MLB Breakdown: Cincinnati Reds

by Bill M on March 19, 2013 · 2 comments

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The Reds are a good team and a solid franchise all the way around, and that’s a pretty “master of the obvious” statement given that they won 97 games and the NL Central last year.  But their greatest strength is probably the fact that they don’t really have a weakness.  They also have tremendous continuity as manager Dusty Baker has been with the Reds since 2007 and GM Walt Jocketty since 2008.  It all starts with owner Bob Castellini.  He has been willing to spend a bit more to keep the team competitive, including signing 1B Joey Votto and 2B Brandon Phillips to long-term contracts.

They didn’t rest on the laurels; however, trading prospect Didi Gregorius and CF Drew Stubbs for Shin-Soo Choo to upgrade the leadoff spot in the order.  They are also planning to move Cuban closer Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, although Dusty wants him to remain closing.

Let’s see if we think they can repeat as division champs.  I’m going into this thinking they will, so I’m very interested to see how it goes.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE

Projected lineup (from MLB Depth Charts):

1

CF

Shin-Soo Choo*

2

2B

Brandon Phillips

3

1B

Joey Votto*

4

LF

Ryan Ludwick

5

RF

Jay Bruce*

6

3B

Todd Frazier

7

SS

Zack Cozart

8

C

Ryan Hanigan

BENCH

C

Devin Mesoraco

3B/1B

Jack Hannahan*

IF

Jason Donald

OF

Chris Heisey

OF

Xavier Paul*

Shin-Soo Choo was acquired primarily to bat leadoff.  He has a 0.381 career OBA, which is excellent for this role.  He also brings the potential for 20/20.  What he is not is a CF.  He played there in the minors and early in his major league career, but he only played one game in center while a regular for the Indians.  All reports from Spring Training so far say that he’s holding his own, but it’s more than just whether or not he can handle the position.  He’s going to be a major downgrade from Stubbs even if he can, and that’s going to have an effect on the pitching staff.  That said, leadoff was the only glaring weakness of the 2012 team, and he’s such a massive upgrade there, they can deal with a few more line drives going for extra bases.

Brandon Phillips might be the nicest guy in the game, but that’s just coincidence.  He’s one of the best 2B in the league as well.  He’s won three of the last five Gold Gloves, and regardless of his FRAA declining the last two years, he makes the sublime defensive play routine more than any player I’ve ever seen.  He’s not coming off one of his better seasons offensively, in fact it was arguably his worst since becoming a regular, and he doesn’t get on base as much as I would like (0.322 career OBA).  But, he’s still good for 15/15, and he’s a lot more comfortable in the 2-hole than he was leading off or batting in the middle of the order like has been the last few seasons.  I expect a bounce back in 2013.

Joey Votto is the best pure hitter in baseball, and his preparation is legendary.  He is so disciplined with what he will swing at and what he tries to do with it when he swings, that he has literally only pulled ONE foul ball into the stands.  One…ever…in his major league career.  I just can’t believe it’s possible, yet it’s true.  He also almost never pops up.  He’s produced a 968 career OPS, and he’s led the NL in OBA the last three seasons.  And he won’t turn 30 until September.   The only question mark is that he had a knee injury last year that required two surgeries and cost him 48 games.  He had a complete power outage upon his return, which is worth paying attention to early in the season.

The one thing Ryan Ludwick has established in his 6.5 years as a regular in the major is that you have no idea which player is going to show up.  After his career year in 2008, he was on a pretty serious declining trend until last year.  He loved the friendly environment of Great American Ballpark for power hitters, regaining his stroke with 26 HR, 55 total extra-base hits, and an 871.  The Reds repaid him for his performance with a 2-year/$15M deal hoping it was not a mirage.

