Cincinnati Reds team to beat in NL Central?

We're #1? Mat Latos thinks so; the Cincinnati Reds, that is. (Getty Images)

So, after ruminating on the deal that dressed Mat Latos in a Cincinnati Reds uniform and taking a holiday trip to the homeland to gauge the locals’ views on the dealings, I’ve finally reached a conclusion: These deals make the Reds the early favorite to win the NL Central. The other deal being a trade with the Cubs that sent left-hander Travis Wood to Chicago and brought fellow lefty Sean Marshall to Cincinnati. With Albert Pujols nowhere near the Midwest and the unlikelihood of Prince Fielder returning to the Brewers, together with the possibility of MVP Ryan Braun missing 50 games, Reds’ General Manager Walt Jocketty is attacking while the enemy is down.

Many critics, myself included at first, say the Reds gave up too much to land Latos. On paper, yes. A former All-Star starting pitcher in Edinson Volquez and three highly touted prospects in Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal and Brian Boxberger all for one young, mostly unproven pitcher seems like a huge overpay. But the Reds dealt from depth. Alonso is blocked at first base by Joey Votto for at least two more years. Grandal, a catcher, is blocked by the emergence of Devin Mesoraco and Boxberger, a reliever, is, well, a reliever. Relievers grow on trees. The departure of Volquez just sweetened the deal. Latos dropped off a bit in 2011 after going 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA in 2010. Pitching at PETCO Park in San Diego probably helped his numbers a bit, but he’s a power pitcher who racks up a lot of strikeouts. In his career, he has 413 strikeouts in 429.2 IP. Strikeouts beat fly balls any day, especially at Great American Ballpark. The addition of Latos to this rotation makes Johnny Cueto and Latos a formidable one-two at the top of the rotation, with veteran Bronson Arroyo behind them and two promising young pitchers in Homer Bailey and Mike Leake filling out the back end. Everyone in the rotation except for Arroyo is under 26 years old and is under team control for the next few years.

The other trade sent one of my favorite Reds pitchers to one of my least favorite teams. Wood is a crafty left-handed starter with a near-perfect game under his belt in only two years in the majors. The problem with Wood is he’s streaky. His boom or bust tendencies kept him on the outside of a rotation that’s aging like fine wine. Unfortunately, he pitched himself expendable. In exchange for Wood, outfielder Dave Sappelt and infielder Ronald Torreyes, the Reds got one of the top relievers in the game in Sean Marshall. With Francisco Cordero likely gone, the only role I can imagine for Marshall is to close. Assuming Bill Bray and Aroldis Chapman return to the bullpen in 2011, Marshall would be the third lefty. No team needs three left-handed specialists, so I figure at least one of these three southpaws will be the ninth-inning solution.

These moves significantly improve the Reds’ pitching staff. The Reds may have severely weakened their farm system with these deals, but they are now in position to win at the big league level not just now, but for the next few years.

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