Sunday, March 23, 2014

2014 NL Central Preview: Cincinnati Reds with @RedlegNation

Just as quickly as the MLB season ended last year it is ready to kick back up again in 2014. Spring Training has been going on for some time now and as you look at the calendar you realize that opening day is just about a week away and you are ready for months of baseball every day.

The past two years I have done an NL Central preview where I get together with some of the best bloggers from around the NLC and get them to talk about their teams and what we can expect from them. As it was last year I will ask each of them 15 questions and they will give you the low down on what to expect in 2014.

After the four previews from around the division there will be a three part series previewing the Pirates. The Pirates preview is, um, extensive.

The second of the preview series and is going to feature the Cincinnati Reds. Today I will be talking with Richard Fitch from Redleg Nation, the Reds blog on SB Nation. If you are not doing so already give the dude a follow. They do great work and were nice enough to come talk on the blog.

Anyways, hit the jump for the preview questions for the 2014 Cincinnati Reds.

1) Last year the Reds were one of three teams to make the playoffs from the NL Central. Even though they lost that Wild Card game what were your thoughts of them in 2013?

RN: Going into the last week of the season, the Reds had reached the 90 game win mark. Then, they lost their last 5 games of the season, two against the lowly Mets. September seemed to be a microcosm of the 2013 season for the Reds. They took 3 of 4 from the Cardinals and swept the Dodgers to open the month, but lost series to the Brewers and Cubs at a time when wins were at a premium.

It sounds funny to say, given that they won 90 game, but they felt like an erratic team. They could never go on long winning streaks. It was frustrating to watch at times.

2) Speaking of the Wild Card game it came against the Pirates. For someone that has a huge bias about PNC Park and what last year was like how did you think Pittsburgh stacked up on the national stage? Does Johnny Cueto still have night terrors?

RN: Hah. If Cueto is looking over his shoulder, he isn't admitting it to anybody.

The 2013 Pirates reminded me very much of the 2010 Reds---a team on the cusp. There are few parks better suited to showcase the postseason better than beautiful PNC Park. Maybe AT&T Park in San Francisco, but that's about it. It was impressive how well the Pirates played the Cardinals. They clearly didn't rest on their laurels after winning the WC play-in game.

3) On to the real stuff, how come it seems like 60% of Cincinnati hates Joey Votto despite him being a top-three player in the National League?

RN: [sigh] I wrote about this extensively as the year wore on. A big part of it is the money. $225M is a number most of us can't grasp. Votto got this contract just as the economy was in the throes of a recession, which doesn't help perception much. Most people think ballplayers are overpaid even in the best of times. Also, his shy and quiet nature has left some fans with the mistaken impression that he is aloof. And his hitting philosophy--one that embraces advanced metrics--leaves a lot of "old school" fans cold. His knee injury, although healed by the time spring training began, kept him from preparing physically in the off season the way he normally does. This had the effect of robbing him of much of his power until August. Fans didn't understand, preferring to focus on his tendency to walk, as pitchers refused to give him much to hit. It was kind of a perfect storm.

During the off-season, he's gone on the offensive by going on talk radio in Cincinnati and fielding questions from the fans in an attempt to change the narrative. We'll see how the perception of Joey changes this year.

4) How big of a loss is Sin-Soo Choo?

RN: He's was getting on base 40% of the time. You simply can't replace that. On the other hand, we didn't really capitalize on his success last year because the 5 right handed hitters behind him in the lineup were below league average. Choo spent a lot of time stranded on base at the end of innings. It's going to put a lot of pressure on young Billy Hamilton. However, as great as Choo was at the plate, he was a poor defensive player in CF. Hamilton, with his speed, is going to be a huge improvement. If Billy can get on base at a .325 clip, CF will be fine.

5) Outside of Votto and Choo last year nobody really got on base a whole ton. How big of a problem is this in your eyes for 2014? Can they fix it?

RN: Well, they did nothing over the winter to address the problem. However, their starting left fielder, Ryan Ludiwck, injured his shoulder on Opening Day and didn't make it back into the lineup until August and he was unable to make a contribution after that. We shall see if he's healthy and ready to go. Anything he gives the Reds will be better than what they got last year. Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco shared catching duties last year, but Ryan was crippled with injuries most of the year and sharing the catching duties has stunted Devin's offensive growth to some degree. Hanigan was traded to the Rays, so the job is Mesoraco's now. The Reds believe he will settle in and give them more offense this year. And, of course, the Reds are counting on Hamilton to get on base often enough to create some serious mischief on the base paths.

If Ludwick can't come back, that's a problem. They are playing him a lot of money in 2014. And the Reds don't have prospects to trade right now if Ryan can't get the job done.

6) Brandon Phillips didn’t have a very good year last year and it’s been talked about that he will be dealt. I find it a little tough to believe that a team would take on his declining skill set with the money he will be paid. Do you think Phillips can bounce back?

RN: Maybe. It should be remembered that before he was hit on the wrist on June 1st against your Pirates, he was having an exceptional season. He was by far the best hitter with RISP for the Reds and was feasting on RBIs courtesy of Choo and Votto's .400+ OBP. Was the second half slump entirely the result of the wrist injury he played on through, or was it simply that he's an aging second baseman?

We'll see. I suspect that without Choo, his RBI totals are going to drop dramatically. But if he stays healthy, he might just mitigate some of the drop off. Also, the rumors that the Reds were looking to deal him have left him with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Brandon plays well with a chip on his shoulder. Ask the Cardinals and the Indians.

