The Second Best Team in the NL

With less than a week to go before Opening Day all the picks for World
Series champs are starting to trickle in and many people are picking the
Washington Nationals. Four out of seven SI
writers picked the Nats to win it all
, five out of seven the NL, seven out
of seven the NL East, and several of the same writers picked Harper to be
MVP and/or Strasburg to win the Cy Young. The 2013 Washington Nationals are
what you would call the best team on paper. The question here is which team has
the next best chance at being the best team in the NL, and the answer is not
what many may expect, the Cincinnati Reds.  

While the Atlanta Braves arguably made
the flashiest move of the off-season in acquiring Justin Upton from the
Diamondbacks after adding his brother BJ; they also lost a lot of talent with
Chipper Jones retiring, Michael Bourn leaving via free agency, and the
inclusion of Martin Prado in the Justin Upton deal. In total the Braves lost
15.3 fWAR from their 94 win 2012 roster. The acquisitions of the two Uptons,
increased playing time of Medlen and Simmons, and Maholm and Teheran instead of
Hanson and Jurrjens is nothing more than treading water. There was one team a
lot closer in 2012 to the 98 win Washington Nationals in the NL than the
Atlanta Braves and that team, the 97 win Cincinnati Reds, didn’t lose much and
arguably gained more.

The main difference in the Reds over the
Braves as the next best team to the Nationals is the starting pitching staff.
While Hudson and Medlen are very good and both will have good seasons and
Teheran is a Rookie of the Year candidate; the Reds starting staff is more
solid and full of known commodities. During the 2012 NL Cy Young race one of
the more overlooked pitchers was Johnny Cueto who ended up finishing third in
the league in ERA, 0.05 points behind eventual winner RA Dickey and 0.11 points
better than third place Cy Young finisher Gio Gonzalez. Despite being this
solid while pitching 217 innings and winning 19 games Cueto finished fourth in
the Cy Young voting.

Behind Cueto in the Reds rotation is the
former Padres Ace, Mat Latos. Latos had what some considered a down year in
2012 but still finished the season with a 3.48 ERA and 3.85 FIP over 209 1/3
innings pitched. After him comes the breakout star of 2012 Homer Bailey who pitched
better than he ever had before in his career and with a 3.68 ERA over 208
innings finally looked like he was putting his potential into productions.
Rounding out the staff are the inning eaters Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake who
are nothing if not dependable for innings. In fact the Reds biggest strength in
2012 was that they only used six starters and the sixth starter, Todd Redmond,
only pitched 3 1/3 innings. The Reds top five starters pitched a total of 1015
1/3 innings an average of 203 innings per starter. No other team had that type
of health and consistency from their starting five.

There are skeptics who will say that
Dusty Baker is the manager and that type of starting pitching health can’t
last, but predicting someone to get injured just because they didn’t over the
course of a year doesn’t seem the wisest course of action. There is nothing
about the Reds starting pitchers workloads or history that suggest any are a
near certain injury risk and in almost every case it is quite the opposite. As
far as the rest of the Reds pitching goes their bullpen in 2012 behind Chapman,
Broxton, and Marshall was lights out. At 6.3 fWAR they were second only behind
the Braves among teams that didn’t have a 75 pitch limit on their starters, and
finished with the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors.  

If this sounds like a lot of talk about
2012 it is and it should be. The Reds won 97 games in 2012 and the only major
change they made from 2012 to 2013 is the addition of Shin-Soo Choo who helps
to fix one of the Reds biggest weaknesses. In 2012 Reds lead-off hitters
combined to have an OBP of .254. Choo brings a career OBP of .381. That is a
massive improvement and will add to the already powerful Reds offense. The
other two major offensive upgrades for the Reds come from players that were already
on the team in 2012. Todd Fraizer played in 128 games batting .273/.331/.498
and while that looks like a rather average batting line for an NL third baseman
consider that the Reds played Scott Rolen in 92 games and he batted
.245/.318/.398. The final difference in the Reds projected offense from 2012 to
2013 is that Joey Votto missed significant time in 2012 and ended up playing in
only 111 games. If Votto even plays in only 140 games at his career levels he
is an easy MVP candidate. 

The one big weakness for the 2013 Reds
is going to be outfield defense. Neither Choo nor Bruce should be playing
centerfield and Ryan Ludwick has never been known for his glove. The good news
for the Reds is that Billy Hamilton is coming, and could be ready mid-season if
not sooner. Up until this past Arizona Fall League Hamilton had only played
short stop in the minors but with Zach Cozart at the majors the Reds made the
decision to move Hamilton to centerfield where all reports are that he is
fantastic. His speed on the bases has translated to the outfield and he is a
prospect that could have a major impact on not just the 2013 season, but
baseball in general. Billy Hamilton is a different type of player. There aren’t
any players in baseball right now with the game changing speed of a Ricky
Henderson, Lou Brock, or Tim Raines. Hamilton has that type of speed and
between two levels last season stole 155 bases. Now if your first thought is
the old cliché of, “You can’t steal first,” Hamilton has an MiLB
batting line of .289/.364/.389, and with bunts and infield singles is very
capable of stealing first.

Add Hamilton atop the Reds line-up with
Choo batting second, Votto third, Bruce fourth, Phillips fifth, and this might
be the best line-up in baseball. It is certainly just as good as what the
Braves will put out there with a top five of Simmons, Heyward, Upton, Freeman,
Upton and the Nats with Span, Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, and LaRoche. Hamilton
at the top of that line-up gives the Reds a dimension that no team in baseball
currently has. Not only a player that can get on base, but one that can make
things happen once there. Teams are going to have to invent new ways to stop
the running game because of Billy Hamilton.  

While all the ink is being spilled on
the Nats to be the best team in baseball and for the Braves to be their chief
rivals do not forget about the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds lost nothing from
their 2012 roster, added one of the best OBP lead-off hitters in Choo, and by mid-season
will be adding a player with the potential to change the game of baseball. The
Reds are a team to watch and after taking a 2-0 NLDS lead into Great American
Ballpark and losing three straight to the Giants are just as heartbroken and
hungry as the Washington Nationals. The Reds are being ignored by a lot of
people right now, but on paper they are the second best team in the NL and
perhaps even all of baseball.  




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One comment

  1. The reds really are the Lost Team from 2012, certainly they have attracted far less national talk this off season than one would expect from a dvision champion returning nearly their whole team from a mid-90s win team. Their fall was just as dramatic as the Nats, yet the seem immune to any Choaker talk. Is Cincy just too boring to draw anyone’s ire?


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