Sunday, October 23, 2011

12 Reasons for Optimism in '12

Coming off a 2010 campaign which saw Cincinnati appear in their first postseason since '95, the stakes were high entering 2011. Anything less than a repeat of the division title would be considered by most around the organization as a disappointment -- and disappointment is exactly what defined the Redlegs this past season.

However, with great despair should come a renewed sense of optimism for 2012. The 2011 version of the Cincinnati Reds were marred by injuries, tough luck, and individual underachievement. These things have a tendency of evening-out over time -- which means the Reds should have plenty of built-up, good karma in their favor to use toward next year.

Aside from this hopeful assumption however, are several reasons why Reds fans should look to the future with great hope and promise -- in fact I counted twelve. So if you're ready for 'em, here they are. Twelve reasons for optimism in 2012 (and beyond):

12) Strong farm system
-Baseball America tabbed the Reds as having the the second-best minor league system in the National League before the '11 season, trailing only the Atlanta Braves. The club has a plethora of young talent knocking down the door for playing time, most notably top catching prospect Devin Mesoraco. So how did the other five teams in their division compare? Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Houston and Milwaukee came in 8th, 9th, 13th, 14th and 16th in the league, respectively. Ouch.

11) The Pirates are still the Pirates
-The Bucs took a step forward in the first half of last year, but slid backwards as the year went on. All in all they still finished with 72 wins, which tied their highest total in seven seasons. They've got some good young talent, but with one of the lowest payrolls in MLB coupled with an almost insurmountable culture of losing, it's hard to see Pittsburgh seriously contending for a division title anytime in the near future.
Epstein is the man charged to sort out
the mess in Chicago

10) The Cubs are still the Cubs
-The Lovable Losers pulled off a major ploy by luring away Theo Epstein from the Red Sox. But the the team's new President of Baseball Operations will have his work cut out for him as he tries to assemble an ahem..."winner" in Chicago. The team has tons of money tied up in several players, most of which are past their prime and aging quickly. While Epstein may turn things around for the franchise, I wouldn't expect him to do so until 2013 at the earliest.

9) How much Brew will Milwaukee have left?
-There's no denying that the Brewers were built to win THIS season. They added former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, starter Shaun Marcum and veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez at the trade deadline. One of the reasons for pushing their proverbial chips to the center of the table was because they're not expecting slugger Prince Fielder to return in 2012. And it appears as though their luxurious spending spree will cost them in the foreseeable future. No help is likely to come from their farm system - which Baseball America ranked as the worst of any team in the majors in March, 2011 - and their contract obligations to current players won't allow them to make a big splash in the free agency market either. The window of opportunity for Milwaukee to contend for a World Championship may have just closed.

8) What's in the Cards for St. Louis?
-From the Reds' standpoint, you hope the Redbirds' current playoff run will be their last in a while. Whatever the outcome of the World Series is for St. Louis, they have some major decisions looming this offseason -- namely what to do with Albert Pujols. If the Cardinals do resign the future Hall of Famer, it will come at a cost that will greatly restrict their flexibility to sign or retain other players. And for an organization that boasts the oldest roster in all of baseball (average age is 30.3), this puts them in a huge pickle. While you can never count out a Tony La Russa-managed ball club, it's hard to see the Cards repeating their magical run again in '12.

The 'Stros would be wise to
throw up the white flag for a while
7) Houston, we have a problem
-The Astros are clearly in rebuilding mode right now after posting MLB's worst record at 56-105 and unloading their two star players in the personnel of Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. On top of that, the franchise is transitioning to new ownership after local businessman Jim Crane bought the team in May. And let's be honest, the prospects of them turning things around anytime soon are as laughable as proclaiming the U.S. economy as healthy.

6)  Will the real Bronson Arroyo please stand up?
-The right-hander labored through the worst season of his career in 2010. Before then he had become arguably the Reds' most reliable starter over the last half-decade -- recording three straight seasons of 15 wins or more and posting a sub-4.00 ERA during two of those campaigns. But this year he tied the all-time, major-league record for most homers allowed with 46 and spent much of the season battling the lingering effects of mono. One has to figure that there's no possible way Bronson compiles the same kind of numbers next year. If he can bounce back and have the type of season he's accustomed to in 2012, it'll go a long way in Cincy's playoff push.

