Crews prepare for Opening Day at Great American Ball Park. (Photo provided by the Cincinnati Reds)
As the excitement of a new season comes to a head Monday, we take a look at the team, and how well it might fare in a competitive NL Central.
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CINCINNATI -- The smell of peanuts, the beeping of ticket scanners and walking out to see grass greener than you could ever dream of on your lawn: Baseball is back.
More importantly: Your Cincinnati Reds are back.
PHOTOS: Cincinnati Reds Opening Day game
To say that it's exciting to start a new season is a no-brainer, coming with it the start of spring and eventually summer, but there is a certain pensiveness in Reds Country to be jumping up and down about the possibility this year's team will go far. That's a result of a quiet off-season with more injuries than moves for the Redlegs.
But there is still plenty of talent on this squad, with its pitching a consistent anchor once they do heal. With that in mind, WCPO's staff of sports writers took a crack at their best, no BS predictions on where this team can go.
Do they make the playoffs, and if they do, how far? With the advent of the second Wild Card, it makes it likely that the Reds will have a decent shot at making the playoffs. The St. Louis Cardinals have the best team in the National League, one of the best teams in baseball. Their lineup is stacked with .300 hitters and, more importantly, players that get on base a lot. Their pitching rotation is solid as well. They certainly can be caught, particularly if health becomes a major issue for them. But the Cardinals have to be considered the favorite to win the NL Central. Cincinnati’s biggest issue now is health. But long term, it’s run production. Can Billy Hamilton and Brandon Phillips get on base consistently enough to allow Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to drive them home? The left side of the infield must perform better this season than last. Todd Frazier had nice power numbers in 2013 but has to hit more consistently. Zack Cozart’s bat came alive in August last season, but he’ll need an earlier wake up call this year. Will Ryan Ludwick return to his power hitting self, after missing four months last season with a separated shoulder? Ludwick told me this spring that when he returned in August last year, he was actually a better hitter than before he was injured. He became, he said, more disciplined in his plate approach. We’ll see. Catcher Devin Meseraco will be called upon for 600 plate appearances, 450 at bats and upwards of 135 games this season. Is he good enough to be the everyday catcher? There’s another major question mark. Lastly, the starting pitching must remain healthy and deliver innings. Bronson Arroyo was the only Reds starter over the last five seasons to consistently deliver 200 or more innings each season. Do the math: the more innings a starting pitcher eats up, the fewer innings the bullpen has to work. And with Aroldis Chapman gone for the first six weeks or so, and Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall starting the year on the DL, the back end of the bullpen is fairly thin. Wins/losses? This team has a chance to be a bit better than .500. I’d guess they’ll finish with a win total between 85-89. If so, they will make the playoffs. Who is the team MVP? Over the last few seasons, it’s been Brandon Phillips. His defense is beyond superb and he’s been jacked all around the batting order. But this season, my pick for team MVP is Jay Bruce. He won his second consecutive Silver Slugger award in 2013 and led all MLB right fielders in home runs and RBI. He’s very good defensively, too. Bruce will bat ‘clean up’ for most of this season. That will be a real test. Biggest deciding factor on success/failure: Health and hitting consistently. So far, the health angle is off to a rough start. With so many games in April against division teams, they can’t afford to get off to a bad start hitting. We’ll know by mid-May whether or not this team will be a contender or a pretender.
Do they make the playoffs, and if they do, how far?
No. They won't beat Cardinals in NL Central. They finished seven games behind last year. Tell me how they make that up. Last year NL and AL Wild Card teams had 94-92-92-90 (Reds) wins. No way the Reds, with all their injuries, win 90 unless Votto/Phillips/Cueto/Latos/Chapman (or Broxton/Marshall) match their best seasons, and that's a Powerball bet. No, sorry, not this year. Wins/losses?
85 and wouldn't be surprised with 80 with all those injuries and questions from last year. Can't assume Cueto/Latos/Chapman will match their best years – or how long Chapman's recovery will take or how successful he can be when he does return. The team needs a breakout year from Homer Bailey, not another 11-12 and 3.49. Don't expect Leake to go 14-7 and 3.37 again. You have to like Cingrani long-term, but is he ready? Bullpen is a wreck to start the season. Hamilton can't steal first. No way he gets on base as much as Choo did, though he hit better in spring than I expected. Reds will have to steal-bunt-hit to the right side. Does Votto hit? With power? Who drives in runs besides Bruce and Phillips? Don't expect Ludwick to repeat 2012. There
are questions about Frazier's bat. Questions, questions, questions. Who is the team MVP?
