The Cincinnati Reds brought in manager Dusty Baker to turn around a franchise that hasn’t posted a winning record in the past seven years. He was able to turn a 72-win Giants team into a 103-win monster his rookie season there, and did something similar on the North Side of Chicago, increasing the Cubs’ win total from 67 to 88 between 2002 and 2003. What can he do with the 72-win Reds squad from last season?
Apart from early returns, Baker is also known for favoring veteran hitters over inexperienced ones. This will prove significant this season, as several positions face competition between such a dichotomy, and at each and every one, the younger player is the better option. The one young position player that Baker has shown faith in during his 14-year managerial career is Corey Patterson. Now that Patterson is himself a veteran, it was merely a formality that he would be named the team’s starting centerfielder over neophytes Jay Bruce and Norris Hopper.
Although Baker favors veterans over youngsters, he also does a great job of allotting playing time to his bench. So even if he makes some unfavorable decisions with his offense, its depth should still shine through.
Here’s one position that I can’t criticize Baker for not handling properly, because I wouldn’t know where to begin in handling these two myself. Both are roughly the same age, have shown flashes of superior offense, and endured miserable 2007 campaigns. Of course, I would tend to use the switch-hitting Valentin against righties and the right-swinging Ross against southpaws, but Ross is superior defensively and had a PrOPS over 100 points higher than Valentin did last year. Handled perfectly, they could be a plus-tandem, but it’s more realistic to expect average production from this dup.
Lots of Reds will hit, but Ross might be the somewhat surprising one
.332 career average? That’s on the way down, my friend
Hatteberg has been a solid fixture at first base for the Reds the past two seasons. Literally. He has generally hit low in the batting order, getting on first base via singles and walks, but only scoring about 25% of the time when he reaches. He was a disaster briefly in the #2 hole in 2006, then compiled a .408 OBP in 143 plate appearances as the slowest leadoff hitter since Jeremy Giambi last season, still stubbornly refusing to score many runs.
The 38-year old is pushed this year by Joey Votto, whom Baker claims to like, but we all know better. Votto has been simply phenomenal in the minors the past two seasons, even displaying surprising speed for a big first baseman, and he only accentuated that great performance in his September callup last season. He’s been battling injury this spring, which gives Baker all the excuse he needs to lean on Hatteberg early on.
|Projected 2008 Starter||
Phillips has finally reached the heights that everyone thought he would four years sooner, although it’s hard to understand why expectations for him were so high, given his minor league record. While he’s a great option for your 5X5 fantasy league, he is also an out machine and merely a solid offensive option at second base. On defense, he led all NL second basemen in Revised Zone Rating last year, though that doesn’t benefit his flyball pitching staff as much as it would some other teams around baseball.
The 25-year old Encarnacion could be ready for a big step forward this year. His .328 road OBP is a concern, but more so for the team that signs him to a big free agent contract before 2011. Ryan Freel remains a capable backup, and likely won’t be needed much at second or in the outfield, so the Reds have some nice insurance if EE doesn’t progress as planned.
Alex Gonzalez beginning the year on the disabled list is the best thing that could have happened to the Reds this spring. Not only does it force Baker to give the starting shortstop job to the Joe Sewell-like Jeff Keppinger, but it may slow the inevitable in-season decline of Gonzalez if he starts the season late. Keppinger’s uncanny ability to put the ball in play could allow him to put up some monster numbers in Cincinnati.
Cueto’s just a bit too young yet
Ken Griffey |
Wait! He was actually healthy last year. Never mind.
Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., Josh Hamilton, Norris Hopper, Ryan Freel|
|Projected 2008 Starters||
Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., Corey Patterson, Norris Hopper, Ryan Freel|
Hopper and Patterson actually make a good straight platoon in center. Hopper has a .386 career average against lefties, albeit in limited playing time, and Tools, well, at least hits better against righties than lefties. It’s amazing that Hopper is a few months older than Patterson, despite logging 2,754 fewer major league at bats. Both of these guys are good defenders, which is important given Cincinnati’s corner outfielders.
