Saturday, January 26, 2013

Top questions facing the 2013 Cincinnati Reds

Riddle me this
No team is perfect, but Reds fans have a lot to look forward to during the 2013 season. Coming off a strong 2012 where their 97-65 record was the second best in all of baseball, the Reds look poised to win the NL Central again and return to the playoffs for the third time in four years. They virtually lost nothing, and potentially fixed their biggest problem by adding Shin-Soo Choo to handle leadoff duties. They also, once again, plan to move the flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman to what was an outstanding rotation in 2012.

It sounds like all the pieces are in place, right? Well, while the outlook for 2013 is certainly looking bright, there are still some significant questions surrounding this Cincinnati Reds ballclub, so riddle me this.

1) Will Choo solve the Reds leadoff woes?

CHOO CHOO
The easy answer would appear to be yes. Last year, this spot was mostly manned by Zack Cozart, Brandon Phillips, and Drew Stubbs, the latter of which the Reds traded to acquire Choo. Forget the league average. The Reds, by far, finished last in Major League Baseball in batting average (.208) and OBP (.254) from the leadoff spot. The next-worst numbers were .226 and .281 respectively. They also finished tied for second-worst in runs scored from the one-hole with 83. What's the fun in having sticks like Phillips, Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick, and Jay Bruce in the lineup if no one in front of them wants to get on base?

Enter Choo. Overall he hit .283 with a .383 OBP and scored 88 runs in 2012. Batting #1, he hit .310 and got on base at a .389 clip. That sounds like an improvement to me. Even if he has a bad year compared to last year, it would still have to be better than what the Reds saw last year. His career numbers at lead off? .307/.386/.486 with 70 runs in 461 plate appearances. There's no way to know for sure how Choo will perform, but at least there's almost no chance he could make things worse from a batting perspective. My final answer to this question is a resounding yes.

2) Is Joey Votto healthy?
How can you not wonder? It seems like he is on track to start the season 100%, but only he knows for sure. Last July, as you know, Votto had surgery on his knee to repair a torn meniscus. He did return late in the season and played in the playoffs, but every person in baseball questioned if the knee injury had sapped his power. I don't know about all that talk. I do know that Votto is one of the best baseball players in all of the major leagues and having him at full strength in what should be the Reds best lineup in a long time is what every Reds player, executive, coach, and fan wants.

“Matt was down there a couple weeks ago to see him and said he looks very good, his strength looks good,” Jocketty was quoted in a story on Cincinnati.com.

Matt refers to Matt Krause who is the Reds strength and conditioning coordinator. Having a full offseason to recover has no doubt helped Votto replenish his strength, as well as his confidence in his knee. I don't even need to tell you his stats because anyone who knows baseball knows Votto is good. The Reds played well without Votto in the lineup last summer, and now that Choo will be hitting leadoff, Votto is expected to have so many more opportunities to chase runs home. He's a doubles machine, so hopefully Choo has worked up his lung capacity because he's going to be running a lot.

Is Votto healthy? I can't tell you for sure, but one would have to think he is. Hopefully if Votto is cleared to play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic it will only help and not hinder his efforts to recover completely. I know I can't wait to see him back to full strength.

3) Will the defense in centerfield be a major problem?
It shouldn't be. Will there be a dropoff in the defense in centerfield? Yes, because Stubbs' speed allowed him to patrol center with high effectiveness. With Choo coming to fix the leadoff issue in Cincinnati, we know that means Stubbs is gone. Choo has played just 10 games in CF in his career and hasn't been considered even a good right fielder by most. In those 10 games, Choo batted .036/.182/.071, but that is surely an anomaly though, as I don't see how playing a different position would affect him that much in the long run.

Yet, it remains to be seen who will actually man CF, as many feel Bruce should move over and let Choo cover right. Several media outlets have reported that Bruce is more than willing to do this. He's definitely able to do it since he played a ton of CF in the minors and has 35 games of CF in the majors under his belt. MLB.com beat writer Mark Sheldon wrote that Bruce looked slimmer and leaner than ever when he saw him at the Reds Caravan sendoff. It sounds like he's definitely prepared. Chris Heisey can play the position too. Fans will certainly see a hefty dose of Heisey as a defensive replacement late in games, I'm sure. No matter who is in center, fans need to temper their expectations as there will be some balls that drop in 2013 that would have been caught by Stubbs. Choo's effect on the offense should outweigh any on the defense though. My final answer is that by season's end however, I don't see it being a major problem at all.

4) Can Ludwick carry his 2012 resurgence over to 2013?
I hope so. Ludwick had a monster year in that one city in 2008 and followed it up with another great year in 2009. Then midway through 2010, he was traded to the black hole that is San Diego and his numbers fell off dramatically. He was sent to Pittsburgh near the end of 2011 and things only got worse in his partial season there. The Reds picked him off the scrap heap for cheap in 2012 and got one hell of a bargain as he hit .275/.346/.531 with 26 home runs and 80 RBI. He was also a major factor in helping the Reds to a winning stretch during Votto's injury last year. Ludwick turned that into a two-year, $15 million deal to stay with the team. Ludwick was also a great clubhouse guy. He had to have felt right at home laughing it up with all the other guys.

