The Cincinnati Reds have been a serious contender in the National League for a few years now. In fact, they've won 90 games in three of the past four seasons. The team's 2011 campaign left a lot to be desired, but nearly every team in baseball would be happy with a four year run of 91, 79, 97, and 90 wins. Last year's performance got overlooked because two of the Reds' division rivals posted higher win totals, but the team went back to the playoffs and were among the most successful teams in baseball.
The Reds have built their team around around a 'stars and scrubs' methodology, with several key players providing most of the value to the team. Guys like Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey were relied upon to pull most of the weight for the club. Walt Jocketty and the rest of the front office have done a good job augmenting their stars with role players and young impact players helping to keep production high and costs in check.
Cincinnati still has a relatively young roster; their hitters have an average age of 28.5, which exactly matches the MLB average. Their pitching is still young, with an average age of 27.7, .7 years less than the MLB average. That bodes well for the future, and might serve to partially explain their quiet offseason as well.
2013 Season In Review
Last season the Reds lost to division rival Pittsburgh in the wild card play-in game, ending an otherwise successful season. For a team like the Reds, who go into each season expecting to make the postseason.
The regular season, though, was very successful for the club as they once again won 90 games in route to a postseason appearance. There were rumblings though that the team had begun to fade down the stretch and that Dusty Baker wasn't able to rally the troops after 6 years of familiarity with the club. While the team's performance was still very good, a loss in the wild card game wasn't what leadership had envisioned for a team coming off a 97 win season the year before.
Key Offseason Moves
Brian Price replaces Dusty Baker as Manager
Dusty Baker has a long track record of success, but that doesn't mean that he was the right manager to take this club to the next level. As Buster Olney points out, Baker has a reputation for being a great relationship coach and not an elite tactician. As a result, the team relieved him of his duties and found a replacement in former pitching coach Brian Price. Price has already gone on the record with a plan for shaking up the common practices of the team, starting with the bullpen. It remains to be seen if Price will be an upgrade over Baker, but it was clear that after 6 years the team needed a shake up.
Reds Lock Up Homer Bailey on a 6 year, $105 Million extension
Homer Bailey will be a Cincinnati Red for the foreseeable future after signing a 6 year, $105 million contract extension that will give the team control of Bailey through 2019. Bailey has been a solid pitcher for the Reds for several seasons, but finally came into his own over the past two seasons. In 2012, Bailey was roughly a league average pitcher, but he was able to better that in 2013, showing signs of continued promise. While the deal hasn't been universally praised, it does present some cost certainty to a team without a ton of players locked up long term.
Reds build depth by adding several role players
The Reds were never expected to make a huge splash in free agency this offseason, leaving many fans disappointed with a familiar roster. That doesn't mean they didn't explore some opportunities to grow the team from outside the organization, but nothing significant came to fruition. Alas, the fans were relegated to depth signing like Skip Schumaker, Brayan Pena, and Jeff Francis, to name a few. Names like Roger Bernadina don't strike fear in the heart of opponents, but they do help the team stay competitive over the course of a season.
The Reds offseason wasn't exactly the most thrilling exercise in roster management. Grant Brisbee wrote about it, and MLBTradeRumors detailed all of the moves no matter how small. However, the team didn't necessarily need to replace Shin-Soo Choo with another big bat or arm to be competitive next season.
One To Watch
I would be remiss if I wrote an article about the Reds in 2014 and didn't mention Billy Hamilton, one of the most exciting young prospects in baseball. Hamilton is arguably the fastest baseball player on the field today. Or ever. The only question Hamilton faces is his ability to get on base, which leaves something to be desired. This was addressed in an SB Nation feature on the Reds:
Of course, you can't steal first base, as the old proverb says. Hamilton struggled quite a bit in Triple-A last season, getting on base at only a .308 clip. He'll have to do better than that if he wants to take full advantage of his spacetime-warping speed.
How To Fix the Reds - Kris Vigneron
Hamilton is listed second on nearly every prospect list for the Reds, and with good reason. The guy can flat out fly and plays great defense in center field largely because his range encompasses the entire outfield. If Hamilton can get on base with any regularity, he'll be a huge asset to this team. That's a big if. On the flip side, his OBP skills might be the thing that keeps him on the bench.
A lot of people have their eye on Hamilton this season, so he'll need to prove himself early on if he hopes to keep his spot at the top of Price's lineup. The speedster is a flashback to elite baserunners of old, assuming he gets on the bases enough to show it off.
Cincinnati Reds By the Numbers
Last season, the Cincinnati Reds walked in 9.3% of plate appearances.
If you ask a non-Reds fan if the team was good at the plate last season they would likely say yes. A lineup featuring Jay Bruce, Shin-Soo Choo, and Joey Votto is no doubt impressive in name value alone. However, the Reds produced a wRC+ of 97, which basically means that offensively they were 3% worse than league average.
Then the team lost Shin-Soo Choo to free agency, and their offense got worse. Replacing Choo's production with Hamilton's is a step back, and the team will undoubtedly miss the .423 OBP that Choo put up last season at the top of the lineup. Choo and Votto helped the team put up a 9.3% walk rate, second best in all of baseball. While their team batting average was poor, a 9.3% walk rate can make up for a team's inability to get hits.
If the Reds want to compete in 2014, they'll need to seriously improve their on base percentage as that was basically the only thing keeping this offense from being in the bottom third of the league. Choo's departure makes that a tall order for a team replacing him with an OBP-challenged youngster. As a result, the entire Reds team will need to start walking at a higher rate to make up for the loss of Choo. Joey Votto is up to the task, but how many other Reds starters can answer that call as well?
2014 Team Outlook
Both projections see the Reds crashing back to Earth after a few seasons of 90-win success. It's hard to argue with the presumed logic. The Reds are a team whose offense hinges on their ability to draw a walk. Meanwhile they just lost their second best threat to draw said walks, and the guy replacing him is famously OBP-challenged. The starting rotation looks to be solid again but there are big question marks about the back end of what should be a powerful bullpen.
The Reds face an uphill climb to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, a tall order for any organization. Ultimately, I think the contributions from the farm will come up just short of filling some of the holes on the roster and the team will fail to make the playoffs. It would be a successful season by most other teams' measures no doubt, but 85-88 wins is not what Walt Jocketty and his team expect from this club.