It may still be cold outside and snowing in some portions of the country, but spring is nonetheless in the air.
With the baseball season just around the corner, Greg Kaplan and Alex Herd preview each of the 30 MLB teams and how they will fare in 2014, division-by-division.
National League Central
Chicago Cubs / Cincinnati Reds (90-72 last season)
C: Devin Mesoraco (25) – 103 games, .238/.287/.362, 9HR 42RBI, 31 runs, 13 doubles, 77 OPS+, 0.0 bWAR
1B: Joey Votto (30) – 162 games, .305/.435/.491, 24HR 73RBI, 101 runs, 30 doubles, 154 OPS+, 6.4 bWAR - 2013 All-Star, 6th in NL MVP Voting
2B: Brandon Phillips (32) – 151 games, .261/.310/.396, 18HR 103RBI, 80 runs, 24 doubles, 92 OPS+, 1.6 bWAR - 2013 All-Star, Gold Glove winner
3B: Todd Frazier (28) – 150 games, .234/.314/.407, 19HR 73RBI, 63 runs, 29 doubles, 96 OPS+, 2.7 bWAR
SS: Zack Cozart (28) – 151 games, .254/.284/.381, 12HR 63RBI, 74 runs, 30 doubles, 81 OPS+, 1.6 bWAR
LF: Ryan Ludwick (35) – 38 games, .240/.293/.326, 2HR 12RBI, 7 runs, 5 doubles, 70 OPS+, -0.9 bWAR
CF: Billy Hamilton (23) – 13 games, .368/.429/.474, 0HR 1RBI, 9 runs, 2 doubles, 13 stolen bases, 148 OPS+, 0.7 bWAR
RF: Jay Bruce (26) – 160 games, .262/.329/.478, 30HR 109RBI, 89 runs, 43 doubles, 118 OPS+, 5.1 bWAR - Silver Slugger, 10th in NL MVP voting
The Cincinnati Reds didn’t make any significant moves to shake up their line-up between the end of the 2013 season and the start of Spring Training, and the truth is they didn’t really have to. Yes, they lost Shin-Soo Choo, who had a phenomenal year offensively for Cincinnati last year. But, on paper, his loss is one that can be absorbed by the remaining players the Reds have.
Replacing Shin-Soo Choo will be a team effort, but maybe the bulk of that burden will fall on the shoulders of super-speedster Billy Hamilton. Just about every casual baseball fan has heard of Hamilton, especially after he stole a combined 156 bases between two levels in 2012. He stole 13 bases in his first 13 Major League games, and put up a combined total of 88 last year. Hamilton does not hit for much power, which isn’t necessarily a problem considering his off the charts speed rating. He will always have a higher BABIP than normal players since routine ground balls for Hamilton can still be singles, but he will see a drop from his very small sample size BABIP last year of .467. The key to Hamilton’s success will be his walk rate, since he is one of the few players in the game that can turn a normal walk into a double with his speed alone. Hamilton will need to be closer to the 9.1% walk rate he had in his brief MLB exposure at the end of 2013 than his 6.9% rate he posted in 123 games at AAA. His 6.9% rate was his lowest career mark since his debut in professional baseball back in 2009, and he’s posted rates as high as 16.9% in previous Minor League stops. For me, there isn’t too much fear that he can’t match at least 9% next year in a full season in the Majors.
Defensively speaking, many forget how below average Choo was as a center fielder. Hamilton is a shortstop by trade, but has the athleticism to cover much more ground in center field than Choo ever could. Hamilton only played 45 defensive innings in center field – which is such a small sample size, it’s unfair to really read anything too deep into it – but he was a positive defender in those innings. Should Hamilton even prove to play an average outfield defense, it would be a drastic improvement over Choo.