Great American Ball Park has always been and always will be a hitter-friendly park, especially on those hot summer days. He'll also be hitting between a superstar and a budding superstar in Votto and Bruce, so that can't hurt. Perhaps the 2012 boost to his confidence, coupled with some team consistency and chemistry again will help him enjoy another fantastic year. My final answer is that Ludwick may not have quite as good a year in terms of numbers, but he should be more than serviceable in the middle of the lineup in 2013.

5) Will Chapman be effective as a starter?
SP Aroldis Chapman?

Your guess is as good as mine. Chapman's game has matured over the last couple of years, but he was so dominant last year because he could come in for a few outs and just blow hitters away. Will he be able to transition to pitching for six or seven innings at a time effectively? There's also the curious case of how many innings he will be allowed to pitch. The Reds would surely love to avoid a Strasburg-esque situation by limiting his use with the infusion of another starter like Mike Leake so that he will still be available at the end of the year. This is an experiment that has to be tried though because if he succeeds, his value as a starter throwing 160+ to 200 innings in the future is much higher than his value as a closer throwing 70 innings or so.

It's not as if the Reds are going into this blindly because Chapman has started before. In Cuba he was mainly a starter. In his first year with the organization in 2010, he started 13 games at Triple-A Louisville and overall was 9-6, with a 3.57 ERA. During Spring Training last season, he started four games and ended up going 2-0, with a 2.12 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 innings. There were plans for him to start then, but bullpen injuries derailed that train. We know Chapman obviously has a fastball and he showed an effective slider to throw hitters off balance last year. If he can develop his change-up and learn to mix his pitches he could be disgusting. The dilemma though is if his stamina can hold up through the course of the year and how long the velocity on his fastball will be there during a game in 2012.

If the Reds learned anything from the Strasburg situation and have come up with a plan to handle Chapman in 2012, he could very well develop into a great starter towards the end of the year. Otherwise, if he can't or injures necessitate his move back to the bullpen, he can always be a filthy closer again, right? Sorry Brox. To me it's a no-lose situation to basically toy with replacing your fifth starter with Chapman. My final answer is that I'm inclined to think 2012 may not be the year for Chapman. It may not be a failure mind you, but with it being his first year as a starter, with his appearances being limited, and the unwordly expectations there will be for him, he won't have as much of an impact on the rotation as he will in the future.

6) Can the the pitching staff replicate its 2013 success?
Pitching success is not a constant. The baseball gods can be very fickle in this matter. There is no doubt that great pitching was the anchor to 2012 success. Overall, the Reds staff tied for third-lowest team ERA at 3.54. The starting rotation came in at fifth-best in the majors with 3.64 ERA, tied for the lead with nine complete games and were second in innings with 1018.2. The bullpen led all of baseball with a 2.65 ERA and 56 saves. Not only that, but the five starters made 161 of 162 starts and if it wasn't for a pesky doubleheader, it would have been all 162.

Johnny Cueto pitched well enough for Cy Young consideration all year. Mat Latos started slow but finished the year quite strongly. Homer Bailey had his best year yet, including throwing a no-hitter. Bronson Arroyo was solid and Leake at least made his starts. The health will be the hardest part to repeat. If I had to bet money, I would bet that the Reds will use more than six starters, including Chapman. That's not to say that they won't duplicate total success. My final answer is that the peripheral numbers may not be as good, but their solidified success should once again help the Reds to plenty enough wins and yet another playoff berth.

7) Will last year's rookies perform this year?
Todd Frazier was pretty darn good in 2012. He was a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year before tailing off a little at the end of the year. He hit .273 with 19 home runs and 67 RBI. He was almost a superhero of sorts, after filling in masterfully for Votto at first during his injury, hitting a homer with no hands, and literally saving a choking man's life in Pittsburgh. It's still not known if Scott Rolen will retire, but either way Frazier will be handed the reins at third base this year. Can he handle the load and put up another great year? The answer is yes.

Cozart assumed the duties of the full-time shortstop in 2012, after flashing his potential in 11 games during a 2011 campaign that was cut short due to injury. He performed fairly well all things considered. He had a ton of pressure thrust upon him to be a successful leadoff hitter as a rookie. He wasn't a success as a leadoff hitter, but no one really was in 2012. Overall, he batted .246 with 15 homers and 35 RBI and played excellent defense. He's expected to bat seventh this season after the addition of Choo to the lineup. Most people think he will fit comfortably into that spot and there's no reason to believe he won't have a good season in 2013.

"I am too, good!"
That brings us to Devin Mesoraco. We know he has the potential to be good. In fact, he was the top catching prospect and pretty much the top overall Reds prospect going into 2012. Many hoped he would blossom into the full-time starting catcher and catcher of the future during the 2012 season, but he almost did the complete opposite as he was replaced on the roster late in the season by Dioner Navarro. He finished the season hitting .212 with five homers and 14 RBI. It was a far cry from the numbers that Mesoraco had put up in the latter years of his minor league career. In 2010, his best minor league season he hit .302 with 26 round trippers and 76 RBI, along with 25 doubles among three different levels. He followed that up in 2011 by hitting .289 with 15 homers, 71 RBI and 36 doubles at Louisville. It's way too early to give up on Mesoraco. He clearly can hit and with power, while providing superb defense behind the plate. He will be one of the biggest question marks all season from a player standpoint.

What questions or concerns do you have about the the 2013 version of the Reds?

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