2011 pre-season preview: NL Central – Cincinnati Reds

Reigning NL MVP, Joey Votto 

Cincinnati Reds (2010 record: 91-71)

The Cincinnati Reds won the National League Central last year and, in the process, made the post-season for the first time since 1995, when they swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS but were, in turn, swept by the Atlanta Braves in the Championship Series. The Reds rolled snake-eyes in last year’s post-season, losing the Division Series in a three-game series to the Philadelphia Philles that included two shut outs and suffering a no-hitter at the hands of Roy Halladay.

For the most part, the club returns returns the same cast of characters in 2011 and will hope to earn a repeat visit to the playoffs, though obviously hoping the continuity on the roster and the experience garnered last year will help them take another step in the upcoming season – as a pennant contender.

Notable additions: OF Fred Lewis, OF Jeremy Hermida, SS Edgar Renteria

Notable subtractions: SS Orlando Cabrera, OF Jim Edmonds, RHP Aaron Harang, LHP Arthur Rhodes

The offense:

Catcher: Ramon Hernandez

Infield: Joey Votto (1B), Brandon Phillips (2B), Paul Janish (SS) and Scott Rolen (3B)

Outfield: Jonny Gomes (LF), Drew Stubbs (CF) and Jay Bruce (RF)

The Reds sat idly on the sidelines for the first two months of the off-season, but eventually added OFs Hermida and Lewis, and SS Renteria to augment the NL’s top run-scoring offense. Renteria will do battle with Paul Janish to determine who will be successor to Cabrera at shortstop; otherwise, 1B Joey Votto, RF Jay Bruce and 2B Brandon Phillips return to lead a potent offensive attack.

Votto helps set the tone on the clubhouse and in the field with solid leadership and a hard-nosed mentality. For awhile he appeared ready to make a run at the Triple Crown last year, but eventually settled for second-best in batting average (.324) and third place in both home runs (37) and rbi (113). His consolation prize? He was named the NL MVP (the first Reds player since Barry Larkin, in 1995, to be so honored).

Bruce rebounded from an ugly sophomore season by having an excellent all-around season. He posted career-best statistics in all of the major offensive categories and became one of the better defensive right fielders in the league. After having a decent first half, he struggled mightily in July (.200, 0 HR, 5 RBI) before rebounding to hit .338, with 15 HR and 29 RBI down the stretch. He will look for his first all-star nod in 2011.

Meanwhile, Rolen celebrated his return to the National League by earning his sixth All-Star Game invite – his first since 2006 (when he played for the St Louis Cardinals). The former NL Rookie of the Year had easily his best year since ’06 – hitting .285, with 20 HR and 83 RBI in the middle of the potent Reds lineup.

Ironically, 2B Brandon Phillips earned his first all-star selection in what was (arguably) the worst offensive season of his career. He hit just .275, and has seen his home run total (18 last year) decline each year since ’07. He also drove home a career-low 59 runs last year.

Stubbs started the year batting leadoff, but that experiment proved to be a dismal failure – he lacks the plate discipline and on-base skills to hit Number One. Freed from his responsibility atop the lineup, he became more aggressive in pursuing the long-ball – and had somewhat surprising results. Though he never hit more than 12 homers in any minor league season (A-ball, 2007), Stubbs socked 22 HR last year and drove home 77 runs in the process. Not bad for his first full year in the major leagues! The question is: will he prove capable of sustaining those numbers (in consideration of his 28.8% strikeout rate last year)?

The rest of the offense is pedestrian, but no one really hurts the team. I expect Gomes will regress in 2011, as his last two years of statistical relevance were driven by spikes in contact rate and hit percentage… when these regress to his inherent skill set I expect he’ll hit .240-.250, with 18-20 HR (+/-). Hernandez had a nice season last year, driven by a spike in his hit percentage… he will likely regress back to his career norm and return to the .250-.260 range in batting average. Janish is the likely heir at shortstop – both he and Renteria offer little in the way of offensive skills at this point, but he will provide decent batting average and won’t hurt the club with the leather.

The pitching staff:

The starting rotation: Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Travis Wood

Closer: Francisco Cordero

Once upon a time, Harang was the staff ace, but his abilities have declined and by the end of the year he was just a shadow of his old self… he had clearly become the 6th-best pitcher in the rotation and was unable to crack the team’s post-season rotation. Exit Harang. Into the role of the staff ace (?) steps Volquez, a former all-star who suffered an elbow injury in 2008 and has pitched only 112.1 innings over the last two years. Arroyo has become a workhorse since being acquired from the Red Sox after the 2005 season in exchange for Wily Mo Pena. He has thrown 200+ innings in each of his five years in Cincinnati and last year posted a career-high 17 wins.

Cueto, Bailey and Wood are all promising youngsters who are still developing their skills at the big league level. Cueto looks to be the most solid of the three. Bailey has shown some of his promised upside in the latter stages of each of the last two years, but he has not demonstrated that he can sustain the effort over an entire season. Wood is the only lefty in the rotation and has potential, but he surrenders too many fly balls and could be victimized at Great American Ball Park.

Assuming good health among all of the starters, one of those last three guys is eventually going to lose his spot in the rotation to flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman – he of the 105 mph fastball! The Cuban defector will start the year in the bullpen, but it seems just a matter ofr time until he is plugged into the starting rotation. With Wood the only other lefty starter, it would seem the competition might be between Cueto and Bailey to see who goes to the bullpen.

Cordero blew eight save opportunities in 2010 and posted a 6.75 ERA in September as he appeared to wear down. If the starters are healthy and Cordero struggles, it seems possible Chapman COULD be handed 9th-inning duties some time before mid-season.

Prediction for 2011: 1st place (93-69)

The Reds signed manager Dusty Baker to a two-year contract extension… they then ponied up more than $150 million to sign Votto, Bruce, Arroyo and Cueto to extensions of their own. They have a solid core of players that should carry them to a division title, but whether they have the pitching to get into the NLCS or Fall Classic remains to be seen.

The club doesn’t have a top-of-the-rotation stud to oppose the likes of Tim Lincecum or Roy Halladay – at least they don’t have one at this moment. I suspect Chapman could become that pitcher by the end of the season, but there are a lot of games to be played between now and then.

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Reds “rookie”, Aroldis Chapman

Top Five Prospects:

1. Aroldis Chapman, LHP
2. Devin Mesoraco, C
3. Yonder Alonso, 1B
4. Billy Hamilton, INF
5. Juan Francisco, 3B

What more can be written about Chapman that hasn’t already been written? His well-chronicled efforts to defect from Cuba led his to Andorra. The expected bidding war for his services materialized, but not nearly to the extent originally thought, as worries about his makeup and work ethic caused many teams to be timid in their pursuit.

The Reds signed him to a six-year, $30.25 million deal that included a $16 million signing bonus. He floundered early in the season in the Louisville (Triple-A) rotation, but excelled after being moved to the bullpen. He was recalled in August and opened a lot of eyes with his dominant fastball (an “80″ on the scouts 20-80 scale)… but he became something of a legend on September 24th when he unleashed the fastest pitch ever recorded in MLB history at Petco Park in San Diego – a 105 mph fastball.

Time will tell whether he can make the transition to the rotation or whether he becomes a dominant closer, but one thing appears certain – he has a heckuva career ahead of him as long as he stays healthy.

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