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NL contenders: Reds suffered key losses
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We spent the last five days previewing the NL East, but the strength of the Nationals and Braves means that the Phillies likely have a better shot at the playoffs by winning a wild-card, something they’ve never done. In the coming days, we’ll break down the Phils’ top competition for the two NL wild-card spots.

Up next: Cincinnati Reds

2013 record: 90-72; earned second wild-card; lost to Pirates in one-game playoff

Key additions: OF/2B Skip Schumaker, C Brayan Pena, SP Jeff Francis, SP Chien-Ming Wang

Key subtractions: CF Shin-Soo Choo, SP Bronson Arroyo, C Ryan Hanigan

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The Reds’ biggest strength in 2013 was that they always had baserunners at the top of the order. Well, not always. But Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo ranked first and second, respectively, in the National League in times on base. Votto had a .435 OBP and Choo was at .423. Teams are lucky to have one of those guys. The Reds had two.

But all good things come to an end. Choo was a one-year wonder for Cincinnati, which wasn’t even close to being able to re-sign him. He went to the Rangers on a seven-year, $130 million deal.

It will be an enormous, enormous loss.

The Reds will fill the centerfield vacancy with Billy Hamilton, likely the fastest baseball player alive. Hamilton stole 103 bases in 2011 and 155 in 2012. He swiped 75 more bags in 2013 at Triple A before earning a promotion to the majors, where he proved that he can beat even the best catchers by stealing 13 bases in 13 games. He was caught once.

Hamilton will be significantly better than Choo defensively, and will steal many more bases. But he won’t get on base as much – we’re looking at as much as a 10 percent drop-off. He also has no power, whereas Choo hit 21 homers and 34 doubles.

Choo was the biggest addition any contender made prior to 2013, and he is the biggest loss for any contender heading into 2014.

The great Votto debate
Votto is the best pure hitter in the National League, bar none. He goes to all fields, has tremendous power and the best eye of any player since Barry Bonds.

Votto has led the NL in walks the last three years, with 135, 94 and 110. The year he had 94, he missed 51 games. Think about how insane that is – he missed nearly full two months and still led his league in walks.

He also had 44 doubles that year. If he stayed healthy he could have challenged the major-league record of 67.

Some see Votto’s greatest strength as his biggest weakness. He is often criticized for being too passive at the plate, taking his pitches and his bases on balls.

There’s as much vehemence by both sides as there is in the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout MVP debates. One side says Votto is doing exactly what any player should do: Be patient, wait for his pitch, and take the walk if he sees nothing to hit. The other side argues that Votto’s power is too important to his team to be wasted by gaining just one base and leaving the RBI opportunities to the hitters behind him.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, Votto’s plate selection is tremendous, and a huge reason why the Reds have been successful in recent years. But there are also times when chasing a pitch just off the plate may be better for the Reds than Votto’s walking and leaving the scoring up to Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips or Ryan Ludwick.

Votto had just 73 RBIs in 2013, which simultaneously proved how meaningless RBIs can be, but also how much his own patience affected his chances of driving in runs.

For all the argument there is over RBIs, the fact remains that baseball games are won by driving in runs. Ask any hitter who ever lived if RBIs are overrated and he’ll say no. They aren’t a great indicator of individual talent, but you don’t win games without them. And passing them off to the hitters behind you – who are good but not great – is not always ideal. Setting the table is fine, but when you’re making $252 million you have to go outside yourself in certain situations to drive in a run rather than walk with a man on third and two outs.

Super staff
While the Reds’ offense won’t be as potent in 2014, the pitching staff is still a strength. Cincy lost its reliable No. 3 starter in Bronson Arroyo, but will replace him with 24-year-old lefty Tony Cingrani, who was terrific in a deep Reds rotation in 2013, going 7-4 with a 2.92 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 104 2/3 innings.

At the top of the rotation are right-handers Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. Since being traded to Cincinnati from San Diego, Latos is 28-11 with a 3.32 ERA in 65 starts. He’s struck out 8.0 batters per nine innings and allowed 44 fewer hits than innings pitched. Latos had surgery on Valentine’s Day to repair a torn left meniscus, but is expected to resume throwing in 10 days.

Cueto barely pitched in 2013. In 11 starts, he was 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA. The previous year he went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA and finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting. The issue was his lat. Some argued that Cueto’s twisting, Luis Tiant-like delivery caused the injury, but he and the Reds’ medical staff don’t see it as a problem. “If it's anything that would hurt with my mechanics it would be my oblique area,” Cueto told the Associated Press last June after hitting the DL for the third time with the same injury.

Bailey, 27, is A.J. Burnett if A.J. Burnett figured things out at a much earlier age. A former first-round pick and perennial top prospect, Bailey struggled in his first five big-league seasons, posting a 4.89 ERA 1.45 WHIP in 78 starts.

Since the start of 2012, though, he has a 3.58 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP and 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings to just 2.3 walks. He has legit no-hit stuff, as evidenced by his two no-hitters in the last two years.

With Mike Leake in the No. 4 spot in the rotation, the Reds have a formidable 1 through 5. They’ll compete with the Nationals, Braves and Cardinals for best rotation in the NL.

There’s lots of talent in the bullpen, as well, with 100-plus mph closer Aroldis Chapman, effective lefties Sean Marshall and Manny Parra, and righties Logan Ondrusek and Jonathan Broxton.

The prediction(s)
Votto leads in walks again, but is a bit more aggressive and exceeds 30 home runs and 95 RBIs. Latos, Cueto and Bailey – if healthy – combine for 48 wins and a 3.40 ERA.

The Reds finish 89-73 to claim the second NL wild-card spot for the second straight year.