Jay Bruce was a wunderkind prospect, generating buzz from his first at bat in the minors.  He destroyed the minors and made his major league debut as a 21 year old in 2008.  There were warning signs, however.  He struck out over 25% of the time and had a dismal 0.37 BB/K ratio.  I only bring this up because he was still very successful even with those poor indicators.  In other words, he mashed without having to make adjustments.  As to be expected, he also has never really made adjustments in the majors.  He literally has the same 10-11% walk rate and 72-73% contact rate each of his three full non-injury interrupted seasons, and those numbers do not support a high batting average or OBA.  This history lesson is in no way intended to disparage Bruce.  He’s still become a very effective player good for 30+ HR and around 100 RBI, but if he had cultivated and developed his approach, like say Joey Votto did, he’d be one of the best players in the game.  The good news is that he’s only going to be 26 this year.  He probably is what he is at this point, but you can still dream that he’ll develop and become the superstar he could be rather than the local star he is.

Dusty Baker is notorious for disliking playing rookies and leaning heavily on veteran players, even well past their prime.  It took injuries to Votto and former 3B Scott Rolen for Todd Frazier to get his chance, but he is exactly the kind of player Dusty can warm up to.  He’s a “gamer,” making clutch hits, always getting his uniform dirty, and being able to play several positions.  Frazier isn’t a great hitter, but he’s good enough to be a solid regular, especially because he has above average power.  He struggled mightily in September, but being his rookie season, it was the first time he played in beyond August in a regular role.  I imagine he’ll be an 800+ OPS guy and hold down 3B for a while in the Queen City.

Zack Cozart is another player in the “gamer” mold, making all the plays in the field, putting together strong at bats, and never having a clean uniform.  Dusty just put him in and let him go.  He was massively miscast as a leadoff hitter as he’s never had the OBA to support it, but he has decent pop (probably 15 HR power at some point) making him above average offensively for a SS.  He’s very reasonable for the back end of the lineup.

Ryan Hanigan is the opposite of Frazier and Cozart in the sense that he’s the kind of veteran that Dusty will favor in spite of having a younger player that is far more talented.  In this case, the younger player is Devin Mesoraco, the Reds first round pick in 2007.  After breakout seasons in 2010-11, he was expected to take over the starting position last year.  He didn’t hit well from the start, and Dusty never really gave him a chance.  He projects to hit for decent average and power.  In the meantime, Hanigan is still the main man.  He gets on base tremendously well (0.370 OBA career), but it is about as empty as it comes (16 extra base hits in 317 at bats).  He’s known for being extraordinary at the intangibles for catchers: handling a pitching staff, calling a game, and throwing out 48% of base-stealers, leading the league in the category.  I believe these two will combine to be above average both offensively and defensively.

ROTATION

1

RHP

Johnny Cueto

2

RHP

Mat Latos

3

RHP

Bronson Arroyo

4

RHP

Homer Bailey

5

LHP

Aroldis Chapman

Short and stocky, there were doubts as to whether Johnny Cueto would be able to remain a starter when he broke into the league in 2008.  While he spent some time on the DL in 2011, he’s been remarkably durable with 30+ starts in 4 of five seasons in the majors, putting any doubts to rest.  He’s also kept his ERA south of 3.00 each of the last two seasons, establishing himself as the Reds #1.  The biggest differences in the last two years have been a bigger reliance on this sinker and the development of a curveball.  He doesn’t use the CB that much, but he didn’t even throw one before 2011.  Both of these pitches have resulted in an increased number of groundballs to the high 40/low 50s, and the plummeting of his HR/9 to 0.5-0.6.  It can’t go over the wall when it doesn’t get off the ground.  He’s also developed a reputation for working as hard as anybody, so look for more of the same with Cueto.

