Cincinnati Reds: 3 Up and 3 Down

The Cincinnati Reds finished in third place in the NL Central last season, that was good enough to earn them a berth in the playoffs. However they were unceremoniously dumped by the Pirates in the wildcard game and trudged into the offseason on a seven game losing streak. The Reds wasted no time, 3 days to be exact, in removing Dusty Baker as their manager.

cincinnati reds

New skipper, Bryan Price

Cincinnati’s general manager, Walt Jocketty moved quickly in tapping pitching coach Bryan Price to be the Reds’ new skipper. Under the tutelage of Price, the Reds pitching staff had the fourth best ERA in the major leagues last season. The 51-year old Price had been widely regarded as one of the top pitching coaches in baseball.

Price inherits an offense that was solid, yet sluggish in 2013 and they have to replace one of their most consistent bats from last year with the departure of Shin-Soo Choo. The hope is that speedster Billy Hamilton can take over the leadoff and centerfield roles left vacant by Choo’s departure. Hamilton is, of course, the fastest man in baseball. However, in over 500 plate appearances in AAA last season, Hamilton posted a measly .308 OBP.

3 Up

Best case scenario

In a perfect world, the Reds pitching staff will continue to be one of the finest in the major leagues and Billy Hamilton will enjoy a successful rookie campaign. In Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, the Reds have two powerful hitters to build their lineup around. Votto, who led the league in on-base percentage and walks last year, is one of the most disciplined hitters in all of baseball. Bruce is the only National League player to hit at least 25 home runs every year since 2010. Additionally, Bruce has smacked more homers and doubles (201) over the past three seasons than every player in the majors save one, Miguel Cabrera.

The goal for the Reds is to win the NL Central and ultimately, the Word Series. Their pitching staff, which includes stalwarts like Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, is second to none in the NL. The Reds rotation also boasts two of baseball’s more promising young arms in Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani. The staff alone will keep Cincinnati in contention.

Backing up that rotation is strong bullpen that is anchored by the flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman, who is coming of back-to-back 38 save seasons and a staggering 15.8 strikeouts per 9 innings in 2013.

For the Reds to win the division, they’ll need Hamilton to stick in the bigs and for Brandon Phillips to stop the decline he’s been on the past 3 years. Plugging a healthy Ryan Ludwick back into the line up will help. Todd Frazier saw his batting average drop from a respectable .273 as a rookie to a skimpy .234 last year, he did swat 19 homers both seasons. If he can stabilize his slash line he could be a .250, 20 home run guy in the bottom half of the order for the Reds.

Most important Reds

cincinnati reds

Joey Votto

Joey Votto came under some fire last year for “only” hitting 24 homers and “only” driving in 73 runs. What Votto does better than just about everybody in the majors is get on base. He led the league in on-base percentage (.435) for the fourth consecutive season last year, his fifth straight season over .400. He is a career .314 hitter capable of 25-30 homers and he has had two season of 100 or more RBI’s. If the Reds are going to contend for a championship, Votto will be at the center of it all.

Johnny Cueto was on the disabled list three different times last season, as a result he started just 11 games, finishing with a 5-2 record and 2.82 ERA. He did have a sparkling 2012 campaign in which he was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA and 170 strikeouts. However, Mat Latos has assumed the role of the team ace with back-to-back seasons of over 200 innings pitched.

Latos was 14-7 with a sturdy 3.16 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 187 punch outs last year. In fact, Latos has fanned at least 185 batters in four consecutive seasons and has started at least 31 games each season during that span. He is recovering from minor knee surgery and while there is no immediate timetable set for his return, he doesn’t figure to miss too many starts.

Potential breakout players

Billy Hamilton swiped 75 bases in the minor leagues last year and a staggering 155 in 2012. Every time he reaches base, it causes immense stress for the opposing pitcher. The problem, however, will be getting on base. The 23-year old Hamilton is, perhaps unfairly, being saddled with huge expectations that he might not be ready to meet. His minor league numbers suggest he isn’t going to have a good OPS at the major league level. However, when he does get on base, there’s a good chance he will steal a bag or two and a high probability, with Votto, Bruce, and Phillips batting behind him, that he will also score a run. The key for Hamilton will be infield hits and bunting. He posted a .256 batting average in AAA last year.

Tony Cingrani was probably the best fifth starter in baseball last season and is poised for a breakout campaign this summer. The 24-year old Cingrani, posted a 2.92 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 104.2 innings pitched last year. He also fanned an impressive 120 batters, good for an 11.8 Ks per 9 innings ratio. With the departure of Bronson Arroyo, Cingrani will be a fixture in the rotation for Bryan Price.

3 Down

Worst case scenario

It’s hard to imagine, but if the pitching staff struggles, the season could go south in a hurry for the Reds. They are also banking a lot on the 23-year old Billy Hamilton, who has played in just 13 games in the big leagues. If he struggles and his on-base percentage dips below .300, which is entirely possible, that’s going to leave Bryan Price searching for answers at the lead off position.

Brandon Phillips strikeout rate increased last year and his slash line numbers all decreased. If that trend continues in 2014, he becomes a less lethal component in the batting order. Jay Bruce is a prodigious slugger, but he also struck out at a dizzying rate of 26.5% last season, which was the fourth worst in baseball. In fact, Bruce’s strikeout rate has increased every season. His walk rate last year was a paltry 9%. Zack Cozart has plodding along at the plate so far in his career. He posted a modest .254/.284/.381 slash line last year. Translation – the Reds line up, while blessed with some great pieces also has some fundamental flaws.

If things unravel in Cincinnati, the Reds will not only fall short in their quest for the NL Central crown, but they could also miss out on the playoffs completely.

Areas of concern

Has this version of the Reds peaked? Cincinnati was good last year and earned a wildcard berth. However, they have lost one of the top leadoff hitters in baseball and, other than swapping out managers, have not really done anything to upgrade the personnel. With the division rival Pirates trending up, are the Reds trending down?

Other than smartly locking up Homer Bailey, the Reds only other “splash” in the offseason was signing perennial back up catcher Brayan Pena. Additionally, one of their mainstays the past few year, Brandon Phillips, showed signs of regression in 2013 with a flimsy .261/.310/.398 slash line.

The loss of Choo is significant. There is simply no way the Reds can replace his stat line from last season; .423 on-base percentage, seventh best in the league, with 112 walks and 107 runs. As exciting as Billy Hamilton is, he is far from a sure bet to meet the lofty expectations that have been set for him.

Who needs to bounce back from a down 2013

As mentioned above, Brandon Phillips, has been trending down. Since his banner 2011 season his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage have been on the decline. He did top 100 RBIs last year, thanks in large part to the Reds having the top two on-base percentage players, Choo and Votto, batting in front of him.

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