The Reds dove head-first into the 2012 season determined to make a run at more than just the NL Central division when they traded away Edinson Volquez and two prospects to acquire starting pitcher Mat Latos. That run might have fallen short in a five-game loss to eventual World Series champion San Francisco in the divisional series, but it showed the organization that it isn’t far away. As was the case last offseason, general manager Walt Jocketty didn’t hesitate to make another significant trade. He acquired outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from Cleveland in a three-team exchange that sent center fielder Drew Stubbs to the Indians and minor league shortstop Didi Gregorious to Arizona. Jocketty strengthened a club deficiency by parting ways with talented players who weren’t going to fit into Cincinnati’s future plans. The Reds struggled with their 1-2 hitters last year, but Choo’s presence in the leadoff spot followed by Brandon Phillips should solidify the batting order and provide plenty of opportunities for Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce to drive in runs, especially at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
This is a maturing group that could be as good as any rotation in the majors for the next few years. Only Bronson Arroyo (36) will be older than 27 during the season. Johnny Cueto was a Cy Young candidate last season, and Latos went 9–2 with a 2.43 ERA over his final 19 starts. Homer Bailey set career highs for wins (13), starts (33), quality starts (21), innings (208) and strikeouts (168). No NL starter has more wins, starts or innings pitched since 2006 than Arroyo. With the experiement to move closer Aroldis Chapman into the rotation now ended, Mike Leake is back in. Leake, the team’s first-round pick in 2008, started 30 games last season and threw 179.0 innings.
Chapman proved to be one of the best closers in the game last season with 38 saves and 122 strikeouts in just 71.2 innings. Aside from a second lefthander to go along with Sean Marshall, the bullpen has plenty of pieces. Jonathan Broxton, who has 111 career saves, is the primary setup man. Marshall, signed through 2015, started last season as the closer but was moved into a setup role as Chapman emerged and excelled in that role. Jose Arredondo had 66 appearances for a bullpen group that led the majors in ERA (2.65) and saves (56) and led the NL in opponents’ batting average (.219). Arredondo seemed to tire down the stretch and wasn’t as effective late in the year. J.J. Hoover, acquired in a trade with Atlanta last April, has closer-type potential and could provide valuable innings that Nick Masset was slated to handle last year before a spring training injury sidelined him. Masset had shoulder surgery in September, and his availability for the start of this season is unknown. The Reds aren’t going to wait around for him. Sam LeCure, once seen as a potential No. 5 starter, has found his niche as a long reliever who can be counted on in tight situations. He allowed just two hits over his final 10 appearances last season as he set a career-high with 48 games. Manny Parra, a member of Milwaukee’s starting rotation for three seasons, has found a home in the bullpen.
Phillips did everything but win the Gold Glove last season, while Zack Cozart became the first rookie to start at short for the Reds on Opening Day since 1971. His development made Gregorious expendable. Cozart showed good power with 33 doubles and 15 home runs, but his .246 average was a detriment at the leadoff spot. He’ll hit down in the order this season. Phillips was the team’s MVP. He’s versatile enough to hit in any spot in the order — an ability similar to what Barry Larkin showed in his playing days for the Reds — but should settle into the No. 2 hole behind Choo and in front of Votto. Phillips and the Reds agreed on a six-year extension last season in part because he’s grown from a highlight-reel defensive player into an all-around threat.
Votto missed 48 games with a knee injury and didn’t have the same pop in his bat when he returned in September, but he was still respected enough that he managed a .474 on-base percentage, 94 walks and 18 intentional walks. He hit .337 with 44 doubles but just 14 home runs and 56 RBIs. Better production at the top of the lineup and a return to full health should make Votto an MVP candidate. Todd Frazier takes over the everyday duties at third for Scott Rolen after being a fill-in at multiple positions last season when he was third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. There will be more pressure on Frazier to produce this season now that he has a starting role. Last season, he was the guy everyone wanted to see more of in the lineup. Those people will get their wish this season.
Bruce is a two-time All-Star and will be just 26 this season. He improved on his consistency, going through fewer lulls at the plate, and increased his home run total (34) for the fifth straight season. He finished with 99 RBIs. Choo will be playing center field on an everyday basis for the first time in his career, but the smaller dimensions of Great American Ball Park should make that an easier transition than it might sound. Ludwick found his groove in the second half of last season and carried it right through the postseason, earning a two-year deal. He finished with 26 homers and 80 RBIs, including hitting .421 with runners in scoring position over his final 57 chances. He has legitimate power to be the cleanup hitter and provide protection for Votto in the lineup. If this threesome has any major weakness, it would be defensively, especially in center.
