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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.

Josh Hamilton leaves camp with a tweaked knee

SURPRISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Josh Hamilton #32 of the Texas Rangers poses during a spring training photo shoot on February 28, 2016 in Surprise, Arizona.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Josh Hamilton was already a long shot to make the Texas Rangers roster, but his shot got even longer today, as he left camp to have his reconstructed left knee examined after experiencing pain.

As Jeff Wilson reports, Hamilton felt discomfort in the knee during the Rangers’ first full-squad spring training workout yesterday. Hamilton has had 10 knee operations in career. Which is a lot of knee operations in case you were unaware.

You have to wish good luck to Hamilton, but at the same time you have to be realistic. The guy has not played in the major leagues since 2015 and even then he didn’t play well, hitting .253 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs in 50 games. He appeared in one game last year for Double-A Frisco, on April 30. He’ll be paid $24 million this year, mostly by the Angels. One suspects that this will likewise be his last spring training.

Colby Rasmus looks very special this year

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Colby Rasmus #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Dearest Martha,

When I and the men with whom I share this most noble cause settled in this corner of the Wyoming Territory, we did so in the name of freedom. In the name of our righteous calling from Our Creator. While my love for you is deathless as is the love of the men under my command for their wives and mothers, it pales to our commitment to The Cause. It comes over us like a strong wind and bears us irresistibly into conflict.  

Word comes that President Grant has mustered a thousand troops to disrupt our work and, as I write this, they march westward. Soon they will be upon us. But though they may be blessed with superior arms and numbers, our resolve is unmatched by any force, on Heaven or on Earth. 

If, dearest Martha, I do not survive the coming conflagration, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Know, though, that should I perish, I do so in the name of righteousness. In the name of the establishment of a land where all Men can experience liberty in the way God Almighty intends for us to experience it.

Yours in love, forever,

Colby

Editor’s Note: Colby Rasmus was killed in The Battle of Thermopolis on July 10, 1871 when Federal troops successfully put down the insurrection he and 17 other men mounted, the objective of which was to establish an independent nation in which a willing man could marry a willing bison without the interference of the United States government.

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Colby Rasmus #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
PORT CHARLOTTE, FL – FEBRUARY 18: Colby Rasmus #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

UPDATE: I was not aware of the fact that some folks at SB Nation had done this bit with Andrew Luck. They do it better, even if Colby Rasmus looks worse than Luck. We all bow to Ken Burns, of course.