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2006 Team Previews: Cincinnati Reds, Pitchers

This article was written by Jeff Sackmann of Brewcrew Ball...what? Why is a Brewers blogger writing my Reds preview.......Quick, look over there!!! (smoke bomb)

Last year, the Cincinnati Reds led the National League by scoring 820 runs, just over 5 per game. True, it's easier to score at Great American Ballpark than happy hour at a margarita bar, but the offense certainly isn't to blame for the Reds' 89 losses. The staff gave up 889 runs--almost half a run more than the team scored. If the Reds want to make a run for .500, they'll need to maintain that offensive production and chop a half-run off their team ERA.

Granted, when the powerful middle of the Reds lineup points their fingers at the starting rotation, it's fair if Harang and the gang point right back. You can't prevent runs unless somebody catches the ball (or your K/9 above 20), and the Reds--especially the outfield, supporting a fly-ball-inducing staff, no less--didn't do that too much. Marc didn't ask me to write me to write a Cincinnati Reds "Defensive Preview," but then again if he asked me to write about the Reds, he doesn't have a lot of other options, now does he?

The Defense: Last year, the Reds usually trotted out an outfield of Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Austin Kearns. Wily Mo Pena saw plenty of time, especially in right, as 4th OF. Kearns is a credible, average defender, but the happytalk stops there. Adam Dunn is a power-hitting first baseman, which might be the nicest thing you can say about his outfield defense. Depending on which defensive stat you prefer, Dunn was bad, but not embarassingly bad. He probably didn't cost the Reds more than one win or so in his 133 games in LF.

Ken Griffey Jr. is another story. I have bad news for Jerry Narron--I'm telling him again because he apparently didn't get my memo last season. There's no DH in the National League, and "CF" is not--I repeat, NOT--the abbreviation for "designated hitter." If right field at Petco is where fly balls go to die, center field at GABP--when the Reds are in the field, anyway--is where fly balls turn into stand-up doubles. According to BP's FRAA, Griffey's glove cost the Reds 1.5 wins--that's below replacement level. If you're running a baseball team where you can expect that kind of veteran mojo out of your centerfielder, your offseason strategy is obvious.

And that strategy is...get a bunch of pitchers who will induce lots and lots of fly balls. It's the one thing that Dan O'Brien and Wayne Krivsky appear to wholeheartedly agree on. O'Brien traded for Dave Williams, and Krivsky acquired Bronson Arroyo, ensuring that the five pitchers starting the year in the rotation all allow more fly balls than grounders. Of that group, only Aaron Harang is even close to a 1.0 gb/fb ratio.

Not that keeping the ball on the ground is a magic recipe for twirling success in Cinci. The Reds infield defense was solid last year, but there are new faces at the corners in 2006. Edwin Encarnacion may well be average or a little better, like his predecessor Joe Randa was, but I don't predict you'll be seeing Reds first basemen on Baseball Tonight too often this season. Rich Aurilia is a decent defender up the middle, but before this spring, he'd played exactly three innings at first. Scott Hatteberg? Let's just remember that "Pickin' Machine" was a nickname meant to motivate, not one that reflected any actual skill.

This is all a long way of saying that the bad seasons awaiting the pitchers we're about to discuss are not entirely their own doing. Put these five guys in front of Oakland's defense, and we'd watch them become beautiful, sparkling league average. As it is, though, the outlook is not pretty. Last year the Reds' defensive efficiency (a stat that measures what percent of balls in play turn into outs) was second worst in the NL (to Colorado), and as I've suggested, it doesn't figure to improve this year. Griffey's getting older, Hatteberg's going to start a whole bunch, and to make matters worse, Tony Womack might be allowed to come out of the clubhouse. Sorry guys--I'll try to be nice, because this season won't be.

1. Aaron Harang: Before the Arroyo trade, he was the one Reds starter who ZiPS projected to have an ERA under 4.80, and he's the guy least likely to be affected by the Reds shoddy outfield defense. Not only does he almost keep the ball on the ground as often as not, his HR rate is passable and he gets strikeouts at a reasonable clip. He may prove to be the worst Opening Day starter in the National League, but that certainly doesn't make him a liability; that's just a reflection on the mediocrity of the Reds staff. Most teams would be happy to have this guy pitching every five days, just not starting on April 3rd.

