Dusty Baker, Scott Rolen

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.

Tony Clark is not happy so many players remain unsigned

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JAN. 18-19 - This Jan. 15, 2014 photo showing new baseball union head Tony Clark during an interview at the organization's headquarters, in New York. Clark has big shoes to fill _ and not just as Michael Weiner's replacement as head of the baseball players' union. Moving from Arizona to New Jersey, the former big league All-Star also needed to find size 15 snowshoes.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
AP Photo/Richard Drew
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We’re almost halfway through February. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training soon. And yet, there are more than a handful of solid free agents that remain unsigned. Among them: Yovani Gallardo, Ian Desmond, and Dexter Fowler. All three have draft pick compensation tied to them, as each rejected a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from his respective former team. That, undoubtedly, is a reason why they haven’t inked a contract yet.

MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark is unhappy about this reality and expects to discuss potential changes when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated. The current CBA expires after the 2016 season. Per the Associated Press, Clark said last week, “I think it’s disappointing when there are as many talented players still without a home. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to be in a world where very talented players are at home for whatever reason they are there. It will likely be a part of the conversation in bargaining.”

Clark also mentioned, among other things, the possibility of a draft lottery, which would take away the incentive for teams to “tank”, or lose on purpose. The Astros and Phillies have notably done this in recent years, finishing with baseball’s worst record and thus netting the #1 overall draft pick.

These are, however, simply two items of many that will be discussed during the upcoming offseason. It will be interesting to see what solutions are eventually put in place.

Michael Pineda hopes to reach 200-inning mark for first time

New York Yankees' Michael Pineda delivers a pitch during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
AP Photo/Adam Hunger
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It was reported on Friday that Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka isn’t sure if he’ll be ready for Opening Day as he makes his way back from arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow. His health will be crucial to the Yankees’ chances this season, but the same goes for rotation-mate Michael Pineda, who hopes that this is the year he’ll be able to take on the workload of a frontline starter.

Pineda was on pace for a career-high in innings last season, but he landed on the disabled list in late July with a right flexor forearm muscle strain and missed a month. He struggled upon his return and ended up with 160 2/3 innings, so he fell short of his career-high of 171 innings as a rookie with the Mariners way back in 2011. Now going into his age-27 season, Pineda told Bryan Hoch of MLB.com that his goal for 2016 is to reach 200 innings for the first time in his career.

“For me, this year, I’m coming here early to be strong and working hard to pitch 200 innings this year,” Pineda said at the club’s Minor League complex. “I want to throw 200 innings this year. This is my goal, and help my team.”

Pineda had a mediocre 4.37 ERA (90 ERA+) last season despite impressive peripherals with 8.7 K/9 and 1.2 BB/9. Among pitchers with at least 160 innings pitched, only Bartolo Colon of the Mets had a lower walk percentage. Pineda managed to increase his ground ball rate to 48.2 percent and also saw an uptick in velocity from 2014, so there’s reason to believe in improvement if he can stay healthy.

Brewers GM: Acquiring Jacob Nottingham doesn’t change Jonathan Lucroy’s status

Jonathan Lucroy
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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The Brewers acquired prospects Jake Nottingham and Bubba Derby from the Athletics on Friday in exchange for slugging outfielder Khris Davis. The hope is that Nottingham will develop into the Brewers’ catcher of the future, so you could say that the club is planning for life after Jonathan Lucroy. However, Brewers general manager David Stearns said today that the trade doesn’t change Lucroy’s immediate status.

The Brewers are in rebuild-mode and Lucroy is an excellent trade chip if healthy, as his contract includes a $5.25 million club option for 2017. It’s likely just a matter of time before he’s shipped elsewhere, but yesterday’s trade shouldn’t change the timeline for a potential deal. Nottingham doesn’t turn 21 until April and has yet to play in Double-A, so he’s still a ways off from the majors. The Brewers can afford to wait on the right offer for Lucroy, whether it’s in spring training or at the trade deadline or perhaps later.

Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Nottingham batted .316/.372/.505 with 17 home runs over 109 games last season between Class A and High-A. He was traded from the Astros to the Athletics as part of the Scott Kazmir deal last July. It’s worth noting that Stearns was the assistant GM for Houston when Nottingham was drafted in the sixth round back in 2013, so he’s clearly a fan.

Joe Panik says he’s “100 percent” recovered from back injury

San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik follows through on a single off Colorado Rockies relief pitcher Scott Oberg in the eighth inning of Game 1 of a baseball doubleheader Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Denver. The Giants won 10-8. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Giants second baseman Joe Panik missed nearly all of August and September last season due to a nagging back injury, but he told Alex Pavlovic of CSNBayArea.com on Friday that he’s feeling “100 percent.”

Panik, who earned his first All-Star selection last season, originally landed on the disabled list in early August due to what was described as lower back inflammation. He made his return in September, but appeared in just three games before being shut down. The good news is that he was cleared by doctors in mid-December and considers himself “back to normal.”

“It was right around the time of all the signings,” he said, smiling. “I was able to fly under the radar. I got tested and everything had healed up. I got cleared and was able to have my full offseason workouts. I’m good to go. I’m happy to be feeling good and going back out on the field to show that I’m healthy. My swing feels strong.”

Panik altered his offseason workout routine and plans to spend less time in his spikes in the early part of spring training. The hope is that these changes will prevent future issues.

After a strong showing as a rookie in 2014, the 25-year-old Panik proved to be one of the best second baseman in the majors last season by batting .312/.378/.455 with eight home runs and 37 RBI over 100 games while playing solid defense.