This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 24: the Cincinnati Reds.
2014 Record and Finish: 76–86 (.469), fourth place in NL Central (21st overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 73–89 (.451), fifth place in NL Central (24th overall)
The Case For
Scouts are trained to avoid exaggerating when they make predictions for players, but here are the home run totals that a rival evaluator gave to me for some of the Reds’ key hitters in 2015. Brandon Phillips: 15; Joey Votto: 20; Devin Mesoraco: 25; Todd Frazier: 25; Jay Bruce: 30; Marlon Byrd: 30. Those six players alone, then, can conservatively be expected to hit 145 home runs this season, a total surpassed by just five NL teams last year. Cincinnati is thus a sneaky contender to have the NL’s most powerful offense, which is the good news. The bad news is that to have any shot at contending, it will need to be nothing short of that.
The Case Against
On March 16, the Reds announced that Tony Cingrani—a 25-year-old southpaw with a strikeout rate of 9.9 per nine innings through parts of three seasons in the majors, and yet one who has consistently struggled with shoulder soreness—will be converted into a reliever. Instantly, a rotation that was already slated to be without the traded Mat Latos and the injured Homer Bailey (who is recovering from right flexor tendon surgery) went from thin to emaciated.
Johnny Cueto is terrific—the clear-cut–second-best pitcher in the NL behind Clayton Kershaw, according to one scout I talked to. But after him will come Mike Leake, a solid No. 4 starter masquerading as a No. 2; Anthony DeSclafani, a borderline No. 5; Jason Marquis, a 36-year-old who didn’t pitch at all last year; and then probably Raisel Iglesias, a 24-year-old Cuban with control problems. That Cincinnati had to dig so deep to fill out an even passable rotation three weeks before Opening Day is not a positive sign, even if manager Bryan Price is known as one of the league’s best pitcher whisperers.
X-Factor: Robert Stephenson
Stephenson, a 22-year-old picked 27th out of California’s Alhambra High in the 2011 draft, didn’t put up impressive numbers in Double A in '14 (7-10, 4.75 ERA in 136 1/3 innings), but don’t let that fool you. He’s a consensus top prospect (No. 23 according to Baseball America, No. 24 according to MLB.com and No. 16 according to Baseball Prospectus) for a reason: He’s a classically tall (6’3”) and lanky (195 pounds) righty with a 95 mph fastball and good secondary stuff who just needs to work a bit on his control. “He’ll be a one or a two,” says a scout who watched him this spring. “I think he’ll be [in the majors] halfway through the year. He’s going to have to be. Look at these other pitchers!”
Number To Know: 68.8%
That is the percentage of pitches thrown by Aroldis Chapman that were fastballs in 2014, according to Fan Graphs, representing a drop of nearly 17% from '13 and of 19% from '12. Chapman’s heater ran hotter than ever last season—he threw it at a ridiculous average of 100.3 mph—but he suddenly gained confidence in a slider that he delivered nearly a quarter of the time. It was a very good one, too: Opponents batted a mere .080 against it. As a result, the 27-year-old Cuban closer was more dominant than ever, saving 36 games in 38 chances, with an ERA of 2.00 and a WHIP of 0.83. And as if he needed any motivation, 2015 will be a contract year. If the Reds can get to the ninth inning with a lead, they will be in Crossfit-six-days-a-week shape.
Most Overrated: Joey Votto
“He is a great hitter. His problem is, with that knee, I don’t just don’t think he can be what he was. It’s hard to watch. People would like him to expand the strike zone, drive in more runs, on and on and on. I wouldn’t change anything he does. He knows the zone. They call a strike, and if he doesn’t think it’s a strike, he’s usually right. If he could get his legs OK, I think he’s fine, but they’re not OK. And if you don’t have a good foundation as a hitter, you’ve got nothing.”
Most Underrated: Todd Frazier
“I was surprised he didn’t get a bigger contract than two years, $12 million. He doesn’t get the attention of Votto or Phillips, but his bat has a lot of play in it. I’ve seen him hit guys who throw knuckleballs and guys who throw in the upper 90s. Sometimes a pitch looks like it’s going to hit him, and he hits it to rightfield. He’s able to get the barrel on the ball. It’s hard to find a prototypical third baseman, a guy who hits 20-plus home runs but isn’t so big that he can’t field his position. I think he’s very valuable.”