The way the Reds dealt with their four free-agent-to-be starters was supposed to indicate their intentions for the upcoming season. By trading Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, it showed the team wasn’t all-in for 2015, but by hanging on to Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, the Reds showed they weren’t in complete rebuilding mode either. Instead, they are doing what they did in 2014, hoping that things fall their way. It didn’t work last year, but they hope … hope Joey Votto is healthy, hope Jay Bruce is back to his old ways, hope Brandon Phillips stays healthy, hope the bullpen bounces back and hope that the rotation is good enough.
With Latos and Simon gone, there are openings in the rotation, but with Cueto, Leake and Homer Bailey back, the open spots are in the back end. Cueto proved to be a bona fide ace in 2014, putting together probably the second-best season in baseball. He won 20 games for the first time and either led or tied for the league lead in starts (34), innings (243.2) and strikeouts (242). Despite Cueto’s unquestioned status as the team’s ace — or at least unquestioned after last season — it is Bailey who received the ace’s ransom in the form of a six-year, $105 million deal signed last February. Bailey’s 2014 season ended after undergoing elbow surgery in September, and while he is progressing in his recovery, he is not expected to be ready to pitch by Opening Day. Leake is often overlooked because he lacks the pure stuff of some of the Reds’ recent top-line starters, but he’s done nothing but produce solid numbers. The 27-year-old has 142 starts under his belt, going 53–42 with a 3.92 ERA. Lefthander Tony Cingrani and righty Dylan Axelrod are in position to earn the final two spots in the rotation. Cingrani was terrific in 2013 — he went 7–4 with a 2.92 ERA — but took a step back in ’14 as he went 2–8 and his ERA ballooned to 4.55. Axelrod started four games last year, his first with the Reds.
The Reds had the most dominant closer in baseball — and still their bullpen was an issue. It wasn’t the ninth inning that was a problem; even when Aroldis Chapman was sidelined due to his horrific injury in spring, Jonathan Broxton ably held down the fort. It was the rest of the bullpen that was lacking. Even with Chapman (2.00 ERA) and Broxton (1.86 ERA with the Reds), the team’s 4.11 bullpen ERA was the second worst in the National League. Take away those two, and it was an astronomical 5.13. That many runs from the bullpen means a lot of losses, especially for a team that struggled to score runs. Except for Broxton, the Reds expect to have mostly the same faces — J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Jumbo Diaz, Manny Parra and Sean Marshall. Parra and Marshall dealt with injuries, while Hoover and LeCure were simply ineffective. The team didn’t tender contracts to Logan Ondrusek and Curtis Partch and traded for Matt Magill from the Dodgers. The Reds could also decide to bring up righthander Raisel Iglesias to help fortify the bullpen, but they will look at him as a starter first.
Defensively, few teams can boast a better middle infield than Zack Cozart and Phillips. Offensively? Not so much. Cozart played Gold Glove-caliber defense, but his .221/.268/.300 slash line left much to be desired. Newcomer Eugenio Suarez could push him in the spring. While not the defensive shortstop Cozart is, Suarez does have more offensive upside. In 2011, Phillips won the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove, but every season since, his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have fallen. The former 30–30 man had just eight home runs in 2014 and was caught stealing (three) more times than he was successful (two).
The Reds will be better off if Todd Frazier only starts at third base in 2015. He started 37 games at first in 2014, weakening the team’s defense at both positions. That was necessary because Votto was limited to 62 games because of a knee injury. While Frazier made his first All-Star team, Votto missed it for the first time since 2009. The best-case scenario is for the Reds to have All-Stars at first and third — both have the potential, but Votto has to bounce back from knee surgery. Even when healthy, Votto didn’t look like the guy who slugged 37 home runs in his MVP season of 2010. In 62 games, he hit .255 with only six home runs and 23 RBIs.
The trio of Bruce, Billy Hamilton and Marlon Byrd could be one of the best defensive outfields in the game — but this isn’t a team hurting for defense. The Reds traded for Byrd in hopes that he could be an impact bat in the middle of the order. He’s had at least 24 home runs and 85 RBIs in each of the last two seasons; the Reds got just 10 homers and 57 RBIs out of their left fielders in 2014. Bruce had the worst season of his young career while dealing with a knee injury. He missed only 15 games after undergoing knee surgery but never fully recovered. In center, Hamilton was one of the game’s most exciting players — or at least he was for half of the season. At the All-Star break, Hamilton was hitting .285/.319/.423 with 38 steals and was running away with the Rookie of the Year Award. Then he hit a wall, hitting .200/.254/.257 after the break and .123/.219/.154 in September, a month that had him caught stealing more times (three) than he was successful (two). Reds manager Bryan Price has reiterated this offseason that the team is committed to Hamilton in the leadoff spot, believing he can improve his on-base skills and be a game-changer on the bases.
