Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cincinnati Reds Preview: More of the Same in 2010?

A lot of speculation has surrounded this year’s version of the Cincinnati Reds, most notably for the surprising, almost out-of-nowhere signing of Aroldis Chapman to solidify the starting rotation potentially immediately. After last year’s team had some expectation of achieving better things but failed to deliver, this year’s squad comes in with low expectations … which might just mean a surprise is in order.

First and foremost, what doomed the Reds in 2009 is what likely will be the biggest hurdle in 2010: having offensive firepower. The individual cogs of the machine that make up the lineup are not bad, but put them all together and they couldn’t generate runs last season. The late-season addition of Scott Rolen took many by surprise, and having the third baseman return for another season as a very good team leader might be what changes things finally. The infield finally has taken some shape, with Rolen at third, new addition Orlando Cabrera at short, stalwart Brandon Phillips at second, and eventual (hopefully) steady captain-in-waiting Joey Votto at first. Behind the plate, the Reds still have some concern, although Ramon Hernandez was retained for cheaper than expected and Ryan Hanigan is a more-than-capable platoon choice defensively. The backups around the diamond hold some interesting potential as well, from Juan Francisco (backing up Rolen at third) to Paul Janish (who we already have seen be a utility infielder but can pick-it like a Gold Glover at short) as well as off-season acquisition Aaron Miles (who can provide some relief behind Phillips at second). As a positive, to provide some relief for Votto in the field, Ramon Hernandez already provided some of that help at first last season when he subbed in the starting lineup as well as later in the game.

The situation in the outfield is still a bit murky, only because the talent pool has some depth but equally provides some complexity. The starting three from left to right looks like Jonny Gomes (who has gone homer crazy in Spring Training so far) in left, Drew Stubbs in center, and star-in-waiting Jay Bruce in right. The backups for these three are equally intriguing from Chris Dickerson (who can play left or center in a platoon scenario and has some speed defensively as well as on the basepaths), Laynce Nix (re-signed to a minor league deal but may or may not make the club depending on roster spots remaining; he has some nice offensive pop that the lineup could use), and Wladimir Balentien (a spot starter last season and could play where needed in any outfield slot).

When the subject of the Cincinnati club turns to pitching, the starting rotation seems like a bright spot; however, if the spring results so far are an indicator, the team might be riding a roller coaster depending on the right (or wrong) combo of starters. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo should be stalwarts on the starting staff (and still the default 1-2 punch), but Harang hasn’t been Harang since 2007 (even though he was among the best in both 2006 and 2007), and Arroyo is a steady innings-eater but doesn’t always deliver big wins totals by season’s end. Both guys are in the final years of their contracts … which should mean they want to prove the doubters wrong (I hope). I won’t be surprised to see either or both traded by the trading deadline unless they start pitching lights-out like both are capable of doing. The rest of the rotation is where the real potential lies, from Homer Bailey (also with the “star-in-waiting” logo firmly affixed and who looks to have a great season ahead based on late 2009 results) to Johnny Cueto (whose fastball and slider combo still can burn many major leaguers) to Micah Owings (who still gets as much notoriety for his offensive ability in addition to his pitching skills). Bailey and Cueto are almost assuredly the third and fourth starters, and the success (or failure) of these two might determine exactly where this club finishes. Other pitchers vying for a rotation spot include the aforementioned Owings (most likely headed to the long relief role again as well as spot pinch hitter), Travis Wood (who might become a long reliever or sneak into the fifth starter spot), Mike Leake (who has had a decent if unspectacular spring), and the wild card of Aroldis Chapman (who fought some back spasms earlier this spring but continues to look sharp in his outings). If either Wood or Chapman makes the team and fills out the starting rotation with some high-velocity capability, this team just moved up in a notch in its prospects for 2010.

All in all, the Reds will be a team that can compete in the NL Central (as has been the broken record for the past few seasons), but, unlike past years, the competition is not markedly better than the Reds are this season. Offense is still the biggest question mark, but pitching should not be the issue. The bullpen is equally solid and up to the task as the starting rotation should be. Francisco Cordero (the Reds’ lone All-Star choice) should continue to be solid if not for the possibility of being trade bait by mid-season or earlier. Nick Masset, Jared Burton (potential closer in waiting), Arthur Rhodes (former closer with some capability), and Daniel Ray Herrera are all assured spots based on past performance. Justin Lehr (spot starter last season) may or may not start in the big leagues this year, but Mike Lincoln along with Owings should also get spots. Other familiar names (Kip Wells, Carlos Fisher, and Matt Maloney) are probably not quite ready to start the season in the majors.

The optimist in me wants to peg this club as an NL Central contender, but, realistically, the Chicago Cubs are still better and will likely win the division again. The NL Wild Card is not out of the question, though, as being second place in this division just might make the playoffs anyway.