From Spring Training: Warning National League-Cincinnati is for Real

In 2010 the Cincinnati Reds made their way to the playoffs for the first time since 1995.  This was not a fluke, in 2010 they allowed only 4.23 runs per game, a total of 685 runs.  This is the lowest output since that 1995 season when they allowed 623 runs.  Compare that to the 827 runs per year they allowed from 2003-2009 (2003 was their first year in Great American Ballpark).

The Reds turnaround in 2010 was centered around placing more of an emphasis on pitching, defense, and playing small ball rather than just trying to out slug their opponents.  The Reds were second in the National League in team fielding percent at (.988).

Cincinnati did not lose very much this off-season, but yet they did not add a lot either.  But the off-season was still a success, they were able to lock up both Jay Bruce and Joey Votto.  These deals look very good on paper as of now, because Votto and Bruce would demand more when they hit free agency.  They signed them to contracts the Reds could afford now while keeping the duo happy.

At first base the Reds are returning 2010 National League MVP, Joey Votto.  He is the centerpiece and leader of the Cincinnati Reds lineup.  Last season he not only was in the upper echelons of all the triple crown categories, Votto also brought a very impressive glove to the park.  As an everyday first baseman he only had 5 errors and had a .996 fielding percentage.  So he is one of the most complete players in the MLB when you look at all the qualities he brings to the ballpark each and everyday.

Brandon Phillips has been a Reds starter since since 2006 and he is returning at second base again in 2011.  2010 was a funny year for Phillips.  After batting third and fourth for much of the prior 2 seasons he played more games batting lead-off and second than he had in a few years.  I personally did not like the idea of Phillips as an everyday  cleanup hitter.  I felt he was unable to utilize his above average speed and other assets in the middle of the batting order.  He scored 100 runs for the first time since 2007 while setting a career high .332 OBP.  Phillips is one of the best defensive second basemen in the game, when his head  is in the game.  I look for him to to have another good year with the Reds in 2011.

Scott Rolen was quite a surprise in 2010.  I honestly was one that doubted the trade that sent him to Cincinnati for Edwin Encarnacion.  I just did not see the rational of trading a young, but struggling third baseman, for an older one who had a bad back and a much larger contract.  I did not see the leadership he would bring at a level that would offset those downfalls.  But boy was I wrong.  Rolen played a very good defensive third base in 2010 while hitting 20 home runs for the first time since 2006.  His .285 average was not too shabby either.

Shortstop is a position that has yet to be answered for the Reds.  Right now they are saying it is Paul Janish’s job to lose during Spring Training, basically.  Janish hit .270 in 2010 with his limited number of at-bats.  But over the last three seasons he has had much more success as a good defensive “super sub” rather than with his bat.  In fact, he was supposed to be the starter coming into 2010 as well, but he lost his job to Orlando Cabrera who had a very good 2010 with the Reds.  But he wanted too much money from the Reds, for them to bring him back.  As evidence that he still remains unsigned one week away from spring training by all teams.

The Reds combination at catcher in 2010 of Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan.  The catchers for the Reds led the National League with a .292 position average.  The Hernandez/Hanigan combination is a lethal combination.  There really is not a top catcher, rather they have a “first catcher” and a “one-A” catcher.  They both handle the pitching staff good.

The Reds outfield is stapled by the 2 young guys Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce.  Both of which cover a lot of ground defensively.  In fact, if three center-fielders did not seem to win the three outfield gold gloves every year Jay Bruce might have won the gold glove in right field.  Drew Stubbs is one of the fastest, if not the fastest player in the majors today and he covers a ton of ground in the center field of Great American Ballpark.  The weak point defensively in the outfield is starting left fielder Jonny Gomes.  But Gomes is kept in the lineup with his bat not his fielding.

These three starters in the outfield are all good hitters as well.  Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs are young and maturing with every at bat.  Stubbs struck out way too many times in 2010, and he needs to work on some flaws keeping him away from being a consistent hitter.  Jay Bruce made great improvements last season hitting .281 which is much better than his .233 from 2009.  Bruce is beginning to show the promise he had coming up the minors as one of the best hitting prospects in  baseball.  Jonny Gomes struggled the second half last season but his first half numbers were outstanding.  His overall season was a definite success.

I might have listed pitching after the starting everyday players, but that does not make it any less important.   The Reds are blessed with a young core of good young pitchers that many of which proved in 2010 were already ready to play in the major leagues.

The Opening Day starter will probably be Bronson Arroyo.  In 2010 Arroyo had an ERA of 3.88 and won a career high 17 games while losing 10.  Arroyo is one of the best inning eaters in the majors.  He has been a workhorse since coming to Cincinnati from Boston in exchange for Willy Mo Pena in the off season between 2005 and 2006.  In fact he has not started less than 30 games since 2004, when he started 29 games for the Red Sox.  He has not pitched less than 200 innings in any season since 2004 as well.  To go along with his pitching accolades he won his first gold glove in 2010 as well.  He is also a career .140 hitter with 5 career home runs, all with Cincinnati.

