It's been a long time since the Cincinnati Reds were any good. The team has not finished a season with a winning record since Y2K, but even that team was not exactly "competitive", finishing 10 games back in the NL Central, and nine back in the Wild Card race. They did win 96 games for a Wild-Card tie with the Mets the year before that, which they lost, but the team has not been in the playoffs since 1995, when they won their division handily.
The Cincinnatis were once the proudest franchise in baseball. Of course, that was 1868, and there were no other professional baseball teams. Once the rest of the country caught on, the Cincinnati club, well, them, not so much...but lets not be picky.
They had some pretty good moments in the 20th century, too, but in this one? They've won more games than only six of the 30 MLB teams (and only 2 of 16 NL teams): the Brewers, Orioles, Tigers, Pirates, Royals and Rays, in that order. And the Tigers have actually turned themselves around recently. But the Reds, despite a great fan base, a new ballpark, and as rich a history as any team in baseball this side of the Bronx, haven't done diddly-squat in this milennium.
But that could all change in 2008.
Not so much because the Reds are any smarter or better than they have been. Just because the NL Central division is, by all accounts, up for grabs. With apologies to the 2006 World Champion Cardinals, no team in the division has won more than 85 games in either of the last two seasons, and the teams that have competed did not do much to upgrade themselves over the winter.
Not that the Reds did. But their young talent may be at a point where it can help them in the ways that free agency and trades, due to their exhorbitant prices, cannot.
The pitching staff is headed up by Aaron Harang, who has been, believe it or not, one of the best starters in the major leagues for the last three seasons. I know, it's hard to fathom that a guy who has averaged fewer than 15 wins and a 3.77 ERA in that span should be allowed to lay claim to such a title.
However, when you consider that he's been on lousy teams and has had to pitch half his games in the Great American Phonebooth, it starts to make sense. Only eight pitchers in MLB have totaled at least 650 innings and an adjusted ERA of 120 or better, and among them, Harang is 3rd in Innings, 2nd in complete games and strikeouts.
With that said, his 120 ERA+ is the worst of that small bunch, and it's not likely he'll ever be any better than this, but he's a solid workhorse, and nobody should be surprised if he racks up another 225 innings with an ERA around 3.75 or so. And if the Reds hit like their projections suggest they will? He could win 20 games.
The #2 man in the rotation is Bronson Arroyo, who is also an unspectacular workhorse, though one who's much better than his 9-15 record in 2007 would suggest. If he can give the Reds another 200+ innings with a slightly better than average ERA, they'll have no reason to complain.
Free agent signee Josh Fogg, despite a lackluster resume, has pitched well this spring and should easily make the rotation in the #3 hole. After that, it's anybody's guess. The incumbent rotation members, Matt Belisle, and Homer Bailey, have done nothing this spring to secure themselves jobs. Bailey had racked up an 8.44 spring ERA that got him sent back to the minors, and Belisle has been even worse.
In their place, most likely, will be young hot-shots Edinson Volquez (5 runs and 3 walks in 13 innings, with 19 strikeouts so far this spring) and Johnny Cueto (3 runs in 13 innings, with 12 K's and 4 walks). Young pitchers are a volatile commodity, and it would be foolish to expect these two to go Fernando on the league, but it would be even more foolish to send them back to the minors to start the season. If they can meet projections for this year, i.e. a roughly league average ERA and pitch 25-30 games, the Reds' potent offense could get them some wins.
It's dangerous to read too much into spring stats, but 19 strikeouts and three walks is impressive no matter the context. And really, these guys have got to produce this year if the Reds are to contend. If they don't, Cincinnati cannot reasonably expect Jeremy Affeldt or (if he ever comes off the DL) Eric Milton to carry them to the playoffs.
And the minor league well is pretty shallow. The pitchers who got the bulk of last years starts for the AAA Louisville team are mostly either gone (Mike Gosling, Elizardo Ramirez, Phil Dumatrait, Victor Santos), injured (Bobby Livingston) or ineffective this spring (Bailey, Tom Shearn, Richie Gardner). There's not much left.
One (small) ray of hope, however, comes in the form of Matt Maloney. (Predicted Bermanism: The Maloney Ranger, which would be much better if he actually pitched for Texas, but what can you do?) Maloney came to the Reds from the Phillies in the Kyle Lohse trade last year. Maloney nearly won the pitching "triple Crown" in the Sally League in 2006, finishing 16-9 for Lakewood with a 2.03 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 168 innings. He was doing well in Reading in 2007 when he was traded, and then got a couple of starts for the Reds' AA team before he was promoted to Louisville and did well there too. He finished 2007 with a combined record of 13-10 with a 3.64 ERA and 177 strikeouts in 170 innings.
