Depending on how long you have been on this planet, you may or may not remember the Big Red Machine. For those that don't know, that nickname was given to the Cincinnati Reds teams that dominated the National League in the 1970s. The Reds made six playoff appearances, won two championships, and finished below second place just once during that decade. They had several Hall of Famers in their lineup, including Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Joe Morgan. Pete Rose, Dave Concepción, and Ken Griffey Sr. are a few other famous names that played for Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson during those famous years.
The 2014 Reds were pretty much the exact opposite of that team. The Reds scored just 595 runs last year, the third-lowest total in baseball and their lowest as a franchise since 1982. A once-dangerous lineup was reduced to rubble by injuries and age-related declines, and the Reds went from preseason contenders to a team battling the Chicago Cubs for last place in the division.
Given the talent currently in their organization, it makes sense that GM Walt Jocketty didn't do much with the lineup. Eight of the nine players that were projected to be in their 2014 Opening Day lineup will be counted on for major contributions in 2015. The ninth, left fielder Ryan Ludwick, was replaced by an eerily similar player in Marlon Byrd. It almost feels a bit stale, like the Reds are pretending that they hit pause prior to the first pitch to Billy Hamilton last year and are just now ready to start watching it all unfold.
The rest of the roster is different, sure. There has been a lot of upheaval in the rotation due to a glut of would-be expiring contracts, but not all of it was for the better in 2015. The bullpen is a little more loaded, and manager Bryan Price is more flexible with his use of flamethrower Aroldis Chapman than his predecessor. There is enough here to win in 2015, but it will require everything to bounce in their favor. However, it could just as easily fall apart, which would mean a last place finish in an unforgiving division.
Manager: Bryan Price (2nd season)
2014 record: 76-86
SB Nation blog: Red Reporter
First series vs. Tigers: June 15-16 @ Comerica Park
From 2010 to 2013, Joey Votto was one of the best players in baseball. He hit .317/.434/.544 with 104 home runs (26 per season), made four consecutive All-Star teams, and won the 2010 National League MVP. His worst season according to WAR was 2012, and he was still worth 5.6 wins. In those four years, the Reds offense scored the third-most runs in the National League, trailing only the St. Louis Cardinals and the Coors-Field-aided Colorado Rockies. Then, it all came crashing down. Votto's 2014 decline was due to injury, and he only played in 62 games amid quad injuries in both legs. Now healthy, the 31-year-old on-base machine should rebound to his former self without much of a hiccup. Will the rest of the Reds' offense fare the same way?
Second baseman Brandon Phillips had excellent numbers in the same four-year stretch outlined above, but his OPS has declined from a solid .750 in 2012 to just .678 in 2014. That type of production isn't the end of the world in today's run-scoring environment, but it's tougher to swallow given Phillips' declining defense and ballooning contract. Shortstop Zack Cozart may eventually be pushed by former Tiger Eugenio Suarez, but the 29-year-old Cozart has a much better glove. Suarez will have to hit like he did in the minors last year to see any meaningful playing time. Third baseman Todd Frazier surprised everyone by stealing 20 bases in 28 attempts last season. The plus defense, 122 wRC+, and towering home runs were business as usual, though.
While Frazier set a career-high with 29 home runs, outfielder Jay Bruce failed to top the 20-homer mark for the first time in his career. There was never a full explanation for Bruce's mysterious power outage during his age-27 season, but one prevailing theory is that he returned too quickly from an early May knee surgery. His second half numbers did not get any better, but it's hard to see someone as consistent as Bruce has been simply falling apart at a relatively young age.
Center fielder Billy Hamilton didn't become the terror on the basepaths that some expected heading into the 2014 season, but only because he was hardly ever on base. The speedster had a .292 on-base percentage atop the Reds' lineup, and was caught stealing a league-leading 23 times. He was still worth 3.5 WAR thanks to some excellent defense, though. Left fielder Marlon Byrd was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in hopes of replacing Ryan Ludwick's bat, but it's fair to wonder when the 37-year-old Byrd will fall apart. A .287/.339/.447 hitter from 2007 to 2013, Byrd hit just .264 with a .312 on-base percentage last year.
Devin Mesoraco finally had the breakout season in 2014 that everyone was expecting two or three years ago, but it's hard to fault him for it. Still only 26, Mesoraco has been under a mountain of expectations since his breakout 2010 season in the minors. He's not the greatest defender at the diamond's most demanding position, but he's not a hindrance either. If he hits anything like he did in 2014 -- .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs in 440 plate appearances -- he will make a few more All-Star appearances before his sparkling new contract expires. Tigers fan favorite Brayan Pena is back for another tour of duty as Mesoraco's backup catcher. Pena's bat declined as expected, but he was a surprisingly effective pitch framer in 2014. He won't get as much playing time in 2015 if Mesoraco can stay healthy, but remember, we're talking about catchers here.
The Reds were in a bind this offseason. Four of their five projected starting pitchers were slated to become free agents after the 2015 season, and they didn't have the means to extend all of them. By the end of the winter meetings, Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon were gone. While these moves were prudent and gave the Reds more long-term security, they sorely weakened the 2015 rotation. Staff ace Johnny Cueto is still around, and it appears that the Reds will do all they can to keep him beyond this season. Cueto led the National League with 243 2/3 innings pitched last season and struck out a league-high 242 hitters. He allowed a 2.25 ERA, a .194 batting average against, and finished second to Clayton Kershaw in the NL Cy Young voting (which is as good as winning it these days).
