Inside MLB | Cincinnati may be putting the National League on Red alert
Published: Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 03:03
Every Major League Baseball regular season seems to produce at least one fast-rising "Cinderella" team. Last year, it was the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays, who used an influx of young talent to capture the AL pennant. The year before that, the Colorado Rockies extended a summertime streak all the way to the Fall Classic. So which team is most likely to break out in 2009? The Cincinnati Reds seem like a viable option.
The Reds enter the 2009 season riding the longest active losing streak in the majors after dropping their last five games in 2008 and finishing at 74-88 — good for fifth place in the mediocre NL Central division. General manager Walt Jocketty spent most of the time from the end of the World Series until the beginning of Spring Training sitting on his hands. The only Major League additions made by the notoriously frugal Jocketty this winter were catcher Ramon Hernandez, via a trade with the Baltimore Orioles, and lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes, who inked a two-year contract in December.
So what makes the Reds a solid choice to suddenly surge into playoff contention? The maturation of an impressive pair of young pitchers, combined with an expected rebound from their veteran ace, tells half the story. A pair of young bats ready to anchor an improving lineup round out the reasoning. Two years ago, the Reds' farm system was teeming with prospects. In 2008, those prospects got their first taste of big-league action. Now, with a year of experience under their belts, they're finally ready to make a difference in The Show.
On the pitching end, the promising youngsters are right-handers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. The 25-year-old Volquez, acquired from the Texas Rangers for Josh Hamilton a year ago, brought back visions of vintage Pedro Martinez, baffling hitters with a phenomenal fastball-changeup combination to the tune of a 17-6 ledger, 3.21 ERA, 206 strikeouts and just 167 hits allowed in 196 innings of work in his first full big league season. Cueto, who turned 23 in mid-February, posted an unimpressive 9-14 record and 4.81 ERA for the season but showed just how dominant he can be in the one-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout, seven-inning masterpiece that was his Major League debut, in which he was the first Red since 1900 to throw 10 strikeouts in an opening game.
But perhaps no single player will be as important to the Reds' revival as the former ace of their rotation, Aaron Harang. From 2006 through 2007, Harang was among the top starting pitchers in baseball, compiling 32 victories and a 3.75 ERA over that span. But his arm may have been severely taxed by the aggregate 466 innings of work, the likeliest cause of his disastrous 6-17, 4.78 ERA campaign last year that was marred by forearm soreness. At 30 years of age, the 6'7" behemoth should still have a few strong years left in him, and he shed 25 pounds this offseason to be in tiptop shape for Opening Day.
If Harang, Volquez and Cueto all pitch to their potential in 2009, the Reds will have a formidable 1-2-3 punch in their rotation with a couple of other promising young righties in Daryl Thompson and Homer Bailey pushing for spots at the back end.
Additionally, the Reds' offense should mirror its rotation in both potential and excitement. Cincinnati's farm graduated two of the top hitting prospects in the league last year in Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, and together they could produce 60-plus homers in 2009. Brandon Phillips remains one of the top offensive second basemen in baseball, Edwin Encarnacion has 30-homer pop at third and Ramon Hernandez should out-hit the lesser Reds catchers from last season. While not an ideal option in the leadoff spot, 2008 steals champ Willy Taveras will add a new dimension of speed to the lineup, and young left fielder Chris Dickerson has 20-20 potential. Manager Dusty Baker won't be working with the best lineup in the world, but it's a diverse group that should vastly improve on the Reds' abysmal .247 team average and 4.35 runs per game from last year.
In the field, the Reds struggled mightily in 2008, ranking above only the Rangers in defensive efficiency. But the addition of the agile Taveras to play center field, in tandem with Phillips at second and Alex Gonzalez at short, gives Cincinnati three strong up-the-middle defenders — an important step toward reducing the number of balls put in play that go for hits.
The Reds' bullpen ranked third in the National League last season with a 3.81 total ERA, and even with the departure of Jeremy Affeldt in free agency, the current group — led by closer Francisco Cordero and setup men David Weathers, Jared Burton, Bill Bray and the recently added Rhodes — is good enough to replicate that effort.
Also working to the Reds' advantage is that they play in the NL Central division, where the Chicago Cubs are the only other team expected to compete. Lou Piniella's Northsiders are certainly the favorites to repeat as the division champs, and the Reds don't have the talent to match up with them just yet. But Cincinnati's potential path to a Wildcard berth will be made much easier by the presence of the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros, plus the middling St. Louis Cardinals and the now pitching-deprived Milwaukee Brewers. If things break right, they'll have little trouble keeping up with the senior circuit's other wild card contenders.
The Reds probably won't take the National League by storm and race to a division crown the way the Rays did last season. But they do have all the pieces in place to make plenty of noise in 2009 and are the best choice to improve by more wins than any other team.