Cardinals at Reds Series Preview 3/31-4/3

Baseball players playing baseball - USA TODAY Sports

Happy Opening Day, everyone!

The 2014 Cardinal season opens with 3 games against the Reds in Cincinnati.

-Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto do the honors this afternoon at 3:10.

-After an off-day tomorrow, Michael Wacha and Tony Cingrani take the mound Wednesday at 6:10.

-Lance Lynn and Homer Bailey finish the series over brunch with an 11:35 start time Thursday.

Mise-en-scene:

At risk of sounding sentimental, things won't be quite the same without Dusty Baker. Sure, Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips make for outstanding heels, but Dusty always felt like the true wellspring of Redness that was so fun to loathe. Now that he's off playing Parcheesi with Tony, it's a good time to consider the state of our rivalry.

The contentiousness with the Reds always felt more specific than general. While it's unlikely any of us can imagine a world where we felt neutral toward the Cubs, the Reds aren't likely to indefinitely continue on as our most hated opponent. Dusty is gone, and he's not coming back. The Reds have an option for Cueto in 2015, but given his lengthy injury history (and his shoulder was already sore this spring), there's no guarantee they pick it up. The reported winter meeting asking price for Brandon Phillips was a 3-pack of Hot Wheels and a Hello Kitty purse. Bronson Arroyo has taken his irritating brand of adequacy to Arizona, and sure, Mat Latos looks a little like that guy who scared you in high school, but he also looks a little like Dave Coulier.

Things are changing in Cincinnati. New manager Bryan Price seems about as likely to develop a heated rivalry with Mike Matheny as he is to give him a kiss. Differences between these two would likely be settled by who could be more stoically silent around the campfire. Unless the Reds are regularly beating us, it's going to be tough for a stolen-base fetishist such as myself to root too hard against a quiet whiteyball era throwback named Billy, and Joey Votto is a SABR hero.

Anyway, please don't mistake this as a call for detente with the Reds. Despite an unimpressive off-season, they still look like a pretty good team. Cueto is still kicking it in Cincy, and DatDude Brandon Phillips has been in fine form of late. The lineups you see this series are going to be full of familiar faces, so if hating other teams is something you do enjoy, the Reds are still a premium target. Just be aware that the window for this particular brand of bad blood is starting to close. But don't worry, the Cubs will always be there for you.

Since we're on the topic of rivalry, I highly recommend this four-part read on the history of the Cardinals and Reds over at Redreporter. It's excellent. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Seriously, go read it.

Some things to watch for:

Other than Johnny Cueto, who could just as easily miss most of the year as contend for the CY, the two players for the Reds who have the largest variance in likely performance this year are Billy Hamilton and Tony Cingrani. Let's talk about that second one first.

Do you remember when Shelby Miller's fastball was just about unhittable early last season and nobody could quite figure out why? That's Tony Cingrani's 2013. A crunch in the rotation and a back injury kept him to just 18 starts last year, but he's ready to go a full season now, and he was really good last year. Of anyone who threw at least 100 innings, he had the highest K% in the league based nearly entirely on his four-seam fastball, which he threw over 80% of the time. Similar to Shelby's early appearances, the fastball looks good, but it doesn't look that good. It has good movement for a four-seamer, but it's not terribly hard, and his delivery doesn't look that deceptive to me. Of course, batters had a different opinion last season.

The curve doesn't look bad, but his command with it is iffy. If he can spot it consistently, it's probably good enough considering how effective the fastball is. I have a hard time imagining Cingrani being a pretty good pitcher. I think if his fastball really is this good, he'll be a front-line starter. If hitters figure it out, he'll have his moments, but there's not enough depth in his repertoire to make him better than average. The direction his career takes will be key not only for this season, but future divisional battles as well. He also makes some entertaining faces and gesticulations on the mound. Enjoy!

As I said in the Awards Roundtable, I think Billy Hamilton is going to make a big splash. The question is whether or not he'll actually be a valuable player underneath that splash. He had a scintillating handful of games as a late-season callup last year, and he had a good spring as well. But prior to the callup, he put in a full-season in AAA with a .308 OBP, and that does not translate well for a guy the Reds want to lead-off.

If Hamilton can hit or walk his way out of a paper bag, he'll be a good baseball player. If not, he'll still likely be a fun player to watch, but one we're glad isn't our team, nostalgia for Vince Coleman be damned. Regardless of his hitting, I'm excited to watch Billy and Yadi do their dance this season. It should be great theater.

You probably already know that Aroldis Chapman is out, but keep in mind that so are Jonathan Broxton (recovering from forearm surgery) and Sean Marshall (shoulder soreness). The bullpen should eventually be a real strength for this club, but they're missing some key pieces at the moment.

Who the hell is that?

That's Brayan Pena! When Ryan Hanigan was traded to the Rays, Brayan Pena became Mesoraco's backup. Pena seems like a standard second catcher with a not-horrible bat and fair defensive numbers. The switch-hitter had just a handful of appearances with the Braves between 2005 and 2008, and then received a fair amount of playing time with the Royals and Tigers since. A Cuban defector, he always wanted to play for the Reds, so it's nice to see him get that chance. Of course, Devin Mesoraco will be given every opportunity to finally show off the potential that made him a touted prospect just two years ago, but he's out with an oblique injury at the moment.

Keys to the series:

-Score more runs.

-Pitching seems important. Pitching? Also, defense.

-Knock fast and they can't last.

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