2007 Team Preview: Cincinnati Reds

2006 W-L: 80-82 (3rd place)

2006 Pythag: 76-86

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:
Jeff Conine, Kirk Saarloos, Bobby Livingston, Bubba Crosby, Josh Hamilton, Chad Moeller, Jeff Keppinger

Going:
Rich Aurilia, Jason LaRue, Royce Clayton, Brandon Claussen, Chris Hammond, Scott Schoenweis

The Reds In a Nutshell:

The danger of writing season previews for each team--for me, anyway--is over-optimism. Give me a club, I can probably tell you why it'll do better in 2007 than it did in 2006. If you look back through the previews I've written so far, you'll see a lot more optimism than pessimism. Maybe it's just the nature of the beast.

I gotta say, though, it's tough to be positive about the Reds. Sure, in Homer Bailey and maybe Chris Denorfia, the Reds have a couple of kids who could make a difference, but probably not enough this year to matter. In the big picture, though, the Reds are built around a couple of starters coming off of career years, an incredibly shaky bullpen, and an offense that...well, better be improved on defense.

Offense:

There are three positions at which the Reds ought to be above average. First, left field, where Adam Dunn will try to stay on the right side of the Reds anti-strikeout brigade. If Dunn is allowed to stick to his game, he'll rack up plenty of K's on the way to another 40 home run season.

The other two spots are third base and catcher, where Edwin Encarnacion and Dave Ross established themselves last season. Encarnacion may still be a year or two away from the stardom many predict for him, but 276/359/473 is solid. In 250 at-bats, Ross was even better, at 255/353/579. I wouldn't expect a repeat performance, but even if he can keep the slugging percentage within 100 points, he'll be a valuable bat behind the plate.

At the other five positions, it's anybody's guess. Well, that's not exactly true: Alex Gonzalez is going to be below average, even for a shortstop. ZiPS forecasts a 239/293/390 season for him; he'll have to make a lot more plays than Felipe Lopez would've to to justify that line.

Filling out the infield, first base and second base are at drastically different points along the spectrum of age. Brandon Phillips will play second base again. There's no doubt he was one of the savviest waiver-wire pickups of 2006, but it's easy to get overexcited about his offensive potential. A hot start last year improved his reputation, but his OPS was a mere 9 points above average for his position. ZiPS predicts a mild decline, to 266/320/405.

First base figures to be a Scott Hatteberg/Jeff Conine platoon, which isn't a half-bad way to put handle first base on the cheap. Hatteberg has never been much for power, but can still walk his way to first with the best of them. However, both guys are old, and sooner rather than later, their performances are going to be in line with the cheapness of their contracts. ZiPS projects both to slug under 400 at a position where league average is nearly 500.

Regardless of who mans which position, Ryan Freel and Ken Griffey aren't a good bet to give you above-average production from their two spots. Freel isn't too far off from the median center fielder, especially with his nifty career OBP of .367. Many teams would be happy to upgrade to that kind of production (combined with Freel's defense) in center.

Griffey, as always, is the big question mark. If '05 Junior shows up and hits ot the tune of 301/369/576, the Reds can compensate for some of the offense lost from trading Lopez and Austin Kearns. While he still hit for decent power, his '06 level of 252/316/486 is well below average. I suspect that if Griffey is healthy, he'll hit closer to the '05 numbers than the '06s, but the biggest danger isn't even that he hits like he did last year: it's that he misses a substantial amount of time. The Reds aren't well prepared to lose him: unless Denorfia is ready, those at-bats would go to Conine, Bubba Crosby, or perhaps Josh Hamilton. Hello, fifth place.

Starting Rotation

Last year, it was Arroyo and Harang and pray for rain. This year, its the same thing, only there's the added concern that Arroyo and Harang keep up their respective career years. Arroyo topped his career ERA by nearly a full run, while Harang beat his by a half run.

