Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reds in a three-team race for NL Central Crown

2011 was a disappointing season for the Reds, finishing 79-83 (3rd in NL Central) after reaching the postseason in 2010. The team was in the bottom third of the majors in almost every pitching statistic including ERA (4.16), walks (539) and home runs allowed (185). General manager Walt Jocketty was able to swing a deal for starting pitcher Mat Latos (San Diego), and fireballer Aroldis Chapman is being converted back to original position as a starter. Those two should join solid youngsters Johnny Cueto (9-5, 2.31 ERA) and Mike Leake (12-9, 3.86 ERA), as well as veteran Bronson Arroyo (9-12, 5.07 ERA) in what is one of the more promising young starting rotations in the league. The team also acquired Sean Marshall from the Cubs, and could make the rotation in Chapman struggles transitioning back to starter, or if Arroyo's struggles from 2011 carry over to this year.

The bullpen should also be solid, with former Phillies' closer Ryan Madson taking over that role from the departing Francisco Cordero. Setting him up will likely be done somewhat by committee, with Bill Bray (2.98 ERA, 20 holds in 79 games) and Nick Masset (3.71 ERA, 14 holds in 75 games) the early frontrunners. The team also added former Yankee prospect Andrew Brackman, who could be a long-relief option, but will need to refine his mechanics, as he struggled with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre last year (75 walks in 99 innings). Other relievers in the mix include Jose Arrendondo (3.23 ERA in 53 games), Logan Ondrusek (3.23 ERA, 14 holds in 66 games) and Jordan Smith (4.94 ERA in 54 career appearances).

The strength of this team should be their offense, as its led by 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto (.309 BA, 29 HR, 103 RBI). He'll have a strong supporting cast around him, including second baseman Brandon Phillips (.300, 18 HR, 82 RBI) and right fielder Jay Bruce (.256, 32 HR, 97 RBI) should form one of the most potent 2-3-4's in the league. Third baseman Scott Rolen (.242, 5 HR, 36 RBI) is still solid defensively, but will likely be spelled regularly by Juan Francisco due to his age (36) and extensive injury history. Shortstop may well be manned by Zack Cozart. After a hot spring training in 2011 (.394 batting average), Cozart was sent back down to Triple-A, where he hit .310 with 7 HR and 32 RBI. After a mid-season call-up, Cozart got hurt on an errant throw from Joey Votto, which required surgery. Should he not be 100 percent healthy, offseason acquisition Wilson Valdez (.249, 1 HR, 30 RBI) could take the spot. While he doesn't hit for much power, Valdez is a steady player defensively, and does a good job of putting the ball in play (just 41 strikeouts in 273 at bats in 2011). Drew Stubbs will likely be the opening day center fielder, and is a good combination of speed (40 stolen bases) and power (15 HR), but will need to work on plate discipline, as he struck out a whopping 205 times last season. Chris Heisey is likely the starter in left field to start the season, and has a career OPS of .780, and had 18 home runs in just 279 plate appearances last season.

Ryan Ludwick should be a solid fourth outfielder, and should benefit from the friendly confines of the Great American Ballpark (as he's just two seasons removed from a 22 HR, 97 RBI season with the Cardinals). Despite being 37 years old, Miguel Cairo has been solid as a situational player and pinch hitter, as he's hit .276 the past two years in Cincinnati, and should be a steady backup at second base.

The Reds will need their young starting rotation to continue to develop, but the lineup looks to be solid from top to bottom, and they have good depth throughout. If the middle relievers are able to play solidly, this team should be right in both the division and wild card race at season's end.

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