Cincinnati Reds Season Preview: So Long, Dusty
Dusty Baker is no longer the Reds' skipper. The city of Cincinnati couldn’t be happier.
Sure, Dusty managed the Reds to a 509-463 record during his time. And yes, the team made three playoff appearances under the toothpick chewer, too.
But Baker’s leadership and in-game management left a lot to be desired. The feeling you got with Dusty Baker is kind of the same one you get when you purchase a new Madden game: there are roster overhauls, but it’s the same old game, every single time.
The Reds booted Baker after the team lost to the Pirates in NL’s one-game wild-card playoff, later hiring Bryan Price to lead the team in 2014.
Hiring Price brings inexperience to the Reds, sure, but it also brings a new energy to a Cincinnati clubhouse that’s led by a Canadian-born baseball star with the personality of a brick wall. The Reds needed a change.
The changes didn’t stop there though. The team lost leadoff hitter and center fielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Rangers, and veteran starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo took his talents – both singing and pitching – to the desert.
It’s a new-look Reds team in 2014, and one that will be competing in the same division as two other playoff teams from a season ago. Are they ready to finally make a run in the National League?
Billy the Kid
The loss of Shin-Soo Choo can’t be overstated for Cincinnati, though his presence in the lineup was only felt for a single season as he played just one year with the Reds. He ended 2013 with a .423 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot, ranking seventh in the NL in wOBA.
Though Dusty Baker had no idea how to maximize his lineup’s output last year (explain to me why Zack Cozart batted second again?), he did get the most of Choo, who had arguably the best season of his career.
Filling Choo’s shoes (that’s poetry) will be youngster Billy Hamilton, who saw some big league action towards the end of the 2013 season. In his 22 plate appearances, Hamilton hit .368 and scored nine runs. No, this isn’t necessarily significant given the minuscule sample size, but what was important was seeing what Hamilton could do on the basepaths. In just 13 games, Hamilton stole 13 bases for the Reds.
He’s a classic leadoff man, with the speed to get on base and acquire a high average on balls in play. The question, however, is whether or not he’ll actually get balls in play.
Choo finished last season with a 15.7% walk rate, the second-highest mark in the bigs behind only teammate Joey Votto. In Hamilton’s 123-game season in AAA last year, he walked 6.9% of the time, a significant gap compared to Choo.
It’s pretty clear that Hamilton isn’t exactly ready for 150 MLB games, but the Reds don’t really have a choice. As a result, the top of the lineup may suffer a bit.
The Big Bats
Despite such solid production in front of him in the lineup last year, Brandon Phillips disappointed. Actually, calling his season a disappointment may not do it justice.
Things that happened to Phillips in 2013: His strikeout rate increased, each slash line number decreased, and he got really mad at a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter.
Oh, but he did set a career high in RBI, getting over the century mark for his first time.
It’s obvious that Phillips will need to turn things around in order for this lineup to produce, especially when you consider he won’t have the luxury of seeing his leadoff man get on base as often as last season. His RBI total will probably decrease, but hopefully Phillips’ slightly low BABIP will increase enough for him to be a reliable bat again.
I’ll go to the good now, and make the obligatory reference to how incredible Joey Votto is at baseball. His plate discipline is through-the-roof good, as he saw his second consecutive season with a walk rate above 18.5%. If there was one knock on Votto from last season it was his power, as he hit just 24 dingers with an ISO of under .200. That’s the first time his power has been that low since entering Major League Baseball.
But he’ll be fine, and he’s the one Red that will easily survive the Choo loss. It’ll be another year of line drives and no infield fly balls for the Canadian.
Jay Bruce will continue to be the team’s power bat, which is a fun thought when you ignore the fact that his K rate has increased nearly every season since 2009. Though he’s walking less and striking out more, he’s getting close to being a lock for 25 home runs, especially when you consider Great American Ball Park’s tendency to give up the long ball. He'll go through his typical Jay Bruce streaks this year, but don't underestimate his power.
The Rest of the Lineup
Continuing on, the Reds lineup will feature a guy who was not featured most of last year due to injury in Ryan Ludwick. The Reds outfielder played in just 38 games last year, and didn’t do anything special. However, in 2012, Ludwick put together a respectable .275/.346/.531 slash, adding 2.6 WAR for the Reds, the second-highest total of his career. He’ll probably never match his 2008 5.2 WAR total that he had with the Cardinals ever again, but Ludwick could play a very important role in this Reds lineup this season.
Cozart’s a decent fielder, and actually turned around his 2013 season after the All-Star break. During the first half, Cozart was hitting a miserable .236. He turned that into a .282 average over the second portion of the season, something the Reds hope continue if he bats in the two spot again in 2014. He does, however, have a pretty poor average with runners on base, hitting .224 with runners on as opposed to his .269 average with the bases empty.
