Before the Cincinnati Reds signed Homer Bailey to a contract extension, I was beginning to worry that they were no longer a major league franchise. They (wisely) let Shin-Soo Choo sign a monstrous contract with the Texas Rangers and quietly
put their manager out to pasture replaced Dusty Baker with former pitching coach Bryan Price. Between these moves and the Bailey extension, their biggest move has been the acquisition of former Tigers catcher and perennial ice cream lover Brayan Pena. Despite the inactivity, the Reds are still deep, talented, and bonafide contenders in the National League Central in 2014.
Manager: Bryan Price (1st year)
2013 record: 90-72, 3rd in NL Central
SB Nation blog: Red Reporter
Here is a riddle for you: how does an offense that sees its first two hitters get on base over 42% of the time fail to rank among the top-third of teams in baseball in runs scored?
Answer: a cleanup hitter that produces a dismal .261/.310/.398 batting line in 666 plate appearances. Second baseman Brandon Phillips got by on name alone for most of 2013, producing his first below-average offensive season since 2008 (when his OPS was 48 points higher). Phillips was the ultimate example of RBI being a context-dependent stat: despite his faults, he still drove in 103 runs. Meanwhile, both Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto crossed home plate over 100 times, but should have put up more staggering totals with their respective .423 and .435 on-base percentages. Votto ignored cries from the Cincinnati media for him to hit for more power, instead putting up his fifth consecutive .400 wOBA and 150 wRC+ season. A lesser man would take a swing or two at a reporter. Votto, meanwhile, took an outside pitch for ball four.
On the left side of the infield, shortstop Zack Cozart has excellent job security despite hitting .254/.284/.381 in 2013. He is an above average defender and has no challenger in sight now that Billy Hamilton is an outfielder. The Reds would appreciate it if he could steal a base occasionally, or even once a season. He has only accomplished that feat one time in the past three years. Third baseman Todd Frazier was another low average, decent power threat in the Reds' 2013 lineup, but a spike in ground ball rate and subsequent drop in ISO is concerning. His walk rate did improve, but the Reds need him to approach the 25-homer pace he was on in 2012.
For the seventh consecutive season, right fielder Jay Bruce will probably strike out a lot and hit a bunch of baseballs really, really far. He has topped the 30-homer plateau in each of the past three seasons and has not posted an ISO below .200 since his rookie year in 2008. In center, Billy Hamilton will look to put his blinding speed to good use. Early reports say that his defensive instincts aren't great, but there is not much ground that the fastest player in the majors cannot cover. His offensive upside depends entirely upon how often he gets on base. It does not matter how he does it, just how often. In left, Ryan Ludwick will look to bounce back after an Opening Day injury hampered him for most of 2013. His offensive numbers could determine how competitive this team ends up being. Chris Heisey got most of the playing time in Ludwick's absence, and should fill the same role again this year.
The Reds have put a boatload of faith into former top catching prospect Devin Mesoraco, who has yet to impress at the major league level. Mesoraco put up middling offensive numbers in the minors, save for a monster 2010 season, and has a .641 OPS in 589 career big league plate appearances. His defense has not been particularly noteworthy either, making the offseason trade of Ryan Hanigan a head-scratcher. Brayan Pena will serve as Mesoraco's backup after winning our hearts in his lone season as a Tiger.
Of the six players that started at least 10 games for the Reds in 2013, only Bronson Arroyo -- who had the highest ERA of the bunch -- will not be back in 2014. There will not be a true replacement, as a healthy Johnny Cueto will return to the rotation after missing most of 2013 with a lat injury. Cueto has been dominant over the past three years, allowing a 2.61 ERA and 2.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His only problem has been his health. In that same three year span, he has logged just 433 2/3 innings, or just 13 2/3 more innings than Mat Latos has pitched in two years with the Reds.