Devin Mesoraco might be the catcher of the future, but Ryan Hanigan is still the catcher of the present. He’s got great rapport with the pitching staff (3.05 ERA with him behind the plate), throws extremely well and handles the bat admirably. He hit .274 mostly batting in the No. 8 hole. Mesoraco got plenty of experience last season but didn’t see much action down the stretch. He hit only .212 with five home runs and 14 RBIs.
The Reds will be more versatile off the bench this season. Chris Heisey can play all three outfield spots and gives some speed and power. Xavier Paul found a niche as a left-handed bat, something missing for much of last season. Infielder Jack Hannahan was signed as a free agent from Cleveland and provides another left-handed bat and can play first and third. Infielder Jason Donald was also part of the Choo deal and will give the Reds depth in the middle of the defense.
Owner Bob Castellini has set winning as a priority, and the entire organization follows his lead. Jocketty identified the team’s needs and addressed them by re-signing Ludwick, trading for Choo and signing Hannahan. Manager Dusty Baker signed an extension through 2014 late last season. He’s criticized for a constant shuffling of the lineup, but his formula keeps players fresh, and players respond well to his style.
The Reds are on the short list of contenders to win the World Series. The starting pitching is coming into its own, especially if Bailey continues the maturity and development he showed last season. This is a strong defensive team, even with the loss of Stubbs, and the lineup has the potential to be as good as any in the majors.
CF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
Career .289 hitter will provide decent pop in center field; had 43 doubles and 16 HRs with Cleveland last season.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Had 52 multi-hit games to lead club while batting leadoff (28 games), third (43 games) and fourth (73 games).
1B Joey Votto (L)
Led Reds in OBP for third straight season, joining Joe Morgan as only player to accomplish the feat.
LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Hit .313 with 21 doubles, 18 home runs, 53 RBIs in his last 80 games, securing his spot in the everyday lineup.
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Joined Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera as only players with at least 34 homers, 35 doubles and 99 RBIs.
3B Todd Frazier (R)
Won Players Choice Award as the NL’s outstanding Rookie after ranking in the top 10 among rookies in BA, HR, RBIs.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Became one of four shortstops in franchise history to have 30 doubles and 15 home runs in a season.
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
Caught 11 of the 12 shutouts by the pitchers and six of nine complete games by starters.
C Devin Mesoraco (R)
Optioned to Class AAA in August before returning in September, making just two appearances the rest of the way.
OF Chris Heisey (R)
Started 80 games and received the team’s Heart & Hustle Award for his passionate play.
OF Xavier Paul (L)
Found his niche as a pinch-hitter after July call-up, hitting .314 in 55 games for Reds.
IF Jack Hannahan (L)
Experienced at all four infield spots, primarily at third base and first base, but has had lingering back issues.
IF Jason Donald (R)
Has yet to have a full season in the big leagues but has versatility to play third base, second base and shortstop.
RH Johnny Cueto
Cy Young candidate also helped himself at plate with 17 sacrifices, tying Philadelphia’s Juan Pierre for NL lead.
RH Mat Latos
Has already made 105 starts before his 25th birthday,
including 30-plus each of last three seasons.
RH Bronson Arroyo
Has thrown 200 or more innings seven of last eight
seasons. The one season he didn’t, he had 199 innings.
RH Homer Bailey
Finally finding consistency to match first-round talent. Won four starts in a row last July for first time in career.
RH Mike Leake
Was odd man out with Chapman in rotation but has earned his way back in the rotation with Chapman closing.
LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
Got a long look as a starter, but with a week or so to go before the season, was moved back into the closer’s role.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Saved all four chances he got when Chapman was out with shoulder soreness in September.
RH Jose Arredondo
Had a career-high 66 appearances last season with 62 strikeouts, also a career best.
RH J.J. Hoover
Allowed 17 hits in 30.2 innings over two stints with Reds,
including 0.71 ERA in final 11 appearances.
LH Sean Marshall
Didn’t allow an earned run in his final 15 appearances of the season or any runs in final 13 games.
RH Sam LeCure
Set a career high with 48 appearances, including throwing at least 2.0 innings 12 times.
LH Manny Parra
A former starter with the Brewers, he held lefties to a .229 average in 62 games in relief last season.