Todd Frazier – a guy who likes Frank Sinatra singing to him while he walks up to the plate – is set to play third. It’ll be his third season in the bigs, as his sophomore campaign ended worse than his rookie season did. Frazier’s batting average dropped by nearly .40 in 2013 versus 2012, which could be due to a difference of .47 in BABIP (.316 BABIP in 2012, .269 in 2013). Assuming things even out a bit this year, we should expect Frazier to hit around .250.
Last but not least, we’ve got Devin Mesoraco at catcher. The Reds love him, but the fans hate him. It’s hard to enjoy a .238/.287/.362 slash, and controversy could arise at the position behind the plate due to the Reds sending Ryan Hanigan to the Rays earlier in the offseason. It’s Mesoraco’s time, and manager Bryan Price has backed that sentiment. Oh boy.
Homer Bailey signed a massive six-year, $105-million deal not long ago, a sign that the Reds trust the improvement they saw in their homegrown starter. In 2013, Bailey increased his K/9 rate by 1.30, and although his walk rate went up as well, he decreased his home run rate in the giving Great American Ball Park. Perhaps his ERA will rise in 2014 due to his .284 BABIP, the lowest mark he’s seen since 2007, but overall the expectation is progress for Bailey.
Mat "don't spell my name with two T's" Latos will look to improve during his third season with the club, as well. He pitched better in Year 2 with Cincinnati than Year 1, though his K/9 numbers still haven't hit where they were at while he was in San Diego. His 3.85 FIP in 2012 made us believe he'd regress a bit in 2013, but that wasn't the case - he posted the second-best ERA total of his career, and didn't have to do it in a Padres uniform.
Starter Johnny Cueto hit the DL three different times in 2013, so he'll be looking to bounce back to his dominant form this year. Though his ERA from 2013 looks pretty similar to 2012, his FIP rose from 3.27 to 3.81. That's probably because he gave up the highest line-drive rate of his career, as well as a ridiculously low BABIP of .236. He also had his worst year in terms of balls dropped on the pitchers mound while hearing a "Cueto" chant from a Pittsburgh crowd (I'm sorry, the Pirate fan in me had to do it).
Let's talk about the fun pitchers now, Tony Cingrani and Aroldis Chapman. Cingrani will more than likely be the team's number four or five guy in the rotation, but has a ton of potential in his second year. He posted a spectacular 10.32 K/9 a season ago, but as many know, he relies heavily on his fastball - things could go bad quickly if he doesn't change things up on the mound.
Chapman will be the team's primary closer, though a ton of folks are still wishing the Reds would use him in the rotation. But assuming he's closing, he should be dominant again. He and the Reds bullpen boasted the third-best K/9 last year, as well as the seventh-best ERA. Though regression could be lurking, as their FIP ranked 21st.
One positive for Chapman is that he'll (hopefully) be used not just in relation to the save rule, as Dusty Baker loved to only throw him on the mound in save situations. We all know he can throw heat, but the biggest story with him this year will simply be his use under Bryan Price.
The Reds pitching staff took a slight hit with the departure of Bronson Arroyo, but they should still be a solid bunch in 2014. If there’s one word to describe the group this year, it’s probably “upside”.
But with upside comes risk. The team has inexperience with young (potential) stud Tony Cingrani, and they took a potential gamble with their big contract to Homer Bailey. Johnny Cueto, too, will have to stay healthy for the majority of the season to maximize the rotation's abilities.
According to Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, the Reds own one top-20 guy and the aforementioned Billy Hamilton. That's it.
The "one guy" is starting pitcher Robert Stephenson, who is actually close to being MLB-ready. The Reds have had a lot of success of late in terms of homegrown pitching prospects (Bailey, Cingrani, Cueto), so having an upside back-pocket pitcher for a potentially risky group could be a good thing for the Reds.
Stephenson had a sub-3.00 ERA in the minors last year, snagging a nice 10.71 K/9 ratio. If the Reds are in the hunt late in the season, it wouldn't be surprising if Stephenson got a shot.
Will the Reds Win the Central?
Probably not - that's my answer to whether or not the Reds will win the division. They really didn't gain anything over the offseason, aside from a new manager, while they lost a key bat and a moderately good pitcher. Considering the Cardinals will be battling it out with them for the NL Central crown (along with the Pirates, of course), I'd have a hard time dubbing the Reds as early favorites for the division title.
However, that doesn't mean the team can't compete for a wild-card berth. If Billy Hamilton makes strides while Brandon Phillips turns things around, the lineup should be alright. Especially when you consider Ryan Ludwick will be back and healthy, a key the Reds didn't really have a season ago.
The rotation, too, has plenty of potential. Cueto's proven to be a stud, Latos is a consistent piece, and Aroldis Chapman can dominate late innings like it's nobody's business. The loss of Arroyo will mean more pressure is put on some of the younger players, but if Homer Bailey lives up to his contract, the Reds should be in fine shape from a pitching perspective.
It's kind of a new era in Cincinnati. While it's doubtful that this is their year, I'm sure fans are excited about the team's future under Price. At least they're not heading into the season knowing their ceiling, as they often times did under Dusty Baker.