For what they get paid, you'd expect Votto, Bailey or Phillips. I'll take Bruce, though I think Phillips will have a good season. He's always played with a chip on his shoulder, and after last year, I think that chip's bigger than ever. Third pick: Latos. Biggest deciding factor on success/failure:
I like what I see of Bryan Price. Straightforward. I like small ball and being aggressive on the basepaths and manufacturing runs. And he knows pitching. Management gambled that last year's team would be good enough to win this year with a new manager. Craps. They didn't count on the injuries. So we'll see if Price and small ball can make up the difference. Four weeks into the season, we'll have a pretty good idea where they're headed, after six with Cardinals, seven with Pirates, three with Braves and Rays. If they're .500 or close and Chapman is progressing and everybody else is healthy, I'll jump on the bandwagon.
Do they make the playoffs, and if they do, how far?
It's really hard to see this team in the playoffs, even in the Wild Card play-in game, the spot that they fizzled into last year with no real other NL challengers. This year is different. The Washington Nationals are healthy. The Atlanta Braves kept a good part of their core. The Los Angeles Dodgers have also healed and gelled since their up and down 2013. The Arizona Diamondbacks will be better than they were last year. The Cardinals are the Cardinals. Those 5 teams all improved on their roster and the status of their players, while the Reds kept quiet this winter and injuries started knocking down starters like it was Colerain Bowl. And there are only 5 playoff spots. As for the rest of the NL Central, the Milwaukee Brewers will be better with Braun back, the Cubs are gaining more and more experience at the plate, and the one glimmer of hope is the Pirates will be hard-pressed to repeat their excellence from last year, especially with the loss of a few key guys.
Needless to say, this season will get off to a rough start. Many fans will likely tune out in April because of the tattered pitching staff (Don't be surprised to see lots of 7 and 8 run games from Reds opponents). All that in mind, baseball is a marathon. The 2007 Colorado Rockies are proof of that (they won 20 games in September to launch into the playoffs, and ultimately the World Series). If this team can hover around .500 through a division-heavy April and travel-tough May, and heal up by June or July, they may have a shot at that Wild Card after all.
Maximum of 85, but probably closer to 81. Johnny Cueto is the question mark this year. If he gets back to full strength, the Reds have a better shot with a deep starting rotation than if Latos was the only reliable one on the mound.
Who is the team MVP?
This seems to be a common theme, but I also have to go with Jay Bruce. A steady-hand in right field to hold runners and throw out a few at the plate, his hitting numbers continue on an upward trend, and with a new spot in the lineup behind a hopefully reinvigorated Joey Votto, Bruce should tip over 100 RBIs, 30 home runs and 40 doubles with an average hovering around .280. I look forward to seeing how pitchers handle Votto/Bruce back-to-back after already dealing with Brandon Phillips.
Biggest deciding factor on success/failure:
Billy Hamilton. Can he hit for real? His spring numbers were surprising, but taken with several grains of salt. If Hamilton can post somewhere around a .280-.290 average and a .350 on-base percentage, the Reds have a shot to win those 3-2 games more often than not. Remember, every single Hamilton hits is actually a double with his speed. That's not to mention what it does to pitch selection for Brandon Phillips (who just so happens to be a great power fastball hitter).
On the flip side, while the pitching won't be good early on as the team works through injuries, long-term there are questions about Tony Cingrani. It wouldn't be surprising if, for a portion of the early-going, he keeps his ERA below 3 and plays the role of Mike Leake last year, but you have to wonder with the amount of tape he gave opponents in the waning months of the 2013 season, and if managers have picked him apart to be much better prepared for him this year. If Cingrani holds, Latos gets to 100 percent, Bailey keeps the ball down a bit more consistently, Leake returns with even a shell of his 2013 self and Cueto gets back to being Cueto, the infirmary... er, bullpen... can pick up the slack regardless of who is available.
The old saying goes: Time heals all wounds. It's just a matter of how much time the Reds can afford.
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