The Reds made the playoffs for the second straight season and third time in four years in 2013, but they lost in the NL Wild Card game to the Pirates, thus sealing Dusty Baker's fate. New manager Bryan Price takes over a group that is largely the same one that went 187-137 the last two years. That's a pretty nice place for any manager to start.
Similarly, fantasy owners will enjoy poaching talent from the Reds, as there are at least nine players on this team who will be universally owned in mixed leagues. It all starts with first baseman Joey Votto and right fielder Jay Bruce, who deliver exactly what is expected of them year in and year out. Votto currently grades as an early second-round pick, while Bruce is coming off the board about 20 picks later. Both of those prices fit the production.
Cincinnati also features one of the deepest rotations in the league. Newly minted $100 million man Homer Bailey may be the best starter on the team, but the nominal ace is the steady Mat Latos. Injuries limited Johnny Cueto to 11 starts last year, but he was the best pitcher on the 97-win NL Central champs in 2012. Finally, Tony Cingrani will start the year in the rotation, and could very well be the most dangerous No. 4 or No. 5 starter in all of baseball.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Billy Hamilton, CF
2. Brandon Phillips, 2B
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Jay Bruce, RF
5. Ryan Ludwick, LF
6. Todd Frazier, 3B
7. Devin Mesoraco, C
8. Zack Cozart, SS
1. Mat Latos
2. Homer Bailey
3. Johnny Cueto
4. Mike Leake
5. Tony Cingrani
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman (closer), J.J. Hoover, Jonathan Broxton, Sam LeCure, Alfredo Simon, Manny Parra, Sean Marshall, Logan Ondrusek
Could Joey Votto stand to be a bit less selective at the plate? Votto has been one of the best hitters in the league for six years running. You simply cannot argue with a career .314/.419/.541 slash that comes with 33 WAR and 156 weighted runs created plus over nearly 4,000 plate appearances. At the same time, the sort of skills that make real-life offenses work successfully don't necessarily do quite as much for fantasy owners. While Votto's on-base skills are a huge asset for the Reds, the degree to which he practices them actually hurts his fantasy value.
Last year, Votto had a .435 OBP thanks in large part to a league-leading 135 non-intentional walks. Former teammate Shin-Soo Choo was second in walks, yet he drew 23 fewer free passes than Votto. He was closer to sixth-place Miguel Cabrera than he was to catching the famously patient Votto. This is where all the old-school talking heads scream that Votto isn't nearly as valuable as he seems because he takes walks as opposed to being a traditional middle-of-the-order run producer. It's a silly argument for real-life purposes, but it does carry some weight in fantasy leagues. Not only would Votto's owners happily see him trade in some of those walks, even if it means sacrificing points in batting average (because he'd be putting the ball in play more often) and OBP, for RBI, he wouldn't even have to expand the zone to do so.
Votto didn't walk so many times simply because he has a discerning eye and a threatening bat. More than any other elite hitter, he took strikes and worked deep counts. Votto swung at 67 percent of pitches he saw that were in the strike zone, ranking 55th in the league. Compare that to 85.7 percent for Freddie Freeman, 77.5 percent for Cabrera, 76.1 percent for Matt Holliday, and 71.5 percent for Andrew McCutchen. All of those guys had OBPs of .389 or better. They each drove in more runs than Votto, as well.
If you think Votto is going to change his approach just to drive in more runs, clearly you've never listened to him talk. That's why instead of hoping for that, it makes sense to knock him down your draft boards a few spots. He's still an elite fantasy player, but he's the No. 5 first baseman on my board behind Cabrera, Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt and Prince Fielder.
Will Billy Hamilton get on base enough to make use of his game-breaking speed?
The Reds let Shin-Soo Choo go in the offseason, partly because they couldn't afford him, and partly because they had potentially the next Vince Coleman waiting in the wings. Billy Hamilton set a professional baseball record in 2012 when he stole 155 bases between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. He swiped 75 bags with Triple-A Louisville last year before the Reds called him up in September and deployed him as the most dangerous pinch runner the league has ever seen. He appeared in 13 games down the stretch, going 13-for-14 on steal chances. There's little doubt that he can be an asset to the Reds right now as their everyday center fielder. There is plenty of doubt, however, that he can get on base with any regularity.
Even as Hamilton was sprinting through the minor league ranks, he struggled at the plate once he got to the highest level. Though he was able to pilfer those 75 bases at Louisville last year, he hit just .256/.308/.343 in 547 plate appearances. It's hard to imagine him improving on that much as a 23-year-old rookie in the majors. Despite that, he might need just a .300 OBP to steal 60 bases. Remember, he was 13-for-14 last year, and everyone in the stadium knew he was stealing whenever he pinch ran. Even with that knowledge, there was basically nothing opposing teams could do to shut him down.