As for the rest of the line-up, whenever it includes mashers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, you’re doing something right. Votto is routinely near the top or at the top of the on-base percentage league leaders lists, and that’s not going to change any time soon. Some saw his 2013 season as a “down” power year, and in some instances it was, only because of the high rates Votto has posted in previous years. His .186 ISO was a career-low, and the first time in his career it dipped below .200, but he still posted an impressive 156 wRC+ and eclipsed 6.0 fWAR for the third time in his career.
Bruce is more of the unsung hero to the Reds line-up. Reds fans have come to know and love everything Bruce does for them, but I think he’s still a bit of a forgotten man to fans that don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the Reds. Like Votto, only once in Bruce’s career has he posted an ISO below .200, and hasn’t done so since 2008, his rookie season. Bruce strikes out at a higher rate than Votto and doesn’t nearly have the same plate discipline, dropping his wRC+ a few levels below Votto’s. However, he continually posts a figure around 120, which is very good, and plays a very underrated right field, posting a 10.2 UZR last year. The combination of Bruce and Votto in the middle of the Reds line-up makes them a hard team to pitch around and get easy outs.
We get distracted by his high RBI total, but Brandon Phillips has been slowly decaying before our eyes since his career year in 2011. It’s great that Phillips drove in 103 runs last year, but every other offensive metric he posted in 2013 was below his career average. Phillips doesn’t hit for much power outside of his 15-20 home runs, but his ISO dropped to a career-low .135. His wRC+ was 91, which is more in line with his career average of 96, but still below average. Phillips was a 2.6 fWAR, but most of that was thanks to his superior defensive abilities at second base than it was his offense. However, it’s not like Phillips is a burden in a line-up. He’s a nice complement to the likes of Votto and Bruce, but the notion that he’s going to help carry this offense is wrong. More pressure will be on Phillips this year without Shin-Soo Choo around, but he’ll be fine. He’s not a star player, but the Reds shouldn’t be asking him to be one with their current line-up construct.
As for the rest of the line-up, there’s a little more uncertainty to it than I’m sure Cincinnati fans are comfortable with. Zack Cozart is one of the better defensive shortstops in the National League, but he’s not really providing any sort of offensive value to the team with his embarrassingly low walk rate and limited power (.127 ISO). However, you can live with his bat because he’s a plus glove at arguably the most demanding defensive position on the diamond (shortstop). Ryan Ludwick, when healthy, is a perfect right-handed power bat to help Brandon Phillips complement Votto and Bruce in the line-up, but health has been the problem for him the last couple of years. Todd Frazier got off to a miserable start in 2013, but rebounded nicely towards the end and actually has a lot of indicators suggesting that 2014 will be a better year, notably his .269 BABIP that is likely to balance back towards his .316 BABIP from 2012. We’ll have to see what Devin Mesoraco can offer as a full-time catcher and if he can carry the load to hold that title. He’ll need to improve on his figures from last year, and maybe more consistent playing time will do that. Remember, we’re not that far off from considering Mesoraco one of the best catching prospects in the game.
All in all, it’s a strong line-up. Is it as strong as last year’s group that included Choo? Probably not, but the loss of Choo should be canceled out by the presence of Billy Hamilton and improvement from Todd Frazier. I think the Reds have a move to make mid-season closer to the deadline, either to upgrade from Ryan Ludwick in the outfield should he get injured again or to find more offense from their catching corps/shortstop. However, while I don’t know yet if this offense is better than the Cardinals, I know that they’re in the conversation and have plenty of punch to challenge for the division.