2. Bronson Arroyo: Arroyo's ZiPS projection is a little better than Harang's, but that was before the trade. Adjusted for park, I'd guess Aaron and Bronson come out about equal. Arroyo's gb/fb ratio is about the same and since he'll be facing more pitchers and weak-hitting catchers, he'll ratchet his K/9 up to the 6.5-7 range. Arroyo's another guy who's a bit out of his league in his rotation spot: most NL teams would probably slot him in about fourth--that's where he figured to go in Milwaukee's rotation when the Brewers were rumored to be looking at him. As I've written elsewhere, Arroyo's acquisition makes the Reds a better team now, keeping (one hopes) 30+ starts away from the likes of Paul Wilson, Luke Hudson, and, well, anybody else who might conceivably make a bunch of starts for the Reds. In the long-term, it may be a different story, but Bronson helps ensure the Reds won't thoroughly embarrass themselves and give up 900 runs this year.

3. Brandon Claussen: Brandon had a breakout season in 2005, his first full campaign in a Major League rotation. He broke double digits in wins, and managed a 4.21 ERA. I've always had a soft spot for Claussen, partly because I always feel sorry for guys stuck in the Yankees farm system with nowhere to go but sideways. I'm afraid, though, that there's not a lot of hope that he goes 4.20 on the league again. Well, unless the league itself decides it's 4:20, and stumbles up to the plate with a silly grin, humming a Tom Petty song. PECOTA and ZiPS, projecting a substance-free National League, each figure Claussen is good for 160 innings of 4.75ish ball. PECOTA does offer a rosy upside: the 75th percentile projection is 4.14 and the 90th is 3.49, but I'm afraid anyone looking for that kind of production from Brandon is a chronic optimist. Claussen's peripherals just don't suggest that as a likely outcome, with a K/9 under 6 and a few too many of his pitches ending up in the Ohio River. Once again, Griffey & Co. won't help, either.

4. Eric Milton: Speaking of the Ohio River, we can finally talk about its primary pollutant. It's entertaining to me that the 2005 Cincinnati Reds team page on lists Milton first among starting pitchers. That's only because he started more games than anyone else on the staff, but the mere suggestion that he's anybody's "ace" makes me giggle. That, his 6.47 2005 ERA, and his HR/9 rate that requires scientific notation to be expressed in five digits or fewer. ZiPS suggests he'll come back all the way to a 5.55 ERA. PECOTA is far rosier, not only suggesting he'll come in under 5, but also predicting he'll be above replacement level. Yes, Reds fans, Eric Milton, despite allowing the occasional NL hitter a shot at the all-time distance record, may actually help your team this year. He certainly won't be worth the price, but...small victories, man, small victories.

5. Dave Williams: When the Reds first traded for him, I liked the deal, thinking Cinci had picked up a league-average starter while, essentially, dumping salary and making room for Wily Mo Pena. Of course, they ended up making room for the Pickin' Machine instead, and I'm not so sure anymore that Williams is league-average. Like just about everybody else on this staff, his peripherals suggest he has very little upside. In fact, with a career K/9 well under 6 and a HR rate within shouting distance of Milton's, Williams doesn't have much in his track record to dispell a pessimistic ZiPS projection of a 5.50 ERA. PECOTA is a bit more pleasant to Dave, but not as much as it is for Milton, giving Williams a weighted-mean projection of 4.93. Like Milton, he'll be above replacement level, but at the risk of making a comment as meaningless as it is inane, that might say more about replacement level than it does about Dave Williams.

6. Paul Wilson: Speaking of replacement level, here you go. Wilson will start the season on the DL, but if his recovery goes as planned, he'll be the first man in to stop the bleeding if one of the starters goes down or Dave Williams pitches like he's projected to. However, he won't stop the bleeding: he'll just offer a whole bunch of kleenex in hopes it'll start clotting before he has to do anything about it. ZiPS and PECOTA more or less agree on Wilson: expect few strikeouts, too many HRs, and an ERA in the neighborhood of 5.30.

Others: After writing all those nasty things about the six guys likely to start most of the Reds games this year, I would love to talk about all the hope Reds fans should have for 2007 and beyond. But it just ain't there. Homer Bailey figures to help out eventually, but unless the organization gets overexcited and rushes him, his ETA can't be any earlier than September, and he might not be ready to make an impact until 2008. The Reds recent history with young arms doesn't bode well for Bailey or anyone else in the system, but it seems like if anybody has a shot to make it in spite of that history, it's Homer.

