2008 N.L. Central Preview: Cincinnati Reds

2007 W-L: 72-90
2007 Pythagorean W-L: 75-87

IN

RP Francisco Cordero, SP Edinson Volquez, SP Josh Fogg, P Jeremy Affeldt

0UT

OF Josh Hamilton, SP Eric Milton, RP Eddie Guardado

Since the Reds hired GM Wayne Krivsky in early 2006, I've taken a certain amount of pleasure in mocking him at every possible opportunity - for trading Austin Kearns for a bag of balls, for signing Chad Moeller, for hiring Dusty Baker, and generally for being obsessed with aging, no-upside role players.

Well, sometimes things happen that not even bad general managing can screw up, and sometimes by focusing on trades and minor signings, it's possible to miss the forest for the trees.

Take the Kearns trade, for example - Krivsky dealt Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wagner for Royce Clayton, Brendan Harris, Bill Bray, Gary Majewski and a pitching prospect.

It was a terrible trade. A completely stupid and awful trade. But how much did it really hurt the Reds? Kearns, for all the potential he showed as a young player, has so far been an utterly generic outfielder for the Nationals. Lopez turns out to not be very good at all, and Wagner was never good. And while Krivsky's stated reason for making the trade (improving the bullpen) has not worked out - Bray and Majewski have both been poor - the pitching prospect, Daryl Thompson, quietly had a good year in Class A+ Sarasota in 2007.

So maybe it's time to give Krivsky a break. No, his general managing so far has not been very good. But most of his mistakes have been pretty harmless in the grand scheme of things.

With Dusty Baker at the helm, stuff like
this should be the least of Reds fans' worries

Photo: Brent and MariLynn.
I say "most" in the previous sentence because Krivsky's hiring of Dusty Baker this offseason has the chance to be really destructive. Baker should have all kinds of chances to screw up a perfectly promising franchise. For example, he won't commit to 24-year-old Joey Votto at first base even though Votto has nothing left to prove in the minors and hit well in a brief trial in the majors last year. Instead, he may well go with 38-year-old Scott Hatteberg.

What's especially weird and ambiguous about this situation is that, if the Reds end up in contention - and in the NL Central, they just might - Baker may have a reasonable case that he's doing the right thing by playing Hatteberg, who had a good season last year. The trouble is that Hatteberg's near the end of the line, he's only a couple years from pretty much single-handedly ruining the 2005 Athletics' playoff chances (as a member of the team, mind you, not as an opponent), he doesn't hit at all on the road, and 2007 pretty much represents the limits of his ability. Maybe Hatteberg's a better player for 2008, but probably he isn't, and Cincinnati probably won't gain much or anything by playing him. If the Reds are near contention, they're going to encounter a number of decisions involving whether to leverage their future to succeed in the present.

For Baker, these decisions might not be especially tough. He had no problem playing 35-year-old Eric Karros instead of 24-year-old Hee-Seop Choi for the 2003 Cubs, and as it turns out, there's a very good case to be made that he was right to do so. Karros was slightly better than Choi, the Cubs won the division by a game, and then they were still able to trade Choi for the vastly superior Derrek Lee.

But the Reds are not the Cubs. Choi was a very highly regarded prospect when Baker gave up on him. The Cubs were able to trade him for Lee only because the Marlins wanted to get rid of Lee's salary. If Baker does something similar with Joey Votto, it's not as if the Reds are going to take on a lot of salary to trade Votto for the 2008 equivalent of Lee (like, say, Adrian Gonzalez). Instead, what will probably happen is that they'll be stuck with Votto. What would've happened if the Cubs had been stuck with Choi? The Cubs have enough money that they can afford to cast aside promising young players; the Reds really don't.

That's not the least of the potential problems with Baker. The Reds brought in Jeremy Affeldt and Josh Fogg on cheap contracts to compete for rotation jobs. In isolation, those were both good moves, since you can never have too many rotation possibilities, and the Reds don't have any reliable starters after Bronson Arroyo and the excellent Aaron Harang. But prospect Homer Bailey is potentially a franchise-changing pitcher, and if he's ready, he needs to pitch and he shouldn't have Fogg and Affeldt in his way. Edinson Volquez, acquired with another pitcher from the Rangers for Josh Hamilton, is also very promising, and he really doesn't have anything left to prove in the minors. There's also a third excellent starting pitching prospect, Johnny Cueto, who could be ready to join the starting rotation after a couple more months in Class AAA Louisville.

