Back at Bernie’s Crew, I picked the Cincinnati Reds to win the 2011 NL Central. The club retained a sizable portion of their 2010 division championship roster, added some impressive depth around the field, and featured a strong basis of fielding and batting. In a wide-open division, they featured a strong roster.
Throughout the season, the Reds’ fortunes did not match the skill on their roster. The club produced strong run differentials in April and June, only to find themselves sputtering to a 45-47 record at the close of the first half. A lot of people expected them to break out, including myself, given their impressive 437 RS / 408 RA performance; they were only 4 games out at that point. Everything gave way in the second half, as the offense disappeared and the pitching did not improve.
One could frame the story in a way that presents the Reds as an overall unlucky club, losing more games than they won despite outscoring their opponents at a good clip. Or, one could focus on a second half collapse that exposed weaknesses and corrected their early season run differential.
For 2012, the Reds faced a different — but not unrelated — challenge than that of defending their 2010 crown. Their roster featured several key components of their divisional run, as their key minor leaguers developed yet another year. The Reds, in many ways, entered the 2011-2012 offseason with an opportunity to reload their roster for another divisional run.
On December 17, 2011, the Reds pulled the trigger on the offseason’s arguable blockbuster trade. With prospects jamming their corner infield and catching positions, the Reds sent BaseballAmerica top prospects Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal, as well as pitchers Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger to the San Diego Padres. In return, the Padres sent their young ace-in-training, Mat Latos.
The message was clear from a club that struggled to procure strong pitching performances in 2011: win! I hesitate to say win now because Latos remains under Reds’ control for nearly a handful of seasons. He’ll pitch alongside emerging-ace Johnny Cueto for a few years, and he’s under control for the years following the Reds’ upcoming decisions on Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, and Joey Votto.
The trade for Latos seemed shocking at first, given the amount of talent the Reds surrendered, but in hindsight it looks like a rather smart deal. The Reds turned a surplus of talent at multiple positions into an average-or-better pitcher for their rotation. Furthermore, given Latos’ 2012 salary and his control years, the cost is more understandable. Given the free agency pitching options available to the club, the cost for acquiring Latos may provide a better value than large deal handed to C.J. Wilson.
After pitching 50 innings in 2009, Mat Latos stormed the National League with the San Diego Padres in 2010. The tall, young righty cracked the NL’s Top 10 starting pitchers (based on runs prevented), and finished 8th in Cy Young voting.
Latos’ 2011 campaign places him squarely in a camp that includes aces-in-waiting Jaime Garcia and Zack Greinke. Despite putting together a relatively strong FIP, Latos allowed runs at a more average rate, which might lead one to believe that he didn’t receive support or pitched worse than he deserved. However, Latos’ flyball rate crept up on his groundball rate (which declined slightly), and he also struck out fewer batters while walking more.
Furthermore, according to TexasLeaguers, Latos not only shifted some of his pitching arsenal to focus on a curveball (which he apparently did not throw in 2010), but his release point shifted as well.
Compared to 2010, Latos released the ball closer to his body, and did not spread his release point across as wide a range. This leads one to believe that Latos struggled with his mechanics in 2011, and perhaps an adjustment that lead to a more consistent release point in 2011 will pay dividends in 2012.
A lot can be made about Latos’ move from pitcher-friendly PetCo Park to Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. The biggest change, of course, is that Fielding Independent elements account for a greater proportion of runs allowed at Great American Ballpark than in PetCo. As I wrote two weeks ago, Latos is moving from a ballpark that not only prevented home runs, but encouraged strike outs and walks (moreso than Great American). It should not be considered a stretch to suggest that aspects of Latos’ performance will change in his new environment, but it’s not like anyone should expect him to go out and allow 30 home runs or something.
That said, his pitching elements shifted between 2010 and 2011, so here’s one basic example of what we might have expected from Latos, anyway:
Mat Latos (progressive K/BB/HR): 853 BF, 181 K/75 BB/17 HR; .680 BIP; 580 BIP, 168 BIPHits, 413 BIPOuts; 198 IP, 185 H, 83-90 R, 181 K/75 BB/17 HR
All told, if Latos returned to PetCo Park with the Padres, questions would have remained about the trajectory of his batted-ball-in-play ratios and his strike out/walk ratios. None of this changes his overall potential; he remains an average pitcher with a hard fastball that can put together a Top 10 NL campaign at his best.