CL: Dave Weathers: Like Aaron Harang at the front of the rotation, Dave Weathers finds himself at the back of the bullpen not exactly because he's "closer" material, but because he probably has more closer-y goodness than any of the other options. As much as the Reds would love to have Ryan Wagner be unhittable again, they are probably better off with a steady, if unspectacular, veteran there to save 80 or 90 percent of his chances. Weathers is capable of stretches of dominance, like his partial season in Milwaukee in '01, when he managed a 2.03 ERA over nearly 60 innings. Will he do that again, having been handed the magical closer role for as long as he can hold on to it? Probably not. But in 2006 he may well be better than either of his 9th inning geographic neighbors, Todd Jones and Bob Wickman.

The Locks: If this pitching staff were coached by Leo Mazzone or Mike Maddux, pundits would be predicting the Reds bullpen to be one of the big surprises of thie National League season. This group is built on veterans who could remain productive for another campaign, journeymen who hope to have a solid full season for a first time, and youngsters who just might put it all together this year. As it is, Vern Ruhle is the pitching coach, and his reputation suggests we're looking at a big bag of question marks. Two of the Reds most reliable late-inning options, Kent Mercker and Chris Hammond, each built their reputations under Mazzone, and I'd be a lot more comfortable with their '06 prospects if they were reunited with the master.

Mercker pitched great in his 20s, took several years off from pitching great, but has been excellent since his 35th birthday. As a relief lefty, though not yet an official LOOGY--he's too good for that--he's probably got many more years ahead of him, as well. The more important question for the Reds right now is how long he'll stay as productive as he's been since 2003. ZiPS is unfriendly, suggesting an ERA of 4.74, while PECOTA likes Kent more, with a weighted mean of 4.40. Either one would represent the beginning of the end for Mercker's sterling career; despite PECOTA warning of a 61% collapse rate, the Reds have to hope he holds off father time just a bit longer.

PECOTA and ZiPS don't agree on Chris Hammond, either, but they differ in opposing directions. Like in Mercker's case, one wonders just how long this particular 40-year-old will remain effective. His 2005 with San Diego was his weakest campaign since Leo Mazzone revived his career in '02, and accordingly, PECOTA gives him a collapse rate of 70%. Frankly, if PECOTA gave me a collapse rate of 70%, I'd just fall over, take the year off, and sign a minor league deal with the Orioles next year, but that's probably one of the reasons why Chris Hammond is about to start his 14th big-league season, and I'm sitting in my tiny apartment writing about him.

I was about to write some really nasty stuff about Rick White, and then lay into the Reds for picking him up and virtually guaranteeing him a roster spot. Then I remember that it's Gabe White who sucks, not Rick. Rick gives the Reds another mild-risk, low-upside aging 7th-inning option. Surprisingly for a 37-year old, White gets a 55% improve rate from PECOTA--even his 60th percentile projection, with its 3.91 ERA, would probably make most Reds fans happy.

The Rest: The latest word from Reds camp is that three guys out of Matt "Don't be Shea Hillenbrand," Belisle, Mike "Ouch, that" Burns, Todd "Cup of" Coffey, and Ryan "I prefer Brahms to" Wagner will make up the rest of the staff. When Paul Wilson and, maybe, Grant Balfour come back from injury, one or two of those guys will find themselves in Louisville, despite the really icky face I make every time I have to type the name "Paul Wilson." Both ZiPS and PECOTA like Todd Coffey, at least relative to their opinions of everybody else in this bullpen. If those predictions are to be realized, however, Coffey will have to come a lot closer to his minor league numbers of 8+ K/9 than to his 4 K/9 with the Reds in his half-season in the bigs.

Ryan Wagner is the only other guy on this list who will be on a long leash, but unfortunately that isn't based on recent performance. By now, he's relegated to somewhat unimportant innings while the oldsters close out ballgames. If he shows any sign of the 2003 magic returning, though, he'll be back in the 8th inning quicker that you can say, "Mike Burns? Never heard of him." Burns and Belisle have both had decent enough springs to earn their way onto the roster, but that probably just means they've wasted their good innings in Florida. Both are replaceable and, not quite by definition, they'll probably be replaced soon enough.

The Summary: Unlike their division rival Milwaukee Brewers, whose pitching staff I wrote about the other day, there isn't much depth among the Cincinnati mound corps, and that isn't just reflected in Louisville, it shows up on the back end of the roster. No one beyond Harang, Arroyo, and a few veteran bullpen guys are average-or-better Major League pitchers, and nothing in their environment is making their jobs any easier. While the acquisition of Arroyo and some happy regression from Eric Milton will keep the Reds from breaking any records they'd rather not talk about, I have a tough time envisioning the scenario in which this staff gives up less than 850-860 runs, let alone the 800 or so that would be necessary to keep the Reds in contention.