GM Walt Jocketty sent a message to Devin Mesoraco last offseason, trading away Ryan Hanigan, more or less handing the keys to the position to Mesoraco. The former first-round pick delivered, making his first All-Star appearance despite two first-half trips to the disabled list. He still played a career-best 114 games and hit .273 with 25 home runs and 80 RBIs, developing into a middle-of-the-order slugging catcher. Brayan Pena is in the second year of a two-year deal as the backup, but Tucker Barnhart is ready to take over at any time.
For years, outfielder Chris Heisey was among the game’s most dangerous bats off the bench. He’s gone, however, after the team traded him to the Dodgers to free up payroll. It’s unclear who will get those at-bats now. Utility man Skip Schumaker, signed to bolster the bench, started and ended his first season as a Red on the disabled list and sandwiched his least productive season in between. Rookie Yorman Rodriguez, who showed promise in his September call-up, could be in line for more work. Kristopher Negron, a shortstop in the minors, showed he can be an offensive spark, but that was in a limited role late in the season. Of all the Reds’ question marks, the bench seems to have the fewest answers.
Jocketty signed a new two-year deal after the 2014 season, and Price, the team’s manager, enters the second of a three-year deal. This team is not built to contend this season, but there will no doubt be pressure on Price to show improvement after the Reds dipped to 76 wins a year ago — the franchise’s fewest since 2008.
In the ultra-competitive NL Central, the Reds seem to have done the least among the five teams to improve their fortunes from the year before, and a failure to keep up with the Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers and Cubs is hardly a reason for optimism. But if this team stays healthy and some of the ‘ifs’ that management is counting on come through, the Reds could compete. If they don’t, the fourth-place finish in 2014 could seem like the good ol’ days.
2015 Prediction: 5th in NL Central
CF Billy Hamilton (S) Rookie season marred by second-half slide; he hit just .200 after the All-Star break.
1B Joey Votto (L) Played in just 62 games for the Reds because of a knee injury, but was still second on team with 47 walks.
C Devin Mesoraco (R) Rewarded team’s decision to make him the starter by hitting 25 homers, the most by any catcher in baseball.
3B Todd Frazier (R) Led all MLB third basemen with 29 home runs — though he played 43 games at first base.
RF Jay Bruce (L) Must bounce back from career lows in average (.217), on-base percentage (.281) and home runs (18).
LF Marlon Byrd (R) Walt Jocketty said he wanted Byrd at the trade deadline in 2013; finally got him this offseason.
2B Brandon Phillips (R) He still produces defensively at a Gold Glove level, but his Silver Slugger days appear to be behind him.
SS Zack Cozart (R) Had just four homers after hitting double-digits in each of his first two full seasons.
C Brayan Pena (S) Signed to be a backup, Pena was forced into a career-high 115 games due to injuries.
UT Skip Schumaker (R) Utility man was a non-factor in his first season with the Reds, due in part to injuries.
INF Kristopher Negron (R) Made the most of his opportunity to play at the big-league level, hitting .271 with six homers.
INF Eugenio Suarez (R) Acquired from Detroit, he can provide some offense at shortstop and can also play second.
OF Jason Bourgeois (R) Can be a valuable piece off the bench with his defensive prowess and speed.
RH Johnny Cueto In nearly any other year, Cueto would have had a real shot at the Cy Young after going 20–9 with a 2.25 ERA.
RH Homer Bailey September surgery to repair a torn flexor mass tendon in his right forearm cut his season short.
RH Mike Leake The righthander pitched 200-plus innings for the first time in 2014 but lost a career-high 13 games.
LH Tony Cingrani Was demoted in June and didn’t pitch the rest of the year because of a shoulder issue.
RH Dylan Axelrod Made four starts before oblique injury; battled back to pitch in relief in the season’s penultimate game.
LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer) Struck out a record 52.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2014 and allowed only 21 hits in 54.0 IP.
RH Sam LeCure Finished the season with a 3.81 ERA, but it was 5.45 in his final 42 appearances.
RH Jumbo Diaz The 30-year-old made his big-league debut after dropping more than 60 pounds in the offseason.
LH Manny Parra Despite dealing with multiple injuries, Parra pitched in 53 games but logged only 36.2 innings.
LH Sean Marshall The Reds hope he is finally healthy enough to help for a full season, something he hasn’t done since 2012.
RH J.J. Hoover The hard-throwing righthander was demoted during the 2014 season after suffering his 10th loss.
