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2014 Preview: Cincinnati Reds


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.

Clayton Kershaw can win in the postseason! Who knew?

Clayton Kershaw
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Sometime after their Game 2 loss to the Rangers last week, the Blue Jays decided they trusted Marcus Stroman more than Cy Young candidate David Price in a potential Game 5 start. Such is the power of a postseason slump.

It can lead to one of the best hitters in the world being dropped to the eighth spot in the lineup. It can lead to quality regulars sitting at highly irregular times. In the postseason, what you did yesterday matters 10 times as much as what you did last month, usually not for the better.

Fortunately, Clayton Kershaw never had to worry about being skipped because of his postseason struggles. Even calling them struggles overstate the reality. In his previous three postseason starts, Kershaw had:

  • Allowed two runs over six innings in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS against the Cardinals before being left in to give up a whopping six runs in the seventh
  • Pitched six scoreless innings on three days’ rest in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS before giving up a three-run homer in the seventh
  • Allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings in Game 1 against the Mets before his two inherited runners came around to score off the pen
So, yes, Kershaw entered Tuesday’s outing against the Mets with a 4.99 postseason ERA, but he had turned in six quality starts in nine tries, allowing one earned run or fewer three times. It wasn’t nearly regular-season Kershaw, but it also wasn’t as bad as the ERA suggests, not when he’d been the victim of slow hooks and lousy bullpen support.

And, really, Tuesday’s win over the Mets didn’t seem much different at all than Kershaw previous couple of postseason starts, at least through six innings. Maybe the fastball was amped a bit. The real difference this time was that he made it through the seventh. Best of all, since he was on three days’ rest, Don Mattingly wasn’t tempted to send him back out for the eighth at 94 pitches, as he probably would have done had Kershaw been on normal rest. The bullpen took over and turned in two hitless innings in the 3-1 win, sending the NLDS back to Los Angeles for a decisive Game 5 on Thursday.

It’s completely unnecessary redemption for Kershaw, who had nothing in need of redeeming. But it’ll keep the trolls quiet for now and also all winter if Kershaw doesn’t get the chance to pitch again. He’d surely prefer to risk the chance of failure again next week in the NLCS.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers top Mets in Game 4 of NLDS to force a Game 5

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

There will be a decisive NLDS Game 5 on Thursday evening in Los Angeles.

Clayton Kershaw yielded just three hits and struck out eight batters over seven innings of one-run ball and Justin Turner hit his fourth double of the series — a two-run poke down the left field line in the top of the third inning — as the Dodgers defeated the Mets 3-1 in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Tuesday night at Citi Field.

Kershaw’s past postseason demons peaked their head out when Yoenis Cespedes reached on an infield single to lead off the bottom of the seventh, but there was no Matt Adams or Matt Carpenter to make him pay this time around. Kershaw retired the next three batters in order and then gave way to reliever Chris Hatcher for the eighth inning having thrown 94 pitches on short rest.

The only run Kershaw allowed was on a Daniel Murphy solo shot in the fourth inning. The other two hits he surrendered were singles.

Los Angeles’ bullpen answered the call after Kershaw’s departure, with Hatcher and closer Kenley Jansen combining to post two big zeroes on the scoreboard in Queens. Jansen secured the final four outs, earning his fifth career postseason save and second this October.

Jacob deGrom is lined up for the Mets and Zack Greinke will be on the hill for Los Angeles in the loser-goes-home tilt Thursday at Dodger Stadium. This series is shaping up to be a classic.

The winner Thursday will face the Cubs in the National League Championship Series.

Video: Justin Turner gives Dodgers early Game 4 lead with two-run double

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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Clayton Kershaw has looked sharp on the mound and at the plate so far in this must-win NLDS Game 4 at New York’s Citi Field.

After no-hitting the Mets in the first two frames, Kershaw smacked a one-out single to left-center field in the top of third inning. Howie Kendrick followed soon after with a two-out single to left and then Adrian Gonzalez blooped a ball to shallow center that drove in Enrique Hernandez, who had reached earlier on a fielder’s choice grounder to second base.

That all set up this Justin Turner two-run double down the left field line that put Los Angeles up 3-0

That’s now four doubles this postseason for Turner, which is a Dodgers franchise record for the Division Series. Los Angeles is trying to force a Game 5.