This is the 4th in an ongoing series previewing the 6 teams in the National League Central.
1) Is the rotation deep enough to compete with the best teams in the league?
The Reds grabbed lots of headlines in December when they traded a quartet of players to get Mat Latos from the Padres to help solidify the front end of their rotation. The 1-2 punch of Latos and Johnny Cueto gives the Reds at least a solid pair at the top, but questions remain after that. Mike Leake has been a decent enough mid-to-back end starter so far in his career, but has yet to throw more than 167 2/3 innings in any season. Both Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman possess loads of obvious talent, but neither one has put up anything like a solid season as a starter yet in their career and it’s not even clear that the team is going to give them the chance to do so, in any event. The team may also have to decide just how much of Bronson Arroyo they’re willing to tolerate if he continues to give up home runs like he did in 2011. The Reds are going to need to have some starters pick up their games significantly to contend. They have talent, but will it translate into production?
2) How will the youngsters in the lineup handle being counted on?
There is no question that the Reds have one of the finest right sides in baseball with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce providing value both on offense and defense in recent years. Beyond that trio, though, there are question marks on the roster. Drew Stubbs flashes power and defense, but has struggled to make enough contact to become a true front-line asset. Chris Heisey has been a solid role player over the past few years, but is he ready to carry an offense-first position like LF or will the team need to rely on Ryan Ludwick for production? The team will also be counting heavily on two rookies to perform up the middle, with catcher Devin Mesoraco and shortstop Zack Cozart figuring to get big playing time in 2012. Both possess solid defensive reputations and good power for their position, but they have fewer than 100 combined major league plate appearances to their credit. How well some of these younger players perform will go a long way towards determining whatever success the Reds have in 2012.
3) Will the talent be deployed in anything like an ideal way?
To one degree or another, the same question could be asked of any team in baseball heading into a season, but it is especially relevant in the Reds case for a couple of reasons. First, as was detailed above, the Reds are relying on a large number of talented players who have yet to prove themselves as reliable core performers at the major league level. Second, they have a manager in Dusty Baker with a longstanding preference for established veterans over younger players, especially when trying to contend. What happens if the younger players on the roster don’t perform to acceptable levels out of the gate? Will Baker stick with a veteran like Arroyo in the rotation too long and refuse to replace him with a younger starter? Finally, it has to be pointed out that Baker doesn’t exactly have a great history in maintaining the health and productivity of young starting pitchers. A lot of that reputation was earned quite a while ago with the Giants and Cubs, but it’s not like many young pitchers with talent have thrived since he showed up in Cincinnati either. The Reds clearly have the talent to win the Central if things go right, and a big part of things going right in their case starts with the decisions made by management about who plays and how much.