2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds brought up the rear in the NL Central last season, finishing at 68-94 in manager Bryan Price’s third year with the club. A quiet offseason by the decidedly small-market Reds suggests the club is headed towards another year of mediocrity.

Things are already off to a bad start as Anthony DeSclafani, who was to be the Reds’ Opening Day starter, was recently diagnosed with a sprained UCL and will be shut down for the next four weeks before being reevaluated. DeSclafani was also injured last year, making only 20 starts but finishing with a 3.28 ERA with a 105/30 K/BB ratio in 123 1/3 innings.

With DeSclafani temporarily out of the picture, Brandon Finnegan becomes the de facto ace of the staff and will almost certainly draw the Opening Day start now. The 23-year-old lefty finished last season, his first full season in the majors, with a solid 3.98 ERA and a 145/84 K/BB ratio in 172 innings. The defense-independent numbers don’t suggest a future Cy Young Award winner, but he still has plenty of years with which to grow and the Reds don’t need him to find greatness immediately.

Veteran Scott Feldman will slot into the middle of the rotation. The 33-year-old has become consistent as he has entered his 30’s, posting an ERA in the tight range of 3.74 and 3.97 over the past four seasons. He pitched out of the Astros’ and Blue Jays’ bullpens for the most part last year and is returning to starting. That might be a potential problem for a younger player, but Feldman is used to it by now and it shouldn’t be an issue.

The final three spots in the Reds’ rotation are up for grabs. Tim Adleman is hoping to return to the Reds’ rotation after a solid rookie showing in 2016. In 13 starts spanning 69 2/3 innings, the right-hander put up an even 4.00 ERA with a 47/20 K/BB ratio. Cody Reed was much less impressive, compiling a 7.36 ERA in 10 starts over 47 2/3 innings, though he did have a 43/19 K/BB ratio. Reed, however, was way too homer-prone, surrendering 12 of them in his limited time on the mound. Robert Stephenson is vying for a rotation spot as well after posting a 6.08 ERA with a 31/19 K/BB ratio in 37 innings across eight starts last year.

The Reds’ starting rotation isn’t impressive, but at least they have star power at first base in Joey Votto. The 2010 NL MVP hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down after leading the National League in on-base percentage (.434) and adjusted OPS (160) last season. He added to that a .326 batting average and a .550 slugging percentage along with 29 home runs, 97 RBI, and 101 runs scored in 677 plate appearances. Votto has taken a step back defensively, which has cut into his value, but he remains one of the best pure hitters in baseball and is always a threat to take home another MVP Award.

Jose Peraza will open the season as the Reds’ everyday second baseman after the club traded veteran Brandon Phillips to the Braves. Peraza played all over the place last season, showing up at shortstop, second base, left field, and center field. He hit a solid .324/.352/.411 with 13 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 25 runs scored, and 21 stolen bases in 256 plate appearances. He was highly regarded as a prospect in the Braves’ and Dodgers’ minor league systems and showed why last season. Peraza’s versatility may come into play when prospect Dilson Herrera is ready to be promoted.

Zack Cozart will return to shortstop in his seventh season in the majors with the Reds. Last year, he hit a career-best 16 home runs, but his .252/.308/.425 triple-slash line was mundane. Cozart, though, is always reliable for his great glove and should be the least of the Reds’ concerns this season.

Eugenio Suarez will reprise his role at third base. The 25-year-old broke out in 2015 and followed up with a solid ’16 showing, hitting .248/.317/.411 with 25 doubles, 21 home runs, 70 RBI, 78 runs, and 11 stolen bases in 627 PA. Suarez also brings a solid glove with him to the hot corner and nicely rounds out the Reds’ infield.

The Reds still don’t know if catcher Devin Mesoraco will be healthy enough to start the season, but they’re hopeful after he missed most of the past two seasons with hip and shoulder surgeries. Mesoraco put himself on the map in 2014, hitting .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs and 80 RBI in 440 PA, earning his first All-Star nomination. The Reds, understandably, will be cautious with the 28-year-old backstop and will have him share playing time behind the dish with Tucker Barnhart. Barnhart, 26, played in 115 games last season and hit a passable .257/.323/.379 with seven home runs and 51 RBI in 420 PA. Obviously, the Reds hope Mesoraco can show that he’s both healthy and productive in order to take back the starting role.

The Reds will once again count on All-Star Adam Duvall in left field. The 2016 Home Run Derby semifinalist finished the season hitting .241/.297/.498 with 33 home runs and 103 RBI across 608 PA. Obviously, some improvement in the average and OBP department would be nice, but Duvall is basically who he is at this point – a hitter who hits the ball hard, strikes out a lot, and doesn’t draw many walks. Duvall and Votto will be the Reds’ biggest sources of power in the lineup.