C Brayan Pena (32) – 71 games, .297/.315/.397, 4HR 22RBI, 19 runs, 11 doubles, 91 OPS+, 0.3 bWAR (w/ Detroit Tigers)
UTIL Skip Schumaker (34) – 125 games, .263/.332/.332, 2HR 30RBI, 31 runs, 16 doubles, 90 OPS+, -1.4 bWAR (w/ Los Angeles Dodgers)
IF Jack Hannahan (34) – 83 games, .216/.317/.288, 1HR 14RBI, 12 runs, 5 doubles, 68 OPS+, -0.4 bWAR
IF Ramon Santiago (34) – 80 games, .224/.298/.288, 1HR 14RBI, 27 runs, 8 doubles, 60 OPS+, 0.9 bWAR (w/ Detroit Tigers)
OF Chris Heisey (29) – 87 games, .237/.279/.415, 9HR 23RBI, 29 runs, 11 doubles, 88 OPS+, 0.6 bWAR
Yup, this is pretty much what you would want a Major League bench to look like. Brayan Pena had a surprisingly good season as a back-up in Detroit last year, and it may be a little foolish to think that he’ll match those numbers in 2014. But, he’s still one of the more respected veteran back-ups in the game, and his knowledge of the game itself will prove useful for the rather young Reds rotation and Devin Mesoraco. Skip Schumaker can play anywhere on the field, and while too much of Schumaker in the line-up will eventually bring back negative returns, he’s the perfect ‘getaway day’ spot starter all teams would love to have.
Ace: Johnny Cueto (28) – 11 starts, 5-2, 2.82 ERA, 60.2 IP, 7.6 K/9, 2.83 K/BB, 1.06 WHIP, 136 ERA+, 1.4 bWAR
#2: Mat Latos (26) – 32 starts, 14-7, 3.16 ERA, 210.2 IP, 8.0 K/9, 3.22 K/BB, 1.21 WHIP, 121 ERA+, 3.8 bWAR
#3: Homer Bailey (27) – 32 starts, 11-12, 3.49 ERA, 209.0 IP, 8.6 K/9, 3.69 K/BB, 1.12 WHIP, 110 ERA+, 3.2 bWAR
#4: Mike Leake (26) – 31 starts, 14-7, 3.37 ERA, 192.1 IP, 5.7 K/9, 2.54 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP, 113 ERA+, 3.0 bWAR
#5: Tony Cingrani (24) – 18 starts, 7-4, 2.92 ERA, 104.2 IP, 10.3 K/9, 2.79 K/BB, 1.10 WHIP, 131 ERA+, 2.2 bWAR
We have found the clear strength of the Cincinnati Reds team. The rotation may not be on the level with the Washington Nationals, and it might not even be as good as the one the St. Louis Cardinals will offer up this season, but it’s likely in the top five in the National League.
What separates the Reds from other teams in the National League is that there isn’t a true weak link to their rotation. By the end of the season, Mike Leake will likely be viewed as the team’s fifth-best starter, and he is a solid, league-average pitcher that most teams would love to have in the middle of their rotation, let alone at the end of it.
At the top is where the Reds have their most strength with the pairing of Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos. Cueto did miss most of 2013, so I forgive you if you had forgotten that he was arguably the best pitcher in the National League from mid-2011 through 2012. Cueto racked up a fWAR of 7.1 between 57 starts in ’11-’12, and he was cruising to a tune of 2.82 ERA and 3.23 xFIP in 2013 before injuries shut him down. Both those figures for Cueto can also be viewed as a little high, considering he had a 17.1% home run-to-fly ball rate last year, despite not posting a percentage higher than 8.6% since 2010.
Since he’s come to Cincinnati from San Diego, Mat Latos has continued to blossom as one of the better young pitchers in the game today. It’s easy to forget that Latos is just 26-years old since he’s been in the league for five years already. He’s entering 2014 in the last year of his two-year extension he signed with the Reds to avoid arbitration with the team for two years, and consistently been worth around 3.0 fWAR or better each of the last four seasons. Last year was Latos’s best, posting a 3.16 ERA and 3.10 FIP on his way to a 4.4 fWAR. Should Latos continue to progress on his current track, he’ll be in line for a massive pay day come free agency 2016.
