Along with a graphical preview of each NL Central team, we’re also going to be asking a sabermetric blogger that covers each team 5 questions.  For the Reds I exchanged emails with Justin from Red Reporter and Beyond the Boxscore fame.  The following are my questions and his answers.  I answered a set of questions for him as well that will go up later this morning at Red Reporter.  I will link back to them when I get a chance.  UPDATE: Here is the link.  Thanks to Justin.

1.  I’ve gone on the record giving the slight edge in the division to the Reds because of their completeness, specifically that they are likely the best defensive team in the division.  Are they as good defensively as they seem on paper?  Is it just happenstance or was searching out plus defenders by design?

It was a change in strategy by the front office.  When Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. were traded in 2008, the team made a clear and conscious effort to shift towards becoming a fielding-oriented team.  The disappearance of those two players was a big step in that direction, and in 2009 they traded another poor fielder, Edwin Encarnacion, to the Blue Jays for Scott Rolen.  Add to that several outstanding defenders coming up to the big league club about this same time–Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, Ryan Hanigan, and Paul Janish–and you have a shift from terrible fielding to excellent fielding almost overnight.  It has been fun to watch, and is a big part of why they were successful last year.

The only outlier is Jonny Gomes.  Gomes is sort of “Adam Dunn-light.”  He’s not as big as Dunn, doesn’t hit as well or walk as much…  but neither player should be a left fielder.  I’m hoping that Fred Lewis or Chris Heisey gets a lot more time in left field this year, because Gomes typically just doesn’t hit well enough to support his horrible defense.  Aside from Gomes (and Edgar Renteria if he becomes the starter–more on him below), everyone is at least average–and many are well above average.
2.  What do you foresee Aroldis’s future looking like?  Any chance he gets stuck in a relief role because he succeeds there and they won’t want to mess with him?

Yeah, unfortunately, I think there’s a very good chance of this.  I think the chances of him finding his way into the rotation in 2011 are slim to none.  The rotation is over-full with big league-caliber talent, and the Reds lost their left-handed setup guy when Arthur Rhodes left via free agency.  That’s Chapman’s role this year.

In 2012 or later, it’s hard to say…  But Francisco Cordero is in the last guaranteed year of his contract, and I would be surprised if his 2012 option is picked up the way his strikeout numbers have been falling.  It seems likely enough to me that they will look around for a new closer after this season and decide that Chapman’s the best available option for the job.  And he probably will be amazing in that role.  But when you have someone who might (yes, emphasis on might) be the next Randy Johnson, I think you need to find out.  Because the next Randy Johnson is a lot more valuable than the next badass closer.

3.  SP depth seems like another strength. How do you see their rotation breaking down?  Anyone going to step up and be the #1?  Does it matter?

If you assume Chapman is stuck in the bullpen, then the Reds still have at least six big league-caliber pitchers.  Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Edinson Volquez would seem to be locks for the rotation.  Arroyo and Cueto are the most established, and Volquez has that one awesome season (2008) on his resume.  The Reds have to give him a strong opportunity to do that again.

That leaves two of Travis Wood, Mike Leake, and Homer Bailey for the final two spots.  I haven’t seen this stated anywhere by anyone official, but I think Bailey is the leader for the #4 spot.  He admittely has been the consummate tease since his first call-up in 2007.  Last spring, all we heard about was how his velocity was back after some mechanical adjustments, and that’s why he was so great over the final month of the 2009 season.  But while his 2010 ERA didn’t show much improvement (4.46 vs. 4.53 the prior year), his peripherals took a major step forward.  His strikeout rate jumped from 6.1 k/9 career to 8.3 k/9 last year, and his walk rate dropped from 4.5 bb/9 career to 3.3 bb/9.  The only thing that wasn’t markedly better was his ground ball rate, but at 42% last year (43% career), it’s not a major problem either.  I’m not saying he’s going to post an ERA to match his 2010 FIP (3.74, w/ 3.91 xFIP) next year, but I think there’s a good chance he becomes a very useful and effective pitcher next season.

So then, it’s between Wood and Leake.  While Leake had a terrific first half, he faded down the stretch and generally regressed towards where his peripherals had been much of the season.  He seemed to be a ground ball machine last year (50% GB%), and he generally didn’t hurt himself with walks (3.2 bb/9), but he didn’t miss many bats (5.9 k/9)…which makes me nervous.  Admittedly, of course, this was his first taste of pro ball, and he may improve on that front.  Wood, on the other hand, looked amazing during his 138 innings with the big league club: healthy strikeout rate (7.5 k/9), excellent walk rate (2.3 bb/9), fine home run rate (0.8 hr/9).  The only red flag on his resume was his ground ball rate (30%), which suggested that he may end up being an extreme flyball pitcher.  If he keeps allowing fly balls at that rate, he will start allowing more home runs, especially pitching half of his games at GABP.

