Springtime Storylines: Can the Reds do it again?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Your Cincinnati Redlegs.

The Big Question: Can the Reds pull off back-to-back division titles?

Holding the top spot in the division for a total of 115 days last year, the Reds basically ran away with the National League Central crown — their first since 1995. The perennially relevant Cardinals hung around until early September and finished only five games back in the final standings, but Cincinnati did not let up down the stretch and turned in the organization’s first 90-plus win season since 1999, when a young Mike Cameron led an explosive offense to a second-place finish under manager Jack McKeon.

Cameron was traded to the Mariners after that stellar ’99 campaign for Ken Griffey Jr., who brought his hometown team an 85-77 record in 2000 before things turned really ugly in the Queen City. With Junior beginning a long battle against the injury bug, the 2001 Redlegs finished near the bottom of the Central with a putrid 66-96 record and did not top 80 wins for the next eight seasons.

Which brings us back to present day. How will sudden success greet this edition of the Cincinnati Reds and will the good times last longer than they did at the turn of the century?

The offense is there. It’s youthful and powerful, and the Reds are going to field a lineup this season that will rival any batting order in the National League Central division. First baseman Joey Votto beat out Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols for MVP honors in 2010 with a .324/.424/.600 batting line, 37 home runs and 116 RBI. He even stole 16 bases. Right fielder Jay Bruce was also explosive, registering a cool .846 OPS and 25 home runs. From top to bottom — with the only exceptions being shortstop and (maybe) catcher — the Reds are primed to put runs on the board with ease again this season.

But every great team needs pitching, and the rotation in Cincinnati is far from intimidating. Edinson Volquez is still regaining his arm strength from August 2009 Tommy John surgery, Johnny Cueto battles inconsistency on a near-nightly basis, Homer Bailey hasn’t proven capable of remaining effective for an entire big league season and Bronson Arroyo is sliding quickly into his mid-30s.

Every National League Central team has gaping holes, but Cincinnati’s can be found in the starting rotation and that’s a frightening situation for a club that calls Great American Ballpark home.

So what else is going on?

  • Where are the fans? Great American Ballpark drew just over two million people last year and the daily average attendance was only 25,438. The 101-loss Mariners drew better, as did the Astros, Tigers, Brewers, Mets and Padres. For a town that once hosted Opening Day annually and produced raucous crowds during the Big Red Machine era, last year’s showing was a disappointment. The stadium is new and the team is good. It’s time for the Skyline-devouring residents of southwestern Ohio to do their part.
  • The maturation of dynamic outfielder Drew Stubbs has begun. The eighth overall pick in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft, he slugged 22 home runs and stole 30 bases in 150 games last season for the Reds. If Stubbs can limit his strikeouts and show a little more patience at the plate, he could develop into a reliable long-term leadoff hitter. His on-base percentage in four minor league seasons was a healthy .364.
  • Rookie starters Travis Wood and Mike Leake deserve real credit for helping the Reds to their division crown last season, but what can we expect in 2011 out of the rising sophomores? They are both going to draw starts for the first couple weeks of April until Cueto recovers from shoulder inflammation. With Wood, it’s about continuing the momentum that he built up over the final few months of 2010. With Leake, it’s about proving that his hot start before the All-Star break was not a fluke.
  • The Reds handed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman a six-year, $30.25 million major league contract last winter in the hope that he might quickly became an ace of their starting rotation. He was fine last season in a setup role and will probably post dominant numbers again in 2011 as an eighth inning reliever behind closer Francisco Cordero, but it’s nothing short of a letdown that he is not yet making starts. Having a quality setup man is nice, but the Reds need rotation help and they’re clearly not confident yet that Chapman can provide it. A good starter is always more valuable than a good reliever.

So how are they gonna do?

Winning the National League Central isn’t going to be nearly as easy it was last season. The Brewers’ rotation is suddenly formidable, the Cubs made two smart offseason additions in Carlos Pena and Matt Garza, and the Cardinals have no plans of folding. But the Reds have a lineup that carries major upside and they’re going to be in the hunt all summer. If everything goes right, they can get to 90 wins for a second straight year. And that should net them either a consecutive division title or the National League wild card.

Clayton Kershaw struggles with control, walks six Marlins

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Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw entered Wednesday night’s start against the Marlins without having issued a walk in his previous three starts. In fact, his last walk came on April 3 when he issued a free pass to Paul Goldschmidt with the bases empty and two outs in the bottom of the first inning. All told, Kershaw was on a streak of 26 walk-less innings before he took the mound at home to take on the Marlins.

Kershaw started off Wednesday in character, striking out the side in the first inning. He issued a walk in a tough second inning, but escaped without allowing a run. Kershaw walked two more in the third and again danced out of danger. In the fourth, Kershaw walked Lewis Brinson to load the bases with no outs and — you guessed it — didn’t end up allowing a run. His errant control finally came back to bite him in the fifth when Kershaw issued back-to-back two-out walks, then served up a three-run home run to Miguel Rojas down the left field line. His night was done when he completed the inning. Five innings, three runs, five hits, six walks, seven strikeouts, 112 pitches.

The six walks Kershaw issued over five innings marked his first six-walk outing since April 7, 2010 when he issued six free passes to the Pirates in 4 2/3 innings. The only other time he walked as many was on August 3, 2009 against the Brewers in a four-plus inning outing. Kershaw hasn’t even walked five batters in an outing recently — the last time was September 23, 2012 against the Reds.