The Reds gave up a lot for big right-hander Mat Latos, and their faithful were a little nervous when he had a 4.42 ERA halfway through his first season with the club.  But, the worry was for naught, as for the second straight year, he proved his worth in the 2nd half (2.66 ERA).  The interesting thing is the only difference statistically between the two halves in 2012 was GB rate, or more importantly, FB rate.  He decreased this fly ball rate from 41% to 32% and lowered his HR/F from 15% to 8%.  That can make a point and a half or more difference in ERA.  This little study in keeping the ball on the ground is cute, but the bottom line is that Latos is a stud.  He throws 94 on his fastball, 92 on this sinker, has a useful slider, and a deep arsenal with a curve and change.  At just 25 years old, this may be the season Latos takes a step up toward Ace level.  He’s got the talent.

I read Bill “Spaceman” Lee’s autobiography back in high school, and in it he would describe himself throwing an old tin can, a broken bottle, a wadded up wrapper up to the plate to describe the “junk” he was throwing to keep the batters off balance.  This is what I think if when I watch Bronson Arroyo at his best.  He seemingly throws one breaking ball after another daring the hitters to swing at his junk.  The reality is that he throws his four-seamer and sinker just as much as his curveball and changeup.  It’s the sequencing and getting the breaking stuff in the strike zone but not over the plate that makes him successful.  He’s incredibly durable (I believe he’s never missed a start in a Reds uniform), and mostly viable.  I wouldn’t bet on under 4.00 ERA, but I wouldn’t be surprised either.

Homer Bailey has had a similar story on the pitching side to Jay Bruce.  He too was a first round, in fact top 10 pick for the Reds.  He too made his debut at age 21, and he too had warning signs that he needed more development.  In Bailey’s case, he was walking too many guys and saw a precipitous drop in K/9 at the higher levels.  He also developed a reputation for not taking instruction well, which is decidedly unlike Bruce.  Riding the AAA shuttle for five seasons, he finally began to show signs of maturity in the 2nd half of 2011 and remained in the rotation for the entire 2012 season.  He really poured it on the 2nd half again, posting a 3.12 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, and elite level 1.9 BB/9.  Most would probably list him ahead of Arroyo in quality in the rotation…and I belong to that most.  He’s shown a tendency for the 10-cent head in the past, but if he’s truly put that behind him, we could be watching something special here.

Aroldis Chapman was stretched out during Spring Training last year to join the rotation, but closer Ryan Madsen went down with TJ surgery toward the end, thrusting Chapman back to the pen.  He went on to have one of the more dominant seasons in relief pitcher history, finally reining in that incredibly powerful fast ball (98 mph average) by only allowing 2.9 BB/9.  Still, the allure of what he could be as a starter is too great for the front office to ignore…much to the chagrin of Dusty…so he’s being stretched out again.  On the positive, many observers felt he was their best starter last spring before the change in role, which is saying something with Cueto and Latos on the roster.  The negative is that he threw his fastball 88% of the time as a reliever and threw exactly two changeups.  He will have to expand the arsenal and back off the velocity some to make it in the rotation.  He has the talent, but I am reluctant to think this will come to fruition.  As I mentioned, Dusty definitely wants him to remain the closer and just recently, Chapman himself told the press he’d prefer to be closer.  We’ll see.

Mike Leake is the first in line to step into the rotation if Chapman goes back to the pen.  He’s an undersized (5’10”), underpowered (90 mph FB) right hander that relies on a sinker, a bunch of offspeed stuff, and changing speeds.  I thought he might be poised for a breakout in 2011 but instead had his worst season as a pro.  With hindsight being 20/20, he had what appears to be an artificially low BABIP of 0.270 in 2011 that regressed back to a more normal 0.306 in 2012.  This alone may have hidden the fact that he’s pretty hittable.  Regardless, 4.50 ERA looks to be the norm for his profile (and FIP agrees).

I haven’t gone this deep in the rotation with too many teams, but with the uncertainty of Chapman’s ultimate role and what I think will be ineffectiveness from Leake, I feel it’s worth mentioning Tony Cingrani.  Lefty Cingrani was a 3rd round pick in 2011 out of college (Rice), and was expected to be a reliever.  All he’s done is completely dominate the minors with a 1.73 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 2.7 BB/9.  Just ridiculous.  He hasn’t had an extended period past AA, though, so it’s a good move to give him some time in AAA.  He will be in the Reds pen later in the season even if he doesn’t get a chance at the rotation.

