2014 Reds Team Preview: Is That It?
On the surface, the 2013 Cincinnati Reds had a pretty good season. They won 90 games and made it to the NL Wild Card game, where they lost to the Pirates. But that undersells the story. They lost their final six regular season games, all at home, to finish third in the division. Making matters worse, the final three games were against the Pirates, and they lost home field advantage in the Wild Card game as a result. And the game itself wasn't terribly competitive, as they were helpless against Francisco Liriano, and Johnny Cueto melted down early. And so for the third time in four years, the Reds failed to win a playoff series, despite having a career-year from Shin-Soo Choo and prime seasons from Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, a super starting rotation and one of the best closers in the game.
As a result, and because of various clubhouse factors and decisions made in the course of the season, the Reds fired manager Dusty Baker and eventually hired pitching coach Bryan Price to be the new manager. Reds fans are hoping that the days of ordering sacrifice bunts in the first inning with no outs and a runner on second base will be gone, that their #2 hitter will have an OBP over .300, and that Aroldis Chapman will actually pitch in games that don't have a save situation. But merely firing the manager and replacing him with someone that (presumably) will make more optimal in-game decisions isn't a cure-all. They still have to overcome an offense that slanted heavily to the left and now has to replace Choo, who signed a big deal with the Rangers this offseason.
In response to these challenges, the Reds went out and … signed Skip Schumaker and traded away Ryan Hanigan? Let Bronson Arroyo walk? With Devin Mesoraco and Tony Cingrani both ready, the latter two decisions at least make sense. But so much of their season is dependent upon Billy Hamilton being ready, and on bouncebacks from their right-handed hitters (Ryan Ludwick, Todd Frazier and to a lesser extent Brandon Phillips). It's not hard to envision that without Choo, the team could be an NL-average at-best hitting team despite playing in Great American Ballpark. Making matters worse, there's very little immediate help on the way, especially with the bats. The team's window to compete might still be open, but the team is no longer on an upward trajectory while the competition in the NL Central is improving. So it's not hard to criticize Reds fans that look at the body of offseason work and ask, "Is that it?"
Lost Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers) and Bronson Arroyo (Diamondbacks) via free agency.
While the Reds proffered a $14.1 million qualifying offer to Choo, they never were a realistic candidate to re-sign him, given the presence of Billy Hamilton and Choo's desire (eventually fulfilled) to get a long-term, nine-figure offer. But it makes this Reds fan sad nonetheless - he was a perfect fit for a team that in 2012 had the worst leadoff hitters in all of baseball. He was the net result of a second straight "December Surprise" trade from GM Walt Jocketty, and delivered everything and then-some in his one year in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, with the development of Tony Cingrani, the Reds were never serious about trying to retain Arroyo. Arroyo served the team well after their grand theft of him for Wily Mo Pena back in the day, and he might not suffer in Arizona as many might think - his numbers were actually better in the tater-ific Great American Ballpark in 2013.
Signed free agents Skip Schumaker (Dodgers) and Roger Bernadina (Phillies).
If the Reds' plan for center field was to make sure that Billy Hamilton didn't have to look over shoulder to know the job was his, this was one way about doing it. Schumaker and Bernadina (and Chris Heisey, for that matter) *can* play center field, but neither are much with the bat, certainly not players you'd want as your starting center fielder on a contending team. Schumaker adds some positional versatility with his ability to play second base in a pinch, too.
Signed free agent Ramon Santiago (Tigers) to a minor league deal.
The Reds had to fill their Cesar Izturis gap after the latter signed with the Astros. Mission accomplished!
Signed free agent Chris Nelson (Angels/Yankees/Rockies) to a minor league deal.
Nelson isn't even much of a threat to supplant Jack Hannahan, as he's a right-handed hitter, so he can't provide Todd Frazier with a platoon partner.
Signed free agent Jeff Francis (Rockies) and Chien-Ming Wang to minor league deals.
Francis will be their emergency starter in case of an injury, or else the Reds might turn him into this year's version of Zach Duke - a soft-tossing lefty starter that's converted into a LOOGY. Wang is Option B in case they need a veteran replacement starter.
Signed free agent Brayan Pena (Tigers).
This deal signified that Ryan Hanigan's days in Cincinnati were numbered. The 31-year-old backstop filled a larger than expected role for the Tigers in 2013, as the team's No. 1 catcher Alex Avila dealt with a lengthy slump and a pair of minor injuries. Pena offered solid production while filling in for Avila, finishing with a .297/.315/.397 line and four homers in 229 at-bats. While Pena doesn't strike out much, he continued his free-swinging ways and drew just six free passes all season. Pena's solid season with Detroit earned him a contract from the Reds, who will deploy him as the team's No. 2 catcher in a soft platoon with Devin Mesoraco. The amount of playing time Pena sees with his new squad will likely hinge on the health and production of Mesoraco, who is considered the Reds' long-term option at the position.
