Monday, November 22, 2010

3 Questions: Cincinnati Reds

By The Common Man

The Reds didn’t exactly come out of nowhere to compete in 2010. Indeed, their success was rooted in cagey drafting and buy-low acquisitions from the past several years. GM Walt Jocketty was clearly building a contending team. The surprise was that everything came together so nicely for the Reds in 2010, catapulting them to the NL Central title against a weak field. As the team regroups from a disappointing showing in the Division Series, what questions face them this offseason?

Question 1: Can the pitching stay healthy?

The biggest surprise out of Cincinnati in 2010 was the performance of the team’s young pitchers. The pair of 22 year olds, Ardolis Chapman, who has a 105 MPH fastball, and Mike Leake, who skipped the minors altogether, may have gotten most of the press, but the Reds got strong contributions from The Karate Kid Johnny Cueto (24 yrs, 12-7, 3.64) and Travis Wood (23 yrs, 5-4, 3.51). Homer Bailey (24 yrs, 4-3, 4.46) and Edinson Volquez (26 yrs, 4-3, 4.31) also showed signs of coming around/back. With the returning Bronson Arroyo (17-10, 3.88), the Reds have a young and potentially strong staff.

The question, as always, with young pitchers, is whether they can stay healthy. Leake faltered and looked fatigued down the stretch last year. Bailey has battled both injury and ineffectiveness. Cueto’s strikeout rate has fallen in each of his three seasons. Volquez is still finding his way after Tommy John surgery. And frankly, nobody knows whether Chapman’s arm can keep throwing this hard before it explodes. With former ace Aaron Harang out on the market, the Reds will have to hope their pitching stays healthy and effective if they want to compete. The Reds have been linked to Brandon Webb, which represents a high-upside possibility to provide depth; but he doesn’t aleve the injury concerns, he just creates more.

Question 2: Who plays SS?

In this case, “I don’t care” is the wrong answer. Orlando Cabrera was barely above replacement level last year, but is a free agent and is unlikely to be back. Paul Janish had a nice season as a backup infielder (.260/.338/.385), but probably represented the absolute apex of his abilities. The Reds would do well to look outside the organization for a solution. Jason Bartlett, Marco Scutaro, and JJ Hardy are said to be available via trade. And Tsuyoshi Nishioka is being posted by his Japanese League team. Nishioka will probably be too rich, but Bartlett and Hardy figure to be good “buy low” options. Scutaro may be a good pickup if the Red Sox will kick in money. Free agent options like Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe are less inspiring.

Question 3: How do you build on 2010 success?

The Reds definitely don’t want to be thought of as a flash in the pan. Given their young talent, there’s a good chance that they’ll remain at or near the top of the NL Central heap in 2011. However, given their budgetary limitations, the club needs to continue to make good decisions moving forward. For one thing, they need to get Jay Bruce and Joey Votto locked in to long term deals that buy out their arbitration years and at least a season of free agency. They need to stop spending $12 million on a closer (Francisco Cordero).

They also need to be realistic, and not fall in love with Scott Rolen at 3B, because the man is going to be 36 and has an injury history that reads like Finnegan’s Wake (long and painful). They need to continue to make good, team-friendly decisions like bringing back Ramon Hernandez on a one-year contract and keep buying low on guys like Johnny Gomes, Laynce Nix, Bronson Arroyo, Scott Rolen, and Brandon Phillips.

And they need to use Ardolis Chapman to his full potential. It’s ok, in the short term, to use Chapman as a reliever. For one thing, the Reds have starters enough to cover the rotation. For another, it’s a good way to break the young man in. It’s also still unclear what Chapman’s long-term future is given how hard he throws. And finally, that 105 MPH fastball is a devastating weapon out of the bullpen. But Chapman is not, and should not be viewed as, a LOOGY. Nor is he a one-inning pitcher. Chapman’s history as a starter and his eye-popping ability would make him ideal for a multi-inning “relief ace” role, like Ryan Madson used to have for the Phillies, Ramiro Mendoza for the Yankees, or Duane Ward for the Blue Jays. That would be a tremendous weapon the Reds could use to shorten ball games and escape jams.

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