The Reds have gotten an uncharacteristic flurry of national press this week (I highly recommend this article at MLB.com), thanks in large part to their surprise signing of Cuban phenom, Aroldis Chapman. Aroldis may not be a household name, but he's gotten about as much buzz as any 21-year-old pitcher not named Stephen Strasburg. Like Strasburg, he can throw in the triple digits, as he proved last spring during the World Baseball Classic. Unlike Strasburg, there is very little evidence by which to predict Chapman's potential or longevity. While scouts and even average fans got the chance to see every college start Strasburg made during his exceptional 2009 season at San Diego State, Chapman has pitched the majority of his innings behind the Iron Curtain, as Cuba used him sparingly in international play, perhaps as a way of preventing his defection...which seemed, nonetheless, inevitable. Although he was hardly spectacular during the Classic (0-1, 5.68 ERA), buzz about him dominated coverage of the event, much as buzz about Dice-K dominated the 2006 version.
Chapman is just the latest high-ceiling Latino prospect to join the Reds pitching corps. In 2008 Cincinnati acquired Dominican right-hander, Edinson Volquez, as part of the Josh Hamilton trade and he immediately rewarded them with a 17-win season in his rookie year. He was joined by his countryman, Johnny Cueto, a veteran of the Reds system, who has managed solid, if not spectacular, numbers through his first two seasons (20-25, 4.61 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 290 K, 345 IP). Cueto will turn 24 in February. Volquez is 26.
Also on the horizon in Cincinnati are two more Dominicans. Enerio del Rosario is a 24-year-old reliever who owned the minor leagues in '09, posting a 1.68 ERA in fifty appearance across three levels. Pedro Viola is a hard-throwing left-hander who has struggled a bit in the high minors, but who the Reds still see as a potential future closer.
The Reds renewed dedication to international development seems to have had them on the verge of a breakthrough season for the last couple of years, but injuries to guys like Volquez, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Aaron Harang stymied the transition. In 2010, the Reds again look like a promising squad on paper, but possess very few proven commodities.
Jonny Gomes (29) OF
Kip Wells (32) RHRP
Jared Burton (29) RHRP
Nick Masset (28) RHRP
Yonder Alonso (23) 1B
Aroldis Chapman (22) LHSP
Todd Frazier (24) 2B/LF
Enerio del Rosario (24) RHRP
Pedro Viola (26) LHRP
The Reds look to me like an organization which is a bit in disarray, being pulled in different directions. The administration of Wayne Krivsky, who preceded Walt Jocketty as GM, did a fairly good job drafting and developing, and the Reds have produced a string of solid in-house run-producers, including Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce. On the other hand, Krivsky also hired a manager, Dusty Baker, who, though widely respected, also has a widely publicized Achilles heel when it comes to dealing with young players, often either distrusting them or, in the case of pitchers, exhausting them (the most famous example, of course, is Mark Prior). Thus, Jocketty's main goal in his first year as GM was balancing the roster with some veteran presences that Baker could identify with, most notably Scott Rolen and Arthur Rhodes.
In his first two seasons as the Reds manager, Baker has again been accused of pushing his top starting pitcher too hard, as both Aaron Harang and Edinson Volquez suffered injuries and ineffectiveness after heavy workloads. Baker, it is apparent, will not be changing his approach after almost two decades as a big-league manager, so the front office (assuming they plan on retaining him) will need to provide him with durable veteran arms for the rotation and the bullpen, in order to protect their young investments.
Bronson Arroyo is the prototype. Arroyo is a rubber-armed as any pitcher in baseball, having logged 200+ innings in each of the last five seasons, generally improving as the year unfolds (4.81 career ERA before the All-Star break, 3.66 after). He's notched the Reds fifteen victories in each of the last two seasons and last year was among the most underrated pitchers in baseball. After a typically inconsistent first six weeks, Arroyo managed a 3.11 ERA in his final 26 starts, and piled up 220 innings. If he can find a way to hit the ground running in April, he might finally be recognized as one of the better pitchers in the National League.
Aaron Harang has been the most noticeable casualty of the Baker era in Cincinnati. The former Ace, who won 32 games and pitched 466 innings in '06 and '07, had Dusty's mouth watering when he arrived prior to '08 and in April and May of that year Harang average 106 pitches per start. And that's before Baker brought him out to pitch four innings of relief on two days rest! At that moment Harang's ERA was 3.32. Since that time, Harang has gone 10-25 with a 4.87 ERA. He's planning on starting a support group with the other victims of Dusty Baker's overconfidence: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, Bill Swift, John Burkett, Shawn Estes, Russ Ortiz, and Carlos Zambrano.