Even if Baker doesn't let Affeldt and Fogg block Bailey and Volquez, there could be trouble. Worse trouble, actually. Baker's reputation as a killer of young pitchers is probably overstated, but there is something to it, as Mark Prior's case shows:

After returning from a three-week stint on the DL with a shoulder contusion in July and August [2003], Prior tossed 71 innings in a month-and-a-half, never throwing fewer than 110 pitches in a game while reaching 124 or more on six occasions. He made at least 130 pitches in three consecutive games (his last two starts of the regular season and his first start in the post-season) and was in a great position for a shortened effort in Game 2 of the NLCS vs. the Florida Marlins when the Cubs staked him to an 11-0 lead after five innings.

I remember watching the game on TV and was flabbergasted when Baker sent his ace out to the mound to start the sixth inning. It was the perfect opportunity to go to the bullpen and give the then 23-year-old a much-needed breather. Whether Prior was tiring or just lacking concentration, he allowed back-to-back home runs to Derrek Lee and Miguel Cabrera to open the sixth. Baker never flinched and let Prior go all the way into the eighth before pulling him with two on, no outs, and 116 pitches under his belt.

I wouldn't want someone who treated Prior so negligently in charge of Homer Bailey's workload, that's for sure.

All that aside, though, the 2008 Reds are a tremendously interesting team. Their lineup has the chance to score a bunch of runs, particularly if third baseman Edwin Encarnacion can finally take the big step forward his minor league record suggests he can and uber-prospect Jay Bruce wins the centerfield job. Second baseman Brandon Phillips brings solid offense to match tremendous defense; the Reds signed him to a reasonable contract a couple weeks ago. Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey will both lumber around in the outfield - actually, the Reds' outfield defense should be downright bad - but they're both fine hitters.

Shortstop and catcher are potential weak points. starting SS Alex Gonzalez broke his knee Friday, so former Pirates minor leaguer Jeff Keppinger will start there for the time being. (God help the Reds if Juan Castro wins the job instead.) Keppinger is an underrated hitter, and the best thing for the Reds would be if he won the starting job permanently by hitting like crazy. He's probably not a great defensive shortstop, though, and so I wouldn't be surprised if, in that scenario, Encarnacion lost his job once Gonzalez returned. The Reds' catching corps left a lot to be desired last year, but former Pirate Dave Ross is back as the team's top backstop.

As previously mentioned, the last three rotation spots are questionable, but there's considerable upside there if Bailey and Volquez win two of them, and Affeldt and Fogg actually aren't the world's worst backup options.

The Reds' bullpen and bench could be problematic, and this is where Krivsky's tendencies really hurt them - for his bench, he tends to fixate on small guys like Castro and Norris Hopper instead of players who can actually hit. (I don't think Hopper's .371 OBP last year represents his real level of ability.) Ryan Freel had a terrible, injury-plagued year in 2007 and will be looking to bounce back - he could win the centerfield job outright, or he could wind up on the bench. The Reds added Francisco Cordero in the offseason, but their 'pen will otherwise be reasonably similar to last year's ragtag outfit. Cordero is a tremendous reliever, but he's only one guy, and even the Reds relievers who pitched well last year (Jared Burton, Dave Weathers) aren't great bets to do it again. The Reds' best-case scenario there is that younger guys like Bray and Marcus McBeth win jobs and pitch well. If they don't, a lot of leads could be blown.

Still, the 2008 Reds are the best, most interesting baseball team we've seen out of Cincinnati in quite a while (keeping in mind that the 80-win 2006 Reds outperformed their Pythagorean record and weren't actually very good). There's lots of upside in the organization, and now it's up to Krivsky and Baker to use it properly. I have no faith that they will, but Krivsky has been on the job two years and he hasn't destroyed the franchise yet. Until he does, I'll be watching.

3. Cincinnati Reds
4. St. Louis Cardinals
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

Discussion of this preview at the Reds blog Red Reporter

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