The Reds' fourth outfielder is either Chris Heisey or Skip Schumaker, and Hamilton's glove at a premium defensive position will keep him in the lineup. We can safely set his stolen-base floor at 50, and that makes him a player worth starting in all fantasy formats. However, if you invest in him, you must make up for the likely shortfall in batting average and OBP elsewhere. He's the kind of guy who can win steals for you on his own in any given week, but could also lose for you whichever rate your league uses. Plan accordingly.
Can Tony Cingrani make this the deepest rotation in the National League? Cingrani did more than just help the Reds weather the storm of Johnny Cueto's injury-plagued 2013 season. The lefty was a deserving member of the elite class of rookie pitchers in the NL last year that also included Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-jin Ryu and Gerrit Cole. Cingrani made 18 starts, putting up a 2.92 ERA, 3.78 FIP and 120 strikeouts against 43 walks in 104.2 innings. With Bronson Arroyo in Arizona, Cingrani will be a member of the rotation on Opening Day. That makes him a very intriguing commodity in 2014.
The 24-year-old Cingrani has a frame similar to that of White Sox star Chris Sale, though he's a bit shorter and has some more meat on his bones. Still, he has that same type of deceptive delivery from a lefty that allows him to hide the ball longer than most pitchers. It's a necessary skill for Cingrani, given that he threw his strong-but-not-overpowering fastball more than 80 percent of the time last year. While it averaged just 91.9 mph, he saved 0.77 runs per 100 offerings, which would have been 13th-best in the league had he thrown enough innings to qualify. While he doesn't rely on his secondary offerings all that much, he got great results from his slider last year, saving 1.79 runs per 100 times thrown. He's not going to be able to survive forever throwing a 92 mph fastball 80 percent of the time, so bet on seeing some more breaking stuff this season.
Cingrani's 136 innings between the majors and Triple-A Louisville matched the number he threw in 2012, so he should be ready to handle a full workload this year. Even if he regresses a bit with more innings and exposure, no one fans more than 10 batters per nine innings as a rookie by accident. The Reds, along with the Dodgers and Nationals, are on the shortlist for deepest rotation in the majors, and Cingrani is a huge part of that. He can help make for a very deep fantasy rotation, as well.
Todd Frazier, 3B -- Last season was a nightmare for Frazier, but he's just one year removed from a .273/.331/.498 campaign with 19 homers. As bad as he was last year, he matched those 19 round-trippers, though it took him 135 more plate appearances to achieve the feat. With third base shallow, however, Frazier is a guy who could easily outpace his draft-day value, especially for those of you in leagues that have a corner infielder position.
Brandon Phillips, 2B -- I made my case for Phillips going bust in our Burning Questions series. In sum, Phillips' value last year derived almost wholly from his 103 RBI. Now that Shin-Soo Choo is in Texas and Phillips is expected to hit in front of Joey Votto, he has about as good a chance to drive in 100 runs as I do. I love watching Phillips in the field, but I just don't trust him as a fantasy player.
Devin Mesoraco, C -- He's not going to become a star, but Mesoraco will burst into the starting class at the catcher position. He had nine homers and 42 RBI in just 352 plate appearances last year, numbers that could almost double with a full season as the unquestioned starter now that defensive stalwart Ryan Hanigan is in Tampa. His rates last year were ugly, but they were dragged down by a .264 BABIP that is totally unsupported by a 21.1-percent line-drive rate. A .260/.320/.415 slash with 16 homers and 65 RBI feels possible here.
NL-only guys to know
Mike Leake, SP -- Leake isn't going to strike out many batters, but he stays healthy, doesn't walk too many guys, and generally keeps the ball in the park. The Reds should be competitive again this year, making him a decent bet to be a steady contributor to the wins category, as well.
Ryan Ludwick, OF -- Ludwick played just 38 games last year due to injury, but he hit .275/.346/.531 with 26 homers and 80 RBI in 2012. Numbers like that would make him mixed-league worthy. For now, consider him a starter in all NL-only leagues.
Zack Cozart, SS -- I guess you have to have a shortstop, right? Cozart is a safe bet for 12-15 home runs, but he's not going to contribute much else, especially since he's likely to be hitting at the bottom of the order. He may not even be a starter in NL-only leagues when it's all said and done, but he's worth keeping on your radar for now.