Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2014 MLB Team Previews: Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati Reds

2013 Record: 90-72 (.556, 3rd place, 7 games back, 2nd NL Wild Card)

2013 in Review

A few key injuries derailed the Reds in 2013, starting with their ace Johnny Cueto, whose lat injury limited him to just 11 starts.

Brandon Phillips took a pitch of the hand on June 1 against the Pittsburgh Pirates and had ligament damage to his left wrist. He gutted though the season but it clearly affected his play. Tony Cingrani‘s back went out and he was finished after a horrible start on Sept. 10. Mat Latos was scratched from his start in the Wild Card game due to four bone chips in his elbow.

Injuries didn’t spare the bullpen either, as Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton also missed time.

Even so, the Reds battled deep into September for the division, managing on the 22nd of September to beat the surprising Pirates and tie them in second place, two games out of first. From there the Reds crashed and burned, winning once more before ending the season with six straight losses including the Wild Card game against the Pirates on October 1.

The bitter ending was the third straight first round exit in the playoffs for the Reds and led to the firing of Dusty Baker just three days later.

2014 Preview

Key Additions

MGR Bryan Price
2B/OF Skip Schumaker

Key Subtractions

MGR Dusty Baker
CF Shin-Soo Choo
RHP Bronson Arroyo
C Ryan Hanigan

The Reds didn’t improve on paper in the off-season. Losing Shin-Soo Choo is a big blow. Billy Hamilton replaces Choo in center field and at the top of the lineup, but there is no expectation of Hamilton replacing all the offense Choo provided. Choo was third in the NL in offensive WAR, tops on the Reds with a 6.3 mark. Factor in his defense in center field, however, and Choo’s total WAR drops to 24th in the NL at 4.2. The Reds hope Hamilton can fill some of the gap with his defense and speed on the base paths, but they really need better seasons from the rest of the lineup just to keep up.

Bronson Arroyo was worth 2.5 WAR last season and his 202 innings will be difficult to replace. All told, Fangraphs published the combined results of Steamer and ZiPS projections and found the Reds are predicted to drop 7 WAR, two more than the Pirates are projected to lose.

Dusty Baker paid the price for hitting the playoff wall, and Bryan Price starts out right on the same hot seat Dusty vacated. It’ll be interesting to see how the Reds respond to him. Will they unify or disintegrate under a new skipper? There was also some bad blood between the press and the team, particularly with Brandon Phillips, who isn’t exactly ready to forgive and forget. The team will start 2014 with a chip on its shoulder.

Offense

Projected Lineup

  1. Billy Hamilton
  2. Brandon Phillips
  3. Joey Votto
  4. Jay Bruce
  5. Ryan Ludwick
  6. Todd Frazier
  7. Devin Mesoraco
  8. Zack Cozart

Leading off for the Reds may be one of the most exciting players to watch in the NL. Billy Hamilton’s game is built on speed — the rare, game-changing speed that makes pitchers fidget, swear and completely lose their rhythm. As a minor leaguer, Hamilton swiped 395 bases in 502 games, including 103 in 2011 and a record 155 in 2012 between A+ and AA. In 13 games with the Reds in a September call up last fall he stole 13 bases and was caught just once in 13 games, including 4 one night against the Astros in a 6-5 win.

Billy Hamilton. Image Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

It is not at all unreasonable to expect Hamilton to steal 80 – 100 bases and fray the nerves of a handful of pitchers in the process. There is some concern Hamilton will be overmatched and unable to reach base at a .300 clip. His .308 OBP in Louisville AAA was enough to steal 75 bases in 123 games but the Reds hope he can improve on that considering the .410 OBP he managed in 605 plate appearances in 2012 between A+ and AA.

Brandon Phillips appears set to hit second behind Hamilton. Phillips has been remarkably consistent in his career, despite struggling through some nagging injuries last season. Phillips is a gold glove fielder and a professional hitter who can adjust his approach according to the game situation and his place in the lineup. You get the feeling Reds fans have soured a bit on Brandon, perhaps because he’s such a strong and vocal personality. It may also have something to do with the press in Cincinnati, who haven’t been as kind to him in print as Phillips would have liked.

Speaking to Anthony Cartsovince of MLB.com, here’s what Phillips had to say recently about the local sportswriters.

I don’t have nothing to say to those cats. They know what the deal is. They just talk about how I was falling off and declining. How the [expletive] am I declining? I had 100 … ribbies [RBI] last year. And I did that with one … hand. And I won a Gold Glove? So how the [expletive] am I declining? Come on, man.

My take on Phillips is simple: he may have had an easier time with the press and fans if he weren’t so vocal but that’s just his personality; it’s part of what drives him. Phillips is an incredible competitor and a passionate guy. Because he’s such an important part of the team and draws so much attention to himself, he’s just an easier target for fans who are frustrated over the Reds recent playoff failures. The press knows this and feeds off of it. Sure, it is fair game to talk about his drop in production but it’s also bound to raise his hackles because he fought through pain and did whatever he could to win.

