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2014 Preview: Cincinnati Reds

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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 2014 season. Next up: The Cincinnati Reds.

The Big Question: Is this still a playoff team?

The Reds won 90 games last year to snag one of the two National League Wild Card slots, but Shin-Soo Choo and his .423 on-base percentage signed a seven-year, $130 million contract with the Rangers in December and Bronson Arroyo took his 200-inning reliability to the Diamondbacks in February for a two-year, $23.5 million pact. Those are two big losses, and the 2014 Reds incurred another huge blow in mid-March when shutdown closer Aroldis Chapman was struck in the face by a comebacker.

But there is still quite a bit to be excited about up and down Cincinnati’s 25-man roster.

Billy Hamilton brought his game-changing speed to the majors at the end of 2013, stealing 13 bases in 13 games. He’ll take over for Choo in center field and at leadoff, and the Reds will hope that his struggles last year at Triple-A turn out to be a minor blip on a special playing career. Joey Votto, perhaps the most polished hitter in the sport, has led the National League in on-base percentage four years running and carries the promise of more power potential. Jay Bruce is good for an OPS above .800 and 30-plus homers, Brandon Phillips isn’t quite the offensive threat that he used to be but can still pick it at second base, and Ryan Ludwick is back to full health after appearing in only 38 games last season due to a shoulder injury.

This team should score runs, and the pitching staff is better than most people probably think.

Mat Latos was a legitimate ace throughout 2013 and is expected to be recovered from knee surgery by mid-April. Tony Cingrani, 24, owns a 2.87 ERA (134 ERA+) and 10.6 K/9 through his first 109 2/3 innings at the major league level. Homer Bailey has thrown no-hitters in each of the last two seasons and landed a six-year, $105 million extension in February. Johnny Cueto, the Reds’ Opening Day starter, can claim an outstanding 2.61 ERA (154 ERA+) in 433 2/3 frames since the beginning of 2011.

What else is going on?

  • Chapman underwent successful surgery on March 20 to repair the fractures around his nose and left eye, but he’s not going to throw a baseball for another couple weeks and could miss the first two months of the regular season. JJ Hoover, Jonathan Broxton, and Sean Marshall will make a decent fill-in committee at closer, but completely replacing Chapman is flat-out impossible. The fire-balling Cuban left-hander boasts a 2.40 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 14.7 K/9 in 205 career appearances in the bigs.
  • The Reds traded catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Rays in early December as part of a three-team swap to finally clear the path for Devin Mesoraco, one of Baseball America‘s Top 20 prospects in 2012. Mesoraco is going to open the 2014 regular season on the 15-day disabled list due to an unfortunate late-spring oblique strain, but he will be a breakout candidate once he is cleared for activation. The 25-year-old former first-round pick was a very productive hitter at Double-A and Triple-A.
  • Reds third baseman Todd Frazier will be an interesting player to watch this summer. He finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2012 after posting an .829 OPS and 19 home runs in 128 games, but his OPS fell to .721 in his sophomore 2013 season and he had the same amount of homers despite appearing in 22 more games. The 28-year-old native of New Jersey needs a bounceback.
  • The Reds fired manager Dusty Baker three days after losing the 2013 National League Wild Card Game to the Pirates and replaced him by promoting pitching coach Bryan Price. It’s foolish to attempt genuine analysis of a manager before he’s been at the helm for a meaningful game, so we won’t even try. Some newer-school strategies would be nice, and Price has hinted that he’s open-minded to such things.

Prediction: The Reds pitch and hit their way to 89 wins and a second consecutive draw for the National League Wild Card Game. They finish in second place in the National League Central.

Jacob deGrom open to extension with Mets

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom talks during media day for the Major League Baseball World Series against the Kansas City Royals Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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The Mets are currently enjoying the spoils of the best young rotation in the game, but the big question is whether this is just a brief window or the start of sustained success. Given the huge prices on the free agent market, it’s going to be next to impossible to keep the band together, but at least one member of the rotation is open to sticking around for the long-term.

While there haven’t been any talks yet, All-Star right-hander Jacob deGrom told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he could see himself discussing an extension with the Mets.

“I’m a little bit older, so I might be more willing to do something like that,’’ deGrom told The Post at Mets pre-camp. “You just have to look at what is fair so both sides get a decent deal. It’s something I’d have to look into and make sure I agree with it.’’

It makes sense from deGrom’s perspective. He broke into the majors later than most prospects, so he’ll be 28 this June. Depending on whether he qualifies as a Super Two, he’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time after either 2016 or 2017. Either way, he’s under team control through 2020, which means that he’s currently on track to hit free agency after his age-32 season. The market might not be kind to him even if he manages to stay healthy, so it could behoove him to get as much guaranteed money as possible right now. The Mets could always decide to play things year-to-year, but perhaps deGrom would be willing to settle for a discount in order to get them to buy out a free agent year or two. It’s a really interesting situation to think about, but odds are the two sides will wait on contract talks until he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time.

DeGrom owns a 2.61 ERA in 52 starts over his first two seasons in the majors. Among starters, only Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, and Clayton Kershaw have a lower ERA since the start of 2014.

Royals, Mike Moustakas avoid arbitration with two-year deal

Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakas celebrates after hitting an RBI single against the Toronto Blue Jays during the eighth inning in Game 2 of baseball's American League Championship Seriesagainst the Toronto Blue Jays  on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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The Royals and third baseman Mike Moustakas have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $14.3 million deal, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network.

The deal, which was initially discussed last month, buys out Moustakas’ final two years of arbitration. Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com reports that it’s believed he’ll make $5.6 million in 2016 and $8.7 million in 2017.

The 27-year-old Moustakas posted an underwhelming .668 OPS over his first four seasons in the majors, but he enjoyed a big postseason in 2014 before breaking out last season by batting .284/.348/.470 with 22 home runs and 82 RBI.

Report: Rays having “advanced talks” with free agent reliever Tommy Hunter

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter throws to the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a baseball game in Miami, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported this morning that free agent reliever Tommy Hunter required core muscle repair surgery earlier this offseason. Coming off a disappointing 2015, it’s understandable why he’s still on the market, but it sounds like he has at least one significant lead.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times hears that the Rays are having “advanced talks” with Hunter as they attempt to add an experienced arm to their bullpen. Nothing is considered close and Hunter is also talking to other clubs. Meanwhile, the Rays have been in touch with veteran reliever Ryan Webb while monitoring the trade market.

Hunter posted a 2.88 ERA as a late-inning arm from 2013-2014, but he compiled a mediocre 4.18 ERA over 58 appearances last season between the Orioles and Cubs. On the bright side, his velocity has held steady and his control is still very good. Despite the down year and core muscle surgery, Topkin writes that Hunter may be holding out for a multi-year deal.

Pirates sign left-hander Cory Luebke

Cory Luebke Getty
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Eric O'Flaherty wasn’t the only reclamation project added by the Pirates today, as the club also announced that they have signed left-hander Cory Luebke to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Luebke once looked like a solid rotation piece for the Padres, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since April 27, 2012. He’s undergone a pair of Tommy John surgeries since. Now 30 years old, he logged seven innings in the minors last season before requiring a procedure to remove loose bodies around a nerve in his forearm. The Padres cut ties with him in November after declining a $7.5 million club option for 2016.

It’s hard to count on much from Luebke at this point, but he told Adam Berry of MLB.com that he feels healthy and hopes to compete for a bullpen job in the spring.