Last week’s feature of the Houston Astros is fresh on my mind, after studying all those young players and their batting profiles. Within the NL Central, it would be tough to find a stronger contrast to the Astros than the Reds. Four strong veterans anchor Cincinnati’s batting order, including excellent contact/power bat Brandon Phillips and the disciplined, extreme batting profile of Joey Votto.
2009: .195 K% / .129 BB% / .046 HR%
2010: .193 K% / .140 BB% / .057 HR%
2011: .179 K% / .153 BB% / .040 HR%
Prince Fielder may have left the NL Central, but there remains a first baseman with a remarkably similar batting profile. After striking out more than 19% of his plate appearances in 2009 and 2010, Votto struck out less than 18% of his plate appearances in 2011. Meanwhile, his walk rate climbed above 15%, and his home run rate remained a strong 4%. Votto sure doesn’t rely on batting balls into play, but he doesn’t really need to worry about contact approaches given that he’s a good bet to walk 90 times and slug 25 home runs in a season.
2009: .116 K% / .068 BB% / .031 HR%
2010: .121 K% / .067 BB% / .026 HR%
2011: .126 K% / .065 BB% / .027 HR%
Although some of his public comments about OBP suggest an undisciplined batter, you’d have a difficult time finding a batter that is more consistent than Phillips, in terms of hitting for contact, maintaining a strong K/BB ratio, and hitting home runs. His above average power profile and ability to bat the ball into play more than 75% of his plate appearances places Phillips in a small group of disciplined, contact-oriented power hitters. Flashing adequate leather, Phillips is once again a good candidate to pace the NL Central at second base in 2012.
2009: .116 K% / .084 BB% / .021 HR%
2010: .153 K% / .093 BB% / .037 HR%
2011: .134 K% / .037 BB% / .019 HR%
2009: .194 K% / .098 BB% / .056 HR%
2010: .237 K% / .101 BB% / .044 HR%
2011: .238 K% / .107 BB% / .048 HR%
Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce round out the Reds’ core of regular veterans, as a pair of contrasting bats. Rolen, returning from shoulder surgery, had an out-of-character, injury-plagued 2011, but his presence in 2012 gives the club another strong disciplined, contact-oriented power hitter. Bruce is less moderate with the contact, and more extreme with the power. The youngster accumulated the most PA in his career in 2011, and arguably produced his best season yet. He’ll strike out, sure, but with home run rates near 5% and walk rates around 10%, those strike outs come with strong benefits.
These bats are crucial to the Reds’ success, but they also provide strong evidence in favor of the club’s ability to complete in 2012. One could make arguments that each of these players are the best at their position, or close to it, in the NL Central. Starting four players of their caliber provides the Reds a strong basis to score a lot of runs, alongside Drew Stubbs, Devin Mesoraco, and Ryan Hanigan.
Alongside the Reds’ starters, the Reds’ relievers posted a strong runs average, but gained a reputation for blowing leads. Overall, the Reds’ bullpen blew 22 “saves” (i.e., leads of 3 or fewer runs between the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th innings). Closer Francisco Cordero converted 37 of 43 save opportunities. Nick Masset posted a strong runs average, but only converted 15 of 21 lead opportunities (14 holds, 1 save). Logan Ondrusek, Jose Arredondo, and Aroldis Chapman suffered similar fates (31 holds, 1 save, 6 blown leads).
Overall, the Reds’ bullpen was hardly awful, but they did help contribute to the Reds’ difficulties winning one-run ballgames. Given that, as Cordero’s contract expired, if the Reds’ bullpen core was slightly below average in 2011 in terms of converting leads, GM Walt Jocketty enacted an offseason plan working in the opposite direction. Jocketty signed closer Ryan Madson to a one year deal, and traded Travis Wood and two minor leaguers to the Cubs for Sean Marshall. For his career Madson converted 86% of his leads, and went 35 for 37 in 2011; Marshall converted 91% of his career leads, and went 39 for 43 in 2011.