It’s close, but if I were to guess right now, it’s Arroyo-Cueto-Volquez-Bailey-Wood, with Leake getting his first taste of minor league baseball in April.  Whoever ends up being the odd man out, however, I think all six starters are likely to get significant innings this season.  The sad fact of baseball is that pitchers get hurt.  It would be very surprising if a sixth (or even, at times, a 7th) starter isn’t needed during the season.  Fortunately, the Reds have at least two other starters who could probably be a passable a pinch (Matt Maloney and Sam LeCure), even if they suffer two rotation injuries.  It’s pretty impressive what they’ve built here–they really should have a strong rotation all season.

As for an ace…  While I think Edison Volquez or maybe even Homer Bailey could step up as an ace-type pitcher this year, I think the Reds’ depth allows their rotation, one through six, to match up very well with the rest of the league.  And that’s even if those guys “just” perform to projections.  Obviously, the better any one pitcher performs, the better for the team.  But I think that if the Reds’ offense doesn’t drop off too much this year, they have a good chance at contention with the rotation they have.

Now, once they make the playoffs, depth in the rotation matters a lot less than the strength of your top three.  And so in that circumstance, the Reds match up a lot worse against teams like the Phillies, Cardinals, Giants, and probably the Brewers.  But you also play in short series in the playoffs, so you never know what’ll happen.

4.  What do you think about their recent extensions given to Votto and Cueto?  Surprised Votto wasn’t a few more years?

I’m always happy to see the Reds extending young players.  In both cases, I think the deal comes out to a bit lower than you would expect to pay going year by year.  And perhaps just as importantly, especially with Votto, it prevents a situation where the player performs better than his 50% projection over the coming several years and essentially kills the payroll as his salary exceeds what we’d project today.  That said, I certainly feel happier about the Cueto contract, as it allows the Reds to buy out two of his free agent years–and one of those is an option year, which helps control some of the risk.

I’d love for the Reds to have done the same with Votto.  But it has been pretty clear for a while now that Joey wasn’t interested in a long term deal.  You need two parties to strike a deal, and I don’t think Votto was willing to entertain anything more than three years.  I think there is still a chance that the Reds will be able to sign Votto to a new deal once this one expires.  But it probably will not happen without him becoming a free agent and getting offers from other clubs.  Will the Reds win under those circumstances?  It’s not impossible, but it’s not the expected outcome either.

My views on Votto were pretty much summed up by a guy who calls himself Fat Vegas Alan at Red Reporter, who explained it more elegantly than I ever would be able to:

It’s a summer romance. Is it love? Yeah, it just might be. Will it last? No, probably not. But look kid, you’re holding hands and riding ferris wheels with the prettiest girl in town and she’s letting you do things you’ve never done before (at least not since ‘95) so it’s only right that you pay for her movie tickets and ice cream cones.

Hopefully, it will be a fun three (or two, if they trade him before he walks…) years.

5. Seems like the weakness on paper might be SS. I’ve been a Janish fan in the past…  How do you see SS playing out?

I view Paul Janish as something like a 1 WAR player, in terms of his true talent.  He can’t hit much–I’d be thrilled if he could repeat over a full season his 2010 line of .260/.338/.385–but he’s a superb defensive shortstop, and so he has some value.  But he’s also probably not a once in a generation shortstop like Adam Everett was, which means he’s likely a below-average player.  Maybe he’s similar to Brendan Ryan, depending on what you think of Ryan’s bat.

The problem is that I’m not convinced that Renteria is anything more than a replacement player.  He’s 35.  His fielding, several accounts, has slipped significantly over the past several years–his Fan Scouting Report numbers last year had him as the 5th-worst shortstop in baseball.  And he hasn’t added value with his bat since 2007.  He used to be an excellent player…but he’s just not anymore.

I don’t know how things are going to shake down.  Publicly, Dusty Baker has indicated that Janish is going to get a very good chance to be the starting shortstop.  So this probably isn’t an Orlando Cabrera situation where Janish won’t play unless there are no other options.  But I also think Janish will be on a pretty short leash, whether he “wins” the job out of spring training or not.  My best guess is that both Janish and Renteria end up with roughly the same amount of playing time.

Steve Sommer

Simulation analyst by day, father and baseball nerd by night

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2 Responses to “NL Central 5 Questions: Cincinnati Reds”

  1. Steve,

    Excellent site you got here. I enjoy the back and for you have done here with Red Reporter. I am member at Red Reporter and really liked both sides of the question exchange. It is nice to get an open and honest opinion from a fan of the enemy.

    I liked your Saber 101 & 201 pages. Always helpful to have a quick reference when looking at advanced stats to be able to interpret what I am really looking at and what the data means.

    Keep up the good work.

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