Some said that Adam Dunn struck out too much, didn’t produce enough runs, and wasn’t improving as he aged. The Dunner answered those concerns last season and figures to put up similar numbers again this year. Ken Griffey enjoyed his healthiest season since his first with the Reds, making us wonder why no one thought to move him into right field sooner. Both he and Dunn are candidates to be traded in July to make room for ultra-prospect Jay Bruce, who begins the year in Triple-A. Griffey would bring back less in a deal, and even has a $4 million 2009 buyout and Gilkeyan amount of deferred money to worry about. But if the Reds are contending, it would be safer to move the injury-prone Griffey.
Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Matt Belisle, Kyle Lohse, Homer Bailey, Scott Livingston
|Projected 2008 Starters||
Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Josh Fogg, Edison Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Matt Belisle, Homer Bailey
On July 30, 2003, the Oakland A’s traded Aaron Harang and two lesser pitchers to the Cincinnati Reds for Jose Guillen. This might be the worst trade Billy Beane has ever made, the best that Jim Bowden ever made, and a worse insult to the A’s organization than the 1990 World Series. Okay, scratch that last one, but Harang is one of the best in the business and is signed affordably through 2011. He and Bronson Arroyo make a duo of rubber-armed pitchers who seem impervious to injury.
Unfortunately for Dusty Baker, the Reds are counting on several young pitching prospects that are quite pervious to injury. Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, and Homer Bailey have each put up fantastic minor league numbers and have each made scouts wet themselves at one time or another. Dusty Baker has a well-deserved reputation for overworking young pitchers, so none of them is safe. Bailey is in the best shape, as he begins the year at Triple-A. Just looking 2008, each of these pitchers has realistic potential for a sub-4.00 ERA season.
Matt Belisle had as good of a season for which one could hope, considering that he was a mediocre reliever-turned starter in a favorable hitter’s park. He begins the season on the DL, but provides good insurance for later in the year. I expected Josh Fogg to get grossly overpaid due to his late-season heroics last year a la Jeff Weaver, but apparently, his World Series fiasco depressed the market for Fogg, and the Reds stole him for a cool million. If he is the Reds’ fifth best starter, then they truly have their best rotation in years; Fogg is a career .500 pitcher despite having played on some awful teams.
Reds Fun Fact|
The 2007 Reds had a .706 winning percentage in games that Aaron Harang started and a .375 mark otherwise
David Weathers, Mike Stanton, Todd Coffee, Jon Coutlangus, Jared Burton, Victor Santos, Kirk Sarloos
|Projected 2008 Relievers||
Francisco Cordero, Jeremy Affeldt, David Weathers, Mike Stanton, Todd Coffee, Jared Burton, Bill Bray
The Reds haven’t had a dominant closer since the days of Jeffs Shaw and Brantley. Francisco Cordero seems to have gotten his mandatory closer struggle streak out of the way back in 2006. He’ll have at least one disappointing season over his pricey, pricey four-year contract, but I don’t think it will occur in 2008.
As unexciting as David Weathers is as a closer, he makes for a pretty respectable setup guy, particularly when paired with one of the best in the business from the left side in Jeremy Affeldt. After those three, the remainder of the bullpen is a mess, preventing it from being considered elite. Still, it’s a big improvement from last year’s squad, which was last in the NL in relief ERA by a third of a run.
Outlook for the Season
You really can’t teach an old Baker new recipes. The new Reds manager freely admits to being stubborn, and no amount of evidence showing high pitch counts adversely affecting young pitchers is going to stop Dusty from being Dusty. Compounding the problem is the fact that these Reds are good enough to stay in a dogfight with the Chicago Cubs – a team Baker would love to best – late into the fall. There will be every temptation for him to push his young starters past their breaking points.
The workloads of Cueto, Volquez, and Bailey will go a long way towards determining the future of the franchise. Baker’s usage of Hatteberg, Gonzalez, and Patterson over Votto, Keppinger, and Bruce could determine whether or not the Reds make the playoffs this year. There is a lot of responsibility falling on this 10 million dollar manager, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out for a franchise at a critical juncture.
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