It seems ages ago since first baseman Joey Votto was National League MVP. Hell, it feels like more than a year since Votto played the full 162 and led the Senior Circuit in walks, OBP, and plate appearances. Votto missed 100 games in 2014 and when on the diamond was a shell of his All-Star self. If the Canadian clubber is truly 100%, the middle of the Reds order becomes one of the most fearsome in the National League. This is the last year Votto is reasonably affordable, his salary jumps from $14 million to $20 million next year, $22 million in 2017, and $25 million until 2023. If last year was the sign of aging rather than an anomaly, the Reds will have a giant albatross of a contract on their hands. Another high paid Red coming off a down season is second baseman Brandon Phillips. After eight straight seasons of 17 or more home runs, injuries limited Phillips to just 8 dingers. He also registered Cincinnati career lows in RBIs, OBP, and slugging percentage. Now that Cincinnati has stopped trying to trade him, Phillips must prove his worth to the club. At 33, it is possible that Phillips is in decline. Just do yourself a favor and don't tell him that. The other side of the infield stayed relatively healthy in 2014. Shortstop Zack Cozart continued to improve defensively, but his offense fell off a cliff. At the hot corner, Todd Frazier settled in to third base full time, even though he got some starts at first with Votto out. He responded with career highs in home runs (29) and RBI (80) in garnering his first All-Star appearance. Votto's return will give Frazier more positional stability and a good chance to improve on his tremendous 2014. The other Reds position player to make the All-Star team last season was catcher Devin Mesoraco. The 26 year old Mesoraco's season was (broken record alert) hindered by reoccurring hamstring issues. He still was able to hit 25 home runs and tie Frazier for the team lead with 80 RBI in just 114 games. His new 4 year, $28 million dollar extension will be a bargain if he can replicate even those shortened season numbers on a yearly basis.
The outfield is the most volatile property the Reds have. Billy Hamilton stole an impressive 56 bases his rookie season. That number could have been even better if not for just a .250 batting average and being caught stealing a Major League high 23 times. If the sophomore slump can be avoided, Hamilton will be looking to break triple digits in thefts. That feat hasn't been done in the Majors since Vince Coleman in 1987. Jay Bruce is once again in right field. After his best season as a pro in 2013, Bruce hit the first real roadblock in his career. He failed to hit 20 home runs for the first time and posted his first ever sub-.300 OBP. He's been in the Cincinnati outfield for a while so it is easy to forget he is just 27. Second year manager Bryan Price is hoping the only thing Bruce forgets is his 2014. Completing the trio in left field is offseason pickup Marlon Byrd. Acquired from the Phillies for a minor leaguer, Byrd continues his late career renaissance. The only troubling statistic is that Byrd struck out 185 times in 2014, far and away his worst tally ever. The Great American Ball Park can only help his recent home run hitting ways and whatever he puts forth is an upgrade over last year's left field production. He just cannot challenge for the dubious strikeout crown again.
The starting rotation is Johnny Cueto and then a handful of question marks. Cueto has been stellar his last two complete seasons. He went 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 0.96 WHIP last year and finished second to NL MVP Clayton Kershaw in the NL Cy Young voting. He's in a contract year in 2015 so expect him to try to even best those figures. If the Reds slip out of contention this summer though, expect his work to be done elsewhere. The temporary #2, a spot that will be occupied by Homer Bailey when he returns from injury, is Mike Leake. Leake is a solid middle of the rotation type guy. His stuff doesn't blow you away but he gets outs, eats innings, and at the end of the year will have made 30+ starts. If Homer Bailey's DL stint lasts more than two weeks, Leake may struggle as the second starter. If not, I think he'll have another run of the mill Mike Leake season. Anthony DeSclafani is currently tabbed as the team's third starter. Coming over from Miami in the Mat Latos trade, DeSclafani possesses strikeout stuff but also has displayed control issues in Spring Training. His proclivity for giving up the long ball has reared its ugly head this spring as well. With options left, he may get some more Minor League seasoning to make way for Bailey. If DeSclafani is kept up, the man most likely to be sent down to clear a roster spot for Bailey is fourth starter Raisel Iglesias. The Cuban defector (whose birthday is TODAY) is a converted reliever but has an impressive yet not overpowering arsenal. The fifth starter is slated to be journeyman Jason Marquis. The Reds will be his ninth team and he'll be looking to stay in the Majors in 2015 after a lost 2014 in Philadelphia's farm system.
Like the rotation is Johnny Cueto and question marks, the bullpen is the same with Aroldis Chapman at closer. The fireballing Cuban responded well after a scary Spring Training comebacker stole his first month. He posted his third consecutive 30+ save season and made his third straight All-Star team. However, getting to Chapman was a hard ask. Even with Chapman's 2.00 ERA in tow, the Reds bullpen had the second worst ERA in the NL at 4.11 and the lowest win total with 11. They stank even with the lowest workload (422 1/3 innings) in the Majors. They are hoping adding Tony Cingrani to the mix will help the cause. They also seem to be willing to use the aforementioned Iglesias in a more familiar relief role if he flounders in the rotation. Either way, the Reds are going to be hoping for another season of deep inning starts from their starting staff to avoid having to use wild cards like Sam Lecure, Kevin Gregg, JJ Hoover, and Sean Marshall.
The Reds biggest problem is a lack of depth. They showed it last year and Walt Jocketty did little to address it. If God forbid Votto goes down again or they decide to trade Cueto earlier than the deadline, the Reds will not be able to plug the holes. If you are looking to make a buck betting an over/under this season, take the Reds over 77 1/2 (via Bovada). Just be prepared to sweat it out.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #10 (DOWN 9)
PREDICTED RECORD: 79-83
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REP: Devin Mesoraco (catcher)
Trevor Utley is hoping to see the Reds live at the GAB this season.
Image Credit: Reds logo (sportslogos.net)