If I had to guess, I'd say Harang maintains his level and gives the Reds 220+ innings in the 3.80 range. Arroyo, on the other hand, won't be as successful his second time around the National League. He'll still be a quality mid-rotation starter, but he won't get Cy Young votes. No matter how much Arroyo regresses, the real problem isn't the top two, it's the bottom three.

The Reds have plenty of options, none of them good. Elizardo Ramirez may be the best pitcher among them (until Homer Bailey is ready, anyway), but health issues will keep him from starting the season in the big league rotation. That leaves Cinci with Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, Kirk Saarloos, Matt Belisle, and Bobby Livingston to fill things out. If you're excited about that, I'm in awe of your incredible single-minded fandom.

For a snapshot of the possibilities, ZiPS forecasts most of those guys right around a 5.00 ERA. Livingston looks the best by far, under 4.30, and Saarloos might have a little more upside once his numbers are adjusted for the weaker competition in the NL Central. Still, even with a bit of optimism and the expectation that Ramirez and Bailey will chip in by year's end, it's tough to see this group outperforming last year's group by much.

The bright side of that story is that it would be hard to be substantially worse than the '06 staff; if things break right, this could be an area of improvement. Even if everything goes wrong, the Reds will still feature plenty of replacement-level starters, which should give them something like the production they got last year.

The Bullpen

The Reds bullpen wasn't nearly as bad last year as it could've been: Todd Coffey emerged as a late inning option, while veterans Dave Weathers and Kent Mercker did nice impressions of themselves in their early 30s.

Most importantly, in his first year on the job, Wayne Krivsky established himself as [understatement alert] willing to do what was necessary to shore up this weak spot. During the season, he brought in Scott Schoeneweis, Rheal Cormier, Esteban Yan, Rick White, Eddie Guardado, Gary Majewski, Bill Bray, and Ryan Franklin. Some of those acquisitions worked out, some didn't; the actual result of each one of those pickups doesn't matter that much.

To view those deals optimistically, Krivsky seems to recognize that putting together a solid bullpen is a numbers game. If you bring in enough vets who have had success in the last half-decade, one of them will probably be good enough to pitch the 8th inning. However, that method--certainly if it includes the likes of Yan and White--leaves with you quite a few ugly innings while you figure out who that guy is.

This year's bullpen may be a bit better established, but it's arguable whether the results will improve. Weathers and Coffey return in their late inning roles, and while Coffey's strikeout and walk rates suggest some regression, Weather's peripherals sound a klaxon. You don't want your closer (or, really, anybody who will pitch important innings) to be walking a guy nearly every other inning, or coughing up a dinger every six frames, even in the Great American Ballpark.

If Gary Majewski is fully recovered, he'll be able to save some of the innings that Weathers endangers, and it seems reasonable to expect either Rheal Cormier or Mike Stanton to be as LOOGY-rific as ever. But unless you figure Bray is poised for a breakthrough, there are a whole lot of 7th-inning guys here, some of whom will have to pitch in awfully high-leverage situations.

Unlike the rotation, the bullpen is set up for a fall. While the starting five would be hard pressed to get much worse, a few relievers (notably Weathers, as I've already mentioned) got lucky, and the Reds didn't sacrifice as many late-inning leads as they might've. It's easy to envision a scenario is which things go wrong enough for Krivsky to spend another summer dealing good players for mediocre setup men.

All Together Now

If you're going to take on a lot of risk, you want to make sure you have the possibility for an appropriate reward. By building an old team with too many stopgaps at important positions, the Reds have left open the possibility of a disastrous season without the upside of a very successful one.

Sure, if Griffey stays healthy, Arroyo and Harang repeat, and Homer Bailey provides a Jered Weaver-like second half, the Reds could easily crack .500 and maybe even find themselves briefly in the wild card race. But it's tough to see even that degree of luck finding its way to Cincinnati.

The Reds may be a better team than their division rival Pirates, but that doesn't mean they're a better-run franchise, at least for the next year or so. It's tough to imagine a nastier thing to say, but I'm afraid it's a fair judgment. One can only hope disaster strikes early enough that Krivsky doesn't last much longer.

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