2010 N.L. Central Preview: Cincinnati Reds

IN: 2B Aaron Miles, SS Orlando Cabrera, SP Aroldis Chapman

OUT: UT Adam Rosales, OF Willy Taveras

2009 W-L: 78-84

PYTHAGOREAN W-L: 76-86

OFFENSE: The Reds didn't have much of an offense last year, and this offseason they did little to address it. True, Orlando Cabrera should do a better job than 2009 Reds shortstops, who posted a .636 OPS, but he's 35 and has never been a great hitter. The Reds also signed Scott Rolen to a two-year extension, but he too is old and has been fading for years. Also, he's very likely to require a WAAAHmbulance if he isn't already in a doctor's office by the time the season is done--he has a pattern of whining his way from team to team, at least when he isn't hurt. Then there's catcher Ramon Hernandez, who likewise is in his mid-30s and isn't that great anymore. (The Reds resigned him because he's "clutch.") I'm sure Dusty Baker is happy, but that's an awful lot of thirtysomething mediocrity for one team.

That's too bad, because the Reds' offense does boast some good young talent. Joey Votto is already one of the best hitters in the National League and was probably operating at the top of his game last year, and Drew Stubbs probably won't develop into much more than he is now (although a good defensive CF who can hit a little is already pretty valuable). But Jay Bruce still isn't even 23 yet, and he has a ton of headroom. He already has big-league power, and he controlled the strike zone fairly well last year, but he hit only .223. Everything Bruce did in his career before 2009 says that he's not a .223 hitter. He probably needs to make adjustments at the plate, since his low average last year wasn't purely a matter of luck, as Jonah Keri pointed out in June--Bruce's 13% line drive rate was the second-worst of any player with 300 or more plate appearances last year (beating only Ronny Cedeno; uh oh). Bruce's flyball tendencies play very well in the homer-happy Great American Ballpark, but very poorly elsewhere; he's exhibited extreme home/road splits in both his big-league seasons.

Let's say that Bruce does break out, though--his extra production is pretty likely to be offset by a sudden collapse by one of their three veterans. And while the Reds have several interesting hitters (and I haven't even mentioned Brandon Phillips, whose combination of power and defense makes him a big asset at the keystone), they don't have any surefire hitting prospects coming through their system. (Todd Frazier looks like a solid player but not a star; Yonder Alonso is recovering from a wrist injury, has barely played above Class A+, and doesn't have a position right now; and Chris Heisey's Class AA breakout last year was offset by a rather weak performance at Class AAA.)

Also, neither Walt Jocketty nor Dusty Baker are particularly good at figuring out how best to distribute roster spots and playing time to flawed players--the 2009 Reds gave 250 or more plate appearances to four guys who posted OPSes of .620 or lower. That's reasonably likely to happen again. The Reds don't have a set starter for their third outfield spot, and they'll probably work with some combination of Jonny Gomes, Wladimir Balentien, and Chris Dickerson, with Heisey and perhaps also Josh Anderson and Laynce Nix working their way in at some point. Some managers could do fine with that combination of players, but I have little faith that Baker will. (The Reds were recently rumored to have been in the market for Garret Anderson; their fans have to be breathing a sigh of relief that the Dodgers got him first.) And if any of the Reds' thirtysomething hitters do go down, watch out, because the backup plans leave a lot to be desired.

PITCHING

Even if we grant that Edinson Volquez won't do much of anything this year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August, the Reds have a good pitching staff. Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto are a pretty good front three, and former top prospect Homer Bailey made reasonable progress in 2009 after a terrible season in 2008. The Reds don't know who their fifth starter will be, and I certainly wouldn't put it past Baker to pick someone like Justin Lehr, who was maybe the single least impressive starting pitcher I saw in the majors last year. But Matt Maloney and youngster Travis Wood are actually very palatable options, so the Reds are pretty well covered in case of an implosion. Aroldis Chapman will probably be mentioned as a candidate too, but I don't really see it--he's a project, and he should start the year in the minors.

Predicting how any team's bullpen will do is tricky, but the Reds have enough good arms--closer Francisco Cordero, Nick Masset, Jared Burton, the ageless Arthur Rhodes, mighty mite Danny Herrera, Carlos Fisher, plus the leftover fifth starter options--that they're probably going to be fine.

PROGNOSIS

The Reds have plenty of talent at the big league level, and if a bunch of things go right for them, it wouldn't be a shock if they contended. Their reliance on veterans concerns me, though, as does the lack of good backup plans if those veterans fall apart, as veterans often do. Walt Jocketty was the architect of some very good Cardinals teams, but most of them relied very heavily on a core group of stars; he wasn't very clever at finding solid complementary players, especially position players. It's no accident that, for example, Kerry Robinson got about six times more plate appearances with the Cardinals than he got in the whole rest of his big-league career. 

That's important, because the Reds' core stars are not as good as the Cardinals' were. Votto is great, but he's no Albert Pujols. Jay Bruce is no Jim Edmonds, at least not yet. And Scott Rolen is no Scott Rolen. The Reds' farm system is decent, but it's filled mostly with potentially average players rather than great ones (the Chapman signing was sort of a Hail Mary pass to find a great player; I'm a lot more skeptical of Chapman than a lot of people are). So it'll be on Jocketty and Baker to sort through these potentially average players to find out who can contribute, and that's just not the sort of work they're very good at. 

Things aren't all doom and gloom, though--not by any means. The Reds' pitching is deep and fairly strong overall, and there's enough hitting talent to hope on, at least. This is a pretty good team. I doubt, though, that it will become an excellent, perennial-contender type of team in the near future.

3. Cincinnati Reds 80-82

4. Milwaukee Brewers 76-84

5. Houston Astros 73-89

6. Pittsburgh Pirates 70-92

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