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Reds set for battle in tough NL Central
It’s amazing how much perspectives can change in one year. The Reds were expected to win the NL Central in 2013 and challenge for the league pennant but fell short, settling for a spot in the wild card game against Pittsburgh. Winning 90 games and reaching the playoffs three of the last four seasons weren’t enough for Dusty Baker to keep his job, so former pitching coach Bryan Price takes over with the challenge of turning a talent-laden team into a legitimate postseason threat. It’s not as if the Reds are trying to climb out of the cellar, but when the defending NL champions (St. Louis) and an up-and-coming team with momentum (Pittsburgh) are playing in the same division, it can feel that way. The Reds have legitimate star power in first baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips and right fielder Jay Bruce, but their lineup got exposed last season for having too many holes over the 162-game schedule. One guy who wasn’t a hole was leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo, now gone to Texas as a free agent. Speedy phenom Billy Hamilton will be the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter whether he’s fully ready for those jobs or not.
The Reds can win with this group. Mat Latos turned a corner in 2013 when he took the mantle of the No. 1 starter from an injured Johnny Cueto. Latos is more consistent, and the Reds generally win games he starts (43–22). Cueto must show he’s healthy — not just physically, but also psychologically. He had three stints on the DL last season because of a strained lat and was shelled in the wild card loss at Pittsburgh. Homer Bailey had a career-high 199 strikeouts last season in a career-high 209 innings, while Mike Leake set career highs for starts, wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. They all learned from Bronson Arroyo in the past but will not have his veteran presence in the clubhouse this season. Lefty Tony Cingrani should earn the final spot. He’s got a power arm but needs to show more consistency and confidence in his off-speed pitches to become truly effective as a starter.
Forget about the thought of Aroldis Chapman becoming a starter; he’s realized that he enjoys closing games. But a scary moment late in spring when Chapman was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Royals catcher Sal Perez had everyone in Reds camp holding their breath. He had surgery to repair some broken bones, but should heal completely and is expected to return to the mound at some point this season, perhaps before the All-Star break. That leaves a huge hole in the Reds’ bullpen heading into the season. J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure and Manny Parra all stepped into bigger roles in 2013, and now must step into even larger roles in 2014. Hoover is probably the best candidate to close until Chapman returns. Parra became the lead left-handed setup pitcher — because of left shoulder injuries to Sean Marshall — and he stranded 24 of the last 28 runners he inherited. A healthy Marshall this season would give Price more options out of the bullpen. The same could be said for the healthy return of Jonathan Broxton from a torn flexor muscle in his right arm. Alfredo Simon has grown into this role as the long arm out of the bullpen, but he’s not exclusive to mop-up situations. Pedro Beato could log a few innings while the Reds wait for Broxton to heal surgery last August.
There was talk about trading Phillips in the offseason in part because of some of his words and actions last season that didn’t sit well with upper management. But he’s owed $50 million over the next four seasons, so the Reds will have to settle for a Gold Glove, 100-RBI second baseman who is popular with fans. Phillips will likely start the season hitting in the No. 2 hole in the lineup, but you can put him anywhere in the batting order, and he is adaptable to any role. While unlikely, he could be flipped with Votto into the No. 3 spot. Shortstop Zack Cozart had a solid final two months with an OPS of more than .700 after Aug. 1. He’s an above-average fielder (.977 fielding percentage, 83 double plays turned) with good range.
All Votto did in 2013 was get on base more than anyone else in the history of the Reds, appropriate for a player who signed a contract worth $263 million over 13 years. Opposing pitchers will do just about anything not to let Votto beat them, and he’s not about to help them. He has the most discerning eye for the strike zone in baseball — maybe too discerning at times — and he’s led the NL in on-base percentage the last four seasons and is the active career leader at .419. The Reds will need more production out of Todd Frazier at third base. He had a solid .407 slugging percentage in his first full season as a starter, but he’s prone to hot and cold streaks.
Much of the focus this spring and early summer will be on Hamilton. He spent last season at Triple-A Louisville learning to play center field after starting his career as a shortstop. The Reds aren’t concerned about his defense. He will cover any ground Bruce and Ryan Ludwick don’t in the corners. Hamilton has made his name from his work on the basepaths. He stole 13 of 14 bases as a September call-up, but that was mostly as a pinch-runner. Now he’s being asked to be the team’s leadoff hitter and get on base at the MLB level. Bruce continues to improve each season. He was top 10 in the NL in home runs, RBIs, total bases, doubles, extra-base hits and outfield assists in 2013. He earned a second consecutive Silver Slugger award last season, and he’ll be just 27 years old this season. His continued development gives the Reds a consistent threat in the middle of the lineup. Ludwick played in only 38 games because of a torn right shoulder labrum. He spent the last month of the season getting into playing shape and finding his swing. The Reds would like to keep him penciled in as their cleanup hitter, batting in between Votto and Bruce. He also is a strong clubhouse presence, something that was missed in 2013.