The Reds also hoping for Edinson Volquez to return to his 2008 form when he pitched 196 innings and went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA.  In June 2009 Volquez was put on the 60-day DL needing the dreaded Tommy John Surgery.  Tommy John Surgery usually takes a year of healing before players are able to pitch again, but most of the time players come back just as strong if not stronger after this surgery.  Volquez made his return back to the MLB in 2010, but was up and down when he came back.  He never consistently seemed to have control and could not get in front of enough hitters to make them swing and miss his dirty off speed stuff.

Johnny Cueto broke into the majors in 2008 when he started 31 games for the Reds and finished with 9 wins.  His ERA has gone down each season over his career with the Reds from 4.81 in 2008, to a 4.41 in 2009, then a career low 3.64 ERA in 2010.  Cueto was a amateur free agent signing of the Reds in 2004.

The Reds have three pitchers they can easily plug into the 4 and 5 spots in the rotation.  Many people see it coming down to Homer Baily in the four spot and Travis Wood finishing off the rotation.  Mike Leake is the third of these young guns that could end up in the mix along with others.

Homer Bailey was the 7th overall pick in the 2004 first year player draft by Cincinnati.  He has yet to turn his potential into actual results.  He steadily worked his way up the minors and debuted June 8, 2007.  In 2008 Baseball America had him as ninth overall best prospect, and the best prospect in the Reds organization.  Bailey had seemed to piece together his talent at times in 2010, He set career bests in K/9 and BB/9 in 2010, but still finished the season 4-3 with a 4.46 ERA in 19 starts.  He did look very good out of the bullpen in the 2010 postseason, and it is where I seem possibly pitching down the road someday if he cannot get better control specifically.

Travis Wood was Cincinnati’s second round pick in 2005.  He fought with Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman for the fifth starting spot in 2010 Spring Training, but did not make the cut at the time.  He debuted in July and did not turn back.  Wood showed impeccable control while only walking 26 batters in 102.2 innings.  He went 5-4 with a 3.51 ERA.  He also pitched 3.1 scoreless postseason innings.  On July 10, he went head to head against Roy Halladay while throwing a one hitter.  The Reds lost the game, but Wood still impressed.

Mike Leake was very impressive in 2010 as well.  Leake made the leap to the majors in 2010, without ever making an appearance in a minor league game.  This is quite an accomplishment, because not many players do this.  Leake, went 6-1 with a 3.53 ERA in his first 17 starts, before the Reds messed him up in my opinion.  He was on a season long inning count that he reached fast, in large part because how efficient he was at times.  At times it was almost a lock he would give you 7 innings.  Once the leash was tightened and a small injury concern Leake finished the season going 2-3 with a 6.91 ERA in his last 7 appearances (5 starts).

Whichever way the Reds choose the set up their rotation they should be set up for a solid season from their starting pitchers.  Other players like Aroldis Chapman, Matt Maloney, Dontrelle Willis, Daryl Thompson, and Sam LeCure could easily start during the 2011 season as well.  Very rarely, if ever, will a team use only five pitchers to start every game for them during a long 162 game schedule; so look for those players to be in the mix on days the Res are in need of a starter.

The bullpen includes the likes of Nick Masset, Logan Ondrusek, Jared Burton, Billy Bray, Francisco Cordero, Carlos Fischer, Daniel Ray Herrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Jordan Smith.  Chapman, Bailey, Wood, Maloney, Thompson, LeCure, could also appear out of it.  Jose Arredondo also is making a comeback in 2011.  Arredondo missed the entire 2010 season after Tommy John Surgery.  It was not too long ago he finished 2008 with a 1.62 ERA while going 10-2 in his rookie year.  He followed that up with a disappointing season in 2009.  In 2009 he went 2-3 while seeing his ERA rise up to 6.00 while pitching with less velocity and control.  According to Fangraphs.com he was pitching with 1.5mph less on his fastball in 2009 compared to that of 2008.  The Reds are hoping that he regains his 2008 form giving them another arm in the bullpen.

The Reds also signed Dontelle Willis November 23, 2010.  He has been a total mess the last few years, there is not much of a nicer way to put it.  Since 2005 when he finished second in Cy Young voting he has only went 25-36 with an ERA of 5.02, and over the last 3 seasons (2008-2010) he has only gone 3-9 with a 6.86 ERA.  He has been known for his jerky delivery which early in his career did not cause him as many problems.  But this is the center of his criticism, now because from 2008 through 2010 he has averaged 8.7 BB/9.  You simply cannot win with that many free passes.  He is most certainly a project, that the Reds signed with little risk.

