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.

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.