Veteran Ryan Hanigan was traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason to make room for Devin Mesoraco. A former first-round pick, Mesoraco showed greater command calling games behind the plate in 2013 when Hanigan was out with injury. He hit nine homers last season, and his power numbers should increase this year, but he will be in the lineup because of his defense. The Reds signed former Detroit backup Brayan Pena to fill the same role in Cincinnati this season.
Skip Schumaker, formerly with the Cardinals and Dodgers, can play just about anywhere on the field. He’ll be able to spell Hamilton in center at times, but if he’s playing there too much because Hamilton struggles at the plate, then the Reds are in trouble. There isn’t much power off of the bench, although Chris Heisey has shown that capability at times. Jack Hannahan is solid defensively as a corner infielder and gives the Reds a left-handed bat. Veteran infielder Ramon Santiago, a switch-hitter, will most likely be given the 25th spot on the roster.
The Reds have a commitment to winning from the front office of owner Bob Castellini on down. They are proactive in the community and at the stadium, all with an eye on being a championship-caliber organization. General manager Walt Jocketty and Baker had a contentious relationship that finally came to a head after the Wild Card loss at Pittsburgh. Naming Price as the new manager was a no-brainer; he built the pitching staff into one of MLB’s best the past four seasons and is respected in the clubhouse.
The Reds will again be in contention for the NL Central title and the postseason if for no other reason than their starting pitching. They have to get better production offensively from the shortstop, third base, left field and catcher positions this season, and figure out the back end of the bullpen in Chapman’s absence. Too often last season there wasn’t enough balance in the order, with the back end not contributing enough on a consistent basis. Hamilton can’t be expected to be as good as Choo leading off, but if he continues to improve throughout the season, the Reds should be fine. Another 90 wins and a postseason berth are hardly guaranteed, but this is a club capable of much more than it showed at the end of 2013.
CF Billy Hamilton (S)
Stole 13 of 14 bases in September call-up. Trick this season will be getting on base consistently.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Tied for MLB lead with 19 game-winning RBIs and was third with 35 go-ahead RBIs.
1B Joey Votto (L)
Has led NL in walks in three straight seasons and on-base percentage in four straight seasons.
LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Tore labrum in shoulder on Opening Day but returned to play 37 more games. Will start 2014 healthy.
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Joined Dave Parker and Frank Robinson as only Reds with 40 doubles, 30 HRs, 100 RBIs in a season.
3B Todd Frazier (R)
Was fourth on the team with .407 slugging and .721 OPS despite just a .234 batting average.
C Devin Mesoraco (R )
Had .874 OPS vs. lefthanders but just .576 vs. righthanders last season.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Hit .304 in final 31 appearances last season and had a career-high 15-game hitting streak in second half.
INF Jack Hannahan (L)
Had nine pinch hits to tie for the team lead and started games at three different positions.
OF Chris Heisey (R)
Injuries limited him to career-low 87 games, including 42 as the starter in left field after Ludwick injury.
C Brayan Pena (S)
Hit .297 in a career-high 243 plate appearances as backup in Detroit in 2013.
INF Ramon Santiago (S)
Batted just .215 in 433 at-bats over the past two seasons as the Tigers’ primary backup infielder.
UT Skip Schumaker (R)
Started at least eight games at four different positions for the Dodgers in 2013.
RH Johnny Cueto
Has a 2.92 ERA over last four seasons but poor start in playoffs at Pittsburgh haunted offseason.
RH Mat Latos
Went at least six innings in 28 of 32 starts, including last 12 while pitching career-high 210.2 innings.
RH Homer Bailey
Has lowered his ERA every season since 2009, including 3.49 in career-high 209 innings last season.
RH Mike Leake
Showing signs of getting physically stronger, including scoreless streak of 20.1 innings in September.
LH Tony Cingrani
Made 18 starts out of 23 appearances, allowing more than three runs in just one of those starts.
LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
Had 38 saves in 43 opportunities but didn’t have save chance in final nine games, including playoffs. After taking a liner to his face in a spring game, he’ll probably miss the first half of the season.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Veteran reliever is making his way back from torn flexor muscle in right arm.
