By: Travis Thayer
It’s bitter cold here in the midwest, but we are just a little under a month away from Spring Training. Warm weather might not be that imminent, but we can take comfort in knowing that baseball season will be here soon enough and so will the heat. Reds fans are especially ready for baseball to begin after another devastating playoff loss from the hometown Bengals. Although the Reds offseason hasn’t been very eventful and exciting, there is still plenty to talk about.
1. Can Billy Hamilton get on-base enough from the leadoff spot? If the Reds are to get to the playoffs, they will need Billy Hamilton to be good. Fans need not compare Hamilton to his predecessor Shin Soo-Choo. Choo was second to his former teammate Joey Votto in On-Base Percentage (OBP) at .423. Don’t expect Billy Hamilton to be anywhere close to that number, but you should expect him to steal more bases and score more runs. Choo stole 20 bases and scored 107 runs in 154 games in 2013. Hamilton had far less of an opportunity to play in the bigs and he was able to score 9 runs while stealing 13 bases in just 13 games. In those 13 games, Hamilton batted .368 and had a .429 OBP. While his numbers were terrific in 2013, his small sample size shouldn’t be mistaken for what his 162 game averages will be. I believe Hamilton has the ability to score many more runs than Choo while getting on base less. Hamilton’s bat won’t provide the pop that Choo’s does, but his electric speed will make up for it on the base paths. I personally have high expectations for Hamilton, and I think he will hit better in the majors than in the minors as some players do, but realistically – I expect Hamilton to hit around the .250-.260 with an OBP around .310 in his first full season in the majors. His job is to get on base, and when he does he is an almost lock to score a run. If he can get on base 3 out of 10 times, he will produce enough runs to make the Reds a very tough team to beat.
2. How will Bryan Price adapt to his new role as Manager? Dusty Baker is out, and Bryan Price is in. Price has reshaped the entire coaching staff with the exception of first-base coach Billy Hatcher. Jay Bell replaces Chris Speier as the Price’s bench coach after serving as the Pirates hitting coach in 2013. Don Long will assume the hitting coach role after being in the Atlanta Braves organization as their minor league hitting coordinator. Long also served as the Pirates hitting coach from 2008-2010. Finally, Jeff Pico will take Price’s spot as pitching coach. Price should have some familiarity with Pico, who has been in the Diamondbacks organization for the last 11 years – the last two being the minor league pitching coordinator. Price has his new staff in place, and it will be interesting to see the changes in philosophy. Firstly, I expect the Reds to be much more aggressive on the base paths, especially going first to third. Two years ago the Reds were very good going first to third and it resulted in more runs. That type of aggressiveness forces the defense to make plays, and potential chaos. Spring training will serve as a feeling out process for Price and his staff. Some of the things I will be looking for is the batting order. Who will bat cleanup? Where does Phillips bat? Will Votto look to be more aggressive? For the most part, I expect a lot of things will look really familiar, and we won’t know what Price’s in-game management will be like until the games really count.
3. Who Bats Cleanup? To answer a previous question, Jay Bruce should bat cleanup this season. Let’s face it, Ryan Ludwick and even Brandon Phillips can’t provide the protection Joey Votto needs. Phillips knocked in over 100 runs last year, but that still didn’t make the opposition think twice about walking Votto. Having Jay Bruce in the four spot might not detour everyone from intentionally walking Votto, but it will make them think twice. Bruce is without argument the Reds best home-run threat, and his presence must be felt.
4. Starting Rotation Depth Unless Bronson Arroyo comes walking through the door, the Reds might have a potential problem with rotation depth. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that Tony Cingrani will be taking Arroyo’s spot in the rotation, but Arroyo or another veteran like him would make me rest easier at night. As of right now the Reds have a great starting rotation starting with ace Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and the aforementioned Tony Cingrani. Those five individuals make up one of the best rotations in all of baseball, but what happens if someone unfortunately goes down? The Reds will have some options, and time will tell if any are worthy candidates to actually contribute. Veterans Jeff Francis (3-5, 6.27 ERA) and Chien-Ming Wang (1-2, 7.67 ERA), as well as newly acquired David Holmberg (via Ryan Hanigan trade) will likely be the first guys looked at. Francis and Wang didn’t have great numbers in the majors last season, but they also didn’t pitch that much. Holmberg is the most intriguing of the three after posting a 2.75 ERA in Double A last season. Holmberg should start the year in Triple A, and he could be the first one called up if someone goes down. Reds fans shouldn’t worry about pitching depth in the long-term because there are plenty of youngsters who are a year or so away from making it to the bigs. Some names to look out for in the future are Daniel Corcino, Nick Travieso, Ben Lively, Carlos Contreras, Ismael Guillon, and Robert Stephenson.
5. Robert Stephenson And what a great transition into our last topic. Robert Stephenson is an absolute stud pitcher. Stephenson’s fastball tops out around 100 mph, and he has a filthy curveball. I like to compare his stuff to Stephen Strasburg, but we’ll see over time if my assumption is correct. Stephenson was invited to major league camp for the first time this spring, and it will be very interesting to see how he competes against major league hitters. Stephenson could make it to the bigs as soon as this summer, and almost certainly in September. Stephenson could be the missing piece to the puzzle, and he could potentially become a 7th or 8th inning guy in the playoffs if the Reds do make it back for the third straight season. Stephenson is definitely a guy to keep your eyes on, and he will definitely be making an impact inside Great American Ballpark sooner than you might think.