Spring Training 2011 Question of the Day: Cincinnati Reds

The Cincinnati Reds enter 2011 as defending National League Central champions, but they're not likely to repeat unless one of their starting pitchers takes a big step forward.

There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Cleveland Indians.

So here's a Question: What is wrong with baseball fans in Ohio?

I touched on this yesterday ... In 2007, the Indians won 96 games and finished ninth in the American League in attendance. Granted, they sort of snuck up on everybody, having gone 78-84 the season before. But with the '07 Tribe winning all those games and coming within a whisker of the World Series, you would expect a real carryover, right?

Wrong. The Indians' attendance dropped slightly in 2008, and has plummeted since.

I bring this up (again) only because we might be seeing the same thing across the state in Cincinnati.

Last year the Reds posted their first winning season in a decade, and reached the playoffs for the first time since 1995. Yet despite playing in a relatively new ballpark, the franchise barely drew two million customers and finished 12th in the league in attendance.

Is there a carryover this year? The Indians' experience isn't encouraging, though it's worth noting that the Indians did not maintain their on-field performance, following up those 96 wins in 2007 with only 81 in '08.

Oh, and let's not blame any of these figures on market size. That's obviously important, but the Brewers play in a tiny market and they're routinely ranked in the upper half of National League attendance. It's not clear to me exactly how they do it. But it obviously can be done.

For the Reds, that probably starts with winning a lot more games. They won 91 games last year, and they earned them. They led the league in scoring and the pitching ... well, the pitching (and defense) was just good enough, ranking in the middle of the National League pack.

The Reds are highly unlikely to lead the league in scoring again. Among the 13 Reds who totaled at least 100 plate appearances, Orlando Cabrera was the only one who had a bad year at the plate. Everyone else was either adequate, good, or great. Cincinnati's catchers, mostly Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan ranked second in the league in RBI, third in OPS. Scott Rolen stayed reasonably healthy and added to his Hall of Fame resume. Joey Votto, you know about.

This should still be a good hitting team. But perhaps not a great one.

So if the Reds are going to win 90-plus games again, they'll have to compensate on the other side of the ball, which means mostly with better pitching.

A year ago, the Reds didn't really have an ace. Bronson Arroyo won 17 games, but his ERA wasn't anything special. Johnny Cueto was the only other Red with more than 10 wins, and his ERA was just slightly better than Arroyo's. In 19 starts, Homer Bailey pitched better than his 4.46 ERA. Rookies Mike Leake and Travis Wood both pitched better than we might have expected. Edinson V olquez pitched fairly well after returning from injury in the second half of the season.

Aaron Harang did post a 5.32 ERA last season, but he's off to enjoy the vast pastures in San Diego. Which leaves the Reds with six legitimate candidates for the starting rotation this spring ... but how many candidates for the ace they will probably need?

Arroyo's a workhorse. He never misses a start, and has averaged 215 innings per season over the last six seasons. He's got almost no ace potential, though. Not while striking out five hitters per nine innings and giving up 30 homers every year.

Once-hot prospect Homer Bailey? He's got a 5.09 ERA in 304 career innings. Still, his strikeout rate is encouraging and he's not particularly prone to the long ball. With a little luck and a few fewer walks, Bailey might have a shot.

Mike Leake shocked everyone last spring by becoming the first starting pitcher since Jim Abbott to break camp with the big club without having spent a day in the minor leagues.

Superficially, the results were impressive. As late as June 28, Leake's ERA was 2.92. But his subpar strikeout-to-walk ratio caught up with him in July, and then in August he got hurt and didn't pitch at all in September or October. Between the injury and his performance before he went down, Leake's now looking like a No. 5 starter for now. At best.

Leake's fellow rookie Travis Wood fared quite a bit better.

Just one year ago, Wood was considered a good prospect. Baseball America ranked him as the Red' No. 7 prospect; John Sickels gave Wood a C+ grade. But everything changed in Triple-A Louisville, where Wood's strikeout rate went up, his walk rate down. After 16 starts and a 3.06 ERA, Wood debuted with the big club on the 1st of July, just  kept on striking out hitters and not walking them, and wound up with a 3.51 ERA in 17 major-league starts.

Wait, there are yet two more candidates.

Johnny Cueto, a veteran of three full major-league seasons, just turned 25. His ERA has improved steadily as he's steadily given up fewer home runs. He does a lot of things well, but nothing brilliantly enough that we should expect him to make a great leap forward (GLF) this season, into acehood.

Meanwhile, Edinson Volquez has done great things. Three years ago he went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA.*

* Oh, and tell me again how he finished just fourth in the 2008 Rookie of the Year voting? Right ... Two voters didn't know Volquez was ineligible for the award, give him a second- and third-place vote, and the BBWAA in its infinite wisdom  anyway.

Since then he's pitched 112 innings, roughly half before his Tommy John surgery and half after. Sure, people say guys are just as good afterward, but it doesn't always work out that way. Volquez figures to be good enough to pitch in the Reds' rotation this season, but there's no way of knowing if he'll ever be as good as he was.

Yesterday I was surprised to see that , even after accounting for the Cardinals' loss of Adam Wainwright for the season, has the Reds with just a 23-percent chance of reaching the playoffs, still well behind the Cardinals (44 percent and the Brewers (39 percent).

I haven't looked at the underlying projections, but I will guess the Reds project to 84 wins because their hitting is expected to regress and their pitching isn't expected to improve at all.

I'm not going to argue with PECOTA. I don't know which of these fellows will be a Cy Young candidate, either. And if the Reds can't figure out an answer, it might be a long season.

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