The Reds season rides on the health of the rotation. When Arroyo, Harang, Volquez, and Cueto are at the top of their game, they are among the better front fours in the NL, and Chapman, Homer Bailey, and Micah Owings are high-octane options at #5. However, the risk that two or more of these guys will spend the majority of 2010 on the DL is very, very high.
Unfortunately, the Reds production on offense will also be largely a matter of health. Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, and Ramon Hernandez were among the many Reds who missed time in '09, and they are the core of the lineup, along with underappreciated second-basemen, Brandon Phillips. There is reason to believe that Votto is on the verge of becoming one of the premier hitters in the National League, as he posted a 981 OPS in 131 games in '09. If everybody comes back healthy and the rotation can reasonably limit the damage other teams do in the Great American Smallpark, the Reds have enough thunder to keep pace with most of their NL Central opponents.
There will be some interesting Spring Training battles at Reds camp, as Cincinnati doesn't have anybody locked in at shortstop, in center, or left field. There are several interesting candidates for the outfield. Chris Dickerson got off to a slow start in his rookie year, but was on a bit of a role, hitting .318 in a 43 game stretch during the summer, before an injury ended his season early. He'll be fully healthy in 2010 and is likely to get a long look as the Reds leadoff man.
His primary competition will be the man who was expected to fill that role last year. Willy Taveras, who also spent an extended stretch on the disabled list, had the worst year of his largely mediocre career, posting an downright anorexic OPS of 559. Taveras lives on his speed, as represented by his league-leading 68 steals in '08 and he is a quality defender, but in the last two years his OBP has been only .293 (his slugging is even lower!), indicating that until he can create more opportunities for himself, he will probably be limited to pinch-running and defensive replacement duties.
The Reds long-term outfield plans include both of the 25-year-olds who will get long looks this spring. If Drew Stubbs proves he has the range for centerfield, he may best both Taveras and Dickerson. Stubbs stole 46 bases at AAA in '09, then nabbed ten more in a limited audition with the Reds, also showing surprising power, with 8 HR in 180 AB. His plate discipline is decent, as his BB/K rate improved every year in the minors, but he will have to make another moderate step at the major league level if he hopes to become a premier leadoff man.
Walt Jocketty landed Wladimir Belentien from the Mariners for surprisingly little (Robert Manuel, a 26-year-old relief pitching prospect). Belentien has "light-tower power," as he displayed when he hit the longest homer of the 2009 season, and he mashed 122 HR in the minor leagues, before the age of 24 (17.4 AB/HR). But, like many young power-hitters, he has weaknesses which have been exploited at the big-league level. If this youngster starts getting regular at-bats and makes adjustments, he has cleanup hitter potential.
At shortstop the Reds options are not quite as promising. Paul Janish is the prototypical good-field, no-hit kind of middle infielder that usually doesn't fly on a team that doesn't already possess spectacular offensive depth. Adam Rosales is a fairly promising hitter, but the fact that the Reds spent much of '08 and '09 trying him at every other position on the infield suggests they don't have much faith in him as their everyday shortstop. The same can be said of Drew Sutton, who's shown some pop (20 HR, 931 OPS at AA in '08), but is best-suited for second base, where he's currently buried behind the Reds most established player. The 24-year-old Chris Valaika will also get an audition, as his defensive consistency improved dramatically at AAA (only 7 errors in '09, after making 24+ in each of the two previous seasons), but that corresponded to a dramatic season-long slump at the plate (his OPS dropped by 228 points).
In the end, this may be a good opportunity for Jocketty to bring in another veteran presence. Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, and Jerry Hairston remain unsigned. Or, as he did with Belentien, he could chase a solid prospect who has fallen out of favor with his current organization, as Jed Lowrie has in Boston and Emmanuel Burris has in San Francisco.
This is an important season for Cincinnati. Baker's contract expires at the end of the year, as do those for Harang and Arroyo. If the Reds can turn in their first winning season since 2000, I expect all will be brought back (though the pitchers may have to settle for smaller salaries). If they don't, I expect none will, and the rebuilding project will begin afresh with Jocketty as sole architect.
Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:
CF Chris Dickerson (L)
SS Orlando Cabrera (R FA
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
1B Joey Votto (L)
RF Jay Bruce (L)
3B Scott Rolen (R)
LF Wladimir Belentien (R)
C Ramon Hernandez (R)
SP Bronson Arroyo (R)
SP Edinson Volquez (R)
SP Aaron Harang (R)
SP Johnny Cueto (R)
SP Homer Bailey (R)
CL Francisco Cordero (R)
SU Nick Masset (R)
SU Danny Herrera (L)
LOOGY Arthur Rhodes (L)
MR Jared Burton (R)
MR Enerio del Rosario (R)
SWING Micah Owings (R)
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
IF Paul Janish (R)
IF Adam Rosales (R)
OF Willy Taveras (R)
OF Drew Stubbs (R)