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Reds '09 Season Preview

The second installment of our NL Central season previews moves eastward to look at the Cincinnati Reds.

  • ’08 record – 74-88
  • ‘08 Pythagorean record – 71-91
  • Runs per game – 4.35 (12th in NL)
  • Runs yielded per game – 4.94 (13th in NL)
  • DER -- .674 – last in the NL (Defense Efficiency Ratio)
  • BP projected record – 79-83
  • Chone projected record – 82-80
  • Welcome: Ramon Hernandez, Jonny Gomes, Arthur Rhodes, Micah Owings, Willy Taveras
  • Don’t let the door hit you…: Ryan Freel, Javier Valentin, Dave Ross, Jeremy Affeldt, Todd Coffey, Gary Majewski, Josh Fogg, Corey Patterson
For years the Reds have been seen as a powerful offensive club w/ little pitching. Part of that is a result of their ballpark being one of the great hitting parks in all of baseball (park factors of 104 and 105 for hitting and pitching, respectively) and part of that’s been b/c their pitchers just weren’t that good and they had some guys who could really mash. Even role players like Scott Hatteberg and Javier Valentin could be dangerous. The Reds of 2009 are very different from the Reds of yesteryear (and, by yesteryear, I mean 3-4 years ago) b/c these Reds are going to go as far as their pitching will take them. They have the potential to have the second best staff in the division and, if they can pitch well, they could give the Cubs a run for their money.

Rotation: This is the strength of the Reds’ team. Last year their best starter was Edinson Volquez – acquired from the Rangers for Josh Hamilton – and he was fantastic. His 3.60 FIP tied Jake Peavy for 11th in the NL and was worth more than 4 wins. It’s conceivable he’ll take a step backward this year but he only threw 196 innings last year. It’s conceivable that he’ll be just as good or better also. He averaged more than 1 K per inning and only yielded 14 homers – largely due to a solid 46.3 % GB%. He is, without a doubt, one of the best young pitchers in the National League and could be a star this year or next.

The only other above average starter they had last year was Bronson Arroyo – 2.2 WAR. He’s almost the definition of average – a Kyle Lohse-like starter – whose 2008 FIP was 4.50. The once underappreciated Aaron Harang took a step backward last year despite a solid K/9 of 7.47 and BB/9 of 2.44. Both were slightly worse than ’07 and ’06 levels but Harang’s real problem was the long ball. His previous career high HR/9 was 1.45 in 2004 and in ’06 and ’07 it was a solid 1.08 and 1.09. Last year it was 1.71; he gave up 35 HR in 184.1 IP. He’s never been much of a ground ball pitcher – career GB% of 38.4% -- but last year saw a spike in his HR/FB. Among qualifying NL starters, only 4 had higher HR/FB than Harang. Some of that is probably due to pitching in Great America Ballpark, but he pitched there the last couple of years as well and yet his HR/FB went up by more than 3% in ’08. Some of that is just bad luck. There’s probably no reason Harang can’t be at least a league average pitcher for 200 innings this season. He was worth more than 15 wins from 2005-2007 so it’s not unreasonable to believe that he might be a 3.5 – 4 win player again in ’09. If so, the Reds’ rotation will be stout.

Following Volquez, Arroyo, and Harang are youngsters Johnny Cueto, Micah Owings, and Homer Bailey. Wouldn’t we love to have young arms like Volquez, Cueto and Bailey on our team? Cueto’s first 174 big league innings led to an FIP of 4.90 and he figures to improve steadily. He just turned 23 and had 2.32 K/BB last year as a 22 year old. Owings probably will never be more than a league average starter but he’s fairly young (26) had more than 2 K/BB last year and finished w/ a 4.73 FIP for the D-backs. He’s not a high-ceiling guy like Cueto or Bailey, but will probably be at least adequate at the back end of the Reds’ rotation. And if/when Bailey gets it together, Owings would be pretty decent trade bait or could make it in the pen. Without question, the Reds have the youth, the depth, and the high-ceiling guys that we lack. They may not become great this year, but Reds’ fans have a lot to look forward to from their rotation.

