2011 Record: 79-83, 3rd NL Central
2011 Prediction: 85-77, 2nd NL Central
Impact Player: 1B Joey Votto
Impact Pitcher: RHP Mat Latos
Best Reliever: RHP Ryan Madson
Top Prospect: C Devin Mesoraco
A year after winning the NL Central crown and making the playoffs for the first time since 1995, the Cincinnati Reds took a step back in 2011, finishing under .500 and falling to third in their division. The problem for Cincy was the pitching, they finished 12th in the NL in runs allowed, but managed to score more runs than they gave up suggesting that they were fairly unlucky. Still, it was clear that the Reds needed to upgrade their pitching staff, which is exactly what they did by adding Mat Latos and Sean Marshall via trade and Ryan Madson via free agency.
With keystone players such as Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen potentially on their way out in the next couple seasons, the Reds have pushed their chips forward and are firmly in ‘win-now’ mode. They are talented enough on paper to make a serious push for the division, especially considering the Brewers and Cardinals look like slightly less talented teams in 2012 than they were in 2011.
Johnny Cueto had the second best ERA in the NL among pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched, behind only Clayton Kershaw. He missed about eight starts due to injury and drastically outpitched his mediocre peripherals, but it’s still encouraging for the 26-year-old. He’s probably not the ace he’s being billed as, but if he can be a solid number two for the Reds, it’ll go a long way.
The acquisition of Latos should really help the Reds. He’s accumulated 7.2 fWAR over the past two seasons and although he’ll likely see some regression due to his move from spacious PETCO Park to proverbial sardine can Great American Ballpark, he should still be good enough to give the Reds a big boost. He’s also just 24 years old, he could get a whole lot better.
The forgotten man in the rotation is Mike Leake who put up a very solid year in 2011. The Reds still gave him an innings limit, but he managed to pitch to a 3.68 xFIP and continued to put up outstanding walk rates. Also just 24, Leake could vault himself into front-line starter giving the Reds three pretty great options at the top of their rotation.
Homer Bailey has underpitched his peripherals pretty significantly in the last two seasons. He posted a 3.21 K/BB ratio and a 3.77 xFIP in 132 big league innings last year but is prone to long stretches of ineffectiveness. If he can put it all together and keep the ball in the ballpark a little more, he could be a legitimate mid-rotation talent.
The final spot in the rotation will probably go to veteran Bronson Arroyo at least to start the year, but if he pitches as poorly as he did last year, the Reds may not waste much time going to either Jeff Francis or potentially Aroldis Chapman. Arroyo is the only projected starter older than 26 and he was one of the worst regular rotation pitchers the league last year. He allowed more than two home runs per nine innings, by far the highest in baseball.
Francis had a pretty excellent year in Kansas City last season and is in on a minor-league deal. He’d be a much needed upgrade over Arroyo, but if he does start the year in the rotation, it will most likely be at the expense of Bailey. Chapman is also being converted to a starter, but will start the year in the minors. He needs to throw strikes on a far more consistent basis to have any semblance of long-term success, but there’s no doubting the tools.
The Reds revamped the back-end of their bullpen letting aging closer Francisco Cordero walk and instead signing former Phillie Ryan Madson to a very team-friendly one-year deal. Madson has proven himself to be one of the best relievers in the NL over the past few seasons and should have no problem making the transition to Cincinnati. Last year, he had a 2.94 xFIP and a 3.88 K/BB ratio while putting up excellent groundball numbers.
Cincy also traded for dominant lefthanded reliever Sean Marshall and promptly signed him to an extension. Marshall has been ridiculously good over the last two seasons, posting the highest fWAR of any reliever in baseball, although you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the North Side of Chicago talking about him. He could take over as the closer next season if Madson isn’t back.
Nick Masset and lefty Bill Bray will bridge the gap from the starters to Marshall and Madson and both pitched pretty well in 2011. Masset was being talked about as Cordero’s replacement at closer until the Reds made their moves. Righthanders Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and long-man Sam LeCure will likely round out the group with Chapman, Chad Reineke, Josh “The Judge” Judy, Jordan Smith, Carlos Fisher, Kanekoa Texeira and lefties Ron Mahay and Clay Zavada providing depth.
Only the Cardinals scored more runs than the Reds in the NL last season and they’ve returned much of the same lineup for 2012. The right side of the infield, Votto at first and Phillips at second, combined for a 12.9 fWAR last year and Votto led the NL in on-base percentage. Phillips’ value is buoyed by his oddly high defensive ratings, but there’s no doubting his overall ability.
The left side of the infield is not quite as robust. Rolen is back at third base and although he’s still a grand-wizard with the glove, his inability to stay on the field has severely hampered his ability to hit with authority. Last year was awful in every respect and if he doesn’t pull it together quickly, he could be out of a job. The shortstop job will likely fall to rookie Zack Cozart who was terrific in AAA-Louisville last year, posting a 127 wRC+. He should be an automatic offensive improvement over Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria who logged most of the playing time there last season.
Jay Bruce, who is still just 25, is back out in rightfield for 2012. He’s overrated slightly by his impressive ability to hit home runs, but either way he’s still an above-average regular. He’s young enough that he could get significantly better and certainly has the tools to do so. In centerfield will be Drew Stubbs who has the makings of a monster if he could improve upon his below-average hit tool. He’s a solid defender in center who hits for power and has speed to burn; there simply aren’t many players as toolsy as him. The leftfield job will be split between Chris Heisey and offseason acquisition Ryan Ludwick. Heisey’s terrific slugging percentage gave him a 114 wRC+ in 2011 despite an inability to get on base consistently. He struggled mightily against lefties last season, but it’s hard to tell if it was just a small sample size, or indicative of his skill. Ludwick figures to get more of the starts against lefties and should put up much better numbers now that he doesn’t play half his games in San Diego.
Ryan Hanigan and Rookie of the year candidate Devin Mesoraco should split time at catcher to start the year. If Mesoraco appears ready, he’ll get the lion’s share of playing time in the second half, but if he struggles, Hanigan is a more than suitable starter who could be used as trade bait at the deadline.
Juan Francisco is an interesting character. When he hits the ball squarely, there’s hardly anyone in the game who can match his raw power, but he so rarely hits the ball squarely that he can’t find his way into a starting role. He struggles against lefties, simply cannot draw a walk and strikes out at Dunnian proportions. He’ll get some playing time at third base because of the inherent fragility of Rolen, but he might be best suited as a potentially dangerous professional pinch hitter. The rest of the bench will consist of the off-day leftfielder and two utility infielders from the group of Miguel Cairo, Wilson Valdez, Janish and Chris Valaika. If Rolen really has a hard time staying healthy again, Todd Frazier could finally step into an everyday role at third base.
The Reds have just one winning season since 2000, but it seems like they’ve been good for a few years. They should have been better than they were last season and with the improvements to the pitching staff they should be much better in 2012. With the Brewers and Cardinals potentially taking steps backward, the NL Central could be Cincinnati’s to lose
2012 Prediction: 91-71, 1st NL Central