FIve questions: Cincinnati Redsby Jason Linden
March 14, 2013
So, the Reds are good. In fact, they enter the season as a the clear favorites in the NL Central. If they are as good this year as they should be, they'll have put together quite a little run of baseball goodness. They also have a nearly set roster, which means not lots of questions. I'll try to make some up to fill in the gaps.
How will Aroldis Chapman do in the rotation?
This is going to be the question on everyone's mind this year and don't believe anyone who tells you they know the answer. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that, barring injury, he should be good for around 150 innings.
But how good will those inning be? Let's consider all the variables at work here. First, in the transition from reliever to starter, we should expect his BABIP and home run rates to go up and his strikeouts to go down. These changes should result in an ERA increase of about a run. Theoretically, that would put Chapman at 2.51 if you use last year or 3.17 if you use his career to date. The first of those numbers would have won him an ERA title last year. The second would have placed him 17th. So, yeah, he's pretty good.
Of course, it can't be that simple because the 2012 Chapman and the 2011 Chapman were not the same monster. The 2012 Chapman increased his strikeouts per nine innings from 12.8 to 15.3 (!) while decreasing his BB/9 from 7.4 (!) to 2.9 (!!). How much of all of that is real? As someone who watched Chapman all year, I think the improved control is legit, and in any case, his 2011 numbers are misleading as a great deal of that comes from a four-game stretch in May of that year when just lost it and walked 12 batters while completing only 1.1 innings.
The strikeouts, I'm less sure about. But even if we take his current career rate instead of last year's fabulousness and knock it back by 17 percent (which is how much we should expect it to drop), we still end up with a pitcher striking out 11.7 batters every nine innings. Last year, that would have lead the league by more than half a strikeout.
The final caveat is that all of the numbers we have amount to only 35 major league innings, which makes any projections even more impossible and makes Chapman the most fascinating question of the year for Reds fans. If you want me to make a guess, I'll say that he will most likely be very, very good in the rotation, he might be phenomenal, and he could very well have the wheels fall off.
How will the sophomores fare?
Last season, the Reds, notably, had three rookies primed to be major contributors. The most successful of these was Todd Frazier who made some serious Rookie of the Year noise before fading in September. Zack Cozart had a very solid year for a rookie shortstop, and catcher Devin Mesoraco felt like a bit of a bust.
Going forward, however, Reds fans should plan on an inversion of that pecking order. Mesoraco is several years younger than the other two and has always been a highly regarded prospect. Last year's failure comes with small sample size and bad luck (via batting average on balls in play) caveats. Ryan Hanigan is so underrated, even Rob Neyer doesn't see it, but Mesoraco is the catcher of the future and Reds fans should expect his numbers to really turn around. For the record, every projection system I can find agrees with me on this. There isn't any debate.
Cozart and Frazier are more interesting cases. They were both old (26) rookies last year and neither should be expected to last forever, but looking closely, it seems to me that Cozart should progress, at least a little, while Frazier could be in for quite a fall. Frazier's power was especially uncharacteristic of his minor league numbers and he does seem to have been unlucky where BABIP is concerned.
Cozart, on the other hand, followed the Mesoraco luck template and should see his OBP crack .300 this year. That will be just fine in combination with his excellent defense now that he's batting seventh instead of second.
What's going on in the outfield?
Reportedly, Shin-Soo Choo is going to play center with Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick flanking him in right and left, respectively. However, there are doubts about Choo's ability, especially after a less-than-stellar 2012 in right. Last year might be just a fluke, as generally, his numbers in right have been solid, if unspectacular. If that's the case, he'll probably be fine in center and we'll stop talking about it. However, if last year does prove to be part of a trend, then it gets interesting.
Most Reds fans outside the organization (and probably most people inside the organization) think Bruce would be better in center. But few think it's worth it to move him for one year and potentially mess with his head just so he can move back next year when Billy Hamilton is presumably ready. Still, if Choo is an utter disaster, this could happen. Bruce has expressed a willingness to play center and he actually has more experience there than Choo does. This is probably not a huge issue, but it is something to watch.
What about that Billy Hamilton kid?
He has his first big-league invite to spring training this year, but he has no shot to make the team. He'll start the season at Triple-A Louisville and we at the Linden household look forward to watching him race around the diamond for our hometown baseball-playing organization. What happens after that depends. The most likely scenario is that he develops at a reasonable pace and gets September call-up.
But there are other possibilities. I think Ludwick will be fine, but he is a prime candidate for regression and given his age and recent past, it wouldn't shock anyone if he fell to pieces in a hurry. I don't think the Reds would call Hamilton up unless they really thought he was ready, but if he's getting on base 38 or 40 percent of the time in Louisville and Ludwick is stinking it up, it is certainly possible Choo slides over to left to make room for young William.
Mind you, I really doubt this will happen, but it's possible and it's fun to think about in an abstract kind of way.
How will the bench be this year?
Last year, the Reds bench was unbelievably, horribly, terribly bad. The blame goes to the infield backups of Miguel Cairo (156 PAs, 26 wRC+) and Wilson Valdez (208 PAs, 22 wRC+). Okay, I guess, technically, the blame goes to Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker for signing/playing these guys. In any case, it was bad, bad news.
This year, the Reds have signed Jason Donald and Jack Hannahan to replace them. Both of those guys had really down years last year. However, both were still significantly better than the Cairo/Valdez combo. Given that they should both be expected to improve, the Reds should have a bench that doesn't actively harm them this year. The only reason to fear is that the Reds have brought Cesar Izturis and his veteran-y goodness to camp.
Jason has too many irons in the fire. He fancies himself a fiction writer and also writes about the Reds at Redleg Nation, books at Elephants for Bookends, and everything else at The Winesburg Eagle. Email him at winesburgeagle *at* gmail or follow him on Twitter @jasonlinden