MLB March Report: Cincinnati Reds

It’s win-or-else time for the Cincinnati Reds, after a disappointing fade in the late summer and fall of last season. Cincy’s main competition from last year, Milwaukee and St. Louis, is re-tooling after major free agency hits. The Chicago Cubs have the money, but still have a big rock to crawl out from under. Houston is completely rebuilding. So with all due respect to Clint Hurdle and the Pittsburgh Pirates, that leaves the Reds in a position to win their second NL Central title in three years. And the word from the Queen City is that the heat is on Dusty Baker early—if they’re not off to a sound start, we can look for a managerial change by Memorial Day and a possible firesale. If they are playing well, Dusty’s safe and sound and the front office will get what they need to make the playoffs. This dynamic makes the Reds one of baseball’s most interesting teams in 2012, and TheSportsNotebook evaluates them today, based on their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: This is the weakest area of the Cincinnati team and they’re dependent on a lot of variables. Prize prospect Zack Cozart is expected to start at shortstop and hit .324in extremely limited at-bats last year. He also didn’t draw a single walk. For the overall arc of his career this is nothing to be alarmed about, but if you need to get off to a fast start, it’s not an ideal team to be teaching plate discipline. Brandon Phillips had the best year of his career at second base, hitting .300 for the first time, and he needs to be in that neighborhood again. Ryan Hanigan is at catcher and his consistently put up OBP’s in the .350 range, but he’s never been a full-time player and won’t be this year—Baker is committed to eventually dropping 23-year-old Devin Mesoraco into the job and the odds are that the kid and the vet split time this season. Drew Stubbs is mediocre at best in center field.

>POWER:  The good thing for the Reds is that the top players here are also good at getting on base consistently even when they aren’t going deep. The conversation about this team’s offense begins with Joey Votto. The first baseman won the 2010 National League MVP and had a year that was MVP-caliber last season. Jay Bruce is one of baseball’s bright young power hitters. At age 24, he’s already had four straight years of 20-plus home runs, and as you see his on-base percentages rise each year, you see a hitter becoming more and more complete. His development has to be at tremendously exciting thing for Cincy fans to watch. After these two, Cincinnati needs Scott Rolen to stay health—the 36-year-old third baseman had an awful season last year, as the shoulder problems that have been with him in varying degrees since 2006 acted up. When he’s healthy, as he was in 2009-10, he’s still an excellent power producer. And in Baker’s pipe dreams he surely thinks about Ryan Ludwick recapturing the form he showed for St. Louis in 2008 when he hit 37 home runs and batted nearly .300. Perhaps getting away from San Diego and back into a hitter’s environment at Great American Ballpark is what Ludwick needs.

STARTING PITCHING:  Johnny Cueto is the pitching staff what Bruce is to the everyday lineup. A young player who’s already putting rapid improvement under his belt. Cueto, at age 26, has pitched in the big leagues for four years. His first-year ERA as 4.81, and it’s dropped every year. Since Cueto outdid himself with a 2.31 ERA last year, continuing that streak is a pretty tall order, but it’s not a tall order to see in him a true #1 starter. The front office paid substantially for 24-year-old Mat Latos in a deal with San Diego. Latos won 14 games with a 2.92 ERA for the 2010 Padres team that contended to the last day of the season, but his ERA jumped to 3.73 last season, and he’s on the flip side of the park effects coin we discussed with Ludwick. I just have my doubts about Latos, at least that he can be more than a back-end starter consistently. And the Reds look pretty good on the back end. While Bronson Arroyo had the worst ERA of his career last season, he’s only posted 30-plus starts every year since 2005—and in 2004, he made 29 starts. If his ERA returns to its place of either mid-4s on the high end, or mid-3s on the low end, he’s a reliable #3. Mike Leake made 26 starts a year ago, going 12-9 with a 3.86 ERA. The fifth spot is an interesting choice involving Homer Bailey, Jeff Francis and Aroldis Chapman. With Bailey you have a young arm at age 25, who’s already got three straight years of being around 20 starts with ERAs in the mid-4s. Improvement is certainly needed, but at his age it’s reasonable to expect, and those numbers for a pitcher in this park aren’t that far from being pretty good. Francis is the veteran castoff who hasn’t been really good since winning 17 games for Colorado’s 2007 World Series team. And Chapman is the wild-card, probably best suited for the bullpen, but whose stuff makes him a candidate. I would go with Bailey.

RELIEF PITCHING: While Cincinnati lost Francisco Cordero, they signed Ryan Madson away from the Phillies. Madson took advantage of Brad Lidge’s injury problems last year to close 32 of 34 save opportunities with a 2.37 ERA. Madson’s been solid in setup work going back to 2007, so there’s no question he can pitch. And the group in front of him is reliable and deep. Sean Marshall’s had two great years for the Cubs. Nick Massett is has been steady for four straight years here in Cincy. Logan Ondrusek and Bill Bray have also done good work for at least two seasons in Cincy. Then factor in the possible inclusion of Chapman in this group, and an X-factor is Jose Arredondo, who has good stuff and posted a 3.53 ERA a year ago after a tenure with the Angels that fluctatuated to wild extremes.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL:  88—I have to go Under here. I look at the Reds and see about an 85-win team. The core of the lineup with Votto and Bruce and the starting pitching are enough to make sure the team wins more than it loses. If they do really well, it would be relief pitching that carries them, if they do poorly it will because of long stretches with too few runners out there for Votto and Bruce. Also factor in that if the poor start materializes and a fire sale ensues, the Under becomes a runaway winner. Look, I might pick Cincinnati to win the NL Central (I haven’t made up my mind yet) and that means it’ s likely—though still not certain in this division—that they’d win at least 89 and go Over. But right now I’d have to say there’s far more that can happen on the wrong side of this number.