The 2012 Reds rebounded back into a the second-best record in baseball and a post-season berth. Can they maintain that same level of success or are they poised for another big drop off?
Depth Chart (as of 3/8)
C: Ryan Hanigan
1B: Joey Votto
2B: Brandon Phillips
SS: Zack Cozart
3B: Todd Frazier
LF: Ryan Ludwick
CF: Shin-Soo Choo
RF: Jay Bruce
SP: Johnny Cueto
SP: Mat Latos
SP: Bronson Arroyo
SP: Homer Bailey
SP: Aroldis Chapman
CL: Jonathan Broxton
Not much changed for the Reds over the off-season with the exception of Cincy trading for Shin-Soo Choo. He'll likely be a one-year rental, but Choo solves one of the Reds' biggest weaknesses which is having someone who is not an out machine in the leadoff spot. The Reds already had a solid lineup before, so having Choo and his high OBP at the top of the order could push their offense into the upper tier for the National League. A side effect of that acquisition though is that the Reds' outfield defense might end up being scary. In order to have Choo, Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick in the lineup at the same time, the Reds are going to have Choo play center, a position he has not played in years and seems ill-suited for at this stage of his career.
In order to acquire Choo, Cincinnati traded away Drew Stubbs who gave them quality defense in center but was a black hole on offense. The bigger loss though was Scott Rolen who left the team, supposedly to retire but that may not stick. Whatever he decides to do, it is obvious that Rolen won't be back in Cincy since they have already tabbed Todd Frazier to take over his spot. Technically speaking, they also lost Ryan Madson, but they really never had him since he missed all of his only season as a Red with Tommy John surgery.
No rookies figure to be of any import for the Reds when the season starts, but by the end of the season the Reds, and baseball fans everywhere, will be chomping at the bit to see what Billy Hamilton can do. The epic speedster is getting close to big league ready with much of that depending on how quickly Hamilton takes to his move to center field. If he adapts well defensively and Shin-Soo Choo struggles with to cover enough ground, it is quite possible that Hamilton will be promoted to take over the position and move Choo over to one of the corners. At worst, Hamilton is a mortal lock to be a September call-up who will wreak havoc on the basepaths as a pinch-runner.
The Reds' lineup is more or less set. Ryan Hanigan might eventually give way to Devin Mesoraco if the latter can finally deliver on his potential. The only real battle on the roster is for the final spot in the rotation. That slot is Aroldis Chapman's to lose. After working as a dominant reliever in 2012, the Reds are going to see if he can translate that dominance to the rotation where he would be so much more valuable. If Chapman fails or the organization simply gets cold feet, then Mike Leake is waiting in the wings to reclaim the job.
Cincinnati had a remarkable run of good health in their rotation last season, needing only one start during the regular season from anyone outside their Opening Day rotation. That, of course, changed when Johnny Cueto went down with an oblique injury in the NLDS. But as of today, the Reds are one of the healthiest teams in baseball. Reliever Nick Masset is out indefinitely after off-season shoulder surgery but that is really the only real injury concern on the projected Opening Day roster.
Are the Reds making the right decision moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation?
The best case scenario for Cincinnati looks a lot like what worked for them last season but only this time imagine them not losing Votto to injury for two months, having an actual high quality leadoff man in front of Votto instead of the assortment of sub-.300 OBP players they used last season and Aroldis Chapman evolving into the ace of an already extremely talented rotation. That sure sounds a lot like a team that could win 100 games.
Any worst case scenario for the Reds has to start with Joey Votto missing significant time due to injury. Without him, the Reds' lineup will always struggle to be anything more than average. After the next worse thing would be Aroldis Chapman taking to the rotation less like Chris Sale and more like Daniel Bard, screwing up his mechanics, getting himself hurt and then struggling to get back to his former performance level after he transitions back to the bullpen. That would only be the beginning of the run prevention problems for the Reds as their outfield defense experiment blows up in their face and Mat Latos loses more velocity and struggles to adapt to it. It won't be an outright nightmare for Cincy, but it will be bad enough for the Cardinals to overtake them in the division and leave the Reds on the outside looking in at a Wild Card berth.
97 wins was a real overachievement for the Reds last season, but they are still a very good team. That addition of Choo to the lineup and Chapman to the rotation should make that team even better. But even with that, it will be very difficult for them to replicate the same kind of luck they had in keeping their rotation healthy and significantly out-performing their run differential. They'll probably be a few wins worse this season, but still in prime position to go head-to-head with the Cardinals for the NL Central.