Putting it lightly, the 2014 Reds were a disaster. The window of opportunity was clearly there, but it may have closed shut on a team and the veteran players we have loved over the years. I often wonder if the ownership and the fan base have not respected the Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips era enough. Year after year, those guys have gone to war for this team and yet, we did not demand enough from the organization nor did the organization really go after what we all would love to see, which is a World Series Championship. Now these two warriors, in the latter parts of their careers, face insurmountable odds pulling this team together to withstand a now ferocious N.L. Central. Part of me wants these guys to ride out into the sunset, donning the red and white, while the other half would love to see them with contenders getting their just deserve.
If injuries and third base coach Steve Smith were the entirety of everything that went wrong last season, then I am glad to see him go. As the triple-A manager, Jim Riggleman now mans the position. This change was deemed the one and only priority for the organization — not finding a shortstop who could post better numbers than Zack Cozart. If you take a quick look on fangraphs, Cozart sports a respectable defense above replacement of 18.7; however, his offense above replacement was a horrific, and I mean horrific, at -23.5. Basically, you or I or your drunk Uncle Teddy had a better shot going out there and making a difference for one of the worst offenses in baseball. But apparently drunk Uncle Teddy wasn’t available or asked for too much cash, because the Reds decided Cozart was good enough to bring back. That’s okay, because we still have Votto and Phillips. Those guys sell tickets, right?
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Key additions: Marlon Byrd, Anthony DeSclafani, Eugenio Suarez, Burke Badenhop
Key losses: Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon, Ryan Ludwick, Chris Heisey, Logan Ondrusek
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe there is enough gas in the tank to sputter along, but guys like Devon Mesoraco, Billy Hamilton and Todd Frazier have to take ginormous steps this season in order to remain competitive. Jay Bruce needs to buck the five-year trend of an increased strikeout rate and get his head back in the game. That horrible BABIP of .269 gives me hope that he can muster up 2013 Jay Bruce. Hell, at this point, I would take any of the Jay Bruce seasons other than last year, when we saw career lows. Above all else, the Reds will live and die by Votto and Phillips. They need to stay healthy and they need to relive some of their glory-day prime years. In a perfect storm, if this all happened, the Reds just may sniff around the playoffs.
What do you do in the offseason to your one and only weapon? You gut it, of course. Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon are gone, replaced by Anthony DeSclafani and Jason Marquis. While these two are serviceable options, one can only assume the Reds are on their hands and knees, praying that their top pitching prospect, Robert Stephenson, struts his stuff this season and can take one of these positions away from the back-end guys. What weighs on this rotation more than anything is the health of its studs. Johnny Cueto has to be the workhorse at the front end and Homer Bailey needs to come out of his recent forearm surgery healthy and pissed off at the world, begging for a chance to show he was worth that hefty contract.
A friend best describes the bullpen situation: “It blows my mind that the bullpen was the best in the majors just two years ago, and now it’s a toilet.” Bringing Tony Cingrani from the rotation to the bullpen (his natural position) helps, but it seems to be a rocky situation if the Reds have to rely on their bullpen. Jose Diaz and Sam Lecure fall into the setup positions, both posting a +3.00 ERA and +1.22 WHIP last season. While Aroldis Chapman still has a firm command on the ninth inning, the rest of the bullpen looks shaky at best.
Opening day lineup
Billy Hamilton CF
Todd Frazier 3B
Joey Votto 1B
Devon Mesoraco C
Jay Bruce RF
Brandon Phillips 2B
Marlon Byrd LF
Zack Cozart SS
I highlighted Stephenson earlier, but the guy to watch is Jesse Winker. He isn’t expected to be up until next season, but if the hammer falls on this team and it becomes a fire sale, Winker could get a chance to strut his stuff. Here is what ESPN’s Keith Law had to say about him:
Winker is one of the most advanced pure hitters in the minors, considering swing, hand-eye coordination, approach and ability to make contact, and he’d rank higher if he had any place to play other than left field. Winker is a very confident hitter, extremely selective but clearly looking for something to hit, with an unbelievably simple approach and quick hand acceleration, so he can let the ball travel and still put a really good swing on the ball to drive it out to right-center.
In left field, he has had the reputation of a below-average fielder, but I’ve seen him play average or above-average defense out there. His reads are very good and he has enough speed to cover it, although his arm wouldn’t play in right. He might not hit for much power in Pensacola (with the wind coming in off the bay) or Louisville, but he’s probably an 18-22 homer guy with a .400 OBP in the major leagues, someone who’ll be discussed as one of the toughest outs in baseball.
While there are many reasons to like this team, I feel the odds are stacked against them. Playoffs? I just hope this team can fend off being in last place in the division at season’s end. Every other team got better while the Reds gutted half their rotation and added literally nothing to an offense that was injured and in the bottom third of the league. My bright spot for this season is seeing Pete Rose reinstated, the front office gutted and served up during a Sunday community barbeque, and Votto and Phillips finding new homes on contending teams (both possess no trade clauses). The window may be shut on an opportunity for them to win with the Reds, but I hope I can live vicariously through them on other teams, watching one, if not both, raise a championship trophy.