The Reds bench and higher level prospects could include the likes of:

Juan Francisco is between a minor league player and a major league player.  He has basically ackomplished his seasoning in the minors, but yet he does not have an open spot to fill in on the big league roster at this point.  Right now he is a power bat off the bench, and can spell Rolen for rest.  Then maybe if he improves his defense he will find more playing time down the road.  Corky Miller is the third catcher at this moment.  He only will play in situations where both Hanigan and Hernandez cannot.  But behind him is the Reds top draft pick in 2010 Yasmani Grandal and former draftee Devin Mesoraco.  Both of these catchers are 2 key prospects in the Reds farm system.  The future catching job is probably up to Grandal to lose in a few years.

Chris Heisey was a 17th round pick of the Reds in 2006.  He debuted May 3 last season.  He hit eight home runs while battig .254 in 201 at-bats.  He and Laynce Nix were two of Dusty Baker’s favorite batters off the bench last season, and each could hold up as starters as well.  In fact they were both upgrades defensively in left field over Gomes.  They also did not lose much in terms of batting.  But now Nix is gone, but the Reds signed Jeremy Hermida, a former first round pick of the Florida Marlins on January 4, 2011. Hermida is a career .259 hitter with 63 career home runs in six seasons.  But he has had problems since his best year in 2007 (.296avg, 18HR, 63 RBI).  In 2010 he spent time with both Boston and Oakland.

Fred Lewis could also buy for time in the outfield.  He is a fast player who can cover ground in the outfield.  Also he can bat lead-off if the Reds need him their on a given day.  He stole 17 bases while batting .262 in 2010 with Toronto.  But many National League fans might remember him from his time with San Francisco from 2006-2009.   Edgar Renteria also comes to Cincinnati hoping for a repeat of the World Series he won in 2010 with the Giants.  He won the MVP of the World Series in 2010 while hitting 2 home runs and hitting .412 in his 17 at-bats.  He only hit 3 home runs during the entire regular season and hit .276 in 72 games.  He is not the player he once was, but he could end up starting at shortstop if Janish does not keep the starting position this spring.

The Reds got a lot out of Miguel Cairo last year, in terms of a veteran presence but even more surprisingly with his bat.  Cairo hit .290 for the season and played a very good first base in late spring/early summer when Votto was out.  He played 1B, 2B, SS, and 3B at one time last year.  It is hard pressed to think that he will be able to reproduce his offensive numbers.  Chris Valaika also came up and spent some time in the majors last season, and he could be a band aid at second base between Brandon Phillips and Billy Hamilton; if Phillips leaves when his contract is over and if Hamilton is not ready.  But Hamilton is expected to be the Reds lead-off hitter of the future playing second base.

Yonder Alonso is a big question mark for the Reds….but in a good way.  It is a good problem to face when you have a top tier hitting prospect blocked by the National League MVP Joey Votto.  There is talk that Votto might eventually move to left field where he did show up a few times in his first stint with the big league club in 2007.  But I am not sure how good of an idea this is.  The Reds defense was one of the best in the National League in 2010 and Votto could have made a good case to win the gold glove at first with his MVP.  Alonso apparently from what I hear is not a very good defender.  He would not play in the outfield at a quality defensive level.  With him and the great depth of young pitching look for the Reds to be able to make a huge trade at the trade deadline if needed to make a run, without leaving their farm system in total shambles.

The Reds were able to sign Votto and Bruce to deals that should be fair for both sides at this time.  They are going to demand a lot when they hit free agency, but the Reds locked them up for a more reasonable amount.  They are paying them a little early and hopefully will be able to keep them.  I am not too sure how much they want to keep Phillips long term.  I keep hearing lots of Billy Hamilton talk, but while the Reds’ farm system is in good shape, I do not see too much at shortstop right now.  Maybe they should try to give Hamilton a try at shortstop and keep Phillips.  They were unable to re-sign Arthur Rhodes, a key player in last year’s run but their bullpen should still be one of the best in the National League.  They also locked up Cueto for 4 years, but Volquez turned down a longer term deal resembling that of Cueto for a one year deal.  I think he is looking to have a good year like that in 2008 and demand more money.

Either way the Reds are in great shape now and I am not sure if there is a better General Manager in baseball right now than Walt Jocketty.  He was able to keep St. Louis in contention year in and year out with a smaller budget resembling that of Cincinnati and he seems to be building something special in Cincinnati right now too.

—————————————–Update—————————————————

Reds starting shortstop during the 2010 season, Orlando Cabrera, has signed with Cleveland after the publishing of this article.

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