RH J.J. Hoover
Led the pitching staff with 69 appearances, including scoreless streak of 26.1 innings over 23 appearances. The closing job probably falls to him.
LH Sean Marshall
Shoulder issues limited him to only 16 appearances in 2013 after averaging 77 games previous three seasons.
RH Sam LeCure
Only gave up 50 hits and had 66 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched last season.
LH Manny Parra
Revived career in 2013, stranding 30 of 35 inherited runners for the season.
RH Alfredo Simon
Long reliever tossed at least two innings in 20 of his 63 appearances last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Phillip Ervin, OF
Ervin had a successful first season in pro ball after the Reds selected him 27th overall in the draft. Ervin, a centerfielder from Samford University in Alabama, played in 46 games between Rookie League Billings and Class A Dayton of the Midwest League. He hit .331 with nine home runs, 35 RBIs, with a .425 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases while getting thrown out just once. If he starts at Dayton this year, don’t expect him there too long. The Reds really like Ervin — a former MVP of the wood bat Cape Cod League while in college — and are going to give him every chance to move up through the organization quickly. He is already rated as their No. 4 prospect by MLB.com.
RHP Nick Travieso (20)
The Reds’ top pick in 2012 pitched in 17 games at Low-A Dayton with 4.63 ERA in 81.2 innings last season.
RHP Robert Stephenson (21)
Progressed from Low-A to Class AA last season. Went a combined 7–7 with a 2.99 ERA and 1.111 WHIP in his three stops in the minors.
OF Yorman Rodriguez (21)
The slender outfielder is still developing power. Last season he hit .259 with 35 doubles combined at High-A and Double-A.
OF Jesse Winker (20)
Played full season at Class A Dayton and finished with .281/.379/.463 line with 76 RBIs in 112 games.
RHP Michael Lorenzen (22)
Was second of two picks Reds had in 2013 first round. Reds like his arm enough to move him quickly from Arizona League to Double-A Pensacola last season.
RHP Daniel Corcino (23)
Struggled at Class AAA Louisville last season, giving up 141 hits in 129 IP and finishing 7–14 with 5.86 ERA. Still just 23.
LHP David Holmberg (22 )
Acquired in three-team offseason trade that sent Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay. Former second-round pick (2009) of the Chicago White Sox.
2B Ryan Wright (24)
Solid season at Class A Bakersfield, playing in 100 games with eight home runs, 23 doubles and 52 RBIs.
Beyond the Box Score
Left out The Reds were counting on Ryan Ludwick to provide a big bat in the middle of the lineup, but when he tore his right shoulder labrum on Opening Day sliding head-first into third base, it put a crimp in the lineup. Even with Ludwick’s return in the middle of August, Cincinnati left fielders hit just .250 with a .313 on-base percentage and .374 slugging percentage. They had a combined 14 home runs and 65 RBIs.
Inspiring fear Joey Votto has led the National League in walks three straight seasons, making him the first Reds player to do so and just the ninth player in the NL ever to accomplish the feat. Barry Bonds (2000-04) was the last player on that list. Votto’s power numbers were down last season (24 home runs, 30 doubles, 73 RBIs), but there was concern he hadn’t fully healed from two knee procedures in 2012. Let’s see how much his approach changes this season.
Stability at short Zack Cozart is expected to make his third straight Opening Day start at shortstop this year. It’s not an extraordinary streak except that he will become the first Reds shortstop to do so since Barry Larkin retired in 2004. From 1970-2004, Dave Concepcion and Larkin started 32 of 35 Opening Day games at shortstop for Cincinnati. Since Larkin’s retirement, the Reds have had seven different shortstops start on Opening Day. Only Alex Gonzalez (2007, ’09) started more than once before Cozart.
Superstar For the first time in his career, Jay Bruce didn’t increase his home run totals. He still hit 30 homers last season, and his all-around game improved. He had a career-high 43 doubles and 109 RBIs, allowing him to join Frank Robinson (1962) and Dave Parker (1985) as the only Reds players to have 30 homers, 40 doubles and 100 RBIs in a season.
Lost leader The Reds allowed Bronson Arroyo to become a free agent without offering him a qualifying contract this offseason. This was a tough move for the team but one in keeping with their player development philosophy. They’ve got young arms in Tony Cingrani and Robert Stephenson ready to push for time with at the MLB level, but Arroyo’s contributions the past eight seasons can’t be underestimated. He led the National League with 105 wins, 265 starts and 1,690.1 innings in that span. His 265 starts also led all of MLB.