Five questions: Cincinnati Redsby Harry Pavlidis
March 25, 2011
Cincinnati jumped into the postseason in 2010 behind an explosive offense and a pitching staff bolstered by a variety of young arms. Joey Votto took home the MVP. The offseason found the Reds shoring up their long-term health, as Bronson Arroyo, Jay Bruce and Votto signed contract extensions. With a solid base that includes youngsters like Drew Stubbs and veteran leadership in Scott Rolen, the Reds still head into their title defense with their own basket of worries.
Every team goes into a season with pitching questions, because a real rotation is never five men. The Red' weakness could be at shortstop, but it's probably going to be a relief pitcher who raises the most controversy over a role on the 2011 Cincinnati club.
Can they repeat as division champions?
Quite the problem to have, fretting over a shot at back-to-back titles. The Reds broke a stranglehold by bumping the Cubs and Cardinals off the throne they shared for most of the new century. They'll play as the proverbial target and with the weight of expectations; they've gone past being Dusty's underdogs.
Coming into spring, the 2011 National League Central looked like a three-horse race: The Reds. The ever-present Cardinals with a pair of dynamic duos in Adam Wainwright/Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols/Matt Holliday. And the Brewers, who made waves by acquiring Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke. reshaping the Central.
The Cardinals' hopes took a major blow with the loss of Wainwright, hinging their hopes on the aging and reconstructed wing of Carpenter. They can't be counted out, but the Cardinals' troubles do improve the chances of a Reds repeat.
The 2010 Reds led the National League in scoring and backed it up with above-average pitching. In light of the run-scoring environment of Great American Ballpark, the pitching performance was quite impressive. Baseball Prospectus's Defensive Efficiency Rating for 2010 put the Reds in second place in the National League, just behind the World Series champions from San Francisco, and in a virtual tie with San Diego. The Cardinals were in the middle of the DER pack, but the rest of the NL Central occupied the bottom four spots. Given the seeming downgrade in the Cardinals defense in 2011, it's likely that the Reds will stand apart once again.
While the quality of the defense could lower our opinion of the Reds pitching staff, the combined product is mostly intact, not overly aged and still backed by a potent offense. The Brewers have plenty of head space after 2010's pitching and defense, and they've made some of the requisite moves. Still, that's quite a gap to close even if both teams regress toward the pack. All things considered, it's not a stretch to label the Reds favorites, at the very least a strong contender for a return to the post-season.
How long will the Chapman-to-rotation debate run?
With super reliever Aroldis Chapman adjusting to life in the major leagues, the Reds appear content to keep him in the bullpen for at least another season. What's going to happen is fairly predictable—an ongoing debate of the appropriate role for the flame-throwing southpaw.
We've heard this before, most recently with the Rangers relief ace Neftali Feliz. That situation has gone to an unusual place, where Feliz is openly happy about closing despite management's publicly discussed plans to move him to the rotation. The Royals' closer for the past few years has been Joakim Soria. It seems to have died down after a few years, but it's been a regular topic across Royal fans and analysts alike. There was a time when the Angels and even the White Sox pondered the status of Bobby Jenks. Even middle relievers like Aaron Heilman make it a regular habit to announce a desire to start via the press.
At least three factors drive the decision to assign a starting role to a pitcher. First, there's the pitcher's abilities. But there's also the practical matter of the team's needs. If it's a hard decision, and you have ample starters, err on the side of relief. Finally, there's the often irrational issue of cost. The "we're paying starter money, so he'll start" school of thought may or may not apply in Chapman's case. You have to consider some of the contracts relievers take these days, so a deal that averages $5 million for six years (including signing bonus, not including extras) doesn't necessarily demand he start to make it worth the Reds' while. If anything, turning him into a productive starter would be a bonus.
How deep is the 2011 starting pitching crop?
The 2010 Reds used nine starting pitchers, led by 30-plus starts by Arroyo and Johnny Cueto. Mike Leake was shut-down early, but still made 22 starts. Homer Bailey and Travis Wood combined for 36 with a few scraps falling to Matt Maloney and Sam LeCure.
Aaron Harang has moved on to San Diego, so his 20 starts will have to be picked-up. The Reds may hope Edinson Volquez can add those to the 12 he made in 2010, coming back from injury/suspension.
This nearly double-digit tally of starting pitchers is far from unusual. One start by Adam Pettyjohn notwithstanding, Dusty's Cincinnati rotations have gone nine-deep each of his three seasons. Let's pretend nine is a magic number and try to predict the 2011 cast. The first six are pretty easy, and apparently the conventional wisdom at the moment.
Maloney and LeCure are both in the mix for some starts as the season progresses. This brings our list to eight, and a little short. But it certainly appears the Reds go into 2011 with sufficient depth at the starting position. They don't seem likely to lean heavily on wild cards from their farm system.
Who will be 2011's surprise pitcher?
By definition, there is no answer to this question. It did seem like the Reds pulled a few strong-armed rabbits out of the hat in 2010. It's a pretty hard trick: You need a hat and some rabbits. So let's tap the prospect hat and find some rabbits. Who may be ready to answer the call and make the jump this year? As noted above, these players are not the first line of reserves, but it is a long season.
Baseball America has Kyle Lotzkar on its list of top 10 Reds prospects. Lotzkar also makes an appearance in the The Hardball Times ranking includes Drew Cisco. John Sickels ranks 20 prospects, and adds Donnie Joseph and Bradley Boxberger to our growing warren of candidates.
That's 10; the magic number was nine. Keep an eye on this bunch during their minor league seasons, as they could factor into Reds contingency plans as the season progresses.
What about the shortstop situation?
The Reds have a start-studded infield. Votto and Rolen anchor the corners, with Brandon Phillips and his talent manning second. The most important defensive position on the infield dirt is another question.
The departure of Orlando Cabrera handed the job to utility-esque Paul Janish, who was joined by the multi-generational World Series hero, Edgar Renteria, in what should amount to a time-share.
THT Forecasts estimates a combined effort near replacement level. Depending on your preference in Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR, this is at least a half-win hit at the position, and could approach 1.5. This question won't answer itself very clearly, barring something unexpected, injury- or performance-wise, by the Janish/Renteria duo. In a tight race, this could be a factor. Further consider the statement this makes about the Reds' depth at the position—there isn't much. Chris Valaika is considered the third option at the position on the likely 25-man roster, Zack Cozart will be waiting in the wings.
If an injury situation comes up, or as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, look for the Reds to upgrade. At the very least, expect the Reds to be mentioned in July as a potential player in the trade market.
Harry Pavlidis admits he has a baseball problem. He is the founder of Pitch Info LLC, His pitch classifications power the player cards at Brooksbaseball.net. Feedback, questions and comments are appreciated - Email email@example.com and Twitter @harrypav