Most important, perhaps, he dropped his walk rate from 3.90/9IP to just 2.85/9IP, a huge improvement in control. Unfortunately, he's been awful this spring, so he'll likely have to re-prove himself in AAA before they give him a shot in the majors. Bullpen: Newly-signed Closer Francisco Cordero brings the sexiest name Cincinnati has had in that role since Rob Dibble, not to mention a much sexier face than David Weathers.
Of course, even Amy Winehouse could meet that requirement, even with that weird fungus consuming her face. I mean, I know my momma told me if I can't say anything nice I shouldn't say anything at all (or was that Thumper?) but seriously, this guy is not attractive.
Anyway, Cordero has had success, averaging more than a strikeout per inning since 2003, when he took over closer duties in Texas. He's not exactly automatic, as his ERA has been well over 3.00 two of the last three years, and close to three in two more years since 2003, but then you don't need perfection to be a closer. Just ask Joe Borowski.
Cordero strengthens the Reds' bullpen if only because he adds another quality arm to it, and therefore decreases the number of important innings that have to be assigned to pitchers like Jeremy Affelt. That's not worth $46 million dollars, of course, but it's worth something.
Weathers becomes the main righty setup man, and though Mike Stanton is penciled in as the main lefty right now, he's going to be 41 on June 2nd, and he had a 5.93 ERA last year. It would be nice to see him pass Jesse Orosco to be first all time in relief appearances, but he'll need about two more seasons for that, and I don't see him lasting out this season, much less two.
More likely, the main lefty out of the pen will eventually be Affeldt (if he can keep his 2007 successes going), or some combination of youngsters Bill Bray and the vaguely-dirty sounding Jon Coutlangus. Righties vying for time in the pen should include 25-year old Jared Burton, who went 4-1 with a 1.84 ERA after the All-Star break last year, Todd Coffey, who's been excellent this spring despite a 5.82 ERA in 2007, and anyone who doesn't make the rotation.
Additionally, it seems that Gary Majewski is working his way back after a year in which he was either injured, or filming a movie about The Three Musketeers, I'm not sure which.
The Reds' bullpen should be greatly improved over 2007, in which the team's 5.10 ERA in relief was no relief at all, worst in the NL by over a quarter of a run and 4th worst in the majors.
Simple regression to the mean by the likes of Majewski and Coffey should help, as will the departures of Kirk Saarloos, Eddie Guardado, Rheal Cormier, Victor Santos and Mike Gosling, who all posted very high ERAs. Mike Stanton will be gone if he's not any better than last year, as this is the last of his contract, which should also help. The pitchers taking their places should help to keep the likes of Bill Bray and Marcus MacBeth in the minors if they're not ready for the Show, as it seemed last year.
The expected lineup on Opening Day is:
1) Corey Patterson, CF
2) Brandon Phillips, 2B
3) Ken Griffey Jr., RF
4) Adam Dunn, 1B
5) Edwin Encarnacion, 3B
6) Scott Hatteberg, 1B
7) David Ross, C
8) Jeff Keppinger, SS
9) Aaron Harang, Pitcher
The Reds do not have a bonafide leadoff hitter, but Patterson is the closest thing, at least in the mind of new field manager Dusty Baker. He frequently employed Patterson in this manner when they were both Cubs, and he's planning on doing it again. Unfortunately, if Patterson falters, Ryan Freel is seen as the next best option. Both players posted an adjusted OPS just slightly above 100 in 2003, and neither has done it since. This is, as they say in France, not good.
Of course, batting order does not matter nearly as much as batting quality, and the Reds are flush in quality hitting prospects, with both OF Jay Bruce (Baseball America's #1 overall prospect in 2008) and 1B Joey Votto. If Baker can be convinced to give these guys a chance, and thereby displace their veteran competition (Patterson and Scott Hatteberg, respectively), he might find that his team is the better for it.
If Baker understood OBP as he ought to, he'd probably try Edwin Encarnacion (.359 and .356 each of the last two seasons) in the leadoff spot instead. Griffey and Dunn are both much better at getting on base, but both hit for consistent power as well, and are therefore more valuable hitting 3rd and 4th. Brandon Phillips won't hit 30 homers again, but 15 or even 20 probably are not out of reach. PECOTA's got him hitting .274/.325/.444 with 20 homers, which sounds about right.
Ken Griffey's not the superstar he used to be. Heck, "Junior" is 38 now, and has not played a full, healthy season since 1999. When he plays, however, he can still hit, patiently and with power, even if he's not likely to ever crest .290 again. PECOTA suggests that he'll hit about .268 with 20 homers in 417 plate appearances, but also warns that he's got a better than 1-in-4 chance of losing a bunch of playing time due to injury.
When that happens, Jay Bruce should get to play, and may impress. He's hit for average and power in the minors (over .300 with 26 homers at three levels in 2007) and will take a walk, but is young and raw and will strike out a lot in the majors, as most young players do. Only 21, he's got some time to develop, but again, if the Reds are to compete this year, they need him to come into his own pretty quickly, and to supplant the at-bats that Patterson or Freel would have gotten, not to take Griffey's playing time when he sustains his annual injury.