Speaking of Latos, he took the Reds' "ace" mantle by the horns in 2013 with a 3.16 ERA and 3.10 FIP in 210 2/3 innings. He has been a 200 inning pitcher in each of his two years with the Reds, but his normal offseason regimen was slowed by minor knee surgery earlier this month. Early reports suggest that Latos is still on track for Opening Day. If Latos does not get the ball on March 31st, baseball's newest $100 million man may be the next candidate to toe the rubber at Great American Ballpark. Homer Bailey took the Rick Porcello path to stardom, underperforming his peripherals for a few years before consecutive above average seasons (according to ERA+) in the past two years. Unlike Porcello, Bailey's platoon splits have never been an issue despite a 171-point difference in OPS last season.
While Doug Fister had another solid season for the Tigers in 2013, Mike Leake earned the "best fourth starter in baseball" title by allowing a 3.37 ERA in 192 1/3 innings. His peripherals were nowhere near as shiny, but he continued to induce ground balls at a near-50% rate. Even if Leake regresses, his lack of production will be mitigated by the presence of Tony Cingrani, who might be the best fifth starter in baseball. Cingrani fell in love with his fastball last year, throwing it over 80% of the time. Unlike Bartolo Colon, Cingrani's fastball sat in the low 90s and routinely jumped into the 94-95 mile per hour range. His deceptive pitching motion -- similar to Chris Sale's but from a higher arm slot -- gave hitters fits, and he allowed a 2.92 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 104 2/3 innings. He plans on using other pitches more often in 2014.
The effect that one reliever can have on an entire bullpen is impressive, and Aroldis Chapman is no exception. The not-quite-26-year-old Cuban lefty has logged 185 1/3 innings in the past three seasons, allowing a 2.43 ERA. The Reds' bullpen has the third-lowest ERA in baseball while their 8.93 strikeouts per nine innings is the best rate in the game during this time period. It is not all Chapman's doing, however. J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure both turned in sub-3.00 ERA efforts in over 60 innings apiece, while Alfredo Simon has resurrected his career by accomplishing that feat in both 2012 and '13. Lefty Sean Marshall only logged 10 1/3 innings thanks to a shoulder injury, but former Brewers starter Manny Parra showed that this bullpen thing might work out after all.
Can't touch this
Despite playing in a home ballpark that is smaller than some McDonald's Playplaces, the Reds pitching staff has been one of the stingiest units in the game over the past two years. They posted the fourth-lowest ERA in baseball in 2013, and their starters' 3.43 ERA was a fraction lower than the Tigers' rotation at 3.44. They were the only rotation in the National League to log over 1,000 innings in 2013 and the only to have three starters with over 200 innings pitched. Meanwhile, their fourth starter logged 192 2/3 innings with a 3.37 ERA, and they got a 2.89 ERA out of Johnny Cueto and Tony Cingrani in the de facto fifth starter spot.
Player to watch: Mat Latos
Homer Bailey might have gotten the big new contract, but Latos has been the Reds' best starter since he arrived in 2012. He has logged the most innings and tallied the most strikeouts among all Reds pitchers in the past two seasons. His 3.48 FIP is second among starters while his 3.22 ERA is third, but Johnny Cueto and Tony Cingrani -- the two guys above him -- have not combined to match Latos' 65 starts or 420 innings pitched in the past two years. With two more years of club control left on the docket, Latos has already priced himself out of the Reds' budget. If he continues to be the borderline ace he has been over the past four years (and was in 2013), he will see a huge payday.
The Reds are one of the more intriguing teams in the National League, but their lackluster offseason seems to have taken eyes away from a very talented roster. Their offense will suffer without Shin-Soo Choo on base every second of every game like he was in 2013, but Billy Hamilton brings game-changing speed to the table and Joey Votto is still the best hitter in the National League. They easily have the best pitching staff in the division, provided the rotation stays reasonably healthy. The Reds are fully capable of winning the NL Central in 2014 after winning it by nine games with largely the same roster in 2012. At the very least, I would expect them to make the Cardinals uncomfortable.