleticism to play catcher.

    He showed up in much better shape last spring, though, and after a brief waiting period (he played in Rookie ball in extended spring training), Mesoraco took his game on the road and tore the cover off the ball. In 113 games and 451 plate appearances, he smashed his way to a .302/.377/.587 line and glided all the way to Triple-A Louisville. He finished with 26 home runs and was promptly reinstated as an elite catching prospect.

    The parent club has not been as fortunate behind the dish of late. Both Ryan Hanigan and Ramon Hernandez played great last season, but neither stayed healthy, and anyway Hanigan has so little track record of that sort of success that he might be a serious regression candidate. The Reds can still achieve great lineup depth, though, if Mesoraco slugs his way into the middle of the batting order by season's end. Mesoraco has the only real chance to be this season's Buster Posey.

9. Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol or Matt Garza Blows Out an Elbow

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    MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 22:  Matt Garza #17 of the Chicago Cubs poses for a portrait during media photo day at Finch Park on February 22, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Reds likely do not need this to happen to win the division, but you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take, so Reds fans are allowed to hold out hope. That is especially true in light of the injury epidemic that has already swept the NL Central's pitching staffs this winter. Adam Wainwright is out for the year, Zack Greinke has a broken rib that will hold him back at least until May and Chris Carpenter has a balky hamstring.

    If that pattern of attrition continues, and if the Reds themselves are able to stay healthy, they have the best pitching staff in the Central and a great shot at the title. If not, the batting order that scored the most runs in the NL last season will have a tough time overcoming some tough customers.

10. Prospects Fall into Place for a Key Trade

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    GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Yonder Alonso #23 of the Cincinnati Reds gets ready in the batters box against the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark on February 28, 2011 in Goodyear, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    If we assume Mesoraco will be ready for the big leagues sometime this season, the Reds essentially have three solid prospects who are either well-blocked at their position or in whom the organization does not especially believe: First baseman Yonder Alonso (pictured), third baseman Juan Francisco and catcher Yasmani Grandal.

    Alonso and Francisco are already available as trade bait. Each can really hit but the Reds have and intend to keep Joey Votto and Scott Rolen. Grandal becomes expendable only if and when Mesoraco proves he is the answer behind the plate. Assuming that happens, though, the Reds should be in position to make a key trade or two to bolster themselves for a playoff run. Showing off Alonso in a brief left-field audition would hurt nothing. If GM Walt Jocketty has that sort of trade leverage come July, the Reds will be a better team in August, September and October.

    Matt Trueblood is a National MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and for AtHomePlate.com. He is on twitter @MattTrueblood. Matt will graduate with a degree in journalism from Loyola University Chicago in May.