2011 Cincinnati Reds: Can virtually the same team repeat in the NL Central and win a playoff game for the first time since 1990?

2010 Record: 91-71, 1st NL Central
2010 Prediction: 85-77, 1st NL Central
Diff: 6
2011 Prediction: 2nd NL Central

Impact Player: 1B Joey Votto
Impact Pitcher: RHP Johnny Cueto
Best Reliever: LHP Aroldis Chapman
Top Prospect: LHP Aroldis Chapman

General Manager: Walt Jocketty
Manager: Dusty Baker (243-243, .500)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Jose Arredondo, SS Edgar Renteria, OF Fred Lewis

Significant Departures:
SS Orlando Cabrera, OF Laynce Nix, OF Chris Dickerson, RHP Aaron Harang, LHP Arthur Rhodes, RHP Micah Owings

SHAMLESS SELF-PROMOTION DISCLAIMER: Well, that week off was needed to catch up with the rest of life and now I’m back with the rest of the NL Central previews.  I also want to direct everyone to Getting Blanked, where my second column as the fantasy baseball writer was posted today.

On the strength of a ton of very talented home-grown players, the Cincinnati Reds leapt back into contention in 2010, winning the NL Central division and going to the playoffs for the first time since 1995.  However, the Reds were bounced by the Phillies in three straight games in the NLDS so the franchise has still not won a playoff game since winning the World Series in 1990.

In 2011, the Reds will field practically the exact same team as they did in 2010.  They replaced one aging shortstop (Orlando Cabrera) with another (Edgar Renteria) and still have one of the more talented young rotations in the NL.  NL MVP Joey Votto and five-tool outfielder Jay Bruce are back and anchor the middle of a solid lineup and the Reds once again look primed to contend in the weak NL Central.
Starting Rotation
What was amazing about the 2010 season for the Reds was that they were so competitive despite the fact that they were missing perhaps their best pitcher in Edinson Volquez.  After turning out a terrific 2008 season, Volquez missed half of each of the last two years recovering from Tommy John surgery and posted a mediocre 4.32 ERA when he did pitch.  Having now had over a year of recovery time from the surgery, Volquez could capture his 2008 form and reassume the position of ace on this team.

Filling in for Volquez in that department last season was Johnny Cueto who had a nice breakout campaign posting a 3.64 ERA.  His FIP was slightly higher at 3.97 but he was still a solid all-around pitcher last season.  He’s still just 25, but most people think last year was about the ceiling for Cueto.

The Reds re-signed veteran Bronson Arroyo to a three-year, $35-million contract this offseason after a 17-win, 3.88 ERA campaign.  Arroyo’s FIP of 4.61 suggests that he was more than a tad lucky last season.  In fact, Arroyo has only once posted a FIP under 4.15 and that was back in 2004 with the Red Sox.  His 4.50 FIP since that year ranks him among pitchers such as Doug Davis and Noah Lowry.  How do you spell overrated?

The final two spots will be battled for by three pitchers in Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Travis Wood.  After skipping the minor-leagues altogether, Leake was impressive in the first couple months of 2010 before his inexperience got the better of him.  He finished with a 4.23 ERA and 4.68 FIP in 138.1 innings of work, but should be able to approach the 200-inning mark this year if the Reds let him.  He might also do okay with a look at AAA if the team deems that Wood and Bailey are more ready right now.

Bailey was once a can’t-miss prospect, but has fallen off the map somewhat in recent seasons.  He’s still just 25 and began to show signs that he is coming around at times last season.  He finished with a 4.46 ERA, but his FIP was a much more respectable 3.74 which might be more what you’d expect from him in ERA going forward.

Wood is a projectable arm who most experts think can be a solid number four or five in the future, but not much more.  His high flyball rate is a scary thing at Great American Ballpark and he may end up being on the outside looking in with two much more projectable starters ahead of him.  Most of his 2010 starts came on the road.
Bullpen
The Reds have made it clear that they will not send Cuban import Aroldis Chapman back to the minors, so they look content to keep him in the bullpen at least for the 2011 season.  His ceiling is seemingly limitless and if the Reds decide to keep him in the ‘pen long-term, they could be looking at one of the most dominant relievers in the game for a long time.  It’s hard to see the Reds doing that given the amount of money they spent on him, but with a fastball that had an average velocity of 99.6 mph 2011 should be fun to watch.  His fastball is impressive, but his slider is his bread-and-butter.  There are few better breaking pitches in baseball.

The closer will be Francisco Cordero who’s back again for what could be a walk-year if the Reds don’t pick up his $12-million option for next season, which they probably won’t.  Cordero is a solid pitcher who posted 40 saves a year ago, but his 3.84 ERA ad 3.92 FIP are slightly (although not terribly so) erratic for one of the highest paid relievers in baseball.

Nick Masset was acquired a few years ago from the White Sox in the Ken Griffey Jr. trade and posted a terrific 9.98 K/9 rate and solid 2.58 K/BB ratio last season.  He has the stuff to be a dominant reliever and could be the closer beyond this season if Cordero signs elsewhere and Chapman moves to the rotation.

In middle relief, Logan Ondrusek had a decent rookie campaign in the Reds’ bullpen but was a tad lucky with a .241 BABIP that should normalize in 2011, while lefty Bill Bray is a good pitcher with a gift for missing bats.  He should have a long career.