Homer Bailey has finally come into his own over the last two seasons. He may never be a top-of-the-rotation star like we thought when he was a prospect, but he’s proven to be a durable, middle-of-the-rotation stalwart. He’s basically a young Bronson Arroyo, which is a major reason why the Reds were comfortable letting Arroyo walk as a free agent. Bailey may be more like the pitcher who posted a 2.5 fWAR in 2012 than he was the guy that posted a 3.7 fWAR in 2013, but even if he were to find value somewhere in the middle of those two figures in 2014, Reds fans will be happy with that performance.
There’s two levels of bad news when you think of the Reds rotation. The first is something they can’t control; the health of Johnny Cueto. While I can forgive you for not being able to remember how dominate Cueto was back in 2011-12, I can also understand why you had forgotten, because it’s felt like a decade since he’s been able to stay completely healthy. Part of the reason why most Reds fans wanted to keep Bronson Arroyo for another year (beyond the affection they had for a pitcher that had been with the team for multiple years) is that he is consistent and reliant. When it was Arroyo’s turn in the rotation, he’d show up to the park, give you a quality start, keep you in the game and go home. With Cueto, the risk of injury is always going to be there and at an elevated rate than normal starting pitchers because that’s been his history. If he can stay healthy, this rotation will toe the line of dominance from top to bottom. If he misses more time with injury, it becomes significantly weakened because every other pitcher will be asked to do more.
The second level of bad news hasn’t really happened yet, but it’s looking more and more like it will. That would be the rumored extension Homer Bailey and the Reds are approaching, which would be to the tune of six-years and around $100 million. I understand the desire to lock up young players before they hit free agency because of the money that player could command on the open market. I’m even for locking up players through their arbitration years like the Tampa Bay Rays have traditionally done and the Atlanta Braves are currently taking to the next level. However, the fact remains that Homer Bailey is a league-average starter. He’s good, but not great. Here’s more like Jason Vargas than he is Mat Latos, and the Reds are going to pay him like they should have to pay Latos. Plus, if you do pay Bailey $100 million for six years, you’ll absolutely have to go higher than that if you plan on keeping Latos beyond 2015. This is a topic I have expanded upon in a separate article, and it’s not necessarily bad news to the Reds in 2014. Bailey’s extension will not hurt the team’s value next year. In future seasons, possibly. But, we can worry about that when we get to it.
Outside of those two factors, I guess the only other concern you’d have as a Reds fan is if Mike Leake can repeat his 2013 success. Leake’s raw numbers were an improvement from his two years prior, but they weren’t that far out of line from what he’s done in the past. His fWAR the last three years have been 1.2, 1.2 and 1.6. There was possibly some added luck to Leake’s year last year, as his home run-to-fly ball percentage dropped 5.2% from 2012 and his HR/9 was under 1.00 for the first time in his career. He’s probably more like the 4.04 FIP pitcher than he was the 3.37 ERA last year, but you’ll take that from someone rounding out your rotation.
Closer: Aroldis Chapman (26) – 68 games, 4-5, 2.54 ERA, 63.2 IP, 38 saves, 15.8 K/9, 3.86 K/BB, 1.04 WHIP, 151 ERA+ - 2013 All-Star
Set-Up Man: Sean Marshall (31) – 16 games, 0-1, 1.74 ERA, 10.1 IP, 7 holds, 8.7 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 0.58 WHIP, 227 ERA+
MR: J.J. Hoover (26) – 69 games, 5-5, 2.86 ERA, 66.0 IP, 13 holds, 9.1 K/9, 2.58 K/BB, 1.11 WHIP, 134 ERA+
MR: Sam LeCure (29) – 63 games, 2-1, 2.66 ERA, 61.0 IP, 17 holds, 9.7 K/9, 2.75 K/BB, 1.21 WHIP, 145 ERA+
MR: Manny Parra (31) – 57 games, 2-3, 3.33 ERA, 46.0 IP, 16 holds, 11.0 K/9, 3.73 K/BB, 1.20 WHIP, 116 ERA+
MR: Logan Ondrusek (29) – 52 games, 3-1, 4.09 ERA, 55.0 IP, 5 holds, 8.7 K/9, 3.31 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP, 94 ERA+
LR: Alfredo Simon (32) – 63 games, 6-4, 2.87 ERA, 87.2 IP, 6 holds, 6.5 K/9, 2.42 K/BB, 1.07 WHIP, 133 ERA+
While most bullpens are mercurial in nature and are constantly in a state of flux, the Reds have found consistency at the end of games. We’ve moved passed (or at least I have) the days of wondering if Cincinnati has any plans on putting Aroldis Chapman into the rotation. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While the value in having a really good closer can be misused at times (obligatory ‘why do teams save their best relievers for situations that may not happen’ comment here), having a stopper as consistent and drastically different from any other pitcher an opposing hitter will see that day does prove valuable.