Traded Ryan Hanigan to the Rays as part of a three-team deal (also including the Diamondbacks) that netted them minor league pitcher David Holmberg.
Hanigan suffered thumb, ankle, oblique and wrist injuries in 2013, effectively wrecking his season. His offensive potential was already limited, and these injuries made him an offensive liability. He's still a terrific defensive catcher, and missing that contribution from him could hurt the Reds' pitching staff. With the Reds deciding that it is time for Devin Mesoraco to take over the regular starting duties, Hanigan inked a three-year contract extension to work in tandem with Jose Molina handling the Tampa Bay pitching staff.
One of the brightest young prospects in the Arizona system, Holmberg posted a great year in Double-A Mobile in 2013 with his 2.75 ERA. His command is good, but the lefty still has some polishing to do. The D-Backs included Holmberg in their three-team trade with the Reds and Rays in December, putting Holmberg in the mix for a rotation spot in Cincinnati at some point in 2014. Most likely, he'll start the season with his new Triple-A affiliate in Louisville to refine his secondary offerings against advanced competition.
Projected Lineup (vs. RHP/LHP)
1. Billy Hamilton, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Ryan Ludwick, LF
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Zack Cozart, SS
8. Devin Mesoraco, C
This is a best guess at the lineup - with new manager Bryan Price, we don't know how he is going to structure his lineup. The only certainty actually is Hamilton batting leadoff. Dusty Baker was a strict constructionist in many different ways - separating the left-handed hitters, putting his best hitter in the third spot in the lineup, putting a middle-infielder in the #2 spot so that he can bunt whether the situation really calls for a bunt or not, etc… Interestingly enough, the Reds have no projected platoons, so there might not be much variation in the order.
1. Mat Latos
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Homer Bailey
4. Mike Leake
5. Tony Cingrani
There are no job battles here, with the departure of Bronson Arroyo to the Diamondbacks. The only question here is whether Cingrani will get fifth starter's treatment and miss a start or two in April.
Closer: The Reds have dabbled with the notion of Aroldis Chapman starting, but the more recent buzz is that they'd rather focus on him getting more work than 60 innings as a closer, which is welcomed news for fantasy players yearning for him to have a solid role. His usage won't be as rigid as it was last season, when often it was "save situation or bust" -- the Reds lost six extra-innings games where Chapman never got into the game. When he got on the mound, Chapman had a few hiccups but was typically dominant again, carrying a 15.8 K/9. His walk rate and home-run rate both trickled upward, and on occasion he struggled with his secondary offerings.
Key Bullpen Members: The back-end of the Reds' bullpen was hurt considerably by injuries to Jonathon Broxton and especially to Sean Marshall, who missed most of the season, pitching just 10.1 innings. Both look to be back in 2014, though now the team has more experience with those that stepped in.
As alluded, Marshall's 2013 season was marred by a shoulder injury that caused him to miss four months. His injury was a pretty big blow to a Reds bullpen that also lost Jonathan Broxton for most of the season, but it also illustrated a baseball truism - most relievers get hurt, and thus multi-year deals to all but the very elite are risky. The future for Marshall is shaky, given his shoulder woes last season, but it seems unlikely that he'll close even if the Reds move Aroldis Chapman into the rotation.
If you had an early draft last season, Broxton was among the bigger busts even before the season began, thanks to the Reds reversing course with Aroldis Chapman. Instead of becoming Cincinnati's closer, Broxton failed to record a single save, before going on multiple trips to the disabled list. He underwent surgery to repair a torn flexor mass in his right forearm in August, making him questionable for the start of the season. Even if Chapman moves into the rotation this year, Broxton is far from guaranteed to fill his shoes as the closer as well.
Instead, J.J. Hoover picked up three saves in situations where Aroldis Chapman was either unavailable or had already pitched early in the game, but otherwise his first half was pretty dicey, with him picking up all five of his losses and allowing four of his six homers. He was much stronger in the second half, which included a 26-inning scoreless stretch. Should the Reds follow through with the threat to move Aroldis Chapman into the rotation, he's a stronger candidate to close than Broxton.
Finally, Sam LeCure has become the Reds' Swiss Army Knife in their bullpen, capable of pitching effectively in multiple roles. His strikeout rate has steadily improved, despite throwing a fastball that averaged just 89.3 mph, in part because he's added a knuckle-curve to his repertoire to great success. It's worth noting that LeCure has had a reverse split the last three seasons and held left-handers to a .167 BA in 105 plate appearances. With a new analytics-friendly manager in Bryan Price, LeCure could have a bigger role in 2014.
