As the last remnants of a fierce winter come in like a lion and the polar vortex gives us one last hurrah, we look to a far warmer time. Nothing affirms springtime for me quite like Cincinnati Reds baseball.
Unlike the past few seasons, this season brings about some major shakeups. Gone is veteran pitcher Bronson Arroyo1 and gun-for-hire Shin-Soo Choo. No, there are no high-profile free agents coming to replace them2; instead, the Reds turned to a couple of youngsters in Tony Cingrani and Billy Hamilton to fill their roles. Both showed flashes last season that ruled out any need to look for costly replacements for Arroyo and Choo. More importantly, Dusty Baker is out as manager. Baker landed on the sword and took the fall for last season’s epic collapse. For a team with World Series aspirations, a five-game losing streak to end the season and a one-and-done playoff appearance did not cut it for the front office.
Again, the Reds looked internally and found his replacement, pitching coach Bryan Price. An up-and-comer, Price is getting tossed to the wolves and will need to have a quick learning curve to get this team to it’s goal, which is simply nothing less than the World Series.
Replacing a perianal .389 OBP guy like Choo, who was at the top of the order, is a tough task for almost anyone, but rookie Hamilton has the tools to succeed. For every single he hits this season, it could easily turn into a triple because of Hamilton’s base-stealing ability. Fifty stolen bases is not out of the question, but can he steal 60? Seventy?
Following Hamilton will, more than likely, be shortstop Zack Cozart. Personally, I like Joey Votto in the two-hole, but traditionalists will disagree. To me, the growth of Cozart will set the ceiling of the Reds’ season. Simply put, he has to get on base3. Meanwhile, the meat of the order is as tough as it gets in baseball with Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. After Bruce however, there is a lot of uncertainty.
Outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who battled the injury bug all season last year, is looking for a big bounce-back season. Like Cozart, third-basemen Todd Frazier needs to continue to develop offensively for the Reds to make some noise in the postseason. Finally, former top-tier prospect, Devin Mesoraco has been given the reigns to the backstop duties coming into the season. He has yet to live up to the hype; however, the Reds are committed in his development. If he falters, the Reds wisely signed Brayan Peña, who can step in as a serviceable catcher.
Another season, another year wondering how many innings the Reds can get out of Johnny Cueto. Since 2008, Cueto has only broken the 200-inning threshold once, and last season, Cueto pitched an abysmal 60 innings. While he has an amazing upside, the injury concerns are tough to deal with. Essentially, the ace-pitcher title belt was passed to Mat Latos, who is dealing with minor offseason knee surgery. No worries, though, as Latos is on track to be ready by the start of the season. Expect nothing less than a 3.30 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP while giving 200+ innings to the Reds. Following these two in the rotation is the newest member of the $100 million club, Homer Bailey. His career year, which included a no-hitter against the Giants, earned him a big payday and was well deserved. For Reds fans, we had big hopes for him when he first appeared in 2007. Like any parent watching their kid to continue to develop, there were some bumps along the way, but we stuck by him, always wanting him to succeed. And finally, when it happened last year, we could not be any prouder than we were of Bailey. He is our guy, and he will continue to be our guy into the next decade.
The backend of the rotation, held down by Mike Leake and Cingrani, could be the best Nos. 4-5 in baseball. These two young up-and-comers do not have the pressure of pitching at the top of the rotation and can continue to develop their craft. Leake took a big step forward last season, posting a 3.37 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP while significantly lowering his HR/FB rate. Cingrani was simply a treat last year. With Cueto out for large portions of the season, Cingrani filled in beautifully. In 104.2 IP last season, he posted a 2.92 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP with a walloping 10.32 K/9 rate. While we can expect some regression to the mean with Cingrani, he is nothing short of a treat to have in the five-spot.
Opening day lineup
1. Billy Hamilton, CF
2. Zack Cozart, SS
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Brandon Phillips, 2B
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. Ryan Ludwick, LF
7. Todd Frazier, 3B
8. Devin Mesoraco, C
Waiting in the wings is Robert Stephenson, the Cincinnati Reds’ top-tier prospect and whom Keith Law ranked as the 19th best prospect in the minors right now. The biggest question is not when he will come up, but what his nickname should be? The Engineer, perhaps4? Either way, he has top of the rotation stuff and scouts absolutely love his fastball. For him to make the jump to the show rests solely on Stephenson developing his off-speed stuff. Don’t expect to see him until sometime next season unless he is just lights-out in double-A and the rotation suffers a couple significant injuries.
Other prospects to watch include:
Yorman Rodriguez, OF – ETA: late 2014
Jesse Winker, OF – ETA: late 2015
Phil Ervin, OF – ETA: 2015
Michael Lorenzen, RHP – ETA: late 2014
The NL Central Division is going to be an absolute dogfight this year between the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals, but with Dusty Baker out, I now have renewed vigor for the prospect of a division crown. After Baker left the Giants, they made the playoffs the following season, and after he was fired from the Cubs, they went from worst to first5. The Reds are relying on some young players to step up and produce now and losing Choo hurt6. But Votto is still one of the most lethal weapons in the majors, and their rotation, along with Aroldis Chapman coming into close, is just flat out scary7.
Barring a major injury, the Cincinnati Reds should flirt with 90-95 wins and be right in the mix for a division crown. This team is built for the playoffs, but they must find another gear. With any luck, new skipper Price can light a fire under this team to make some noise. So, say goodbye to this terrible winter, grab your glove and get ready for some Reds baseball!
1 I liked the Arroyo era. I don’t know why. But it was time for him to part ways with the Reds.
2 Signing Homer Bailey to a contract extension was priority number one (six years/$105 million). Adding depth was priority number two. This was fullfilled by bringing in Skip Schumaker and catcher, Brayan Peña, two very good signings.
3 Cozart has a .287 career OBP which is not good.
4 There was a famous English civil engineer also named Robert Stephenson.
5 Alfonso Soriano had something to do with that.
6 Make no mistake, I loved Choo last season; but I am still shocked that Choo got seven years for a $130 million. Reds did the right thing letting him go.
7 Reds posted the fourth-lowest ERA despite Cueto being injured for a majority of the season.