By Joel Luckhaupt of Red Reporter
For the third straight year, the Reds are a trendy "sleeper" pick in the National League. With an influx of young talent over the last three seasons, many figure that soon or later the Reds are going to put it together. Will this season be the year? There are still a lot of question marks.
For people that may not have paid close attention to the Reds last year, they may be surprised to see that this traditionally offensive-oriented team is actually weak at the plate. Joey Votto is the heart of the offense, finishing 4th in the Majors in wOBA in 2009. He did miss a month of time on the field with an ear infection followed by anxiety issues that put him on the disabled list. Given his age -- he's just 26 -- you would expect Votto to continue to develop, but a .373 batting average on balls he hit in play portends a drop-off at the plate. Expect him to continue to be the Reds' best hitter, even if he doesn't quite match last year's production.
The key to the Reds' lineup might be Jay Bruce. If the 23-year old can have a breakout season after a disappointing 2009 campaign, the Reds offense could be enough to contend. However, if Bruce continues to struggle in the fashion that we saw last season, it is unlikely that the Reds will be able to put enough runs on the board. His upside is the primary reason for optimism in 2010.
The rest of the offense is fairly predictable. The only real wild card is Drew Stubbs, who showed some unexpected power in a month-and-a-half stint in the big leagues last season. It is assumed that he can outdo the abysmal performance of Willy Taveras from last season, but the question is by how much? For the Reds to have any real shot at the division, it will likely require every one of the regulars to meet their projections, if not outperform them. They don't have enough offensive talent to be able to overcome down years by more than one or two players.
Defensively, the Reds are a strong team. Jonny Gomes is the only poor defender among the regulars. Off-season acquisition Orlando Cabrera isn't as good defensively as he once was, but hopefully should be around average. If not, don't be surprised if defensive specialist Paul Janish is used as a late inning defensive replacement. Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips are both gold glove caliber defenders, and Joey Votto is solid at first base. In the outfield, Stubbs was named the best defensive outfielder in the minors last season by Baseball America, and Bruce has a good arm and good range in right field. Chris Dickerson is a natural center fielder who will also see some time in left field, where he is pretty good, though not outstanding. Behind the plate, Ryan Hanigan threw out 43% of attempted base stealers in 2009, one of the best rates in the NL. Ramon Hernandez wasn't too shabby either, nailing 36% of base runners.
Overall, the defense may be the Reds' best attribute going into 2010. They may not score a lot of runs, but hopefully they'll be able to keep runs off the board in return.
The Reds' rotation came into the 2009 season with high expectations. Edinson Volquez had just come off an excellent year. Johnny Cueto looked primed to blossom into a stud. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo were both solid innings-eaters who you would expect to give you around 200 innings and an ERA in the low 4's. It didn't quite work out that way, though, as Volquez had Tommy John surgery in August, and neither Cueto nor Harang reached his expected level. Arroyo put up a fine 15-13 record with a 3.84 ERA, and the Reds finally saw Homer Bailey demonstrate some of that boatload of talent he put on display in the minors, going 6-1 with a 1.70 ERA over his last nine starts.
The expectations put on this year's staff are a little more muted. Harang, who posted a 6-14 record with a 4.21 ERA in 2010, will be the Opening Day starter for the fifth straight season. He wasn't as bad as his record indicates in '09 - he suffered from a lack of run support and defensive help last year - but the Reds hope the big right-hander can do a lot better than he did given his $12 million salary in 2010. Cueto is still just 23 years old, and unlike last season, did not pitch in winter ball this year (nor did he have the World Baseball Classic like last season). So there is hope that he will continue to show flashes of being an ace more frequently as he develops. Arroyo is still a rubber-armed pitcher who will probably give you 200 innings with an ERA around 4.00 to 4.50. And Bailey will look to build on his late-season success from '09 and turn himself into the #1 or #2 pitcher the Reds have been hoping he would be. It's a staff full of possibilities that could be very good, but could just as easily be a big disappointment.