BULLPEN

CL

RHP

Jonathan Broxton

SU

LHP

Sean Marshall

SU

RHP

Jose Arredondo

MID

RHP

Logan Ondrusek

MID

LHP

Manny Parra

MID

RHP

Alfredo Simon

LR

RHP

Sam LeCure

In the first sign that Chapman may move to the rotation, the Reds resigned Jonathan Broxton to a closer-worthy 3-year/$21M contract early in the offseason.  A trade deadline pickup last year, The Ox put together a fine comeback from 2011 elbow surgery last season.  He was back up over 95 mph with his fastball, but he had a more subtle approach.  He had nearly the best control of his career (2.6 BB/9) but pitched to more contact (only 7.0 K/9 after 6 straight season over 10 prior to the injury).  He should hold down the 9th through the regular season, but I feel a little itchy about him in crunch time in the playoffs.

Sean Marshall throws from the left side, but he’s established himself as one of the best setup relievers in baseball the last three seasons, regardless of handedness.  And despite the fantastic results (2.47 ERA the last three seasons), his FIP has been UNDER his ERA in all three.  I have to believe another well supported sub-2.50 ERA is to be expected.

Jose Arredondo’s electric stuff was just getting him to the majors when TJ struck and wiped out his entire 2010 season.  The Angels decided to give up on him after his recovery and granted him his free agency.  The Reds pounced and continued his development.  His FIPs of 4.28 and 4.32 since joining the Reds caution that he may have arrived at his 3.23 and 2.95 ERAs with a little luck.  The red flag is the 5.0+ BB/9 masked by an 83% strand rate.  Research by BBHQ suggests the S% greater than 80% produce artificially low ERAs, and he’s done it twice in a row.  I think in Arredondo’s case, Dusty has a quick hook and he had a lot of good pitchers ahead of him in the pen.  If he truly moves to #3, a far more highly leveraged position, there could be trouble.

The tall (6’8”) Logan Ondrusek really spiked his velocity last year, throwing his FB and sinker 94 and his cutter 92.  He also produces good separation with is 79 mph curve that he throws a quarter of the time.  But it doesn’t manifest itself in dominance as he’s only struck out 6.1 per 9 IP.  Along with is regression in control, rising a full batter walked per nine in each season culminating in 5.1 last year, his effectiveness should be short lived.

The Reds signed LHP Manny Parra to take over the lefty specialist role of Bill Bray.  He’s been a little more durable than Bray, but he has major control problems.  In a recurring trend, Alfredo Simon was plucked off the scrap heap from Baltimore and posted a far better ERA than the indicators would suggest.  Can he keep it up?  Facial hair specialist Sam LeCure had a great season of growth last year, pumping his K/9 up to 9.6 and having a lower FIP (2.96) than ERA (3.14).  OF the bit players, I’m more confident in his ability to repeat his performance.

On the farm, I already talked about Cingani, but former Braves prospect J.J. Hoover has dominated since moving to the pen in the minors.  Many feel like he’s a closer of the future, and he’ll get a chance when the carriages in the pen eventually turn back to pumpkins.

CONCLUSION

Well, I came into this feeling like this team had no weaknesses, but I’m a little worried about this bullpen that seemed to survive poor control with unnaturally high strand rates.  Regression to the norm could have a devastating effect, and I can’t help but think it’s likely.

I want to stress that I’m a little worried about the pen, not a lot.  Organizational depth with Chapman, Cingrani, and Hoover could easily turn that potential weakness into a strength.  Additionally, the offense and rotation will be toward the class of the league.  Reds fans should have plenty to be happy about.

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