Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Cincinnati Reds' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

If you told a Cincinnati Red fan after the 2007 season that the team's 2009 fate rested on the right arm of Aaron Harang, the fan would've probably welcomed the news with a sincerely confident smile. Flash forward to Spring Training 2009 and the smile is nowhere to be seen. Harang's 2008 campaign is yet another bit of proof that fortunes in Major League Baseball can change very quickly and just as drastically.

The guy was coming off back-to-back 16 win seasons in which he posted earned run averages around 3.70 and strikeout totals over 215. Last year, the wheels came off the Harang wagon to the tune of a 6-17 record, a 4.79 ERA, and only 153 Ks.

The reality of those numbers was much uglier. So the the news that Aaron Harang holds the key to the Cincinnati Reds' fortunes in the forthcoming year should be granted with some concern.

Then again, Harang had been nothing if not consistent until 2008 and he had seen three straight years of 200+ innings so maybe all he need was an off year to regain his full strength. We'll see.

Here's how the rest of the club should shape up:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Ramon Hernandez
First base—Joey Votto
Second base—Brandon Phillips
Third base—Edwin Encarnacion
Shortstop—Jerry Hairston, Jr.
Left field—Chris Dickerson
Center field—Willy Taveras
Right field—Jay Bruce

The National League Central is outside my official jurisdiction so I don't know how the position battles are shaping up, but I do know that Norris Hopper (corner outfield spots), Alex Gonzalez (SS), and Jeff Keppinger (SS) all should get a fair shake at a starting job. But judging from youth and performance, I'd go with the lineup you see above. Hairston's proven to be a bit fragile so Gonzalez and/or Keppinger should see the field regardless.

Oh yeah—Jonny Gomes, Daryle Ward, and Jacque Jones appear to be on the roster at the moment.

Starting rotation

Ace—Edinson Volquez (R)
Second spot—Bronson Arroyo (R)
Third spot—Aaron Harang (R)
Fourth spot—Johnny Cueto (R)
Fifth spot—Ramon Ramirez (R)/Homer Bailey (R)/Micah Owings (R)

You can see why Harang is so important. If he rebounds the only glaring weakness in the rotation is that fifth spot. Ramirez appears to have the inside track on the gig since his recent performance has been the strongest. However, he's got only four starts. Still, both Bailey and Owings had abysmal showings in 2008. Homer's pitching future may still be bright; he's only gonna be 23 in May. Micah, though, might be better off opting for the Rick Ankiel route.


Closer—Francisco Cordero (R)
Set-up—Arthur Rhodes (L)
Set-up—David Weathers (R)
Set-up—Bill Bray (L)

As is the truth for most teams in the National League Central, offense should not be a problem for the Redlegs.

Brandon Phillips is one of the elite second sackers in MLB—his 2008 season resulted in only a .261 average, but he packaged that with 24 doubles, 21 home runs, 80 runs scored, 78 runs batted in, 23 stolen bases, a .312 on-base percentage, and a .754 OPS. And he'll start the season at the age of 27 so there's still room to grow.

Joey Votto is even younger at 25, but he's already shown signs of delivering on some of the hype that his rise through the lower levels generated. His 2008 campaign (his first full year in the Show) saw a .297 average, 32 doubles, 24 bombs, 69 runs scored, 84 RBI, a .368 OBP, and an .874 OPS. Just a repeat of that would be great new for Cinci and Votto's history of progression through experience indicates 2009 should be even better.

Even a guy like Edwin Encarnacion—a guy who people seem to think has plateaued—still has some significant potential for making a leap. The dude is only 26 and already has 3 1/2 years in the pros. His defense may always be a bit rough, but 2008 saw him hit .251 with 29 doubles, 26 HRs, 75 runs, 68 RBI, a .340 OBP, and an .807 OPS. Most clubs would take that from third base.

The real wild card in the batter's box is Jay Bruce. Here is a 22-year-old kid who spent pretty much his entire first year of legal drinking eligibility playing Major League Baseball in 2008. And his final marks were pretty impressive—.254, 17 doubles, 21 taters, 63 runs, 52 RBI, .314 OBP, and .767 OPS. Still, there's allegedly a lot more where in those talent reservoirs.

Bruce was supposed to be a terror on the base paths and we didn't see that too much. But that isn't too surprising considering the youngster probably had enough to think about out there. Regardless, 2009 could be a break-out moment for Bruce or he could enter a sophomore slump.

The former would be fantastic news for the Reds and bad news for the rest of the Senior Circuit. The latter would be just as significant in the other direction for both groups.

The rest of the lineup is fragile and unproven.

Jerry Hairston Jr. threw up a gaudy .326 average and 15 steals when healthy, but only managed 261 at-bats. Jeff Keppinger had stretches of white hot production, but needs to prolong them in order to see regular playing time. Chris Dickerson looks like he might be the real deal, but it's a bit early to proclaim him the bona fide answer after only 102 ABs. Willy Taveras is like a water-strider whenever he can get on base, but that doesn't happen frequently enough considering his lack of other attributes.

Still, if I'm a Red fan, I'm far more concerned about the rotation and arms in the 'pen.

Edinson Volquez was brutal on the opposition last year, but the performance came outta nowhere. There's no guarantee he's the same guy in 2009 (although I think he'll be just fine). Bronson Arroyo probably will never jostle for a Cy Young, but he'll keep a good offense in most games and takes the ball almost every time his turn comes up.

Johnny Cueto showed signs of life at times in 2008 and he's only 23 so Cincinnati will probably—and rightly—be pretty patient with that talented young arm. The fifth spot is a free-for-all, but that's pretty much true for most clubs.

Francisco Cordero is a legit stud at the back end, even if he makes you sweat the last frame out more often than anyone would like. Bill Bray, David Weathers, and Arthur Rhodes could all be great or each could be worse than the previous stiff. Again, true of most middle relievers and set-up men across the Big League landscape.

And that's why it all boils down to Aaron Harang.

If he can recapture the form of a 16-game winner with a mid-3.00 ERA with 200+ whiffs? That would give Cincinnati three genuine top-of-the-rotation arms (Volquez/Harang/Arroyo) with another possibly due to arrive in the very near future (Cueto) and a beast to shut the door (Cordero).

That would give the Reds a sincere chance in the NL Central, even against the Chicago Cubs. It'd probably even insert them into the thick of the Wild Card race.

If Harang continues to decompose right before our very eyes?

That offense is gonna have to be even better than it looks on paper for Cinci to even keep the Cubbies in sight.

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