5) The emergence of Zack Cozart at SS
-The 26-year old only appeared in 11 games with the big club last year, but in those games he made quite the lasting impression. Cozart broke onto the scene mid-season after dicing up Triple-A pitching with a .310 BA, 32 RBI, 26 doubles and 57 runs scored. He continued his hot hitting onto the major league level before suffering a season-ending elbow injury in July. Should he pick-up where he left off next season, he may very well push for Rookie of the Year honors in the National League.

BP is likely to win his
third Gold Glove Award after
another great defensive year
4) Dat Dude is back
-While Brandon Phillips' contract situation remains in limbo, GM Walt Jocketty has already been quoted in saying the 2-time Gold Glover will back in the Queen City for at least 2012. There's not too many second basemen in the game right now who give you more offensive production than he does, and his defense is second to none. As long as the fan-friendly Phillips stays in Cincinnati, there will always be reason to smile for Reds fans.

3) An ace has emerged in Cueto
-Johnny Cueto's fourth season in the majors proved to be a special one. Although I'm unsure that anyone expected him to be so dominate at this stage in his career (2.31 ERA in 24 GS), this is the kind of pitcher the franchise hoped to see when they signed him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic. If Cueto can anchor the rotation next year in the same manner in which he did in '10 - all the while staying healthy - the right-hander may be looking at a Cy Young Award. Throw in the maturation of Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman, and you've got one solid starting group.

2) Rolen's time is now
-After a stellar 2010 campaign where he hit .285 with 20 HR and 83 RBI, Scott Rolen appeared in only 65 ball games this year due to various injuries. His absence was undoubtedly felt on the field and in the clubhouse as well. Does the 16-year, 36-year old veteran still have gas left in his tank? I don't know, but what I do know is this. He's signed through the end of 2012 so he's going to get his chance to play everyday. Defensively, you're not going to lose anything by having Rolen in there, but if he can put together an injury-free, decent offensive season, watch out.

1) The left-handed duo of Votto & Bruce
Bruce clubbed a team-high 32 homers
and was second in RBI with 97
-Jay Bruce is coming off a season of career-highs in RBI, homers, runs, doubles and walks, while Joey Votto continues to rake at an MVP-caliber pace. Votto is under team control through 2013 while Bruce is locked under contract until the end of 2017. Although rumors have been rampant about the possibility of the Reds dealing their All-Star first basemen, I can't see that happening during 2012. Reds fans need not worry about the dynamic duo being split up anytime soon.

And I'll leave you with this. The organization has been stockpiling talent for years in preparation of this window of opportunity to legitimately contend for a World Championship. In my opinion that window opened up sooner than expected in 2010 when Cincinnati broke through for the division crown.

The team squandered that opportunity this year, but with the Cardinals' epic playoff run and the Brewers all-in mentality, it may have been in the best interest of the Reds to focus toward 2012 and '13 anyway.

This previous season compares very much so to that of the 1971 Reds squad. That team also finished with a disappointing 79-83 record after going 102-60 and claiming the National League Pennant just one year before. The Big Red Machine went on to a 95-59 record in 1972 before losing in seven games in the World Series.
The Big Red Machine

In fact, it took the core group of the Big Red Machine five seasons before they finally broke through with a world title in 1975, and then again in 1976.

With the way modern day contracts are set up, these modern day Reds may not have quite as long to mesh. In spite of this, it's important to remember that even one of the greatest dynasties in all of baseball in the Big Red Machine suffered a setback season in '71.

So before the winter blues takes grasp of you this offseason, remember that there are many reasons for optimism for 2012. And as the rival St. Louis Cardinals are displaying yet again right now, anything is possible!

Written by Jimmi Adair. You can follow Redlegs Review on Twitter @Redlegs_Review or follow my personal Twitter handle @jimmiadair

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