As for the rest, what started as a hodgepodge of pitchers with checkered pasts, the Reds have turned into a core unit of reliable bridges to finish off games. Sean Marshall has become one of the best lefty relievers in the game, and as long as he’s able to stay healthy in 2014, he will continue to be a stopper. J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure were strong options in middle relief innings, and I don’t think people should forget about how good Logan Ondrusek has been at times for the Reds over the last few seasons.
Top 10 Prospects (MLB.com)
1. OF Billy Hamilton
2. RHP Robert Stephenson
3. RHP Nicholas Travieso
4. OF Phil Ervin
5. OF Jesse Winker
6. RHP Michael Lorenzen
7. RHP Daniel Corcino
8. LHP David Holmberg
9. 2B Ryan Wright
10. OF Sean Buckley
Billy Hamilton got all the headlines the last couple of seasons for the Reds, and rightfully so. But, he wasn’t their only major high-end prospect that has been making some serious noise in the Minor Leagues.
As a whole, the Reds farm system is probably middle of the road. Not great, but maybe a step above average. The jewels of the organization have been Hamilton and stud pitching prospect Robert Stephenson. Stephenson may have the best fastball out of any prospect currently in baseball, and already sports command that’s good, but still has room to improve. He posted a 3.88 K/BB last year and struck out 136 hitters in 114.1 innings pitched. He struggled a little at AA when he got the late season promotion last year, so he’ll likely open the year there. However, if everything breaks right for him and a need develops at the MLB level, a promotion after the Super Two deadline mid-summer could be in order.
Outside of those two, things get a little more muddled. There’s still a lot of projection left in Nick Travieso, who is a solid 2+ years away from being a difference maker in the Major Leagues. 2013 first round picks Phil Ervin and Michael Lorenzen sport strong upside, with Lorenzen potentially rocketing through the system as a high-end reliever. Lefty David Holmberg could be another good rotational piece, and isn’t too far away from being MLB-ready after making his debut last year. Daniel Corcino should make his debut at some point in 2014, but ’13 was a lost year in AAA for the former top prospect, so the team will either want him to re-establish his value in AAA or use him out of the bullpen.
It’s a little bit of an odd time for the Reds heading into 2014. They lost Choo, but they didn’t necessarily get worse as a team. They still have a lot of projection and youth in their starting rotation, and as long as they have Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in the middle of the line-up, they’re going to make some noise.
However, it’s hard not to look at the Reds and compare them to the Cardinals while thinking the Cardinals aren’t just going to be better than the Reds this year, but potentially for the foreseeable future. I know, that’s not something any Reds fan ever wants to hear, and I think the division will be a close race throughout the bulk of the season.
To me, it’s going to be a race for that last Wild Card spot between the Reds and one or two teams from a group of teams that include the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks. I think, of that group, the Reds have the best combination of power and pitching to take them into October. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Reds knocked off the Braves in the Wild Card play-in game. It would surprise me, however, if the Reds had the firepower to knock off any of the three division winners that I expect to make up the National League playoff picture.
This is a good team. This is a playoff team. However, I don’t think this is a championship team.
Projected Record: 90-72, 2nd in National League Central, 2nd Wild Card team