The Reds rid themselves of Dusty Baker this offseason, which should be a step forward for the team and their offense as Baker created a lot of self-inflicted wounds with his outdated strategies. But just because Baker is no longer around doesn't mean that the problem is solved.
One of the ongoing issues with Baker was a complete misunderstanding of the value of OBP. This often manifested itself in the form of low-OBP players being placed in the top two spots in the order. Most infamously, Zack Cozart spent an inordinate amount of time batting second in his short, offensively-challenged career. Much of that got corrected last season with the trade for Shin-Soo Choo, but now Choo has departed the problem has reared its head once more. Now they must figure out a new way to solve the problem.
The answer the Reds are betting heavily on is Billy Hamilton. A prolific speed demon in the minors, Hamilton should be the kind of leadoff hitter that everyone wants except for one big problem: he may not be able to get on base. In Triple-A last season, Hamilton was only able to manage a .308 OBP. He drew an adequate number of walks, but struggled with contact, hitting just .256 and striking out a lot more than one would like to see from a leadoff hitter with blazing speed. Asking him to improve his on-base skills is a big enough challenge as it is, but asking him to do it at the big league level while leading off for a contender is quite another. Hamilton can do so much with his legs that he doesn't need to rival Choo's .423 OBP, but one would hope he could at least get on base a little bit above the league average level.
It isn't all on Hamilton though. The two-hole is just as big of a question mark. Right now the occupant of that slot in the order is Brandon Phillips. While Phillips is a former All-Star, he is no longer the offensive force he once was. In fact, he is coming off a 2013 season in which he had just a .310 OBP. What might be more concerning than the OBP himself is that Phillips made it pretty clear that he may not fully grasp the import of getting on base. He infamously cussed out a Reds beat reporter who dared to call into question the low number of walks he had been drawing. Then at the end of the season, Phillips made a distinct point to boast about his 108 RBIs. That backwards way of thinking is going to have to change if Phillips is going to succeed batting second. But will he be open to shifting his offensive focus to make the transition successful.
The lineup isn't just a problem in front of Joey Votto, it is a problem behind him too. Jay Bruce is a quality bat, bat he is also left-handed, making it a problem to pair him with Votto. The right-handed options for Cincy are rather limited though. The de facto man to provide protection for Votto has been Ryan Ludwick in recent years. That didn't go so well last year as Ludwick missed a big chunk of the season with a shoulder injury and then came back to post a .240/.293/.326 line. Ludwick was great in 2012 when he smacked 26 homers and registered a .373 wOBA, but he has largely been a feast or famine player throughout his career.
Another option would be Todd Frazier, but he hit just .234 last season with just 19 homers. That's fair production, but it isn't good enough to take advantage of Votto getting on base at such a prolific rate.
The one option that the Reds always seem to fall back on is Brandon Phillips. He obviously has the highest profile name of the bunch, but he actually isn't all that potent of a bat anymore. While he may enjoy trumpeting the 108 RBIs he racked up last season, his .261 average and .135 Isolated Power hardly suggest he is someone who actually deserves to be batting cleanup. Even if Phillips did hit more like he did during his prime, moving him to fourth in the order re-opens the second spot in the order which is just as big of a problem.
That really leaves the Reds with no other choice but to put all their eggs in the Ludwick basket and hope that this is one of his good years.