2013 Record and Finish: 90-72, third place in NL Central (11th overall); lost wild-card play-in to Pittsburgh
2014 Projected Record: 91-71, second place in NL Central
The Case For
Despite receiving just 11 starts from staff ace Johnny Cueto and enduring substantial falloffs from Brandon Phillips, Todd Frazier, Ryan Ludwick and Ryan Hanigan, the Reds still won 90 games last year, earning a Wild-Card berth. They're another team whose cast is largely unchanged, so they'll bank on some positive regression from that group (save for Hanigan, who's now a Ray). Their biggest change may be new manager Bryan Price, who under predecessor Dusty Baker presided over the pitching staffs that helped the team make the playoffs three times in the past four seasons. Though he provides some amount of continuity with the old regime, Price plans to manage differently than Baker with regards to batting orders, bullpen matchups and the running game.
The Case Against
Like the Pirates, the Reds could have been mistaken for statues this winter. Leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo took his .423 on-base percentage to Texas, and rotation stalwart Bronson Arroyo took his clockwork-like ability to rack up 200 innings to Arizona. Speedster Billy Hamilton may be fun to watch, but he's not going to get on base with nearly the frequency of Choo, and while Tony Cingrani should be able to pick up the slack for Arroyo, the safety net regarding Cueto is now thinner, and the leftfield situation starring Ludwick and Chris Heisey still cries out for an upgrade. From here, the Reds look like the most vulnerable team among last year's NL playoff participants.
X-Factor: Johnny Cueto
Among pitchers with at least 400 innings over the past three seasons, only Clayton Kershaw has a lower ERA than Cueto's 2.61. Considering the hitter-friendly surroundings of Great American Ballpark, that's 54 percent better than the league average, a mark that owes much to a groundball rate that's tied for 10th in the majors in that span. The problem is that Cueto has thrown just 433 innings over that period of time, missing seven weeks due to shoulder inflammation in 2011, departing a 2012 postseason start in the first inning due to an oblique injury, then making just 11 starts in 2013 amid three separate DL stints for a strained latissimus dorsi. Oh, and he was scratched from a March 20 exhibition start due to "irritation" in his scapula area.
The 2012 season marked the only time Cueto has topped 190 innings, so it's fair to wonder if the 5-foot-11-inch righty is built to withstand the rigors of a full year in the rotation. If he can't, the step down to prospect David Holmberg or retreads Jeff Francis and Chien-Ming Wang is much steeper than that between Cueto and Cingrani, who tossed 104 2/3 innings with a 2.92 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine in 18 starts and five relief appearances last year.
Number To Know: .286/.415/.465
Thanks largely to Choo, the Reds received the league's most potent performance from the leadoff spot, which had often been the team's Achilles heel; in 2012, Reds leadoff hitters batted a league-worst .208/.254/.327. They were also the first NL team since 2007 to have multiple batting title qualifiers with on-base percentages above .400 (Joey Votto's .435, best in the NL for the fourth straight year, was the other). Even amid subpar offensive seasons from Phillips, Ludwick, Heisey, Frazier and the catching corps — not to mention a ridiculous amount of handwringing over the RBI imbalance of Votto and Phillips — that was a major reason why the team ranked third in the league in scoring. Hamilton is a human highlight film who could steal 100 bases or more, but if his performance at the plate doesn't improve significantly beyond last year's .256/.308/.343 showing at Triple-A Louisville, this team won't dent the scoreboard nearly as often.
Most underrated: Mat Latos
"He doesn't get mentioned as one of the league's elite guys, but with the stuff he has, he is a legit No. 1. He's matured a lot over the last few years. He doesn't throw as hard as he can on every pitch like he used to, but to me, that's a factor of his maturity; he's just become a lot smarter—this guy can take a step forward and be an ace to go into the playoffs with."
Most overrated: Brandon Phillips
"I know he knocked in 100 runs last year, but the days of him as one of the top second basemen in the league are over. His numbers were a factor of the guys in front of him getting on base. With Shin-Soo Choo out of the lineup, you're going to see a huge drop in his production. He's still a good defensive player, but he's not an impact bat like he used to be."
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