The remainder of the bullpen will be fought over by Jose Arredondo, Sam LeCure, Jared Burton, Carlos Fisher, Daniel Ray Herrera, Matt Maloney, Jordan Smith, and the loser in the rotation pursuit.  Arredondo was once a solid reliever in the Angels’ system but missed all of last season with an injury, LeCure could also provide starting depth as a swingman, and Herrera and Maloney have more than a good shot being that they’re both left-handers.

Catchers
Veteran Ramon Hernandez is getting up there, but he’s still a decent offensive catcher.  He isn’t the fielder he once was, but he doesn’t embarrass himself either.  The Reds could do a lot worse than a .297/.364/.428 catcher.

Ryan Hanigan also had a nice year last season posting a .368 wOBA with a .300/.405/.429 slash line.  He’s a very patient hitter with a walk-rate over 13% in 2010 and is an average defender.  Most teams struggle to have one solid catcher, the Reds have two that combined for a 4.8 WAR last season.

Prospect Devin Mesoraco had a breakout year in the minors last season and is now scheduled to arrive sometime this year and could be the team’s everyday catcher as early as next season.  He posted a .421 wOBA in AA last year.

Infielders
Votto beat out fellow first baseman and consensus ‘best player in baseball’ Albert Pujols to win the NL MVP in 2010.  His 7.4 WAR was behind only Josh Hamilton in all of baseball and so was his .439 wOBA and he finished with a stupid .324/.424/.600 slash line for a 1.024 OPS.  Votto became the third Canadian-born player to win an MVP after Larry Walker and Justin Morneau.

At second base is the five-tool wonder Brandon Phillips who was once again very good in 2010.  He finished with a 4.0 WAR rating and has now averaged a 3.8 WAR over the past four seasons.  Only Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, and Robinson Cano have accumulated higher WAR rating among second basemen in that time.

With Cabrera signing in Cleveland, the Reds appear to finally be giving defensive wizard Paul Janish the chance he deserves at shortstop.  Spelling him will be 2010 World Series MVP Edgar Renteria who signed for one year this offseason from the Giants.  If Janish appears unable to handle the everyday job, Renteria can step in and provide a veteran presence.  Even though his 2010 was considered a down year, Renteria was still a 1.3 WAR player who was solid defensively.

At third base, the Reds have former Blue Jay Scott Rolen who has been completely healthy the last two seasons and has looked more like his former self.  Last year, the 36-year-old proved he could still get it done with a .385/.358/.497 slash line and 10.6 UZR defensively.  He’d be headed to the Hall of Fame had injuries not taken a few of his prime years.  The trade the Reds made to acquire Rolen from the Jays for pitcher Zach Stewart and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion was a deal that appears to be working out very well for both sides.

Veteran Miguel Cairo is back as a utility infielder.  The 37-year-old had a .290/.353/.410 slash line last season at the plate and can provide depth at every infield position.

Chris Valaika had a .304/.330/.408 slash line in AAA and can provide depth in the infield if someone gets hurt.

Outfielders
Jay Bruce established himself as an elite defensive rightfielder in 2010 with a 20.2 UZR rating and seven outfield assists.  At the plate, Bruce complimented his outstanding glove work with a .281/.353/.493 slash line to go along with 25 homeruns.  He was a 5.3 WAR player which was second on the team to only Votto.  2011 is the year he establishes himself as an elite player in all facets of the game.

In centerfield, Drew Stubbs showed that his power stroke was no fluke hitting 22 homeruns and posting a .444 slugging percentage and although he was merely average in center still has a lot of defensive upside.  At 26, Stubbs could put it all together for a breakout year this season, but his career .329 BABIP has to be a concern.  If it normalizes, Stubbs could end up being a below average player.

The Reds don’t really have a legitimate starting leftfielder, and will likely have to rely on a platoon of a couple fourth outfielders in Fred Lewis and Jonny Gomes.  Gomes put up a negative WAR rating in 2010 mainly because of his god-awful defence in left.  He’s not a bad hitter, but is likely best suited as a barely passable DH on some AL team.

Manager Dusty Baker says he will give Gomes the majority of the playing time in left and will not platoon him with Lewis further cementing the theory that managers, like organized religion, do more harm than good.  Gomes’ .277/.372/.509 career slash line against lefties as opposed to his .232/.308/.437 line against righties makes it obvious that a platoon is in the Reds’ best interest; as does Lewis’ .280/.354/.442 career slash line against righties, compared with his .244/.324/.326 line against lefties.

Chris Heisey may be the best option of all in left this season, but it’s doubtful anyone in the Reds’ dugout will come to that conclusion this season considering it has almost entirely to do with his very good defensive ability.

For a chart breaking down the Reds’ lineup, rotation, bullpen, and extended roster, click here.

Overview
The Reds are returning virtually the same team that won 91 games last year and although it’s foolish to think that Votto, Rolen, and Arroyo will repeat their numbers, it’s also reasonable to think that Volquez will return to form, their young starters will mature and Bruce, Stubbs, and Chapman will continue to get better.  91 wins is a stretch, but contention in the AL Central seems inevitable.
Final Prediction: 85-77, 2nd AL Central

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