Having made the playoffs three of the last four seasons, you would think that the Reds are a team heading in the right direction. Instead, they have the appearance of a team that's not quite sure what to in order to keep their contending window open. They add virtually no one to their roster and loss a star in Shin-Soo Choo, yet they think they can improve from within to make another run at the post-season and maybe actually winning a series this time around.
Depth Chart (as of 3/12)
C: Devin Mesoraco
1B: Joey Votto
2B: Brandon Phillips
3B: Todd Frazier
SS: Zack Cozart
LF: Ryan Ludwick
CF: Billy Hamilton
RF: Jay Bruce
SP: Mat Latos
SP: Johnny Cueto
SP: Homer Bailey
SP: Mike Leake
SP: Tony Cingrani
CL: Aroldis Chapman
Just to give you an idea of how little the Reds improved their roster this offseason, their most notable acquisition was Skip Schumaker. He's a nice utility player to have on your bench, but isn't a guy that is going to be much of a difference maker. After that, the two additions the Reds made were catcher Brayan Pena and veteran infielder Ramon Santiago. Pena gives the Reds a more offensive-minded back-up at catcher while Santiago actually didn't even get a big league deal, so there is no guarantee he makes the team. So, yeah, when the third-best acquisition of your offseason is a non-roster invitee, you probably had something of a disappointing offseason.
The biggest loss for the Reds this offseason was that of Shin-Soo Choo. This was not entirely unexpected though. When the Reds traded for him last offseason, they knew they were unlikely to re-sign him when he hit free agency. Even as well prepared as they were for that, losing a leadoff hitter with a .423 OBP is always going to be tough to swallow.
Also gone is Bronson Arroyo, his weird delivery and his "interesting" hair. Like him or not, Arroyo had been very effective for the Reds over the years and had been particularly durable. His loss clears the way for some younger, higher ceiling arms to step into the rotation, so this could ultimately prove to be a case of addition by subtraction and that is said fully realizing that Arroyo was a solid mid-rotation arm in 2013.
The Reds also traded Ryan Hanigan to the Rays this winter. Hanigan had been a defensive stalwart and framing savant for Cincy cost-saving purposes. It didn't help that he posted a .252 wOBA last year either. Even if they get improved offense from his replacement, Devin Mesoraco, which isn't a sure thing since he hit for a .282 wOBA in 2013, one can't help but wonder how much Reds pitchers will miss having Hanigan behind the dish.
What might be the biggest departure of all is manager Dusty Baker who was relieved of duties after the Reds were ousted in the NL Wild Card game last year. While Baker has a good record of success throughout his managerial career, his stubborn adherence to outmoded baseball strategies had made him a lightning rod across the baseball world and on more than one occasion cost the Reds games.
The Reds only have one rookie of note, but boy, oh boy, is he worth noting. Billy Hamilton has 22 career plate appearances but is already something of a cult legend. Hamilton made his name in the minors with his blazing speed stealing well over 100 bases in each of the last three minor league seasons. He'll be tasked with taking over for Choo in center field and atop the batting order. With his range, he should be an immediate defensive upgrade over the challenged Choo, but he is still pretty new to the position. His bat is much more of a question as Hamilton posted an unimpressive .256/.308/.343 line at Triple-A last year.
But that speed! Hamilton could make up for all his deficiencies just by wreaking havoc on the basepaths, even if he doesn't get on base much. As an example, Hamilton swiped 13 bases in 22 games when he was given a call up in September of last season. The kid was just born to run. Even if he doesn't make the big impact everyone is hoping for, he should be a lot of fun to watch.
There really aren't any position battles outside of the normal fights for the last spots on the bench and in the bullpen. If Devin Mesoraco continues to disappoint, he could cede time to Brayan Pena, but that will take time to materialize. There is a very slim chance that Hamilton could cost himself a spot on the Opening Day roster with a poor spring, but that is doubtful as the Reds are very much counting on him.
The Reds are a pretty healthy roster right now save for a few minor injuries. Mat Latos is recovering from a torn meniscus and unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. He won't miss much of the regular season though, maybe even just the first week, nor is it the kind of injury that is a big threat to bother him down the line. Jon Broxton is also working his way back from elbow surgery last year but has a shot at being ready for Opening Day. Other than that, it is smooth sailing for Cincy.
The one big ongoing concern they have is Johnny Cueto who keeps reinjuring a muscle in his shoulder. Three times last season he went on the disabled list after straining his lat. The last DL stint cost him 70 games, so it is the kind of injury that could have major repercussions on his season.
In a perfect world, the Reds can do all the same things they did last season, only better. Their rotation has the talent to be the most talented and deepest in all of baseball, especially with Tony Cingrani stepping into the rotation in place of Bronson Arroyo. Cingrani doesn't have the same established track record, but his upside is pretty tantalizing. If he can make good on that promise, he'd be a pretty incredible addition behind Latos, Cueto, Bailey and Leake.
What they really need though is for Billy Hamilton to make everyone forget about Shin-Soo Choo. The Reds offense was pretty middle of the road in 2013, so it is hard to see how they won't be getting worse with Choo leaving. Seemingly the only way for the offense to not just hold steady but actually improve is for Billy Hamilton to get on base at a strong clip and then just wreak complete and utter havoc on the basepaths.
The problem with banking so heavily on Hamilton is that he may not be ready. As mentioned previously, he didn't hit all that well in Triple-A last season. As big of a weapon as his speed is, he can only do so much if he isn't on base. As the old saying goes, you can't steal first base. If Hamilton can't set the table properly, then Joey Votto is going to be presented with a whole other problem when it comes to the misguided criticism he receives for not racking up enough RBIs. If Hamilton falls on his face and Mesoraco fails to make offensive progress, the Reds lineup could easily take a big step or two back from the mediocrity they attained last season.
The other big problem facing the Reds is that as deep as their rotation is, it lacks depth. They had an incredible run of good health in 2012, but were less lucky in 2013. Already in 2014, they have some red flags that are real cause for concern. Latos has his knee problem already, Cueto has his ongoing shoulder muscle issues and even Mike Leake is dealing with a minor abdominal strain. With Cingrani stepping into Arroyo's rotation slot, they now no longer have a top pitching prospect waiting in the wings to fill in whenever a starter goes down.
While it is disappointing to see the Reds sit on their hands in the offseason, they did basically make two major acquisitions by handing featured roles to Hamilton and Cingrani, so it isn't as if the roster suddenly is devoid of talent. Their rotation should once again be amongst the best in the NL and their bullpen should be a real asset, as always.
In fact, the relief corps, headlined by Aroldis Chapman, could be an even bigger weapon than before now that Bryan Price is in charge and willing to employ some more progressive tactics. He is already talking about utilizing Chapman in high leverage situations outside of the ninth inning and possibly even using him for more than one inning at a time.
Getting away from Dusty Baker's archaic philosophies might also inject some new life into the lineup. For years they've shot themselves in the foot by sacrifice bunting too much and letting offensive zeroes like Zack Cozart bat in the two-hole. While the lineup isn't all that deep, is losing Choo and still lacks a potent right-handed bat to hit behind Joey Votto there is enough there to be a league average lineup or maybe even a little bit better.
Put it all together and the Reds should once again be poised to challenge the Cardinals for the NL Central crown with the loser having a very good chance at securing one of the Wild Card spots.
Tampa Bay Rays