Brandon Phillips is a warrior. He doesn’t need to hear about any decline from a bunch of middle-aged, out-of-shape pencil pushers looking for someone or something to blame for yet another early playoff exit. Familiarity breeds contempt and Reds fans may be too close to fully appreciate him but, without a doubt, most Reds fans will miss him when he’s gone. There aren’t many second baseman who can do what he does on the field. To say he has make-up issues misses the point. His make-up is what drives him to win. This is not a player who dogs it. Far from it. He wants to win a ring more than anything else in the world and it shows.

Batting second behind Hamilton will mean Brandon has to take more pitches and support the running game from the batter’s box. Taking extra pitches and going the other way may increase his strikeouts but it won’t stop him from doing what’s best for the team.

Joey Votto. Image Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Another guy who likes to take pitches is Joey Votto, who amassed 6.4 WAR in 2013. Votto is an MVP-level threat who keeps pitchers up at night. He rightly won’t change his approach and start swinging more because that’s not his game. He may see more fastballs to hit if Hamilton is on first base ahead of him, or he may get walked a lot if Hamilton steals and leaves first base open behind him.

The cleanup hitter will be Jay Bruce, who had a career-high 5.1 WAR last season. Bruce rounds out a very strong top four in the lineup and he could be in for an MVP-level season himself.

The bottom of the Reds lineup is filled with question marks. Can right-hander Ryan Ludwick be consistent enough to protect lefties Votto and Bruce in the lineup? Ludwick’s splits suggest he isn’t really a terror against lefties, so expect teams to make Ludwick be the one to beat them.

Will Rutgers grad and Tom’s River, NJ native Todd Frazier be the 2012 or the 2013 version? Also a right-hander, Todd’s OPS dropped over 100 points from 2012 to 2013. Don’t put me on “media mute”, Todd, the numbers are what they are.

Zack Cozart straddles the line between adequate and inadequate at the plate, although his defense is a net plus at 1.1 defensive WAR. It’s not likely he will reach a .300 OBP, which means he’s an out-making machine most of the time. The Reds will live with that considering he has a little pop and should hit 30+ doubles and 12-15 HR as he did the past two seasons.

How about catcher Devin Mesoraco? Is he finally ready to break out offensively? If he does, he just might be the best option to protect Votto and Bruce as his splits and minor league numbers suggest he could be a terror against lefties. Once a consensus top 15 prospect, the Punxsutawney, PA native seems to see his own shadow in the big leagues and hasn’t yet emerged. Will it be Groundhog Day again for him in 2014? No matter what, he can’t do worse than Ryan Hanigan did with a bat last season.

Pitching and Defense

Projected Rotation

  1. Johnny Cueto
  2. Mat Latos
  3. Homer Bailey
  4. Mike Leake
  5. Tony Cingrani

Closer: Aroldis Chapman

Johnny Cueto. Image Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Assuming Johnny Cueto is really recovered and ready for a full season, the pitching staff should be a strength for the Reds and keep them in contention all season long. Cueto, Mat Latos (3.8 WAR) and newly minted Homer Bailey (3.2 WAR) combine for a strong Big Three. Number four starter Mike Leake notched 3.0 WAR last season and would be a top three starter for most teams. Number five starter Tony Cingrani broke out last season by recording a 1.10 WHIP and 2.2 WAR in his 18 starts.

The Reds bullpen was also quite strong, led by their 100-mile-an-hour man, Aroldis Chapman. The pen led the NL in K/9 and in batting average against with a .216 mark. Good thing, too, because the Great American Ballpark is typically near the top of the game in home runs.

As with the Phillies, the Reds have mentioned using spray charts and shifts in their defense more aggressively in 2014, much like the Pirates did last season. The numbers don’t lie: shifts work and the strategy should help an already formidable pitching staff.

Best Case Scenario

The Reds are a team with something to prove. They are hungry but also bring with them some angst from the collapse of last season. If they can channel that energy behind new manager Bryan Price and the pitching staff remains healthy they could win the division.

Worst Case Scenario

The Reds can’t afford Billy Hamilton to struggle for long, which is a lot of pressure to place on a rookie. Opposing teams will pitch around lefties Votto and Bruce if the right-handed bats can’t protect them. The bottom of the order needs at least one upside surprise or there will be a lot of quick innings for the offense and the pressure on the top of the lineup could become frustrating. The bad vibes of last season’s collapse could easily carry over into this season.

Projection

All season long the Reds battled admirably through adversity in a tough division only to collapse completely at the end. Was Dusty Baker really to blame?

Rather than adding aggressively in the off-season, the Reds clearly lost more than they gained. But what they do have is superb starting pitching, two MVP-caliber bats, a strong bullpen and the experience of a tough pennant race. I think the whole lineup will feed off of Hamilton’s base-running and continue to battle through adversity to another Wild Card finish. Nothing will come easy for this team and they know it, which should help keep them focused and sharp.

Predicted Finish: 2nd place, Wild Card

 

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