RH Matt Magill A starter with the Dodgers, the Reds believe he’s better suited for the bullpen.
Beyond the Box Score
Streaking Devin Mesoraco’s solo home run against the Pirates on June 19 started a streak in which he hit a homer in five straight games in which he played. But more interesting was perhaps what kind of homers he hit. The home run against the Pirates was a solo shot. The next day he hit a two-run homer against Toronto, followed by a three-run homer against the Blue Jays the next game. After a day off, Mesoraco hit a grand slam off of the Cubs to complete the homer cycle. He tried to start the cycle over again, hitting a solo homer in his next game, but his next long ball was another solo shot. He did tie a team record for consecutive games with a home run.
Wasted money The Reds will be paying Ryan Ludwick and Jack Hannahan a total of $6.5 million not to play for them this season after declining options on the two veterans.
Queen City Classic The 2015 All-Star Game will be held at Great American Ball Park, the fifth time the game will be held in the Queen City. Crosley Field hosted in 1938 and 1953, while the game was at Riverfront Stadium in 1970 and 1988.
Revolving door Since Adam Dunn was traded to the Diamondbacks on Aug. 11, 2008, the Reds have had 26 different players start in left field: Chris Dickerson, Jolbert Cabrera, Jerry Hairston Jr., Wilkin Castillo, Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes, Wladimir Balentien, Darnell McDonald, Drew Sutton, Chris Heisey, Jim Edmonds, Fred Lewis, Dave Sappelt, Yonder Alonso, Jeremy Hermida, Todd Frazier, Ryan Ludwick, Xavier Paul, Willie Harris, Derrick Robinson, Donald Lutz, Shin-Soo Choo, Skip Schumaker, Jason Bourgeois, Roger Bernadina and Yorman Rodriguez.
Second-half struggles The Reds hit just .222 after the All-Star break, the lowest mark in team history since the All-Star Game debuted in 1933. It’s the lowest by a team since the 1974 Padres hit .212 after the break.
Heavy workload Cinncinnati’s starting pitchers threw a combined 1,023.1 innings in 2014, the most in the major leagues. Two starters threw well over 200 innings — Johnny Cueto (243.2) and Mike Leake (214.1) — and a third came close (Alfredo Simon with 196.1).
2014 Top Draft Pick
Nick Howard, RHP
Over the last few years, the Reds have drafted several college closers and turned them into starters. They did it with Tony Cingrani in 2011, as well as with Michael Lorenzen in 2013. Howard was one of the college game’s best closers in 2014, recording 20 saves for Virginia. Howard features a hard fastball and a plus slider. He pitched in 11 games and made five starts at Low-A Dayton before working exclusively as a starter in the Arizona Fall League. Because of the depth of righthanders in the system, the Reds can let Howard develop at his own rate and don’t have to rush him. If Howard doesn’t develop as a starter, he could quickly move up the system as a reliever.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Robert Stephenson, RHP (22) Stephenson’s numbers at Double-A weren’t all that great (7–10, 4.74), but the stuff is undeniable. He has the chance to be a front-line starter in the big leagues.
2. Jesse Winker, OF (21) Winker’s left-handed swing is a thing of beauty. He led the Arizona Fall League in batting average and on-base percentage and was second in OPS and slugging.
3. Raisel Iglesias, RHP (25) The Reds signed Iglesias out of Cuba for $27 million over seven years. They want him eventually to be a starter, but he could end up in the bullpen in the short term.
4. Nick Howard, RHP (22) Fastball hit the high 90s during his time as a closer at Virginia; was in the 90-93 range when he was a weekend starter.
5. Michael Lorenzen, RHP (23) Perhaps the system’s best athlete, Lorenzen can throw in the high-90s. He shined at Double-A (4–6, 3.13) in his first year as a starter.
6. Anthony DeSclafani, RHP (24) Acquired from the Marlins in the Mat Latos trade, DeSclafani should challenge for a spot in the Reds’ rotation this spring.
7. Jonathon Crawford, RHP (23) The Tigers’ first-round pick in 2013 came over to the Reds in the trade that sent Alfredo Simon to Detroit.
8. Phil Ervin, OF (22) The center fielder struggled in his first full pro season, hitting just .237/.305/.376 at Low-A Dayton.
9. Nick Travieso, RHP (21) The team’s first-round pick in the 2012 draft, big righthander went 14–5 with a 3.03 ERA at Low-A Dayton.
10. Alex Blandino, SS (22) Taken No. 29 overall in the 2014 draft, Blandino will play shortstop until he proves he can’t. He’s shown the ability to hit, no matter the position.