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After securing the organization’s first division crown in 14 seasons in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds took a step back in 2011 winning twelve fewer games and finishing 17 games out of first place. The Reds should fare better in 2012. The front office made moves that should help the team this season. More important however is that the two teams that finished ahead of Cincy in 2011, Milwaukee and St. Louis, each lost their offensive monster of a first basemen – Prince Fielder (MIL) and Albert Pujols (STL). This is not to say the Brewers and the Cardinals are going to fall off a cliff, but each team is expected to be worse than last season. With two of its division foes falling back and the Reds presumably moving forward, the 2012 season could be a successful one for Cincinnati.

(To see an explanation of 2012 MLB team previews and release dates click here)

While the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals lost their All-Star first basemen, the Reds still have theirs. When Fielder and Pujols signed with teams in the American League, Reds first basemen Joey Votto instantly vaulted to the best at his position in the National League (not that he wasn’t in the discussion before). Votto is simply one of the best hitters in Major League Baseball. Votto has put up massive offensive numbers the last two seasons (*). In each of Votto’s five seasons in the big leagues his walk rate (walks divided by plate appearances) has increased; in 2011 his walk rate was a fantastic 15.3%. His strikeout rate has gone down two consecutive years. Votto is a lethal offensive weapon. The Reds starting lineup features a few more high quality players. Since coming over to the club second basemen Brandon Phillips has developed, like Votto, into one of the best at his position. Jay Bruce (RF) is another offensive force; he is now entering his fifth season in the Major Leagues and is only 25 years old. In Votto, Phillips and Bruce, the Reds have three dangerous threats in the first four spots in the lineup. Drew Stubbs, the eighth overall pick in the 2006 draft, is a bit of a wild card for the team. In 2011, Stubbs’ second full season, he took a step back as his OPS dropped nearly 100 points to a measly .686. Stubbs still contributes with his speed and plays center field, but he needs to cut down on his strikeouts and be more of the offensive threat the Reds are hoping for. The Reds starting lineup also features promising young shortstop Zach Cozart (**) and veteran third basemen Scott Rolen. The Reds may be further helped if catching prospect Devin Mesoraco receives significant playing time. The Reds finished 2011 seventh in runs scored – 2nd in the NL behind St. Louis. The offense was very good last season, but should be better in 2012.

(*) He was no slouch in his first two full seasons before that either.

(**) Cozart was off to a hot start to his Major League career before having Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing arm.

Joey Votto is an offensive force (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The starting rotation was an area where the Reds struggled last season. In the team’s division winning season of 2010 the club was 10th in runs allowed. Last season the team fell to 20th. General Manager Walt Jocketty addressed the problem in the offseason by acquiring right-handed starter Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres. Latos is a front-end pitcher and instantly improves the Reds rotation. The price for Latos was not cheap either. Jocketty had to deal two highly touted prospects, Yasmani Grandal (C) and Yonder Alonso (1B/OF), along with starter Edinson Volquez (***). The next best starter for the Reds is Johnny Cueto who stands less than six feet tall but has big pitches for his size. Cueto has been semi-decent in his four Major League seasons but the club expects better things. He’ll likely get the Opening Day nod. Bronson Arroyo had a disastrous 2011 and will look to at least be a respectable starter this season. Arroyo, the third highest paid player on the team, has never been a flame thrower but last season he averaged an 87 MPH fastball – one full MPH lower than 2010. His home run rate skyrocketed to over two per nine innings. Statistically, Arroyo was probably the worst starting pitcher in baseball last season. On the bright side he can still pitch 200+ innings a season (yay?). The projected rotation rounds out with two former top 10 overall picks in Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. Both pitchers have disappointed (Bailey more so than Leake) in their short Major League careers and are pushing for improvement this season. Cincinnati’s rotation is bolstered with the addition of Latos but needs other members to step up and have better years.

(***) While the Reds gave up a lot for Latos it’s not a bad gamble considering the organization’s window. The club is trying to extend Brandon Phillips contract and Joey Votto is inching towards his big pay-day. It is possible the mid-market Reds won’t have either player in two seasons. With the move the team is better built for right now. They deal two players that could have been blocked at the big leagues (player already at the position) and with Milwaukee and St. Louis likely to be weaker, it made it an even better time to strike.

In the offseason the team made two significant moves to improve its bullpen. Former Philadelphia Phillies righty Ryan Madson came over as a free agent and is set to close (****). Shawn Marshall was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in a trade. Both are high level relievers. With the moves the other members of the bullpen get to move down a role and get into better situations. The wild card for this team is left-hander Aroldis Chapman. Chapman is being groomed for starting duty this spring. If he is unable to land in the starting rotation he may come back to the bullpen. He gives the team some roster flexibility. If Chapman is in the bullpen the Reds will have three relievers that struck out more than a batter an inning last season (Madson, Marshall the others).

(****) Madson’s deal may have been the best free agent signing of the off-season. One year, $8.5 million (with a $11 million mutual option for 2013) is a very nice price for a reliever as good as Madson. The fact that Cincinnati didn’t have to go multiple years is the best part.

