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NL Central: Cincinnati Reds

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I think this is the most underrated team in the division and possibly the league. Wayne Krivsky has made some moves that I've questioned both this offseason and in the past. The truth is he's shored up a portion of his team that was a weakness and the farm system is ready to overflow with high-ceiling talent. It's a team that's well rounded in terms of pitching and offense with the only real questions being the suspect defense.

Let's start with the unheralded duo of Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Arroyo came over to the Reds in 2006 after pitching in Boston's bullpen. I don't know if anyone remembers the terms of his deal with the Red Sox but he gave them a steep discount on a 3 year deal only to be traded shortly thereafter. I was kind of left with the impression that the Red Sox shafted him on that move but it may have been a blessing in disguise. Arroyo came in full force for the Reds throwing 240 innings with an ERA under 3.50. He combined with Harang to be a dominant front starter despite pitching in a bandbox of a park.

The 2007 performances weren't quite as good for Arroyo as he stumbled and saw his peripherals come back down to earth. Lurch, er... I mean Harang built on his 2006 performance with another strong showing in 2007. After seeing what both of those pitchers can peak at, it's frightening to think that they may not be the best starter in the Reds' 2008 rotation. Homer Bailey was something of an afterthought last year after straining his groin. He possesses a heavy fastball that sits in the mid-90s complemented by a power curve and a changeup. His stuff easily outshines that of Arroyo and Harang the question will be how quickly he is able to adapt to facing major league hitters. It's not a stretch to think that the Reds have the best starting three in the division.

They added another electric arm during the offseason by swapping Josh Hamilton, a Rule V pick from 2007, for Edison Volquez, formerly part of the DVD trio (Diamond-Volquez-Danks) of Rangers pitching prospects. With the usual cast of back end options, Bobby Livingston, Matt Belisle and Jeremy Affeldt, the Reds are probably set to have a rotation featuring an immense amount of upside as well as solid veteran starters. Johnny Cueto another power pitcher in the Reds farm system should be ready to step in if anyone misses a beat. The wild card here may very well be Dusty Baker and how he handles his starters. He's developed a bad rap that's still debatable but I don't think that Reds fans should rest easy yet. Baker's just as likely to let someone throw 140 pitches as he is to be cautious with their arms. Certainly any injuries to the staff will be heavily scrutinized by the blogosphere should they occur.

In the sense that the Reds pitching staff is somewhat overlooked, they have the offense to support even a mediocre set of pitchers. The corner outfield features staples in Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. Both sluggers are sure to strike out a great deal but they should also represent a powerful core for the lineup that will destroy right handed pitching. The trade of Josh Hamilton would seem to clear the way for top prospect Jay Bruce to take over in centerfield. I have to admit that I'm not as high on Bruce as most (in part because I'm so defensive of our own Colby Rasmus) but he'll be another power hitting lefty to be deployed in the middle of the lineup. Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper represent the options from the right hand side and you have to wonder if the drop off against lefties isn't going to be substantial.

The Reds re-signed Scott Hatteberg for some unknown reason. He's a left-handed contact hitter who no longer profiles as a starter. While he wouldn't be a terrible choice for the bench, he hits from the same side of the plate as Joey Votto, another high level prospect. Craig Wilson, was recently signed as well and would make a lot more sense as a platoon partner off the bench for Votto, assuming WIlson still has something left in the tank. Edwin Encarnacion will help to counterbalance a lefty heavy lineup at 3rd base. Brandon Phillips should continue to be an above average offensive second basemen while his double play counterpart is going to strive for average-ness relative to shortstops. Jeff Keppinger should serve as the backup middle infielder after posting a .400 OBP in nearly 300 ABs last season.

As I mentioned earlier, I've got some serious questions about Krivsky's player evaluation. He moved Austin Kearns in a effort to shore up the 2006 bullpen acquiring Gary Majewski and Bill Bray. This offseason he signed Francisco Cordero to a 4 year 46 million dollar deal. While you can argue about Cordero's long term projection or the idea behind roster construction that hands 10M+ to someone who throws 70 innings, but Cordero solidifies the bullpen allowing a cascade of relievers to settle into more well defined roles. He should continue to be dominant next season with Bray and Todd Coffey acting as setup men from the left and right side respectively. Fill in whatever veterans you want for middle relief and you have a Reds bullpen that isn't nearly as volatile or weak as it has been in past seasons.

That leaves us with the real question that the Reds will face this season. Defense. One of the reasons, I'll take Colby Rasmus 7 days a week over Bruce is that Bruce isn't a centerfielder. He's going to play the position this year and he may be average but he's also surrounded by two terrible corner fielders in Dunn and Griffey. That outfield is liable to give up an extra 30-40 runs defensively. Baker should make every effort to get Freel and Hopper in as late inning defensive replacements. In the infield, the corner positions should be a weakness with Encarnacion hovering between -5 and -10 at third and the first basemen collection at best breaks even. Brandon Phillips at second is likely to be a mild liability and Gonzalez is little more than an average SS. As you can see this is a defense that could get real ugly, real quick. The biggest difference they could make would be to bench Griffey and get a true centerfielder moving Bruce to right field. The Reds need to find a way to minimize the defensive failings and let their offense and pitching shine through.

I'm not quite ready to call them to win the division (I haven't looked at the Cubs closely yet) but this is a strong, formidable collection of talent that could coalesce easily. Baker is a wild card but he's also a manager who has led teams to the post season. The top prospects are going to be critical to the success of this franchise both in the near and long term but the pieces are there fr the Reds to win the division this year.