We covered the Washington Nationals with the first pre-spring training preview, and now we're moving to the Central Division, where I expect the Reds to once again rule the roost. Like the Nationals, the Reds made few changes, but two of them are big ones. Todd Frazier will step in at third base for the departed Scott Rolen, giving the Cincy faithful that many more times to enjoy his "Fly Me to the Moon" intro music (he is a Jersey boy, after all), and perhaps they can hope for more no-handed home runs and credible Sinatra imitations. The other major move was getting Shin-Soo Choo in a three-way trade with the Indians and Diamondbacks, landing them their first credible leadoff hitter since Dusty Baker became the manager, and significantly weakening their outfield defense into the bargain, because now either Choo or Jay Bruce has to play center.
CF Shin-Soo Choo (L): .283/.374/.440, 16 HR, 18 SB, 4.2 WAR
2B Brandon Phillips (R): .277/.327/.432, 20 HR, 16 SB, 4.6 WAR
1B Joey Votto (L): .312/.422/.538, 27 HR, 8.0 WAR
RF Jay Bruce (L): .263/.342/.518, 36 HR, 4.5 WAR
LF Ryan Ludwick (R): .254/.327/.449, 19 HR, 1.7 WAR
3B Todd Frazier (R): .263/.325/.476, 15 HR, 3.5 WAR
SS Zack Cozart (R): .262/.310/.427, 15 HR, 3.6 WAR
C Devin Mesoraco (R): .255/.326/.445, 16 HR, 2.1 WAR
This may be the only lineup in the National League with solid power one through eight, as even the banjo-hitting Cozart is projected for sixteen bombs. Part of that is a function of playing in the Great American Bandbox, excuse me, Ballpark, but these guys have legitimate power. Votto is probably the best hitter in the league when he's healthy, a deserving MVP recipient in 2010 who will at least threaten to reclaim that award in 2013. His projections seem a tad conservative; I might even expect a .330/.445/.575 line out of him. Mesoraco's line indicates heretofore unwarranted faith that Dusty will give him a chance over incumbent Ryan Hanigan. Perhaps the organization will lean on him to do so, since they kept Mesoraco over Yasmani Grandal last winter (he was traded to San Diego as part of the Mat Latos deal).
The real problem with this lineup, as described earlier, is outfield defense. Choo is a slightly below-average right fielder (career Ultimate Zone Rating of -6.2) with a terrific arm, which means he will likely be a very limited center fielder with a terrific arm. Bruce is an average right fielder with one outstanding outlier season (19.7 UZR in 2010) who also has a terrific arm (as does Ludwick in left), so he will also be limited in center. Ideally for the Reds, this situation will apply only in 2013; after the season Choo is a free agent, and the team hopes that prospect Billy Hamilton, probably the fastest player in organized baseball (155 stolen bases across two levels in the minors last year, an all-time record), will have finished his conversion from shortstop and be ready to take over in 2014. The infield defense at least will be good at every position, but Reds pitchers might want to keep the ball down this year. Let's see how they look.
RHP Johnny Cueto: 215.0 IP, 169 K, 55 BB, 3.52 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 4.5 WAR
RHP Mat Latos: 208.0 IP, 194 K, 64 BB, 3.16 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 3.8 WAR
RHP Homer Bailey: 210.0 IP, 172 K, 54 BB, 3.86 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 3.0 WAR
RHP Bronson Arroyo: 218.0 IP, 136 K, 43 BB, 3.88 ERA, 4.44 FIP, 1.9 WAR
LHP Aroldis Chapman: 148.0 IP, 176 K, 53 BB, 3.21 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 4.2 WAR
Cueto is maybe the most underrated starter in the league; he was the equal last year of Cy Young finalists R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, and Clayton Kershaw. The top three all have similar profiles in terms of their ground ball percentage (mid-to-high forties), and Latos is likely projected to have the best ERA and FIP because he strikes out more hitters (at least a batter per nine more than Cueto or Bailey). Arroyo, however, is likely to get dinged by the new defensive alignment; he has always been a guy dependent on the defense behind him, with a very low strikeout rate and no real out pitch. But for the first few months of the season, at least, he will provide a stark contrast to the dynamic Chapman on back-to-back days. The Cuban Missile is being converted from closer to starter, and I for one applaud the move. It's pretty easy to find someone who can competently close out games in the ninth inning, but if you have a flamethrower with two wipeout pitches and you don't at least try him as a starter, you're wasting his value. Chapman struck out 15.32 batters per nine a year ago, an insane rate; Bill James has slated him to post a Randy Johnson-in-2001-esque 13.16 mark this year. Count me in for watching a few of Chapman's starts this year; he has the potential to be the most terrifying southpaw since, well, Randy Johnson.
That move means Jonathan Broxton will close at the back of a very good Reds bullpen, and Hanigan and Chris Heisey should be their top options off of the bench. Mike Leake will be available to spot start for Chapman in order to stretch his innings out so that the Reds don't have to face the hoopla that the Nationals did over Stephen Strasburg a year ago. All in all, this is a well-balanced team that should fare no worse than second in their division, and be a very watchable team to boot, even with the sometimes questionable decision-making of Dusty from the bench.