The Cincinnati Reds are in position to compete for the NL Central this season. The organization made a few moves in the offseason that should help the team’s chances of a run. With two challengers expected to come back to the pack Cincinnati should be optimistic. This is an improved team in a division that is more balanced.

Offseason Moves:

Additions:

  • Mat Latos (RHP) – trade with San Diego Padres
  • Ryan Madson (RHP) – free agent
  • Shawn Marshall (LHP) – trade with Chicago Cubs
  • Ryan Ludwick (OF) – free agent
  • Wilson Valdez (IF) – trade with Philadelphia Phillies

Subtractions:

  • Edinson Volquez (RHP) – trade with San Diego Padres
  • Ramon Hernandez (C) – signed with Cincinnati Reds
  • Yonder Alonso (1B/OF) – trade with San Diego Padres
  • Francisco Cordero (RHP) – signed with Toronto Blue Jays
  • Travis Wood (LHP) – trade with Chicago Cubs
  • Fred Lewis (OF) – signed with Cleveland Indians
  • Edgar Renteria (SS) – unsigned
  • Dontrelle Willis (LHP) – signed with Philadelphia Phillies
  • Yasmani Grandal (C) – trade with San Diego Padres

Projected Starting Lineup:

1. Brandon Phillips – 2B

2. Zach Cozart – SS

3. Joey Votto – 1B

4. Scott Rolen – 3B

5. Jay Bruce – RF

6. Drew Stubbs – CF

7. Chris Heisey – LF

8. Ryan Hanigan – C

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Mat Latos – RH

2. Johnny Cueto – RH

3. Bronson Arroyo – RH

4. Mike Leake – RH

5. Homer Bailey – RH

Projected Bullpen:

  • Ryan Madson – RH
  • Sean Marshall – LH
  • Aroldis Chapman – LH
  • Nick Masset – RH
  • Bill Bray – LH
  • Logan Ondrusek – RH
  • Sam LeCure – RH

Projected Bench:

  • Devin Mesoraco – C
  • Juan Francisco – 3B
  • Wilson Valdez – IF
  • Miguel Cairo – IF
  • Ryan Ludwick – OF

Variables:

  • Starting pitching – The Reds most glaring weakness is the rotation. Mat Latos should do well even if he is moving from an extreme pitcher’s park to a hitter’s park. But Cueto needs to be solid, Arroyo needs to not be terrible and the combination of Leake, Bailey and/or Aroldis Chapman needs to step up. It is possible enough of these things happen.
  • Aroldis – He may be in the rotation, he may be in the bullpen, he may be in AAA.
  • Catcher situation – Ryan Hanigan was serviceable in his 91 games at catcher last season. Big-time prospect Devin Mesoraco is looking to break in.
  • Stubbs – He’ll be looking for a rebound/breakout year.
  • Left-side of the infield – Rolen is old and on the decline. Cozart is young and unproven. Hard to know what to expect from either player.

Fantasy Implications:

  • Joey Votto is a top 10 overall fantasy baseball pick and the consensus number three first basemen. Votto is a safe bet to put up huge offensive numbers. Something in the .310 AVG/30 HR/100 R/105 RBI/9 SB would not at all be a shock. This is as an elite player.
  • Second basemen Brandon Phillips is just outside the top five at his position. I don’t see him replicating his .300 average from 2011, but at this point Phillips is a pretty reliable player. Expect numbers in the .275/18 HR/92 R/ 78 RBI/15 SB range. To my surprise Phillips is about as consistent as they come at the position.
  • Jay Bruce is a top 15 outfielder in fantasy baseball. Don’t expect a high average or many stolen bases. Bruce will provide a lot in power categories. At age 25 and his fifth season he could take the next step up.
  • Mat Latos pre-draft rank is around 25. With his move to Great American Ball Park his numbers, ERA and WHIP specifically, will probably take a dip. He should however have a better win total (only 9 in 2011). If you draft Latos as your second or third pitcher, you will probably be rewarded.
  • Outfielder Drew Stubbs is a borderline top 30 outfielder. A lot of his value is going to depend on where he hits in the lineup. He has a lot of speed – expect 30+ stolen bases – but won’t hit for a high average. He’ll hit somewhere in the mid-teens in home runs. His run total will probably take a decent dip if he’s not hitting near the top of the lineup. I like Stubbs as a player but you may get better fantasy value from players near his pre-draft rank.
  • Johnny Cueto is in the mid-40s among starting pitchers. He could be in line for improved numbers especially if he is healthier than he was last season. I’m not super high on Cueto but he’s definitely not a bad option.
  • Mike Leake and Homer Bailey could both improve but until it is seen they are waiver wire fodder. Even if there is improvement there probably isn’t a ton of fantasy upside, particularly from Leake.
  • I don’t reach on closers in fantasy baseball, but if I was going to take a closer early in the draft/before they are supposed to be off the board, Ryan Madson would be high on my list.
  • Aroldis Chapman is a complete wait-and-see player for me. He has big tools (a 100 MPH fastball for one) but he doesn’t have a defined role. I want to see what his role, if any, is with the team before considering him.
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