The National League Central is a division in flux, and with Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis and Prince Fielder saying goodbye to Milwaukee, the Cincinnati Reds were thrust into the favorite’s role by default. But are the Reds good enough to live up to the hype and win the Central for the second time in three years? They’ve already made a big splash by locking up 2010 MVP first baseman Joey Votto to a 10-year, $225 million deal and rightfielder Jay Bruce is a rising star himself. But elsewhere in the lineup there are question marks, and it’s those questions that will draw the attention of TheSportsNotebook today.
Let’s begin by saying that question marks mean just that—there’s every possibility that this lineup could be good top to bottom. But there’s also the possibility it could be top-heavy, reliant almost exclusively on Votto and Bruce. Here’s the rundown of who Dusty Baker will relying on.
THE CORE VETS: Brandon Phillips & Scott Rolen: Phillips, the 30-year-old second baseman is coming off the best year of his career, which is why I’m sure Reds’ fans are utterly baffled as to why I don’t include him as part of the reliable. But the very fact it was a career year makes Phillips a question mark. Over his career prior to ’11, he’d been good to hit .270-plus and pop 15-20 home runs. But the on-base percentages were low, and it’s important to remember with all these players that Great American Ballpark is one of the most hitter-friendly environments in the majors. In the case of the 37-year-old Rolen, it’s a question of whether or not nagging injuries have resulted in the end of the third baseman’s effectiveness. Last year was a lost season. The two years prior to that were still good, with OBP’s running just over .350 and slugging percentages in the .450-.500 range. If Rolen returns to that form and even gets 400 at-bats, it will be a big boost to the offense.
THE CORE KIDS: Shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco are both in their first full year in the big leagues. Mesoraco is a favorite of Baker, but the manager is going to break him in slowly, so only time will tell when he’ll play. The organization was high enough on Cozart that they chose not to pursue Jose Reyes at the trade deadline last year. Now Cozart is the everyday shortstop. He hit .324 in 37 at-bats last year, but to say that’s a limited sample size is to state the obvious. It’s also worth nothing that he didn’t draw even one walk, so developing some plate discipline is going to be an absolute imperative.
KIDDIE QUESTION MARKS: Chris Heisey and Drew Stubbs are both 27 years old and will get regular playing time in the outfield. Each has show power—Heisey hit 18 home runs in just 279 at-bats last year. Stubbs hit 22 two years ago, but he dropped to 15 home runs a season ago and his lack of contact hitting and/or plate discipline means if he’s not hitting substantial numbers of home runs, he’s not productive. Cincinnati fans got used to this with Adam Dunn for so many years, but if you’re going to mimic Dunn’s weaknesses, you better hit 35-40 bombs a year to go with it. Suffice it to say, I am not high on Stubbs, while I think Heisey has considerably more promise.
VETERAN QUESTION MARKS: Ryan Hanigan is holding down the fort at catcher and even when Mesoraco gets in the lineup, I’d be surprised if the 31-year-old vet is completely shunted aside. Hanigan’s career track record tells you he’ll give a .350-.400 on-base percentage if you keep him at part-time work. Nothing wrong with that at the catcher spot. Ryan Ludwick was acquired at last year’s trade deadline, with Cincinnati hoping that a shift from San Diego’s vast Petco Park to the hitter-friendly banks of the Ohio River will mean a revival of the Ludwick who hit 37 home runs in St. Louis during 2008, part of an excellent overall season. If this were just one year later I’d feel optimistic about it, but Ludwick has struggled terribly for three solid years now. The positive for Cincy is that he’s still 33 years old, so there’s reason to think he has a couple years left in the tank.
UTILITY OPTIONS: Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez aren’t going to electrify anyone with their offense, but how well they handle themselves with the glove and doing some basics like moving runners will likely effect Baker’s comfort level with working them into the lineup—each plays second, third and short. That in turn can affect the effectiveness of the starters, Phillips, Rolen and Cozart throughout the year, especially Rolen who needs to be given rest.
If you just look at the numbers overall, perhaps my concern can seem misplaced. But the one thing that troubles me about this lineup is the lack of plate discipline and good on-base percentages. There’s anecdotal evidence that suggests this offense—apart from Votto and Bruce—is exclusively the product of playing every day in Great American Ballpark. If that’s the case it means every road lineup will get corresponding increases in production for three days. It means the Reds will have trouble scoring on the road. Building an offense around the long ball can look great for some sizzling stretches, but it’s going to be tough to win a division that way. That’s why TheSportsNotebook picked Cincinnati to finish third.
But, if Phillips’ career year was really a natural elevation of play at the age of 30, if Rolen stays healthy and hits (I’d put the odds at about 40 percent) and Cozart develops some plate discipline in a hurry and becomes a reliable on-base instigator, then the picture changes. I don’t predict any of those things to happen, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t realistic to hope for.
Cincinnati will get some MLB Network attention the next couple days in their series against rival St. Louis. The Cards-Reds are on tonight at 7 PM ET and their getaway game is matinee special tomorrow at 12:30 PM ET.