2012 in review
Record: 97-65 (91-71 Pythagorean)
669 runs scored (9th in NL)
588 runs allowed (1st in NL)
Big Offseason Moves
In a three-team deal, traded Drew Stubbs and Didi Gregorius and received Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Donald. Re-signed free agents Ryan Ludwick and Jonathan Broxton. Won't re-sign Scott Rolen. Lost Ryan Madson.
When you win 97 games, a lot of things go your way, but the Reds still had three major weaknesses in 2012: center field, where Stubbs hit .213 with a .277 OBP; production from the leadoff spot (a .254 OBP, and no, that's not misprint); and middle infield bench, where Wilson Valdez and Miguel Cairo ate up 350 plate appearances with a combined OPS under .500. So GM Walt Jocketty went out and acquired somebody to play center field and hit leadoff and somebody to provide depth at shortstop and second base.
The problem: Can Choo actually play center field? He has played one game there since 2006, and while he has a strong arm, his defensive metrics took a tumble last season from his usual solid-average numbers to "he looked kind of like Manny Ramirez out there." He had -12 Defensive Runs Saved in right, which could translate to -15 or so in center.
Re-signing Broxton keeps the Reds deep in bullpen arms and gives them the opportunity to try Aroldis Chapman in the rotation.
That's not a lot of runs for a team that plays its home games in the Great American Home Run Park. True, Joey Votto missed 50 games and didn't homer after returning in September, but that runs scored total was 66 fewer than 2011 and 121 fewer than the 2010 division champs. Installing Choo in the leadoff spot and getting a full season from Votto will help, but there are some holes. Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips are not big OBP guys, and Zack Cozart will have to improve upon his .288 OBP showing as a rookie. Furthermore, Ludwick and Todd Frazier are good bets to regress from their 2012 numbers (Frazier hit .273 but hit .258 and .260 the previous two years in Triple-A).
Defensively, the Reds should be pretty solid, especially up the middle with Cozart, Phillips and the underrated Ryan Hanigan at catcher. I do expect a few more runs this year thanks to Choo and Votto, although Choo will end up giving some of those back. How many? Based on 2012 totals, Stubbs created about 50 runs in 544 plate appearances; Choo created about 104 in 686 PAs. Over an equal number of PAs, we're estimating about 40 runs at the plate. But Choo might be 15 to 20 runs worse on defense. (Stubbs had +2 Defensive Runs Saved.) It's maybe a two- or three-win difference between Stubbs and Choo.
For some reason, the Reds' pitching staff flew under the radar all season, but in the end they allowed fewer runs the Nationals. Again, this was achieved despite playing half their games in a hitter's park. The Reds' five starters didn't miss a start all season (one extra start was needed because of a doubleheader), which certainly helped. Johnny Cueto led the way with his 19-9 record and 2.78 ERA, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting and recording the best adjusted ERA in the league. But the good health record ended in the first game of the playoffs when Cueto pulled an oblique in the first inning of the division series against the Giants and missed the Game 5 start as a result. The Giants had some luck on their run to a World Series, none more significant than Cueto's injury.
The Reds will give Chapman -- coming off a 1.51 ERA with 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings of relief thanks to 242 pitches that cracked 100 mph last season -- a chance to start. The move isn't without controversy, but listen to what Reds pitching coach Bryan Price told Jerry Crasnick:
"I hear the argument, 'Why mess with something when it's gone so well?' I get that. We have a really good team and the window of opportunity is now, and we may be better suited to Aroldis closing rather than starting because we already have a strong five-man rotation without him. I totally understand that.
"But I also have a feeling in my heart that he's not going to be the best possible pitcher he can be until he throws enough innings to master his craft. I think this kid has untapped potential, but it won't come out until we give him an opportunity to mature as a pitcher. Does he have a chance to be one of the better starters of his generation? The longer we wait, the less chance we have of ever finding out."
The Reds can afford to move Chapman to the rotation because of a deep arsenal of bullpen weapons. Late-season acquisition Broxton will start out as the closer, but don't be surprised if J.J. Hoover has that job by season's end -- assuming it's not Chapman.
So why an A- instead of an A? Well, the Reds did benefit from beating up on the hapless Astros and Cubs a year ago, going 22-7 against those two clubs. The Astros are gone from the NL Central, and the Cubs may be a little more respectable. But if Chapman proves to be the real deal as a starter, this could be the best rotation in baseball.
Heat Map to Watch
What makes Cueto so good? One reason is his changeup against left-handed hitters. First, check the location in the heat map. Second, check the numbers: .267/.274/.392 in 125 PAs ending with the changeup. Even though the pitch often ends up out of the strike zone, hitters can't lay off, and only two of those 125 PAs resulted in a walk.
At some point this winter, I ranked the Reds No. 2 in my offseason Power Rankings. On second thought, I might have overestimated them just a bit. They did benefit from beating up on the two worst teams in baseball, I have concerns about a couple positions in the lineup, and I believe there is the possibility Choo doesn't end up the season as the starting center fielder (maybe speedster Billy Hamilton adapts quickly to the position and hits enough to get called up during the season).
But I love the pitching staff, even given a little regression from Cueto and Bronson Arroyo. I can't wait to see how Chapman does in the rotation, and I can't wait to see Votto put up MVP numbers once again. The Reds should enter the season as favorites in the NL Central, and they're my pick to hold off the Cardinals.