The Reds are going to try once again to make the leap from playoff also-ran to actual World Series threat. To make that happen though they are going to need big contributions from a core of players.
Joey Votto is just about as reliably great as one can be. He is going to hit over .300. His OBP is going to be top five in the league. He's going to at least be in the MVP conversation. He is the heart of the entire Reds lineup. They go as Votto goes.
The only real question about Votto is just how great he will be. The one nit that people have begun to pick with Votto is his ability and/or willingness to drive the ball. In 2013, Votto posted the lowest Isolated Power of his career at .186. That's pretty dang good but a sharp fall off from his career level of .227. That power dip led to some inane criticism that perhaps Votto's supreme ability to draw walks was in some way a detriment to his ability and supposed purpose of driving in runs.
Fair or not, that critique has gotten some play both locally and nationally. One would hope that Votto is too smart and too good to let that affect him, but he has at least made a few comments this spring about altering his approach with runners in scoring position to be more aggressive about swinging the bat. That might cause some shift in his numbers, but shouldn't threaten his ability to be one of the best hitters alive.
The Reds rotation is full of talent, so this slot could've gone to any one of them, but Cingrani gets the nod here because he is the new kid on the block. Cueto and Latos are known quantities and Bailey is just now realizing his potential. With those three, the Reds rotation is clearly one of the best in the National League, but it is the promotion of Cingrani to full-fledged rotation member that could push this group from "pretty good" to "nobody else stands a chance."
Cingrani gave the team a sneak preview of what he could do last season as he made 18 starts as a fill-in. In that time he posted a 2.92 ERA, 3.78 FIP and 10.32 K/9. That's damned impressive stuff. He wasn't with out his flaws, however. Cingrani is very much a flyball pitcher which doesn't fit well in the confining confines of the Great American Ballpark. As such, Cingrani got touched up for 14 homers in his abbreviated sample of work.
There is also concern that the league might eventually catch up to Cingrani. Tony relies heavily on his fastball, as in he threw it 81% of the time That's a Bartolo Colon-esque level of reliance. That works for Cingrani because it is a good fastball and his delivery has such deception, but will the deception be as effective after the league has seen him a few times? The fastball is good, but it averages 92 MPH, so it isn't exactly overpowering.
If his unique approach continues to baffle hitters, Cingrani could very well be a legit fourth frontline pitcher starter for their rotation. Having that kind of a rotation will cover up for just about any flaw in the other parts of the roster. If the league does figure him out, the Reds aren't screwed. He'll "just" be a pretty good fifth starter.
What are the Reds going to do with Brandon Phillips? Once a major part of their offense, Phillips is slowly morphing into an obligation. After a season in which his performance dropped off sharply with the lowest wOBA of his Reds career and he turned himself into a bit of a lightning rod as he infamously battled with the local media, the Reds actively tried to dump Phillips and the remaining four years of his hefty contract. Only they didn't succeed, so now they have a player who could turn his frosty attitude inwards against the franchise.
The issue though is that the Reds are still going to have to lean pretty heavily on Phillips as he is currently slotted to bat second in the order, helping set the table for Joey Votto. That might not be the best choice since Phillips posted a .310 OBP last year and is only at .320 on his career, but Cincinnati doesn't really have any other choice. The hope is he can turn back the clock and find some of the magic he had during his 5+ WAR season in 2011, not hold a grudge against the team for trying to trade him and get over the fact that batting second will rob him of some of those precious RBI opportunities he loves so much. That should be a piece of cake, right?
I'd normally be worried about talking about Billy Hamilton in every single piece of this series, but who could ever get tired of talking about Billy Hamilton? This is a guy that the prospect-philes have been going gaga over for a few years now. His combination of absurd speed and fantastic baserunning instincts isn't just game changing, it is potentially team changing.
Before he can do that though, Hamilton needs to prove that he can hang with the big boys in the majors. His .308 OBP in the minors last season as well as the issues he has had from the left side of the plate are a bit foreboding. If his bat doesn't hold up, Hamilton could end up being more of a hindrance to the Reds lineup as they have almost no choice but to make him their leadoff man. In other words, Hamilton is either going to rocket the Cincy offense to the next level or drag it down one in the opposite direction.