Notes of Import, Fantasy or Otherwise:
Is Billy Hamilton ready for the big leagues, and where should I take him in my fantasy draft?
True speed demons like Hamilton have among the biggest fantasy swing potentials among all players. Is he going to be like Vince Coleman and dominate a category, or is he going to be more like Dee Gordon and lose playing time and struggle to keep a major league job? Much of Hamilton's value rests in the format of your league. If you play in the NFBC or any other no-trade league, Hamilton is especially tricky to value. A full season of him in the lineup gets you half of the way there in the stolen-base category, if not more. But if you draft him, chances are you are avoiding other elite stolen base guys, as a surplus in the category gets you nowhere, plus you have to draft power-heavy hitters to make up for Hamilton's shortfall there. If Hamilton scuffles and subsequently gets demoted, your team goes from likely winning the category to falling to the back of the pack. Hamilton struck out nearly 20 percent of the time at Triple-A without being a power threat (.343 slugging percentage) - there's a good chance that strikeout rate hits 25 percent or higher at the major league level, which will make it difficult for him to hit for a decent batting average. He has been going in the 60-90 range in the mixed league drafts we've participated in this early in the draft season.
Johnny Cueto's lat strains killed me last season - what can I expect from him?
Cueto presents one of the tougher draft decisions for 2014. When healthy, he pitched like an ace once again. Alas, "when healthy" is the operative phrase, as Cueto had multiple trips to the DL, all related to the same injury that knocked him out of his playoff start against the Giants in 2012. He modified his delivery to adjust for those oblique/back/shoulder injuries on his last return from the DL, with two good regular season starts before he was shelled in the Wild Card playoff game against the Pirates. How much will that start carry over into 2014, and will Cueto be able to stay on the mound? This is a big contract season for Cueto to boot, giving him all the more incentive to stay out there. He'll be one of the bigger boom-or-bust starting pitchers in redraft leagues.
Where are the Reds hoping to get an improvement in their offense to make up for the departure of Shin-Soo Choo?
Clearly they don't expect Hamilton to single-handedly replace Choo - that would be irrational. Instead, they're looking for three right-handers, Ryan Ludwick, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco to pick up the slack.
Ludwick's Opening Day shoulder injury was a critical blow to the Reds' offense, not just in removing his contributions, but also in what it did to the rest of the lineup. They lacked steady production from their remaining right-handed hitters, and it pushed others into spots in the lineup where they weren't best equipped, especially Zack Cozart in the second spot. When Ludwick returned in August, it was clear he hadn't fully recovered or gotten his timing back, as he was limited to a .086 ISO in 140 plate appearances. Ludwick's contract (a two-year, $15 million deal inked in December, 2012) ensures that he'll get another shot in left field for the Reds. At age 35, it's no guarantee that he bounces all the way back to 2012 levels.
Some regression was expected in Frazier's stat line in his second full season in the big leagues, but instead the pendulum fully swung from lucky to unlucky, as his BABIP dropped from .320 down to .271. But bad luck can't fully explain Frazier's drop-off, as he continued to have a poor contact rate (76%) and his ISO dropped from .225 down to .173. To contend in 2014, the Reds need more from their right-handed hitters, and Frazier in particular. He may never exceed his 2012 rate stats, but he needs to approach them to be viable beyond this season.
A panoply of injuries to Ryan Hanigan provided more chances for Mesoraco in 2013, but unfortunately he wasn't able to hit much better than in his rookie season. Mesoraco hit far better at home (.759 OPS) than on the road (.564), and better against lefties (.874) than righties (.576). The Reds signaled that they believe Mesoraco is ready to take over the starting job for 2014 by acquiring Brayan Pena to be his backup and trading Hanigan to Tampa Bay. Catchers typically develop at a slower pace and Mesoraco in particular has usually needed an adjustment period at each level, but the time for him to turn potential into production is now.
Even with the departure of Bronson Arroyo, the rotation is rock-solid, assuming that Tony Cingrani can successfully shoulder a full season's load. The bullpen, even with injuries to Broxton and Marshall last year, was still overall pretty good. So run prevention should not be an issue.
Run-scoring, on the other hand, could be a concern. If Hamilton flops, they don't really have a great backup plan. Joey Votto's approach was blamed for run-scoring issues at times, and while he wasn't great with runners in scoring position last year, the bigger problem is that he had poor OBP guys in front of him most of the season. If the three righties mentioned above don't flourish, this offense will hold them back in comparison with the Cardinals. The ability of the farm system to provide ready replacements once again is a problem. Last year the Reds spent half of the season using a combination of Xavier Paul, Derrick Robinson and Donald Lutz starting in left field after injuries sidelined Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey (who was disappointing before his injuries) - that's simply unacceptable for a contending team.