Also still around is Mike Leake, the pitcher that I initially hoped was coming to Detroit when a mystery trade with the Reds was announced last December. Leake is a less heralded version of Rick Porcello: he's young relative to his MLB experience, generates a high percentage of ground ball outs, and doesn't walk many batters. Leake only struck out 164 hitters in 214 1/3 innings last year, but posted a career-high 3.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio thanks to a 5.5 percent walk rate. Right-hander Homer Bailey only pitched 145 2/3 innings amid a slew of injuries in 2014, including a bulging disc in his neck that sidelined him for two months. He had elbow surgery at the beginning of September and is throwing bullpens in Reds camp, but will not be ready for Opening Day.
In Bailey's place will be right-hander Jason Marquis. Yes, that Jason Marquis. The fine folks at Red Reporter are not happy one bit about this idea, even if it is just for a few weeks.
This is so upsetting to me for a few reasons. One, I think they have better alternatives on staff. They just shifted Tony Cingrani to the bullpen, which I mean I guess okay. Maybe he's better suited for the 'pen. But there is also David Holmberg, Dylan Axelrod, Daniel Corcino, Paul Maholm, or pretty much anybody else, to be honest. This guy sucks and the Reds are pitching him anyway. That sucks.
Replacing Latos and Simon in the rotation will be Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias. DeSclafani was acquired from the Marlins in the Latos deal, and will be looking to improve on a rough MLB debut in 2014. He allowed 23 runs in just 33 innings, but bounced back with a 2.67 ERA and 6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings in the Arizona Fall League. He profiles as more of a back-end starter, but one that could be valuable if he adds to last year's 135 1/3 total innings pitched. The Reds signed Iglesias to a seven-year deal last June, but the 24-year-old right-hander has yet to make his U.S. professional debut at any level. He's a bit of a wild card, but has experience in Cuba's top professional league and his scouting report sounds pretty darn appealing.
Aroldis Chapman is the alpha and omega of the Reds' bullpen, but I'm much more excited about right-hander Jumbo Diaz for obvious reasons. His 2014 numbers weren't all that special and he's already 31, but could you pick a better name for a 6'4", 315-pound relief pitcher? Former Tigers farmhand Burke Badenhop is nearly 100 pounds lighter than Diaz, and his fastball packs a significantly lighter wallop as well. Badenhop signed a one-year deal after allowing a 2.29 ERA with the Red Sox last season, but a rising walk rate and declining strikeout rates give reason for concern. Left-hander Sean Marshall won't be back from offseason shoulder surgery for a while, so Tony Cingrani will take his place in the pen. Cingrani was shut down last August due to shoulder issues of his own. Some believe that the Reds are limiting his innings now to stretch him into a starter later, but the organization has made some curious decisions with their young pitchers before. Chapman, the poster child of those "will he start or not?" rumors a few years back, has become arguably the most dominant player in all of baseball.
Because this can't be repeated enough: Aroldis Chapman threw 395 pitches over 100 mph last year. All of the rest of baseball threw 167.— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) February 4, 2015
Down on the farm
The Reds have a relatively average farm system, but one that has potential to take a big step forward. Top prospect Robert Stephenson showed some command issues at Double-A Pensacola last season, walking 74 batters in 136 2/3 innings. He has the raw stuff to eventually become a front line starter, but struggled when he was challenged to do more than just overpower hitters. Outfielder Jesse Winker doesn't have much of a defensive profile, but Baseball Prospectus described him as a "natural hitter" in their 2015 organizational rankings. The Reds have gotten creative with a couple of their top picks in recent years, drafting college relievers Michael Lorenzen and Nick Howard, then converting them to starting pitchers. It seems to be working so far, as Lorenzen had a solid year at Double A in 2014. The Reds are heavier on pitching than position players in the minors, with relatively little talent to speak of behind Winker.
Player to watch: Johnny Cueto
Unless you live in the greater Cincinnati area or are a Reds fan who has stumbled upon our preview, I can assure you that Cueto is the best pitcher you are not paying attention to. Cueto has had some health issues, limiting him to "just" 863 innings over the past five years. However, his 2.73 ERA during that span ranks second to Clayton Kershaw among all qualified MLB pitchers. His .225 batting average against ranks eighth, and his 1.11 WHIP is 10th. He was as impressive as ever in 2014, and has finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young voting in both of his two 200-inning seasons. Another reason to start paying attention: Cueto is a free agent after this season, and could potentially be in the American League (or even a Tiger!) in 2016.
What will we see from this Reds team in 2015? The offense looks like it should bounce back, but their starting pitching is much weaker than it was in 2015. Homer Bailey will have to return to form and Johnny Cueto will need to replicate his 2014 numbers, but they could squeak into the playoff conversation. However, this NL Central looks brutal on paper, and someone has to be the punching bag. Given the Reds' extensive injury record last season, it's tough to see them all staying healthy in 2015, and they don't have the depth to overcome multiple DL stints at a time. Expect a finish in the lower half of the division this year, and some major changes to their roster next winter.