Springtime Storylines: Have the Reds built themselves a World Series contender?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Cincinnati Redlegs.

The Big Question: Do the Reds have the pieces to compete for the 2012 World Series title?

Before closer Ryan Madson underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, the answer would have been “definitely.” Now? Well … it’s still “definitely.”

Madson looked like the steal of the offseason at one-year, $8.5 million and would have been excellent in Cincinnati’s ninth-inning role. But a reliever can only do so much. In his best season with the Phillies — 2011, when he registered a 2.37 ERA, 9.2 K/9 and 32 saves in 34 chances — he was only worth 1.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to FanGraphs.

For comparison’s sake Miguel Cairo, a light-hitting utility infielder, was worth 1.9 fWAR last year.

The Reds will survive the loss of Madson. And if Sean Marshall continues to shut down hitters like he did during his last couple seasons with the Cubs, they might even forget about the former Phillly right-hander.

Cincinnati has one of the best first basemen in the sport in Joey Votto, one of the best second basemen in Brandon Phillips and one of the best right fielders in Jay Bruce. Mixed together with developing contributors like center fielder Drew Stubbs, shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco, the Reds undoubtedly have a winning recipe. And if their starting rotation can be somewhat steady, they should be right near the top of the National League Central standings when it comes time to award postseason bids.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Reds posted a 20th-ranked 4.16 staff ERA in 2011. So they decided to do something about that this winter, trading first base prospect Yonder Alonso, right-handed prospect Brad Boxberger, catching prospect Yasmani Grandal and right-handed starter Edinson Volquez to San Diego for Padres ace Mat Latos. A 24-year-old right-hander, Latos registered a sparkling 3.47 ERA and 185/62 K/BB ratio in 194 1/3 innings last season and a 2.92 ERA and 189/50 K/BB ratio in 184 2/3 innings the year before.
  • Votto was signed to a 10-year, $225 million contract extension on Monday. It’s a crazy amount of money, especially for a small-market team like the Reds. And it’s safe to wonder whether a farm system that was decimated by the Latos trade will produce enough cost-controlled talent over the long term to support continued winning. But the Reds have locked up their star first baseman, and that’s something that neither the Cardinals nor Brewers — the Reds’ primary National League Central foes — can boast.
  • Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman was stretched out like a starter this spring and responded with excellent results, posting a 2.12 ERA and 18/2 K/BB ratio in 17 Cactus League innings. And yet he’s being pushed back into a setup role for the duration of the 2012 season. The 24-year-old flamethrower was signed to a five-year, $25.5 million contract in January of 2010 and was expected to grow into an ace. But the Reds have stunted that growth. And it’s awfully hard to understand why.

How Are They Gonna Do?

The Reds’ lineup is loaded with big-time run producers and the Latos upgrade should be massive. Bruce and Votto are capable of MVP-type years and Phillips seems destined to shine brightly in what is likely to be his farewell season in Cincy. This team will come within a win of the National League Central title — falling just short of the first-place Cardinals — before settling for Bud Selig’s new “second” Wild Card.

Steven Matz likely to start season on DL; Zack Wheeler to adhere to innings limit

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Mets manager Terry Collins said on Wednesday, “It’s unlikely that [Steven Matz] will start the season with us.” The final spot in the Mets’ starting rotation will go to either Zack Wheeler or Seth Lugo, Newsday’s Marc Carig reports.

On Wheeler’s innings limit, assistant GM John Ricco said, “There’s going to be some number but we don’t exactly know what that is.” Wheeler missed the last two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Neither Wheeler nor Lugo have had terrific springs as each carries a 5.11 and 5.56 Grapefruit League ERA, respectively. However, Carig notes that Wheeler has impressed simply by appearing healthy and brandishing a fastball that once again sits in the mid- to high-90’s. Lugo, meanwhile, proved crucial to the Mets last year, posting a 2.67 ERA across eight starts and nine relief appearances.

Rockies sign 30-year lease to stay in Coors Field

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Nick Groke of the Denver Post reports that the Rockies agreed to a $200 million, 30-year lease with the Metropolitan Baseball Stadium District, which is the state division that owns Coors Field. As part of the deal, the Rockies will lease and develop a plot of land south of the stadium, which will cost the team $125 million for 99 years.

As Groke points out, had the Rockies not reached a deal by Thursday, March 30, the lease would have rolled over for five more years.

Rockies owner Dick Monfort issued a statement, saying, “We are proud that Coors Field will continue to be a vital part of a vibrant city, drawing fans from near and far and making our Colorado residents proud.”

The Rockies moved into Coors Field in 1995. It is the National League’s third oldest stadium. In that span of time, the Rockies have made the playoffs three times, the last coming in 2009 when they lost in the NLDS to the Phillies. The Rockies were swept in the 2007 World Series by the Red Sox.