One can argue about whether the cost for Marshall was steep, but given the club’s late-inning performance in 2011, the Reds are not taking any chances in 2012. Both players are relatively short term fixes for the Reds, but after having Francisco Cordero under contract for four years, the Reds can work with flexible bullpens over the next handful of years. With the arrival of Madson and Marshall, Masset, Chapman, Arredondo, Ondrusek, and Bray are pushed earlier into the game, providing the Reds several depth options (even if Chapman defects to the starting rotation).
The best thing anyone can ever say about a bullpen is that there are a ton of warm bodies with pulses available to pitch, and none of them are under contract for too long. That’s exactly what the Reds can claim for 2012.
COZART / MESORACO
After the Reds’ four main veterans and centerfielder Drew Stubbs, the Reds have a couple of options at right field in Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick. Furthermore, Ryan Hanigan returns at catcher, alongside newcomer and top prospect Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco is one of the club’s newcomers, along with shortstop Zack Cozart. Both Mesoraco and Cozart have extremely limited MLB playing time under their belts, but both bring promise to help strengthen their club.
For as much as Brewers fans complained about Yuniesky Betancourt, his bat alone basically out-batted the entire Reds’ shortstop position in 2011 (and Yuni matched their R and RBI production in 100 fewer PA. And if you want to attribute that to batting behind Braun and Fielder, that’s fine, but what was Yuni supposed to do, demand to be benched?). Zack Cozart presents the Reds with moderate discipline, moderate contact at shortstop in 2012, and he has the potential to improve their 7 HR / 680+ PA power ratio.
Devin Mesoraco is BaseballAmerica’s #1 prospect for the Reds’ organization in 2012. The young catcher is likely to split time with Hanigan, and his high-minors discipline and power profiles are promising for the Reds. Mesoraco is shy of 800 minor league PA between AA and AAA, but his ability to hit for power has not required high strike out totals. He will have the benefit of working with Hanigan, which should help him stay fresh behind the plate and avoid extra wear-and-tear.
In a way, Mesoraco and Cozart enter an ideal batting situation. They will take their place in a batting order that has four strong bats, as well as a few other veterans and set pieces. They can work at the MLB level without the pressure of carrying an offense, which should allow them to work out their approaches throughout the course of their respective seasons.
WILD CARD: JOHNNY CUETO
Of course, this probably seems as obvious as my Bud Norris breakout projection last week, but I’ll say it anyway. Despite missing a month’s worth of starts in 2011, Cueto pitched one of the Top 10 NL seasons on the strength of a markedly improved home run ratio. Cueto cracked the NL Top 20 in 2010 during a full season, and his 2011 campaign solidified that promise.
Cueto allowed 19 home runs in 2010, but if he maintains his improved ratio in 2012, he could allow nearly 10 fewer home runs in a full slate of innings. That type of campaign would place Cueto well on the way to preventing more than 10 runs against his park and league, and would give him a chance to further his reputation as one of the Senior Circuit’s top pitchers.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
The Reds have a two-tiered best case scenario, just like almost everyone else in the NL Central. Although they can expect to be one of the frontrunners for that wide-open 2012 division crown, a successful 2012 season for the organization also will feature some resolution with the future of Phillips, Votto, and Rolen. The Reds are in an interesting spot because they can put a competitive team on the field in 2012, while taking some time to find room for their top young prospects. Time will tell if those prospects become trades as the club extends some of its key players, or whether those prospects become the Reds’ next wave.
For that reason, 2012 seems like a strangely transitional year for the Reds. Their success on the field in 2012 might not necessarily result in years of familiar faces; a future Reds mini-dynasty might feature a different core than their current roster.
Statistics from Baseball-Reference, ESPN, and FanGraphs.
Depth charts from MLB.com.
Cooper, J.J. “2012 Cincinnati Reds Top 10.” BaseballAmerica.
James, Bill. The Bill James Handbook 2012. Chicago: Acta, 2011.
ScoutingTheSally. “Free Zack Cozart.” June 18, 2011, Rotohardball.com.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2012.
Zettel. “2011 NL SP Rankings (100+ IP)” and “2010 NL SP Rankings (100+ IP);” October 8, 2010 and November 3, 2011, JSOnline.com. Journal Sentinel, Inc., 2012.