Here we are, folks: the End of Season Post-Mortem series. If you're new here (which about 50% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from playoff contention, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
This looked like an "all-in" year for the Reds, coming off last season's success. Shin-Soo Choo was acquired to provide a leadoff hitter and center fielder, joining a team that won the NL Central by nine games and finished with the second-best record in the league. Yet a crushing defeat in the NLDS to the Giants, blowing a 2-0 series lead and losing three straight games at home, wiped out much of that good feeling. The Reds also faced one of the toughest races in MLB, competing with the Cardinals and Pirates for a division title and possible wild-card bid. Yet a disappointing season by the Nationals and the collapse of every NL West team besides the Dodgers cleared a pathway into the playoffs. Not winning the division and having to settle for a wild-card (and its one-game playoff) was costly, however.
Preseason Prediction: 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.
What Went Right: Adding Choo to an already formidable lineup, the Reds ranked third in the NL with 698 runs scored. That resulted in a +109 run differential, also the third-best in the league. Five players in Cincinnati's lineup hit 15 or more home runs, led by Jay Bruce's 30. He and Brandon Phillips exceeded 100 RBI this year, while Choo was second in the NL with 107 runs scored. Joey Votto put up his typically excellent numbers, leading the NL with a .435 on-base percentage (OBP) and finishing among the league's top three with a .926 OPS.
Cincinnati's starting pitching had the third-best ERA in the NL at 3.38. Homer Bailey threw the second no-hitter of his career, while leading the Reds with 199 strikeouts. Mat Latos asserted himself as the No. 1 guy in the rotation. He led Reds starters with a 3.16 ERA and ranked second with 187 strikeouts. Reducing his home run rate to 0.6 allowed per nine innings — the lowest of his career — was a key reason for Latos' success.
Aroldis Chapman was arguably the most dominant closer in the NL, striking out 112 batters in 63.2 innings and notching 38 saves. Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra also provided strikeout stuff out of the bullpen, helping Reds relievers rack up 489 Ks in 470.1 innings.
What Went Wrong: Cincinnati got a strong performance from its starting pitching despite only 11 starts and 60.2 innings from Johnny Cueto, who was one of the NL's best starters last season and the ace of the Reds' rotation. A strained lat muscle resulted in three stints on the disabled list for Cueto, limiting him to only two appearances in the second half of the season. Did that make Cueto the right choice to start the NL wild-card game against the Pirates? The results certainly weren't favorable.
Left field was a hole in the lineup for most of the season after Ryan Ludwick suffered a separated shoulder and torn labrum on opening day. Collectively, Reds left fielders hit .250 with a .687 OPS, ranking among the lower-third of NL teams. Cincinnati certainly needs Ludwick to stay healthy next season in the final year of his contract (with a $9 million option for 2015), especially with Choo likely to leave as a free agent.
Manager Dusty Baker also took far too long to take Zack Cozart out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Cozart's glove makes up for hitting .254, but that's hardly the sort of player that should be batting in front of Votto, Brandon Phillips and Bruce. Baker eventually came to his senses and hit Todd Frazier, then Phillips second in the batting order, but the Reds' offense could have been even more productive early in the season if not for the manager's stubbornness.
Most Surprising Player: Before being moved to second in the lineup, Brandon Phillips seemed ill-suited for the cleanup spot. Yet that's where Baker put him, looking for a right-handed hitter to bat between Votto and Bruce when Ludwick was injured. Phillips responded with 16 homers and 96 RBI batting fourth, resulting in a career-high 103 RBI. However, being asked to hit in a middle-of-the-order run production spot may have adversely affected other aspects of Phillips' game. His .706 OPS, 24 doubles and five stolen bases were his lowest totals since becoming a full-time player. Phillips' .261 average and .310 on-base percentage were among the worst marks in his 12 major league seasons.
Most Disappointing Player: Todd Frazier was a strong contender for NL Rookie of the Year last season until hitting a dry spell in September. His emergence gave the Reds a starting third baseman, but the 27-year-old didn't build on his rookie performance as was likely expected. Despite playing in 22 more games with 135 more plate appearances, Frazier hit the same number of home runs (19) as he did in 2012 and only notched six more RBI. His batting average dropped nearly 40 points, while his slugging percentage fell 90 points and his OPS plummeted more than 100 points from his rookie season. Maybe Frazier could benefit from batting between Votto and Bruce next year.
The Future: Is Billy Hamilton ready to take over as the Reds' everyday center fielder? Choo seems likely to sign elsewhere as a free agent, and according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, he was terrible defensively, surrendering 17 more runs than the average player at that position. But it's time Hamilton showed what he can do on as a major league regular. He was electrifying on the basepaths, stealing 13 bases and only getting caught once.
Bronson Arroyo will also probably leave via free agency, but Tony Cingrani should be able to fill that spot in the rotation nicely. But in terms of pitching, next year has the look of a last stand for the Reds. Latos will be in the final year of his contract. So is Cueto, though the Reds hold a club option on him for 2015. Bailey has one more season of arbitration eligibility. Can Cincinnati be expected to sign all three to contract extensions? That doesn't seem likely.
Though all of the Reds' core offensive players are signed well past 2014, might GM Walt Jocketty make one more "all-in" sort of move for next season, believing that his team's championship window may be closing?