Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Why the Cincinnati Reds will be better than you think

Editor's note: We interrupt this blog that is mostly about good health with a baseball forecast. But really, how can you claim to truly have good health if you don't enjoy a little baseball? But WAIT: Before you read, go grab some fresh fruit or vegetables!)

Fourth place in the National League Central. Or fifth. Out of five teams. That's what most of the "experts" are saying about the Reds and the 2015 season. They definitely can't compete with the Cardinals, or the Pirates, playoff teams from a year ago, or the Cubs, who are loaded with so many talented young players that they are a sure bet to be contenders all year long. The lowly Reds probably can't even keep pace with the Brewers, despite all of Milwaukee's question marks.

But hold on, fellow Reds fans. I'm not buying this doom-and-gloom crap. Here, for your preseason enjoyment, is my glass-half-full outlook:

The Reds WILL be one of the best teams in the National League. They will be in the thick of the playoff race to the very end. Why, you ask? Well, their pitching is better than most people think, they have plenty of reason to be motivated, and they are bound to be healthier than last year. Let's take a look at each position:

1B: Joey Votto missed 100 games last season because of injury, and was not at full strength when he DID play. The backup options were Todd Frazier and Brayan Pena, mostly. I like both of those guys, but they were playing out of position, and they are not Votto. The former NL MVP is healthy, and that means first base will be a significant upgrade over 2014.

2B: Again, injuries hurt. Brandon Phillips missed time and then played hurt. DatDude is back, and
while he's probably lost a step from his glory days, he can still cover ground like few others, and I still believe in his bat being productive. I expect the Reds to bat him third behind Votto to give him ample opportunities to prove his value. Offensive numbers from the team's second baseman will be better than a year ago.

3B: Todd Frazier is still developing, and he'll get better. It might be difficult for him to take another big step forward after his breakout season last year, but if he can be close to that level, the Reds should be pleased. I think he'll do that.

SS: Zack Cozart had a terrible year at the plate last year. It's bounce-back time. The numbers HAVE to be better this year. They will be.

C: Todd Mesoraco: See Frazier above. Like the team's third baseman, Mesoraco had a breakout season in 2014, and it will be tough for him to show another big step forward. But this young stud is motivated to show how good he can be, and I don't think there will be a drop-off.

LF: Marlon Byrd: The weakest and least-defined position for the 2014 Reds is now locked and loaded. Byrd was an offseason addition, and while he struck out too much last year with the Phillies, that's not his norm, and the Reds will need him to correct that. But he brings legitimate power and solidifies the biggest question mark the Reds had last year. This is a HUGE upgrade for the team.

CF: Billy Hamilton was better than expected the first half of the year, and worse than expected the second half. Expect him to be more consistent and learn from that second half. He put in the time during the offseason, and the team's offensive production from CF will be better.

RF: This is the easiest of the positions to expect improvement. Of five seasons of everyday play, 2014 was the worst for Jay Bruce, and it wasn't even close. In 2013, he had 30 HR, 109 RBI and a .262 batting average. Last year: 18, 66 and .217. He missed time because of injury and returned too soon, and he was never the Bruce the Reds need. He'll be back this year. He'll still be streaky, but at the end of the year he'll have 35 HRs and 100 RBI.

Starting pitching: This is where the Reds face the most criticism. They traded away two solid starters from a year ago, including No. 2 Mat Latos, as salary moves. They didn't sign any new proven talent. But they did acquire Anthony Desclafani in the Latos trade, and team officials have high hopes for him. I do, too. His spring has been spectacular. They will also start the year with Jason Marquis and Michael Lorenzen or Raisel Iglesias in the rotation, it seems, all question marks of different types. Marquis is a journeyman veteran who didn't pitch at all last year, Iglesias a young prospect from Cuba. And Lorenzen is a rookie who has only been pitching for a couple of seasons. But tell me a MLB team that doesn't have 1-2 question marks in their rotation. One of them will get bumped when Homer Bailey is ready after he's fully recovered, and that will be soon. And I like the chances that Bailey will be better than last year. And at the top of the rotation the team has Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, two who have proven their abilities and will both be in contract years. This rotation will surprise people.

Bullpen: One of the team's weak spots a year ago, there's nowhere to go but up. New pickup Burke Badenhop will help, as well as an influx of new names to give them options. They appear set on moving strike thrower Tony Cingrani there after deciding he didn't earn a rotation spot. And it's possible Iglesias / Lorenzen will also be moved there when Bailey returns. Lots of options in the bullpen, and it will be better in 2015.

And then there is the motivation from these woeful predictions and other chatter. You don't think Frazier and Mesoraco want to make sure a last-place finish isn't reality? You think Votto likes hearing that he's not an elite player because he doesn't drive in enough runs? You think the entire team -- from new vocal guy Byrd to veterans Votto and Bruce, to emerging leaders Frazier and Mesoraco -- aren't a little miffed that Latos packed his bags and then claimed the team has no leadership? You don't think Desclafani is determined to prove that he can be a capable replacement for Latos?

So, through my rosey Red glasses, I see definite improvements in the bullpen, first base, shortstop, left field and right field, and likely improvements at second base and center field, along with continued development from stars in the making at third and catcher.

Get on board, because this is going to be a fun season.

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