Bullpen: The Reds’ pen isn’t quite as good as their rotation. Like their rotation, though, they have some fairly high strikeout guys. Their closer is Francisco Cordero who is solid (though signed to an ungodly contract – 4 years, $46 M). They’ve got some pretty solid guys lying around as well – Jared Burton, Ramon Ramirez, former Card Mike Lincoln, Bill Bray and newcomer Arthur Rhodes can all throw the ball by you. David Weathers is their version of Ryan Franklin.

Catcher: The Reds traded for former Athletic and Oriole (A and O?) Ramon Hernandez this offseason. Hernandez has been right about a league average C (slightly lower) each of the last 2 seasons and should be an improvement over Paul Bako. In ’08, Hernandez through out an abominable 17.5% of potential basestealers. His backup will be Ryan Hanigan. I have to admit that I’m glad that I won’t have to see Javier Valentin grabbing a bat against us in the 8th or 9th inning w/ a chance to tie or win the game. He’s not much of a catcher (or physical specimen) but he can hit one a long way.

Infield: Joey Votto’s rookie season was pretty unheralded compared to Volquez’s fantastic campaign, but Votto turned in a very good season in ’08. His 3.7 WAR led the Reds. His OBP was .368; his SLG was .506 and his ISO was .209. His .373 wOBA was 3rd highest among NL first basemen behind two guys named Pujols and Berkman. His UZR was the highest among NL first basemen. Until Jay Bruce becomes the player we all expect him to be (this year?), Votto is the Reds’ best position player – and he’s only 25.

The Reds have 2 other above average infielders – Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion’s much better at the plate (.351 wOBA to .324) while Phillips is much better in the field (11.4 UZR to minus 10.0). In truth, Encarnacion probably belongs in LF but until they get another 3B, that’s not going to happen. Despite Encarnacion’s poor defense, he still produced 2.1 WAR in ’08. The Reds’ SS is Alex Gonzalez (no, not the same one whose error while a Cub has been forgotten amidst the Steve Bartman circus). Gonzalez missed 2008 while having surgery to repair a fracture in his leg. He’s always been a plus defender from the SS position and has never had an OBP higher than the .325 he put up w/ the Reds in ’07. He does have a little pop but gets most of his value from his defense. Gonzalez has been nursing some hamstring issues this spring and, if he can stay healthy, should be able to be a near-league-average SS. If the Reds have to depend too much on Jeff Keppinger to play SS, their defense could be near the bottom of the NL again.

Outfield: The prize in the Reds’ OF is superstar-in-waiting Jay Bruce. Bruce struggled at times during his rookie year but this guy’s been a top prospect throughout his minor league career. PECOTA has him pegged for 28 HR and an .854 OPS and Chone has him pegged for 27 HR and an .843 OPS. He’ll play RF in the Reds’ revamped OF. The Reds’ new CF is Willy Taveras. He’ll take his career .331 OBP to the leadoff spot for Dusty Baker’s bunch. Of course, he’ll be an improvement over Corey Patterson who Baker let hit first 32 times last year and "amassed" a hacktastic .217 OBP from the leadoff spot. Patterson will make Willy T look like Wade Boggs up there. Taveras is a pretty poor offensive player and, for the last 2 years, has been a below average defensive player. He did steal 68 bags against 7 times caught in ’08. He’s the traditional leadoff type and definitively not the type of guy you want hitting first. He was the definition of replacement level last year (minus 0.3 WAR) and will hit leadoff for Dusty’s boys this year.

The other starter in the OF will be Chris Dickerson. The 26 year old was terrific in the 31 games he played for the Reds in ’08 (6 HR, .432 wOBA) but 31 games is just 31 games. Both PECOTA and Chone have him as adequate in his first full season (.763 and .749 OPS, respectively). Jacque Jones is hanging around in case Dickerson falters and Jonny Gomes should play against lefties. A platoon of Dickerson and Gomes or Jones and Gomes should be adequate, but not great by any means.

The bottom line for the Reds is that they have a ton of young guys and will improve as quickly as those guys do. If Bruce, Votto, and Volquez become stars and Cueto and Bailey become solid contributors, this team can be really good. That may or may not happen this year but there’s a lot to like if you’re a Reds’ fan. They also could be looking straight in the face of another 75 win season as well. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if the Reds turn out to be the Cards’ main competition for 2nd place in the division.