Five questions: Cincinnati Reds

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Reds are attempting to field a competitive team in 2012. The phrase, I believe, is “all-in.” The acquisitions of Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson have depleted the farm system, but bolstered the major league team enough that they are mentioned in every discussion of potential playoff teams.

This despite winning only 79 games last year. There are, however, still plenty of questions about this edition of the Reds.

How much will Scott Rolen play?

And how good will he be when he does play? Rolen was a major factor in the Reds’ 2010 ascendance and his absence was also a party to the team’s decline in 2011. A bum shoulder limited him to 65 games and slash-line of .242/.279/.397. Remarkably, his defense is still good enough that he managed 1.3 WAR last year.

Supposedly, Rolen is going to be better this year. There have been plenty of quotes about how he hasn’t felt this good in years and how he feels soreness in muscles he hasn’t been able to use properly until his most recent surgery. These are the kinds of things players say every year, but it is worth noting that, despite the injuries, Rolen has failed to appear in at least 110 games only twice since he became a fulltime player.

Rolen isn’t getting any younger, but I don’t see that as a reason to fully dismiss his comeback. His early spring results have been excellent. I doubt he’ll see 2010 levels of production again, but I imagine he’ll be penciled in to start 100-130 games and have his offense rebound enough to be worth three WAR or so.

Will Jay Bruce—FINALLY!—break out?

No. At least, not in the way he was expected to when he was the top prospect in baseball. However, last year was a down year for Bruce as he took a big step back defensively and saw his hitting stats slip just a bit.

But, you know, Jay Bruce is still really young. He’s entering his age-25 season and has already been in the big leagues for four years. He’s younger than Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart—two prospects who will be expected to contribute for the first time this year.

There’s a fair chance, given his skill set, that he’ll put up a ridiculous season or two before it’s over, but those seasons are impossible to predict. Instead, we’ll count on him to rebound from the three-win player he was last year to the five-win player of 2010.

Who’s in left?

Ludwick? Heisey? Maybe even Frazier? It’s anybody’s guess, really.

Given his age (33) and his performance last year (.297 wOBA), Ryan Ludwick probably deserves to be last on the depth chart, but I have a sneaking suspicion he’ll get the most at-bats. I imagine Dusty Baker using the words “leadership” and “intangibles” a lot.

Of course, I could be wrong. The Ludwick signing was necessary because offseason trades have left the Reds with no outfield depth at all, and there’s no reason the Reds have to play him every day. Chris Heisey has shown enough to deserve a chance and there has to be someone in the front office who understands that his bizarre reverse-platoon splits (.548 OPS verses lefties, .885 verses righties) are a small sample-size aberration that won’t last.

Frazier is the wild card. He has spent most of his time in the minors bouncing from one position to another, but has played the most games in left. He’s the best candidate in the organization for a major league-ready super-sub, but the Reds have an awkwardly constructed bench and Frazier’s remaining options mean there’s a good chance he starts the year in the minors. Still, if Ludwick and Heisey both falter, he could step in and surprise a lot of people.

Whither Aroldis Chapman?

Bullpen? Starter? Majors? Triple-A? The guesses are flying. This is one area, however, where the national media have been woefully ill informed. Only with the start of spring training have they taken the idea of Chapman as starter seriously.

And Chapman is preparing as a starter. Injuries might crop up and keep him in the bullpen (there has already been talk of this from Baker, but the front office has been notably silent), but we should expect him to at least start down the path of pitching at the beginning of games rather than the end.

I’d also expect him to start in the minors. Right now, the Cincy rotation consists of Latos, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey. Of those, only Leake has options and he was the second best pitcher on the staff last year. My guess is Chapman slowly builds his innings in Louisville before coming up midseason due to injury or ineffectiveness on the part of another starter. Importantly, the Reds have improved their bullpen so much that they should easily be able to afford to give Chapman some time. They don’t need someone to hold down the eighth or ninth, so the temptation to throw Chapman’s hundred-mile-per-hour heat into the pen should be mitigated.

This is the pivotal year for him, though. If he can’t muster his control and stay on the starter’s path, he’s might be a relief pitcher for the rest of his career.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Is it enough?

In 2012, the Reds will have a new number one starter, a new setup man, a new closer, a new shortstop, a new catcher and a new left-fielder(s). That’s a lot of turnover. What’s encouraging is that they should be better in all of those spots except catcher, where Devin Mesoraco still figures to be at least decent (insert disclaimer about rookie catchers here).

So the Reds are better. That’s part of the equation. It also helps that they underperformed their Pythagorean record last year, winning 79 when they “should” have won 83. Finally, they did more to get better than any other team in the division. The Brewers are worse. The Cards have treaded water at best and lot depends on the performance of aging players and how Adam Wainwright returns from Tommy John surgery.

So is it enough? Our projection system thinks so. Others will disagree, but THT Forecasts at this writing has the Reds projected to win 93 games, just nudging them past the Cards. Certainly, it’s among the more bullish projections for the Reds and we’ll have to watch the season play out. There should be little doubt, however, that the Reds figure to be among the most improved teams in the league. Add that to the new wildcard rules and it’s easier to imagine October baseball with the Reds than without them.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Paul Francis Sullivan
12 years ago

if any division is ripe for the “Who could have seen THEM winning the Division?” surprise, it is the NL Central.

The safe money is on Cincy but every year there is a surprise team winning a lot of games and sneaking in.

If the rotation doesn’t hold up or they have a rash of injuries, Cincy might be playing golf in October.

I’m hoping the Pirates get their act together. Wishful thinking

dave silverwood
12 years ago

I believe the Reds will do fine this year ,as I see it there are 3 major problems 1.Stubbs needs to make more contact 2. Shortstop needs to be in good hands no matter what ,that is a key and please dont forget Dusty he needs to be a manager of the total situation not just the guys he likes. I should mention Jocketty needs to be flexible and realize there are more than ex-Cardinals around that can play.