Five Questions: Cincinnati Reds

In 2006, Wayne Krivsky’s first year as general manager, the Reds seemed to be on their way up. Newly acquired talents like Bronson Arroyo and Brandon Phillips were lighting up the scoreboards, existing talent was playing well, and the Reds managed to contend in the weak NL Central until the last few days of the season.

Last year? Not so much. April went well enough, but the wheels fell off in a 9-21 May. The team never recovered, ultimately finishing 18 games below .500 and a distant fifth behind the just-good-enough-to-win Cubs. The Reds’ offense was a shadow of what it had been a few years ago, their fielding was still below average (especially down the lines), and their pitching wasn’t progressing. It just wasn’t a very good team.

One might have expected a team that struggled so badly to undergo a major offseason overhaul. But while the Reds have indeed made a few changes, including signing Dusty “The Most Controversial Manager in Baseball” Baker, most of what will be new on this year’s team will have to come from within the organization. Fortunately, the Reds have an outstanding crop of young talent that is on the cusp of making significant contributions at the major league level. The degree to which these players contribute will likely determine the outcome of the Reds’ season.

If they come through the way we all think they might, the Reds could be a surprise contender. If they don’t? We’ll just add another sub-.500 season to the ol’ tally…

1. Will Dusty Baker let the kids play?

The Reds enter the season with five of Baseball America‘s top 100 prospects in their organization, four of whom (Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto and Joey Votto) seem likely to make significant contributions to the big league club at some point this season. The next two seasons promise to be exciting times as these players work their way onto the team. Given this youth movement, however, some have questioned the rationale behind selecting Baker as the Reds manager.

Baker has a reputation as a manager who favors veterans, extremely so. From what I’ve gathered, much of this reputation stems from his tendency to play an aging Eric Karros over Hee-Seop Choi on the 2003 Chicago Cubs. But was this part of a larger pattern?

A look back at Baker’s teams over the years shows that he did give a great deal of playing time to young talent. All the following players got significant opportunities as early 20-somethings during Baker’s watch: Rich Aurilia, Rod Beck, Marvin Bernard, Royce Clayton, Shawn Estes, Ryan Jensen, Darren Lewis, Matt Murton, Russ Ortiz, Mark Prior, Corey Patterson, Kirk Reuter, William Van Lindingham, Allen Watson and Carlos Zambrano. So it’s not like it’s unprecedented for Baker to let a kid play. Even in the case of Choi vs. Karros, Hee-Seop Choi still got the bulk of the playing time until he was injured in a collision with Kerry Wood on June 8 of that season.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing to the idea that Baker favors veterans. Managers often seem to behave with the goal of not looking bad, and thus often favor established players over prospects. But based on his record, I don’t see evidence that Baker is particularly extreme in this respect. The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but my guess is that if the young guys perform, they’ll play.

2. Can the young guys hack it in the rotation?

The top two slots in the Reds’ rotation are set, with Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. After that, it’s wide open. Six pitchers have a legitimate chance at the final three rotation slots, and it does seem to come down to an “Old Guys” vs. “Young Guys” battle:

The Old Guys
Jeremy Affeldt
Matt Belisle
Josh Fogg

The Young Guys
Homer Bailey
Johnny Cueto
Edinson Volquez

To be fair to them, the Old Guys really aren’t all that old, But they’re probably not on the upswing part of their careers, either.

Going into spring training, I would have picked Fogg, Belisle and Bailey to make those final three slots, with Cueto as the longest shot among the six. But more than anyone else, Cueto has been turning heads in spring training, showing a 95-mph fastball with location as well as an excellent change-up. As Baker put it, “Who’s looked better than him?” Meanwhile, Bailey and Volquez have continued to have control issues that have prevented them from gaining an advantage over the Old Guys. So, as I see it, the six are in a dead heat.

No matter who makes the club out of spring training, expect all of these players to get their shot in the rotation at some point this year. If the Young Guys can have the sort of success that each is capable of, the Reds’ rotation could look very, very good. If not, and the Reds are starting the Old Guys every fifth day, I don’t see how the Reds could hope to contend this year.