Center fielder Billy Hamilton will hopefully do a better job of setting the table for them. The speedster hit a meager .260/.321/.343 in 460 PA last season. When he gets on base, second base is his and sometimes third base, too, as he stole 58 bases in 66 attempts. Hamilton also plays some incredible defense in center field, making up for the weak bat.

Scott Schebler replaced Jay Bruce in right field when the Reds sent him to the Mets last season and will continue to do so in 2017. He hit .265/.330/.432 with nine home runs and 40 RBI in 282 PA. Schebler put up some pretty good numbers in the minors and showed that translated somewhat in the majors; now he just has to do it over a full season.

Price’s bullpen will be interesting to watch over the course of the season. He hasn’t named a closer and will instead utilize a closer-by-committee. Raisel Iglesias will be one of the closing options after compiling a 2.53 ERA with an 83/26 K/BB ratio in 78 1/3 innings spanning five starts and 32 relief appearances last season. If Price were to name a traditional closer, Iglesias would probably be the first pick.

Lefty Tony Cingrani will also get some chances to close. He racked up 17 saves with a 4.14 ERA and a 49/37 K/BB ratio in 63 innings last season. Obviously, he walks batters quite often and his strikeout rate doesn’t come close to making up for it, so he’ll need to be better on both fronts this season to continue drawing high-leverage work.

Michael Lorenzen impressed with a 2.88 ERA and a 48/13 K/BB ratio in 50 innings of relief work out of the Reds’ bullpen last year and will merit late-game consideration along with Iglesias and Cingrani. Finally, veteran Drew Storen – signed in early January – will look to have a bounceback season after finishing 2016 with a disappointing 5.23 ERA between the Blue Jays and Mariners. The Reds will also have Blake Wood, Wandy Peralta, and others handling low- and medium-leverage situations out of the bullpen.

While the offense won’t be a problem for the Reds, it doesn’t figure to be consistent given the low on-base percentages of some of its key players – namely Hamilton and Duvall. And, of course, pitching will almost certainly be the downfall of this team which FanGraphs projects to average nearly five runs allowed per game. Only the Rockies and Twins are projected to be worse in that department.

Prediction: 69-93 record, 5th place in division

Orioles sign OF Aaron Hicks, put Cedric Mullins on 10-day IL with groin strain

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BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Orioles signed outfielder Aaron Hicks less than 24 hours after Cedric Mullins went down with a strained right groin.

Mullins went on the 10-day injured list, but the Orioles are hoping Hicks can help defensively in the spacious outfield at Camden Yards. Hicks was released last week by the New York Yankees with more than 2 1/2 seasons left on his contract.

“We had noticed that he was a free agent even before the injury,” Orioles general manager Mike Elias said. “When the injury occurred and it became pretty clear this was going to be an IL, it seemed like a good fit even more so at that time.”

The Orioles are responsible for paying Hicks just $483,871, a prorated share of the $720,000 minimum salary. The Yankees owe him the rest of his $10.5 million salary this year, plus $9.5 million in each of the next two seasons and a $1 million buyout of a 2026 team option.

The 33-year-old Hicks hit just .188 in 28 games for the Yankees this year.

“We have stuff that we look at from a scouting and evaluation perspective,” Elias said. “It’s very different from just looking at the back of a baseball card, and we hope that we get a bounceback from anyone we bring here.”

Hicks batted .216 last season.

“Hopefully that’s a good thing for him,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of the Baltimore deal. “A lot of time here and a lot of good things happened for him here. I know the last couple of years have been a struggle. But hopefully it’s a good opportunity for him and certainly wish him well. Not too well being in our division and a team we’re chasing, but hopefully it’s a really good fit for him.”

Mullins left a loss to Cleveland after he pulled up while running out an infield grounder. Outfielder Colton Cowser – the fifth pick in the draft two years ago – is hitting .331 at Triple-A Norfolk, but he went on the IL in the past couple weeks.

“Certainly he was building a case towards promotion consideration prior to his injury and prior to Cedric’s injury,” Elias said. “We’ll just see where we’re at.”

Hicks was active for the game but not in the starting lineup. Austin Hays, normally Baltimore’s left field, was in Mullins’ usual spot in center.

When the wall in left at Camden Yards was pushed significantly back before last season, it made left field a bigger challenge defensively.

“In this park … you really need two center fielders,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Aaron’s got a lot of center-field experience. Played left field here before also. Brings the defensive aspect and then the switch-hitting.”