After being ousted by the recent NL powerhouse Philadelphia Phillies in three NLDS games, Reds fans may be left wondering “what if?”. But 15 postseason-less and nine losing seasons later, the city of Cincinnati should be proud of their ballclub and can be assured that the organization is in good hands. The future has finally arrived at the Great American Ball Park while years of whiffing on player development appear to be over. GM Walt Jocketty has been able to anchor both the homegrown talent he inherited in 2008 and the talent the team drafted and acquired under his rule. Manager Dusty Baker received a two-year extension and will lead a team of seasoned veterans and promising young players, favorites for another NL Central crown.
The Projected Starting Lineup
1. CF Drew Stubbs
2. 2B Brandon Phillips
3. 1B Joey Votto*
4. 3B Scott Rolen
5. RF Jay Bruce*
6. LF Jonny Gomes
7. C Ramon Hernandez / Ryan Hanigan
8. SS Paul Janish
*indicates left-handed batter
The modern Big Red Machine returns most of its 2010 lineup save Orlando Cabrera, a lineup that led the NL in runs scored, home runs, runs batted in, batting average, OPS, wOBA, and WAR. NL MVP Joey Votto hit .324/.424/.600 and an insane .439 wOBA in a 7.4 WAR season — he’s as heart-of-the-lineup as any hitter in the game. Jay Bruce is the other lefty in this lineup and what he brings in 2011 will be key to another division title — we’ll get back to Bruce in a sec. As for the rest of this lineup, let’s start at the top. With prospect stud and future leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton still a few years away, Drew Stubbs won’t be your traditional lead guy if he stays there, as his strikeout rates and OBP aren’t exactly Tim Raines. He’s not a great bunter, but does run the bases well and has shown walking ability while in the minor leagues. He and Brandon Phillips would bring power to the top of the lineup with good speed, though Phillips may also hit leadoff if Baker decides to move Stubbs up and down the lineup again.
Scott Rolen will be 36-years-old in April, but he can still bring it with his power and on-base ability — as the oldie in a very young lineup, his durability is a question. If Rolen goes down, newly-acquired Edgar Renteria or Miguel Cairo could back him up. Paul Janish isn’t a good hitter, but he is a good shortstop. He’ll split time with Renteria, but it wouldn’t make sense to me if Baker plays Renteria more than Janish. Unlike a decade ago, shortstop is now an offensively-scarce position and Cincinnati fans don’t need to be overly concerned about Janish’s hitting in a studly lineup. Though he’s another 20 home run guy who has improved his strikeout rate, Jonny Gomes is a serious defensive liability. Dusty Baker wants to start Gomes, but should he falter, Fred Lewis could make a strong case for a platoon situation. Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan will be platooned themselves — they bring good production to the catcher’s spot, as splitting at-bats has worked out well and should continue to.
From 1 to 7, this is a very good lineup that will match up against any in the NL, though the starting lineup you see here will probably be moved around with a few changes before spring training is over.
I expounded on the Reds’ crowded rotation several weeks ago. The starting rotation is deep with no true No.1 starters but is littered with No.3-type starters one through five (or six). After recovering from Tommy John surgery, a healthy Edinson Volquez has been slated as the Opening Day starter and leads with the best GB/FB ratio of 1.75 in 2010. He’ll need to cut down on his walks to justify the No.1 starter status, but he does keep balls in the park. Bronson Arroyo brings consistency and durability as a sure bet for 200 innings of work, though he is more of a low-strikeout guy than Volquez. Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey both brought their A-game with sub-4.00 FIP seasons, both keeping the ball in the park like Volquez. Bailey, though, has yet to show that he can pitch a full season of ML ball without starting in Triple-A or injuries.
Travis Wood vs. Mike Leake will be another question this spring, much like last year’s spring training and all of last season. Both pitchers have had at least a first-year look in the majors and both are young 24-year-old arms. Wood has been able to keep very low home runs allowed rates even with a high fly ball rate pitching in Cincinnati, a tendency unlike his teammates. That near-50% fly ball rate may cause a lot of Reds fans to shudder, but Wood’s cutter, rate stats, and left-handedness in a rotation full of righties may be enough to keep him in the rotation. At the same time, the Reds really like Leake as a ground ball machine, as it fits the ballpark. You can never have too much pitching, especially with the injury history of Volquez and Bailey. So while Wood is the favorite for the No.5 spot to start the season, Leake probably has just as good of a chance to be starting by the All-Star break.
As for the bullpen, sure Francisco Cordero is supposed to be the team’s closer, but Aroldis Chapman is all the rage in Cincinnati. 103+ mph fireballs aside, his devastating slider makes him quite the candidate to shut down opposing teams in the closing innings. A starter’s role may turn up for the left-handed Chapman in the long run if he can continue to develop his changeup, but his stuff works well in the reliever’s role now. Plus, Cordero’s strikeout rates have decreased every year since 2007 so his job should be on the line. Even besides Chapman, Nick Masset is a pretty good alternative, having had experience with high-leverage situations and nearly a 10 K/9 with good groundballing abilities. The monumental 6-8 Logan Ondrusek has been a good 7th-inning option despite not striking a lot of guys out, while Bill Bray will be another left-handed option. Jared Burton, Carlos Fisher, and Jordan Smith are just a few of the relievers vying for roster spots this spring.
In December, the Reds signed Jay Bruce to a six-year, $51 million contract extension, locking him in as a franchise player several weeks after he hit a dramatic walk-off home run to clinch the division title. Bruce should form the end of the Reds’ 3-4-5 hitting tandem. Like Votto, Bruce is left-handed and will give right-handed pitchers plenty of fits. And like Rolen, he’s a good bet to hit a solid .280/.350/.490. He’s been a Minor League Player of the Year and has been No.1 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. He’s improved his walk rate, slugging percentage, and wOBA every year with the big league club. But as Bruce’s power is developing, Reds fans salivate at the thought of .308/.366/.551, his minor league career batting line over 348 MiLB games.
Bruce hit a post-All-Star batting line of .306/.376/.575, turning it up a notch with 15 home runs in 210 PAs. Chalk any conclusions from this up for selection bias if you must, but the dude can rake and at least showed it during a heated division race. He will turn 24 on the first week of Opening Day, and if there’s any season for him to break out as a star, it’s 2011. For the Reds to shoot higher than an NL Central title, a 30-35 home run season would invite World Series contention and is not out of the question, which would make for a formidable complement to Votto as another left-handed bat.
Like Colby Rasmus with the Cardinals, Bruce holds the key to the Reds’ success. The Reds caught a huge break when it was announced that Adam Wainwright would sit the next Cardinals’ season out, so the NL Central playoff spot looks like it’s down to Cincinnati and Milwaukee. What will be intriguing is matching up Cincy’s left-handed tandem in Votto and Bruce against the Brewers‘ revamped righty-top-heavy starting rotation. Bruce has shown the potential that prospect junkies have raved on about and will lead to a second division title and beyond if he can continue his second-half stats through all of 2011.