7) Billy Hamilton will make more of at impact this year in terms of games played. Some people have soured on him because while he can steal bases at will he seems to have trouble getting on base. What is a realistic expectation for this year? Are people setting the bar too high for him based on his speed?

RN: Like it or not, the Reds have a lot riding on Blazin Billy and his ability to get on base. Most of the knowledgeable fans around here know he struggled last year in AAA, particularly the first part of the season. However, everywhere he's been in the minors, he's displayed an ability to pick up things fast. He was moved from SS to CF last year, and that probably hurt him offensively as he learned a new position. He's got a lot of people working with him, trying to get him up to speed. Eric Davis for one is mentoring him.

Again, if he could post a .325 OBP, I think a lot of people would be happy.

8) The Reds have a really nice starting staff. Homer Bailey just inked a new deal that will pay him a lot of money (six years, $105M). Fair deal?

RN: Fair? Sure. Not necessarily the home town discount the Reds were probably hoping for, and they probably would have liked to have done 5 years instead of 6, but, yeah, fair, considering Homer's trajectory. You really can't look at his lifetime stats and draw conclusions. You have to remember that he's been getting better each year and particularly when you look at the last 2 years, you see a pitcher whose strikeout rate continues to improve while his walk rate remains constant and fairly low. He's also gained velocity, which is unusual. More and more, he's been able to miss bats inside the strike zone. He's not there yet, but he's on the verge of becoming an elite pitcher.

The Reds are not paying for past performance, they are paying for what they hope to get in the future. And at only 27 years old, the future is bright for Homer Bailey.

9) Mat Latos and Mike Leake are also going to be cogs in this starting rotation. Are they going to be enough to carry the Reds on the pitching side?

RN: Mat Latos is a stud. Nobody's worried about Mat. Hopefully, the Reds will have enough in the coffers to keep him a Red, too, as free agency apporaches. Mike Leake has gotten better with each passing season. He doesn't throw heat like the other guys, but he's got great control. He's a smart, savvy kid who wants to win. Both of these guys will be solid in 2014.

10) I have to assume that Aroldis Chapman is going to stay in the pen. I know there are some still of the idea that he should be converted to a starter. Where do you sit on that?

RN: That ship has sailed. He should have been converted 2 seasons ago. Don't even get me started. He threw 63 innings last year--a tremendous waste of talent. There's no way they could get his innings totals up in the next two years to make him truly valuable as a starter, unless the Reds were willing to go the Chis Sale route and simply jack up his innings dramatically. But, it's not happening.

If Chapman is going to be a starter, it will be for another team.

11) Another point on Chapman is a story that ran about his offseason. What were your thoughts on that story and how did that go over in Cincinnati?

RN: Well, the article definitely rattled some people in Cincinnati. They wonder if he's taking the game seriously, if his emotional makeup is where it needs to be. I can't put myself in his shoes. His life experiences are completely different from anything we can imagine. What he's had to go through, the adjustment to life in a new country, without his family for much of the time, the language barrier, the sudden fame and fortune--it's a lot to handle.

He's come into Spring Training in shape and ready to dominate. That's all I know.

12) The Pirates and Reds are teams that are very similar and probably will be fighting for one of the Wild Card spots (I hope). Is that the way people in Cincinnati sees the season unfolding?

RN: Yeah. I think most have given the Cardinals the Central already. I'll just say this: the Nationals were a shoo-in last year at this time, too, remember? St. Louis is going to have to get repeat performances by some very young pitchers. There is no way Carpenter has the season he had last year at second base. And the team's batting average with RISP last season was through the roof and frankly is unsustainable.

13) Who is going to be the biggest wild card this year for the Reds? Who might be overvalued heading into the year?

RN: First and foremost for me it's Ryan Ludwick. At 35 and coming off a major injury, does he have anything left in the tank? The Reds were terrible from the right side of the plate last year and Walt Jocketty has laid a heavy bet that Ludwick is going to return to form.

Tony Cingrani was great filling in for the oft-injured Johnny Cueto last year. Now he takes over Bronson Arroyo's spot in the rotation. I think the expectation is that he'll pick right up where he left off. But, that's no given.

14) What are your overall expectations for the team this season and what do you see their record being at years end?

RN: For me, it's all about HEALTH. The Reds need a full season out of Cueto, a healthy Ludwick, and a return to form from Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton in the bullpen in order to share the load keep the rest of the relievers well rested. They need Joey Votto's knee to be back to 100% and his lower body ready for the rigors of the Big 162. And a healthy Brandon Phillips wouldn't hurt. Tell your Pirate pitchers to stay way from BP's wrist this year. :)

I'm gonna guess 92 wins for the Redlegs.

15) Last year the Pirates finally broke “the streak” and then made the playoffs. Great times. What are your thoughts on them this season?

RN: As I said earlier, they reminded me last year of the 2010 Reds. Almost there, but not quite ready for the bright lights. And like the Reds, they didn't seem to make many moves in the off season. However, the Pirates entire system is in great shape. You are loaded with prospects, particularly in the outfield, which all of us Reds fans are envious of. I predict a lot of baseball writers are going to be jumping on the Pirates bandwagon in the years to come. The way the organization has bought into advanced metrics is admirable. Dan Fox, Neal Huntington and that old school guy Hurdle deserve a lot of credit for seeing the future of the game and taking advantage they way they did last year, using the Shift to dramatically improve the defense. The Pirates have youth, depth and brains.

I'd say you guys around going to around for awhile.

Huge thanks to Richard for coming on and talking about the Reds. Make sure you follow those guys on Twitter and check out their writing.

You can tune in tomorrow when we take a look at the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers.

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