The Cincinnati Reds made the postseason for the third time in four years last season, but a late-season fade that cost them the NL Central followed by a poor showing in a wild-card game loss at Pittsburgh, cast a negative cloud on 2013. So negative that the Reds’ front office decided it was time for a managerial change. Dusty Baker is out, Bryan Price is in. Does that make a difference in the Cincinnati fortunes? Here’s the Notebook Nine, our relevant talking points as we stand three weeks from Opening Day….
*Expectations in Las Vegas for this team are cautious, as though the betting market has decided to split the difference between a full-fledged comeback and a post-Baker collapse. The Over/Under on the win futures is 84.5. The odds to win the NL pennant are 18-1, lower than six other teams. And you can get a 40-1 payday if you bet Cincinnati to bring home its first World Series title since 1990.
*Joey Votto continues to be the straw that stirs the drink with this offense, but the first baseman needs to reclaim his power. The slugging percentage slipped under .500 for the first time since Votto became a regular. Jay Bruce, good for 30-plus home runs consistently, is the only other consistent power sources and playing in a cozy home field like Great American Ballpark means Votto has to start again hitting home runs at an MVP rate.
*A power upgrade is needed throughout the lineup, but we can target three players in particular who need to drive the ball better in 2014. Second baseman Brandon Phillips, left fielder Ryan Ludwick and third baseman Todd Frazier. Phillips has 18 home runs each of the past four years, but his slugging percentage went under .400, an alarmingly poor number. Ludwick hit only two home runs and if he doesn’t go deep, he offers no other real value. Frazier is a young hitter with talent, but last year didn’t work out.
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*Whatever Votto does for power, no one can dispute his ability to stay on the basepaths consistently. The man goes well over .400 in OBP with ruthless consistency, meaning he’s essentially always at least a part of the offensive flow. This team does have more serious problems in this area than they do in power though, and that’s in no small part due to Bruce never being able to develop plate discipline. At this point, I think we stop waiting for it to happen.
*If you’re looking for players who can perform better with getting on base, our starting point has to be Zack Cozart at shortstop. He’s done a nice job defensively in his first two years in the majors, but the OBPs being below .300 are too bad to sustain. Cozart, speedy centerfielder Billy Hamilton and catcher Devin Mesoraco are all young players that need to at least produce OBPs of .330 or higher.
*Johnny Cueto is the best pitcher in the National League when he’s healthy, but the latter qualifier gets bigger with each passing year. Last season, Cueto made just 11 starts. He still ended up with a 2.82 ERA, but any season-long gameplan that involves Cueto making at least 30 starts looks like insane idealism. For the record, yes I think that when healthy, Cueto is better than Clayton Kershaw. Cincinnati is a much tougher environment to pitch in than Los Angeles, and it hasn’t stopped Cueto from thriving.
*The rest of the rotation is already solid, and could get even better. Mat Latos was a consistent #2 starter who won 14 games last year, and his 3.21 ERA in a hitters’ park might have been his best year yet. Homer Bailey’s made 65 starts in two seasons with an ERA ranging in the 3.50s. His two no-hitters show you the stuff he has, and could elevate him to ace status if he gets consistent. Tony Cingrani is an excellent young arm that made 18 starts a year ago with a 2.92 ERA. There’s a reason the Reds still managed to win with Cueto missing so much time and these guys are it.
*Aroldis Chapman has the closer’s role nailed down and I’m not going to complain about it. He’s saved 76 games over the past two seasons and his dominant velocity makes him a psychological presence that starts looming by the sixth or seventh inning. But let’s point out that he has blown 10 saves in that same timeframe. That’s not a huge deal, it’s not enough to say he isn’t good. But it is something separating him from the elite tier of closers. I’d like to see Aroldis have a 38-for-40 or 45-for-48 kind of season.
*The rest of the bullpen is manageable, but not particularly deep. Alfredo Simon, J.J. Hoover and Sam Lecure pitched well. But there really isn’t anybody in this group so good that you feel like the game is reduced to seven innings because they set up Chapman.
I’m pessimistic on the Reds this season and it’s because I believe in Dusty Baker and what he accomplished. This is a franchise that hadn’t done a thing since 1999 before Baker showed up. The pitching is good enough that they won’t disappear overnight, but I do think there’s now a ceiling of around 88 wins for this team. And a collapse wouldn’t be unthinkable. I just see more downside than up for the good baseball fans of Cincinnati right now.