The fifth starter spot will likely be won by either Micah Owings or Matt Maloney, with Justin Lehr and Mike Lincoln having an outside shot at the spot. Owings is known more for his hitting than his pitching, but hopefully the addition of former Diamondbacks pitching coach Bryan Price will help Owings rediscover the success he had for the Dbacks back in 2007. Maloney has had enough minor league success (52-34, 3.29 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9) that he seems like he could be a good choice for the fifth starter spot, but he'll have to figure out how to pitch at the big league level as his he was hit hard in seven starts in the Majors in '09. Lehr and Lincoln appear to be in camp mainly to provide competition.
The one name not mentioned so far is Aroldis Chapman. The 22-year Cuban defector was a highly sought-after free agent during the off-season whom the Reds managed to surprise just about everybody and sign. Some question the intelligence of spending $30 million on an unknown like Chapman, but the fact that the money is spread over 10 years lowers the risk of the deal dramatically for the Reds. It’s rare that a team like the Reds has a chance to outbid the league for a talent like Chapman, so when the opportunity presented itself, they had to take it. Chapman is reportedly throwing an easy 97 MPH this spring and his control has been better than expected, but even with those reports, it is unlikely that he’ll start the season in the Majors. He’s still fairly raw, and with the way the contract is structured, it actually makes sense for the Reds to hold him back in the minors for at least a year. Still, don’t be surprised if the Reds bring him up later this season, especially if they don’t get much production out of the 5th spot in the rotation.
The bullpen is good, if not great. Closer Francisco Cordero has seen his strikeouts dip in each of his first two seasons with the Reds, but he remains effective, closing out 39 of 43 save opportunities in 2009. He is supported in the bullpen by hard-throwing Nick Masset, ageless left-hander Arthur Rhodes, diminutive Daniel Ray Herrera, and solid bounceback candidate Jared Burton. The remaining spots in the bullpen are likely to be left to the losers in the race for the 5th spot in the rotation, though lefty Bill Bray could sneak into the pen if he has full recovered from Tommy John surgery last spring. Overall, it's strong bullpen. Cordero, Masset, Rhodes, and Burton are all hard throwers and junk-balling left-hander Herrera can be brought in to mix things up.
In The System
The Reds have a pretty good stockpile of young talent in the minors. There don’t appear to be any superstars besides Chapman, but there is a good amount of depth. For a system that recently graduated Votto, Bruce, Cueto, and Bailey to the Majors, they may not need superstars, but having depth will increase their options for the future.
The top prospect in the system is Chapman, who many believe to be a top-10 prospect in all of baseball. The Reds also drafted Mike Leake out of Arizona State last June. He’s a polished right-hander who could find himself in the Majors later this season if he handles the minors well. It is more likely, though, that he’ll be around to replace Harang or Arroyo in 2011 if their options aren’t picked up by the team.
On the offensive side, Todd Frazier has been getting good reviews from scouts after a strong 2009 campaign, but he is without a true position at this point. Yonder Alonso has an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio, but questions about his power and ability to hit left-handers, as well as the fact that he is blocked at 1B behind Votto make it unlikely that he’ll see much action in the Majors in 2010.
The most likely prospects to see time in Cincinnati this season are Chris Heisey, who had a breakout season in Double-A last year and could be used in left field by the Reds if the current options don’t pan out, and Juan Francisco, who has incredible power but not much plate discipline. Francisco is a third baseman, and given Rolen's recent health history, it is likely that we’ll see Francisco in the Majors for some portion of the year in ’10. Of course, that could be scary since the 22-year old made 39 errors at the hot corner in 2009.
Dusty Baker is in the last year of a 3-year/$10.5 million contract as manager of the Reds, and it’s hard to imagine him being brought back in 2011 if the Reds can’t put a winning team on the field this year. That means Baker’s going to have his work cut out for him. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles a mostly young team if they don’t get off to a good start. He’s got to feel like Cincinnati might be his last stop as a manager, especially if he can’t turn them into a winner after pundits have been predicting one for three years now. The pressure is definitely on him to perform.
The Reds have been playing the "just one more year away" game for a couple of years now, but impatient owner Bob Castellini may not tolerate another losing season this year. They are a team on the cusp of a major improvement, but it is going to take several players outplaying their projections for 2010 to be their year. The addition of Rolen in the clubhouse seems to have brought a new attitude and work ethic to a team that seemed lackadaisical when Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn were the big men on campus. Whether that will translate into wins remains to be seen.