Springtime Storylines: Can the Reds do it again?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Your Cincinnati Redlegs.

The Big Question: Can the Reds pull off back-to-back division titles?

Holding the top spot in the division for a total of 115 days last year, the Reds basically ran away with the National League Central crown — their first since 1995. The perennially relevant Cardinals hung around until early September and finished only five games back in the final standings, but Cincinnati did not let up down the stretch and turned in the organization’s first 90-plus win season since 1999, when a young Mike Cameron led an explosive offense to a second-place finish under manager Jack McKeon.

Cameron was traded to the Mariners after that stellar ’99 campaign for Ken Griffey Jr., who brought his hometown team an 85-77 record in 2000 before things turned really ugly in the Queen City. With Junior beginning a long battle against the injury bug, the 2001 Redlegs finished near the bottom of the Central with a putrid 66-96 record and did not top 80 wins for the next eight seasons.

Which brings us back to present day. How will sudden success greet this edition of the Cincinnati Reds and will the good times last longer than they did at the turn of the century?

The offense is there. It’s youthful and powerful, and the Reds are going to field a lineup this season that will rival any batting order in the National League Central division. First baseman Joey Votto beat out Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols for MVP honors in 2010 with a .324/.424/.600 batting line, 37 home runs and 116 RBI. He even stole 16 bases. Right fielder Jay Bruce was also explosive, registering a cool .846 OPS and 25 home runs. From top to bottom — with the only exceptions being shortstop and (maybe) catcher — the Reds are primed to put runs on the board with ease again this season.

But every great team needs pitching, and the rotation in Cincinnati is far from intimidating. Edinson Volquez is still regaining his arm strength from August 2009 Tommy John surgery, Johnny Cueto battles inconsistency on a near-nightly basis, Homer Bailey hasn’t proven capable of remaining effective for an entire big league season and Bronson Arroyo is sliding quickly into his mid-30s.

Every National League Central team has gaping holes, but Cincinnati’s can be found in the starting rotation and that’s a frightening situation for a club that calls Great American Ballpark home.

So what else is going on?

  • Where are the fans? Great American Ballpark drew just over two million people last year and the daily average attendance was only 25,438. The 101-loss Mariners drew better, as did the Astros, Tigers, Brewers, Mets and Padres. For a town that once hosted Opening Day annually and produced raucous crowds during the Big Red Machine era, last year’s showing was a disappointment. The stadium is new and the team is good. It’s time for the Skyline-devouring residents of southwestern Ohio to do their part.
  • The maturation of dynamic outfielder Drew Stubbs has begun. The eighth overall pick in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft, he slugged 22 home runs and stole 30 bases in 150 games last season for the Reds. If Stubbs can limit his strikeouts and show a little more patience at the plate, he could develop into a reliable long-term leadoff hitter. His on-base percentage in four minor league seasons was a healthy .364.
  • Rookie starters Travis Wood and Mike Leake deserve real credit for helping the Reds to their division crown last season, but what can we expect in 2011 out of the rising sophomores? They are both going to draw starts for the first couple weeks of April until Cueto recovers from shoulder inflammation. With Wood, it’s about continuing the momentum that he built up over the final few months of 2010. With Leake, it’s about proving that his hot start before the All-Star break was not a fluke.
  • The Reds handed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman a six-year, $30.25 million major league contract last winter in the hope that he might quickly became an ace of their starting rotation. He was fine last season in a setup role and will probably post dominant numbers again in 2011 as an eighth inning reliever behind closer Francisco Cordero, but it’s nothing short of a letdown that he is not yet making starts. Having a quality setup man is nice, but the Reds need rotation help and they’re clearly not confident yet that Chapman can provide it. A good starter is always more valuable than a good reliever.

So how are they gonna do?

Winning the National League Central isn’t going to be nearly as easy it was last season. The Brewers’ rotation is suddenly formidable, the Cubs made two smart offseason additions in Carlos Pena and Matt Garza, and the Cardinals have no plans of folding. But the Reds have a lineup that carries major upside and they’re going to be in the hunt all summer. If everything goes right, they can get to 90 wins for a second straight year. And that should net them either a consecutive division title or the National League wild card.

Phillies walk off winners thanks to a poor decision by Marcell Ozuna

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The Phillies’ bullpen, which has not been good as of late, gift-wrapped Monday’s game for the Cardinals. Starter Nick Pivetta was brilliant, fanning 13 while allowing two runs in 7 1/3 innings. But things unraveled after he left the game. Victor Arano took over for Edubray Ramos to start the ninth inning with the Phillies leading 4-2, but he allowed a one-out single and a double. After striking out Harrison Bader, Arano appeared to strike out Yairo Munoz for the final out of the game, but the ball trickled through the legs of catcher Andrew Knapp, allowing a run to score and the tying run to move to third base. Lefty Adam Morgan came in to face pinch-hitter Kolten Wong. Wong tied the game up, sneaking a single into center field.

In the 10th inning, Jake Thompson gave up the go-ahead run on a leadoff home run to Tommy Pham. It seemed like it was just going to be another one of those losses that have become increasingly common for the Phillies lately. But the Phillies’ offense didn’t go down quietly, even though it hadn’t put a runner on second base since the start of the second inning when J.P. Crawford doubled. In the bottom half of the 10th, Hoskins blooped a single into shallow left-center to start the inning. Hoskins moved to second base on a ground out from Odubel Herrera. Matt Bowman intentionally walked Carlos Santana, then struck out Jesmuel Valentin. That brought up Aaron Altherr, who replaced Nick Williams after Williams took a baseball to the face off of the right field fence. Bowman fell behind 2-1, then threw a 90 MPH fastball that Altherr lined into left field. Rather than keep the ball in front of him, Marcell Ozuna decided to dive for the ball to make the final out, but he missed. The ball trickled past him, allowing the tying and the game-winning runs to score, giving the Phillies a come-from-behind win.

On the list of people happy to see Ozuna miss that ball are Altherr (of course), Arano, Morgan, and Thompson. But perhaps no one was happier than manager Gape Kapler. The win might help take the heat off of him somewhat after another poor performance from the bullpen. When a team struggles, everyone wants a scapegoat and Kapler is an easy target. He has been all year, undeservingly.

Phillies radio broadcaster and former major league reliever Larry Anderson said after the bullpen meltown, “Not everybody can pitch in the ninth inning. And I know Gabe Kapler thinks they can, but they can’t.” Aside from Ramos and Seranthony Dominguez (who was unavailable after throwing 52 pitches between Saturday and Sunday in Milwaukee), no one in that bullpen has been reliable. The closer, Hector Neris, just got optioned to Triple-A. You work with what you have, and right now, Kapler doesn’t have a whole lot. Thankfully for him, he wasn’t punished with another loss thanks to Ozuna.