Of course, there is also the issue of what happens if a young pitcher pitches too well on a Baker team. Dusty does have a reputation—and there is justification for this one—of working his young pitchers rather hard (which also seems to contradict the idea that he favors veterans). Hopefully, he won’t break anybody.

3. Who will start in center field?

The Reds’ big offseason player move was trading Josh Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for Young Guy Pitcher Edinson Volquez. The result is a gaping hole in center field, with four candidates having a shot at taking or sharing the position: Young Guy Jay Bruce, Norris Hopper, Ryan Freel and the recently acquired Corey Patterson.

Bruce is doing his best to play his way onto the team, but Krivsky’s conservatism (Bruce didn’t get a September call-up last season despite raking his way from A-ball to Triple-A) and the availability of other veteran options makes it seem likely that he’ll spend the first few months back in Triple-A. Hopper is a zero-power, all-contact guy who is probably just average as a defensive center fielder—most watchers seem to see him as more of a No. 4 outfielder than a starter.

Freel, now 32, is coming back from head and leg injuries, and I’m extremely skeptical about his ability to play at anything close to his ’04-’06 form. That leaves Patterson, who is probably the best defender of the bunch, and who always has had tremendous upside on offense despite the lack of much actual production, as the apparent favorite. But Patterson has yet to see live pitching in a game, which has to put him at a disadvantage compared to the other players. So for the time being, it’s hard to handicap who will win the job on Opening Day, much less the remainder of the season.

But here’s the thing: The Reds need to improve their offense a great deal this year if they want to contend. And the only player they have among the center field contenders who has a reasonable chance at an outstanding offensive season is Jay Bruce. Sure, maybe he’ll be a bust in his first year. But it’s not like any of the other three is going to hit…

4. Can the Reds avoid the injury bug again?

Given how terrible the Reds were at times in 2007, it’s hard to believe that they had a relatively light year with injuries. But they did. Players on whom the Reds were counting at the start of the season who ended up missing significant playing time due to injuries or personal issues included Eric Milton, Freel, Alex Gonzalez, Bill Bray, and … really, that’s about it. Useful players, perhaps, but not the ones a team relies on for success or failure. It’s true that Hamilton missed a lot of time, but the Reds weren’t expecting anything from him last year anyway. And Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. did miss the last half of September with injuries, but by that point the games were thoroughly meaningless.

In the end, Harang and Arroyo both pitched 200-plus innings again, while Scott Hatteberg, Phillips, Edwin Encarnacion, David Ross and David Weathers all played full seasons, adding to almost-complete seasons from Dunn and Griffey. That’s going to have to happen again if the Reds hope to stay in the thick of things in 2008.

It’s also worth noting that the Reds had an exceptionally good season in the minor leagues with respect to injuries, especially among pitchers. Another year or two like that, and the Reds could have a lot of arms ready to help the big league team.

5. What’s going to happen in the outfield corners?

The two stalwarts of the Reds’ offense, Dunn and Griffey, are in what likely will be their final years with the team. Dunn has indicated a willingness to negotiate a contract extension, but the Reds have thus far continued their trend of seeming (on the outside, at least) completely uninterested in keeping him on the team. Honestly, given how he’s been treated by the team in the public, not to mention the media, I don’t know why he’d want to come back. Griffey, on the other hand, has a $16.5 million team option for next season. But unless he has an unexpected surge this year, I expect the Reds to go with the $4 million buyout; he’s not worth that kind of money anymore.

Both Dunn and Griffey are defensive liabilities. But they are also quality offensive players (though Griffey is clearly slipping) and will be hard to replace if both leave the team following the season. Both will be playing for contracts this year, which may mean that we’ll see a small bump in their production. And this, in turn, may may make them attractive properties at the trading deadline. Of course, we’ve been saying that for years, and other teams have thus far been reluctant to meet the Reds’ demands.

Still, you have to think that either of these guys could be a real boon for a team needing an offensive boost over the final few months, particularly if hitting as as DH. What the Reds opt to do with them will be a major determinant of their chances for success in 2008 and beyond.

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