Rising: Homer Bailey - Bailey followed up his 2012 breakout campaign with an even better 2013 season, highlighted by his second career no-hitter. Even though it wasn't reflected in his record, Bailey improved across the board, posting a better ERA, WHIP, strikeout rate and home-run rate. The key for Bailey was a spike in his fastball velocity - after averaging 92.5 mph in 2012, his velocity rose to 94.1 mph in 2013. That translated into great results with that pitch (18.9 runs above average, according to Fangraphs). Bailey's name could come up frequently at the trade deadline this year if the Reds don't get off to a good start, as he'll be eligible for free agency after the 2014 season.
Declining: Brandon Phillips - With the caveat that players don't improve nor decline in linear fashion, Phillips has entered the decline phase of his career. He's hitting for less power, making slightly less contact and running less frequently. And he's only got four more years left on his contract, a contract he's somehow unhappy with! What a bargain! Don't let the 103 RBI fool you - those were largely the byproduct of batting behind not one but two .400+ OBP guys, a circumstance that's unlikely to repeat in his career. We hate to bash Phillips - he's perennially been a top-10 second baseman - but don't let his reputation, his RBI count or positional scarcity persuade you to take him among the top-75 players in the draft.
Sleeper: Devin Mesoraco - Mesoraco is a batting average gamble, and our projection for him is actually pretty tame (though improved over what he did last year), but players typically improve with extended at-bats, especially when you account for the delays that many catchers have in developing at the plate. The cost is right, at least.
Supersleeper: J.J. Hoover - If Chapman breaks, I'd bet on Hoover over Broxton and Marshall to close.
Robert Stephenson, RHP - After a couple of rocky starts in April, Stephenson dominated both Low-A and High-A last season before landing in Double-A Pensacola to finish the year. The Reds took a slow approach to developing him after making him their first-round pick out of high school in the 2011 draft, and it is starting to pay dividends, as most prospect lists out there have him leapfrogging Billy Hamilton as the Reds' top prospect. His fastball has been clocked as fast as 101 mph (albeit on scoreboard radars, which are notoriously fast) and he typically works in the 96-98 mph range. A hamstring injury limited his innings last year, which isn't all bad given that he was just 20 years old. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him spend most of the year in Double-A, but a 2015 major league debut seems likely.
Phil Ervin, OF - Ervin, the Reds' first-round pick in the 2013 draft out of Samford University, got off to a flying start in his professional career, hitting .331/.425/.564 combined between Rookie-level and Low-A ball and going 14-of-15 on the basepaths to boot. As a college draftee, Ervin was expected to advance quickly through the lower levels of the minors, so 2014 will bring on a greater test, with him possibly hitting High-A pretty early in the season. He might struggle initially if the wrist injury that ended his season persists in the spring.
Jesse Winker, OF - The Reds' farm system lacks high-impact offensive players, but Winker demonstrated quite a bit of promise at Low-A Dayton in 2013, showing both power (his 16 homers were in the league's top-10 despite Dayton being a tough park to hit in) and patience (13% walk rate, 82% contact rate). Don't be surprised if the 2012 first-round supplemental pick out of high school in Florida takes a big leap in High-A in 2014.
Yorman Rodriguez, OF - The Reds haven't yet gotten big dividends from their two high-profile 16-year-old prospect signees in Rodriguez and Juan Duran, but there's at least some reason to believe they still could get some mileage from Rodriguez. After a rough 2012 where Rodriguez faltered so much at High-A Bakersfield that he had to go back to Low-A, he was much better in 2013 in his age-20 season. Rodriguez drew walks at a much higher clip last year, giving at least some reason to hope that he'll eventually improve his shaky contact rate. What's rough for Rodriguez's prospect status is that 2014 will already be his second year on the 40-man roster, and he's unlikely to defeat the upper levels of the minors in rapid succession, making it possible for him to be out of options even before he makes it in the majors.
Carlos Contreras, RHP - Contreras was a starter at two levels in the minors in 2013, striking out a combined 122 batters over 132.1 innings. Prior to that he had worked as a closer, so it's possible, maybe even probable, that the Reds wanted him to get a lot of innings in and to learn how to use his full set of pitches. If he's going to be helpful in the back end of a major league bullpen, however, his control will need to improve -- upon moving up to Double-A last year he walked 21 batters in 42.1 innings. This is his second year on the 40-man roster, so chances are the Reds would like to take a look at him up close over the second half of the season.