Last season, the Reds finished with baseball’s second-best record and won the Central Division for the second time in three years. It was a pretty fun year for Reds fans, who saw the team win 97 games — the most since the 1976 Big Red Machine. Winning seasons are fairly new around here; before the 2010 division title the Reds hadn’t made the playoffs since 1995 — one of the longest droughts in baseball.
But the playoffs didn’t go so well. The Reds went out to San Francisco and won the first two games in a five-game series. All they needed to do was win a single game — in front of their home fans — out of three to move onto the National League Championship Series. But they lost all three and were eliminated by the eventual World Series champions.
There are many reasons to believe that fans won’t be left crying in their Miller Lites this year. The Reds have been picked by most experts to repeat as Central Division champs, and many believe the team has a legit shot at a World Series title. (One Boston Globe writer ranked the Reds’ preseason roster second only to the Washington Nationals in all of baseball.)
One reason the Reds are expected to improve offensively is the addition of outfielder and leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo, who the team acquired in a trade that sent strikeout king Drew Stubbs to Cleveland. Choo will be asked to play center field, which he actually hasn’t done much of at the major league level, but his high on-base percentage and 20-plus steals will be a welcome addition at the top of the order, allowing Brandon Phillips to slide into the two-hole where he belongs.
Behind the table setters is arguably the best hitter in baseball — Joey Votto. The Reds’ quiet Canadian missed almost two months last year because of a knee injury that needed two surgeries, and he didn’t hit with power after coming back in September. But that’s not necessarily his game anyway — Votto hits the ball all over the field and does weird things in the batters’ box like refusing to step out between pitches if the pitcher makes him mad. He’s just two years removed from a 37 home run campaign and will have no trouble producing in the Reds’ little stadium.
Votto’s middle-of-the-order friends are Jay Bruce, a budding superstar who hit a career-high 34 home runs last season at just 25 years old, and Ryan Ludwick, who the Reds re-signed to a two-year deal after the veteran broke out with 26 home runs and 80 RBIs despite sharing playing time early last season.
The Reds’ offense should benefit from some growth by a couple of talented young infielders: Todd Frazier received Rookie of the Year consideration last year after hitting .273 with 19 home runs and 67 RBIs, and second-year player Zack Cozart will play a quality defensive shortstop and hit his share of doublesRyan Hanigan and former top prospect Devin Mesoraco give the Reds depth at catcher and allow those dudes to take some days off when it’s super hot and they have to wear that heavy gear all day.
As impressive as the Reds’ offense looks to be, it’s the starting rotation that has the experts picking the team to win the division again. Johnny Cueto led all major league pitchers with 33 starts and went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA last year. (He was snubbed for an All-Star appearance by former Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, likely because Cueto kicked some of their guys during an on-field brawl back in 2010.)
Last year’s top trade addition, starting pitcher Mat Latos, settled down after a slow start, finishing with a 14-4 record and 3.48 ERA. Latos will look to join the ranks of baseball’s elite starters, and with two 14-win seasons under his belt at just 25 years old, he has a legit shot. Veteran Bronson Arroyo is almost a lock to throw 200 innings of quality ball (and to play some wicked acoustic guitar on local TV commercials) and is as reliable as any pitcher in baseball — Broyo hasn’t started fewer than 32 games since 2003.
People forget that Homer Bailey is still only 26 years old (he debuted for the Reds in 2007 at 21), and last year he took some major steps in his development. The former first-round pick posted a 13-10 record over 208 innings and threw the Reds’ first no-hitter since 1988. Fellow former first-round pick Mike Leake will hold down the fifth starter’s spot looking to bring last year’s 4.58 ERA closer to the 3.86 he posted as a rookie in 2011.
The biggest question of Spring Training was whether or not the Reds would use flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman in the starting rotation or keep him in the bullpen where he scared a lot of people late in games by throwing as hard as 105-mph. After considerable debate, Reds’ brass elected to keep Chapman in the closer’s role, where he was among the best in baseball last year, saving 38 games and striking out 122 batters in 71.2. innings. The Reds re-signed veteran big guy Jonathan Broxton to close in case Chapman’s move to the rotation worked out, so he’ll settle back into the set-up role he performed last year after the Reds traded for him in July.
Joining Chapman and Broxton in the late innings will be lefties Sean Marshall and Manny Parra, along with Jose Arrendondo, Sam LeCure and either Logan Ondrusek, J.J. Hoover or Alfredo Simon (As of CityBeat’s press time, the Reds had not made a final call on which reliever to keep on the Opening Day roster; in fact, every roster move is speculative at this point — the team back in 1998 traded its Opening Day starter, Dave Burba, to Cleveland for Sean Casey the day before the season began).
The Reds’ bench players will be infielder Jack Hannahan, an excellent defensive third baseman, and utility man Jason Donald, along with outfielders Chris Heisey and Xavier Paul.
Baseball is a long season, but manager Dusty Baker has, on paper, everything he needs to contend into September. Only thing left to do is start the season and watch the games six days a week for the next six months. ©