Behind Griffey in the lineup is seamhead favorite Adam Dunn, who walks a ton, homers a ton and strikes out a ton and a half. He's hit exactly 40 homers each of the last 3 seasons, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say he hits...oh, let's say 39 this year.
I suggested that Encarnacion could be a good leadoff option, which is based moistly on the fact that the Reds don't really have a good leadoff option, but he's the closest thing, this side of Keppinger. PECOTA has him projected to hit 23 homers this year, though, and I doubt that Baker would want power like that leading off. However, Encarnacion never hit more than 17 homers in the minors, and that was in the Midwest league, where power is cheap, so I'll believe that when I see it. In any case, he's developed into a solid major league thirdbaseman, and at only 24 year sold, should only get better.
Hopefully, Baker has enough sense to let Joey Votto play every day instead of Scott Hatteberg, whose time as a useful starter, if indeed there ever was such a time, has clearly come and gone. Granted, he hit .310 last year with his typical patience (and his typical lack of power), which could fool Baker into thinking he'd be a good option to start, but he's 38, and that was the first time he'd really been "good" since, well, ever.
He posted a 116 OPS+ in 2002, but had not been over 109 since, until he posted a 120 mark last year. He set single season career highs in batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS and OPS+, all at the age of 37, though he did not get enough plate appearances for the season to qualify. Is it really likely that he's going to be anywhere near that good again? I don't think so, and neither do the guys at Baseball Prospectus, who have him slated to hit .278 with 7 homers.
Votto, meanwhile, should hit about .280 with 25 homers if he gets to play daily. Unfortunately, Votto's hitting only .158 this spring while Hatteberg is clipping away at .382, so it very unlikely that Baker has seen enough from his young prospect (ranked #4 in the Reds' system and #44 in all of MLB) to give him the first base job at this point.
Catcher Dave Ross barely cracked the Mendoza Line last year, hitting just .203 after he surprised the hell out of everyone by hitting .255 with 21 homers in 2006. He'll share catching duties with seasoned (read: OLD) veteran catcher Javier Valentin, making something of a Hitting/Catching platoon instead of the classic Righty/Lefty thing. Except that Valentin isn't much of a hitter anymore either. He's just better than Ross.
If one of them gets injured, minor league veteran Ryan Hannigan can step in, but he's no long-term solution, as he doesn't have enough power to light one of those new-fangled LEDs, much less to keep an opposing pitcher honest. This will be a trouble spot for the Reds all year.
Phillips' double play partner is currently slated to be Alex "No 'S'" Gonzalez, who hit .272 with 16 homers for them last year, but is more likely to hit something like .255 with 10 homers this year, assuming he's healthy enough to play. The Reds might be well served to let Jeff Keppinger get a shot this year at short, as PECOTA thinks he'll hit .305/.364/.418, which would also make him their best option for a leadoff man.
Keppinger's done nothing but hit everywhere he's played: .325 in Lynchburg, .337 in Altoona, .362 in Binghamton, .337 in Norwich, .300 in another stint in Norwich, .354 in Omaha, .368 in Louisville, and then .332 with the Reds last year, and always walking more than he strikes out. So why is he listed second to a proven mediocrity like "No 'S'" on the ESPN.com's Reds Depth Chart? Perhaps because he doesn't do much else. He's not a great defensive player, doesn't steal, doesn't hit for power...but if you can hit .300 in the majors, even without much in the way of secondary skills, there's a job for you somewhere. Between second, third and short in Cincinnati this year, he should get every opportunity to prove himself.
Almost everyone on the bench has already been mentioned, given that there are so many position battles in the Reds' camp this spring. The ones who lose out (hopefully Hatteberg, Patterson, Freel, Valentin, and Gonzalez, if he's healthy) could be joined by the likes of Norris Hopper, Andy Phillips, or Paul Bako, but none of those is likely to get much, if any, playing time. The Reds' bench should be pretty strong, but that's only because they have a lot of question marks in the starting lineup and seem to have stocked up on guys who could be good fall-back options.
There are too many question marks on this team right now for me to have much confidence about it going into 2008. They've got a lot of talent, but there are so many things that obviously have to break just the right way for them. Mostly they need their old players to not get hurt and their young prospects to all pan out at once, neither of which is likely to actually happen.
My best guess: we get a chance to see flashes of brilliance from each of the youngsters, but only Votto and probably one of the young pitchers, let's say Volquez, really does anything significant. Griffey gets hurt, Bruce isn't ready yet, Patterson and Freel combine for 550 at-bats (and 400 outs), and the Reds finish 82-80. A big jump from their 4th place finish in 2007, but not ready for the bigtime yet.
Look for them to take the NL Central by storm in 2009.