The Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates, natural geographic rivals and playoff sparring partners in the 1970s, were each in last year’s NL Central race into August. They went in opposite directions, as the Reds blew away the division and the Pirates collapsed and remained in search of their first winning season since 1992. Today we’ll take a look at both teams, and continue the pattern of TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage and assess each team’s chances against their Over/Under win projection posted in Las Vegas.
Cincinnati is coming off a playoff disappointment. They lost three straight games at home to San Francisco, any one of which would have put them in the National League Championship Series. But there was no small amount of bad luck involved—ace pitcher Johnny Cueto was injured very early in Game 1 and unable to pitch in the series.
Cueto should have won the Cy Young Award last season and he anchors a good pitching staff that includes a solid #2 in Mat Latos, steady innings-eating veteran Bronson Arroyo, and up-and-comer Homer Bailey. This staff looks respectable enough on the surface, and when you consider they pitch in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball, they look even better.
Manager Dusty Baker made a wise decision to keep closer Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen, rather than convert him to a starter—a path that has been nothing but disaster for pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Bard and Neftali Feliz, and I frankly don’t even know why the Reds even toyed with the idea this spring, but at least they came to their senses. The pen in front of Chapman is led by Jonathan Broxton, who can also close, and a collection of respectable middle relievers like Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo.
Joey Votto leads the lineup and the first baseman is reliable for an on-base percentage over .400, a slugging percentage in the high .500s (and perhaps over .600) and to be in the MVP conversation, so long as he’s healthy. He missed a couple months last year and it speaks well to the Reds’ depth that they pulled away in the NL Central race with Votto sidelined. The outfield has quality hitters at each spot in Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce. Todd Frazier will have the third base job to himself with the departure of Scott Rolen, and has a proven ability to hit for power.
I’m not all that sold on the capabilities of second baseman Brandon Phillips. He had a career year back in 2011, but otherwise is mostly mediocre. Shortstop Zack Cozart broke into the majors last year, and needs to hit more consistently this season.
Cincinnati’s biggest weakness is a lack of players who get on base consistently, and I’m concerned about the possibility of long summer droughts offensively. I think this will be a good team and in contention throughout the year—starting pitching, a top closer and power will do that for you. But their win total is 91 and that’s a hefty number to take for a team I think will be up and down offensively. That’s why I go Under.
THE PROBLEMS IN PITTSBURGH
The collapse of the Pirates in September was a big free-fall and I’m not sure that the Buccos can get back up. I like their addition of Francisco Liriano to the starting rotation—he’s still only 29 and has time to save his career, but this is also a classic small-market move, of having to bet on a reclamation project. A.J. Burnett pitched well last season, but both he and Wandy Rodriguez are getting older. James McDonald is the pitcher I want to see really step up. He’s had a couple years in the low 4s with his ERA and he has the talent to make the next step and be a true horse.
But even if the pitching can keep the team in games through six innings, they’re still going to have to score and they’re still going to have finish games. I don’t see much reason for optimism on either count. Joel Hanrahan was dealt to Boston and the closer’s job is now Jason Grilli’s, who’s done nothing to suggest he can handle the role. And if he does, the depth in the pen took a hit with Grilli’s promotion.
Andrew McCutchen remains as good a player as there is in baseball, excelling in all phases, including defense out in centerfield. But he wore down last year because of a lack of help. Where’s the help coming from this year? Russell Martin can provide leadership behind the plate, but he didn’t hit in the Yankee lineup and he’s not about to start here. Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez give you home runs at the corner infield spots, but don’t get on base. Travis Snider was a nice pickup to play right field and at age 25, has an upside, and any hope for real offensive support has to start here.
I like this team, and after nine years living in Pittsburgh, I’d love to see PNC Park rocking in early October on a crisp fall night on the Allegheny River. But I don’t see it happening. Even with the win total a modest 77.5, I’m still taking the Under.