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Friday, March 21, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Cincinnati Reds

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Cincinnati Reds
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
A quick playoff exit puts a damper on another strong year from Joey Votto and the Reds, their third 90+ win season in four. Votto drives in just 73 runs because he and newcomer Sin-Soo Choo are too busy drawing walks; the duo are one-two in the league in OBP, and Brandon Phillips is the happy beneficiary, driving in 103 despite 18 HR and a sub-.400 Slugging Percentage. It took a longtime, but Cincinnati has finally found a stable core of pitchers who thrive despite the home-run friendly nature of Great American Ballpark. It’s too bad that Dusty Baker and Bronson Arroyo won’t be around for more fun and games.

Winter Grade: B-
Coming: ????????????
Going: Sin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Ryan Hanigan
In the wake of their loss to the Pirates, Reds management expressed extreme frustration, singling out Baker and Brandon Phillips as sub-par clubhouse influences. Although they lost Choo and weren’t able to deal Phillips, the secret was that Cincinnati’s roster was and still is well primed for at least several more years of success, and the worst thing they could have done is tamper with the formula. It might have been disappointing for Reds fans that Skip Schumaker and Manny Parra were the biggest names Cincinnati brought on board, but this was the best way for them to ensure success for the team, barring an unexpected opportunity. Cincinnati’s roster is in a unique place, as they are positioned to break in young stars next year—Billy Hamilton, Tony Cingrani—but didn’t really have the prospect depth to make a major splash. They were better off savingbullets for midseason reinforcements; left field and shortstop appear to be likely spots for a later upgrade. Choo will be replaced by Hamilton who is an instant threat to lead the league in stolen bases, and Bronson Arroyo’s departure allows Cingrani to move into the rotation full-time after a very solid debut in 2013.

Wild Card(s): 

Three years ago, Devin Mesoraco was a top catching prospect, but he has languished behind Ryan Hanigan, receiving fluctuating playing time and struggling to play up to his potential. The guy who hit .302 with 26 HR in 2010 (minors) is still only 26, but he hasn’t come close to being a productive hitter in the majors yet, batting just .225 with 16 HR and a tepid .359 Slugging Percentage over a full season’s worth of at-bats in his career. Trading Hanigan was a signal that Cincinnati is finally ready to completely commit to Mesoraco, and in a good hitter’s environment, something like .270 with 15-20 HR isn’t out of the question. He is more likely to breakout than fellow homegrown Reds Todd Frazier (3b) and Zach Cozart (ss).
Key Contract Years: Ryan Ludwick maybe? He was hurt almost all of last year but maybe the big righty has another 20+ HR season in him. Homer Bailey was almost a free agent…but Cincinnati locked him up on a rather optimistic 6-year deal. So he’ll be a Red for a long time.

Rookies: 
Billy Hamilton is ready to rock your world in center field. There are legitimate questions about his hitting ability, and if he can’t keep pitchers honest then he will have a hard time getting on base. But despite a disappointing year in AAA, Hamilton doesn’t just have game changing speed; he has the kind of speed that could cause a shift in baseball as a whole back towards triple-digit base stealers, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman (Jose Reyes has the post-millennial single-season record with 78). Hamilton could hit .250 and still steal 80 bases; that’s what he did last year, and the year before he set the all-time minor league record with 155. There is a small chance Hamilton never hits enough to be more than a fourth-outfielder/pinch-runner, but for now the likely outcome is he becomes a star in the leadoff spot.

Key Questions:
Who gets on base after Votto now that Choo is gone?
Will Frazier, Cozart or Mesoraco post a .300+ OBP?
What is the status of Ryan Ludwick or Chris Heisey in left field?
Will Brandon Phillips’ standing with Cincinnati’s upper management be a distraction this year?
Who will close out games in Aroldis Chapman’s immediate absence (he is likely out until early June with a scary ball-to-the-head injury this week)?

Farm System Overview: RED (below average) 

No pun intended. Cincinnati’s system is thin behind Billy Hamilton and future ace Robert Stephenson. Last year’s top pick, outfielder Phillip Ervin, had a nice debut, but 2012 first-rounder Nick Travieso (rhp) was a disappointment. The Reds are very light on position player prospects, and their best pitchers in the upper minors look more like bullpen arms than future starters, unless former top prospect Dan Corcino bounces back. Some interesting names taken in the 2013 draft could make for midseason trade fodder if they transition well to full-season ball.

2014 Prognosis: Likely Contenders
There’s too much talent locked in here to dismiss them, even after a quiet winter. Joey Votto is still the best first basemen in the league and Cincinnati’s army of power arms in the rotation makes them contenders as long as nobody gets injured. But despite Dusty Baker’s reputation as an arm-shredder, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Mat Latos seem relatively durable (unfortunately the same cannot be said for Johnny Cueto). It’s a top heavy roster, but not an old one, and megadeals mean that Votto, Jay Bruce and Bailey are the core of the Reds for the better part of the next decade. That’s probably a good thing.

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