MLB: Cincinnati Reds-Workout

Their lineup is top-heavy, but fearsome. Their rotation at worst reliable and at best dominant. With Aroldis Chapman at the back, the bullpen puts up good numbers in its own right.

Claiming the Cincinnati Reds are a good baseball club is barely necessary – three playoff appearances and three 90-win seasons in four years does all the heavy lifting. Despite this recent success, 2014 is the dawn of a new era in the Queen City. A new manager, a new outlook and a roster in transition suggest strange things are afoot at the Great American Ballpark.

Anytime a club changes managers they can expect (or hope for) a new culture. Dusty Baker is among the most iconoclastic managers in baseball, so parting ways with a larger than life skipper, and bringing aboard just about anybody else will usher in a new experience in the clubhouse. Beyond Baker’s unmistakable thumbprint, the Reds face question marks around the diamond for the first time in years.

Bryan Price carries a much different mentality to the manager’s office, delivering an ex-pitcher’s sensibility to the way he runs his team and, most importantly, organizes his bullpen. Price recently stated he won’t play matchups as frequently as most managers, citing the quality of his late-inning arms and understanding the challenges facing relief pitchers.

In addition to the taxing act of warming up repeatedly (even on off days), Price recognizes that guys like Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton aren’t one-trick ponies. Using Marshall for one out at a time is not only a great waste of his (not insignificant) paycheck but also his time. Baker used Sean Marshall to face two or fewer batters 15 times in 2012 and eight times during the lefty’s injury-shortened 2013 season.

Giving good pitchers more work (but better managing that workload) seems like a sound plan. Despite his reputation, Dusty Baker never really earned his title as a serial overworker of pitchers in Cincinnati, so this is more a sign of a younger manager reacting to changes in the way the game is played. It’s the work Price must do with the roster of position players that will test him most.

Though he was a one year rental, filling Shin-Soo Choo’s shoes is the first, and tallest, order of business for the Reds. Billy Hamilton is the shoo-in, the base stealing phenom is still adjusting to full-time life in the outfield. After a disappointing offensive season in the minor leagues, Hamilton has turned a lot of heads with his spring stickwork.

Despite how impressed his teammates have been (even if the scouts remain unmoved, according to Jon Heyman), there is no way Hamilton can step in and provide the offensive engine at the top of the order quite like Choo, who posted the tenth highest on base percentage in Reds history.

In addition to the Hamilton wildcard, the Reds have the ongoing Joey Votto controversy to unravel. Hard to believe having the best hitter in the National League locked up for his entire career is a problem but Joey Votto’s production is an ongoing debate among Reds fans.

If you listen to Price on the topic, Joey Votto is free to be Joey Votto, which is the best outcome for the Reds.

Except their team is worse in 2014 than it was a year ago. They won 91 games but didn’t get any better, only worse at the plate and possibly worse behind the plate, though Devin Mesoraco is raring to go in his first year as a full-time starter. That’s to say nothing of the sensitive Brandon Phillips situation off-the-field and his diminishing returns on it. What will the team get from Ryan Ludwick? Todd Frazier? The bench? More questions than answers.

The NL Central isn’t a division in which any team can afford to stand still. Everyone is looking up at the Cardinals, whose mix of talent and wealth is the envy of the league. The Pirates finished ahead of the Reds and the Cubs are hard-charging (although, 2014 is still very early in Chicago’s rebuild process). Even Milwaukee stands to be competitive at worst (and probably at best, too.)

Bryan Price has his work cut out for him. There is no Homer Bailey trade on the horizon to restock the farm, and that’s not a valid option anyway. Expectations are high considering the amount of dollars ownership poured into the club, and the window to contend looks to be closing. The Reds’ roster is built to win now, but can the fresh outlook of Bryan Price get them to the next level? Does the chance of an improved team culture outweigh the lack of tangible player improvement?

I’m thinking “no” but I’m open to evidence to the contrary. Wait and see? Somehow I doubt Reds fans and ownership will be quite so patient.