Among National League teams, only the Atlanta Braves have won more games over the last two seasons than the Cincinnati Reds. With 187 wins over the last two seasons, the Reds won the National League Central Division by nine games in 2012 and lost the wild card round game in 2013 after a 90-win campaign. The Reds, along with the Pirates and Cardinals, came together to form one of baseball’s best divisions in 2013, as those three teams posted a combined record of 281-205, the most wins of any top three teams in a division.
The Reds have not had three consecutive winning seasons since the team had four straight winning records from 1985-88 with a group that finished second in the NL West all four seasons. The last two seasons have been about pitching for the Reds, who are one of two teams to allow less than 600 runs in each of the last two seasons.
The Reds will have a different manager this season for the first time since 2007. Dusty Baker was fired after falling to get the team past the Division Series for the third time in four seasons. The team elevated pitching coach Bryan Price into the role of manager. With Price a bit of an unknown as manager and the loss of Shin-Soo Choo, one has to wonder what’s in store for the Reds this season.
The expectations from the sportsbooks are very interesting. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV hung a very optimistic total of 87 wins, with William Hill next in line at 86.5. LVH Superbook set a rather pessimistic total of 83. BetOnline opened at 84. If these numbers are still available in Nevada, a middle has to look like an intriguing proposition with a gap like that.
Key additions: Chien-Ming Wang, Jeff Francis
Key losses: Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Xavier Paul
The Reds went all-in and won a few pots with Shin-Soo Choo, but they couldn’t take down the World Series title. The Reds acquired Choo from the Indians prior to the 2013 season as part of a three-team deal that sent shortstop Didi Gregorius to the Diamondbacks and Drew Stubbs to the Indians. Choo was spectacular for the Reds, accumulating 5.2 fWAR, but he moved on to Texas with a very lucrative free agent contract.
The loss of Bronson Arroyo could be a difficult hole for the Reds to fill. Arroyo took a free agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. While Arroyo wasn’t the most talented pitcher, one could make a case for him as the most durable. Arroyo averaged 33 starts per season over his eight years with the Reds. Over eight seasons, Arroyo managed 14.6 fWAR with the Reds, which is hardly spectacular, but the onus is on the Reds and new manager Bryan Price to find somebody to throw Arroyo’s 200 innings.
Chien-Ming Wang and Jeff Francis, two veteran starters, will be candidates to replace Arroyo. Wang has thrown just 257.2 Major League innings since the start of the 2008 season, so the Reds are hoping that he can defy his recent injury history and be a contributor. Francis, the longtime Colorado Rockie, is familiar with the National League and knows what it’s like to pitch in a good hitter’s park.
The loss of Xavier Paul hurts a little bit more in the National League because of the need for pinch hitters and defensive replacements. Paul put up decent numbers for a part-time player, but his lack of versatility hurt the Reds last season since he was limited to playing left field and has severe batting splits.
Overall, it’s been a very quiet offseason for the Reds, who are banking on healthier seasons from their in-house options like Johnny Cueto and Ryan Ludwick. The biggest change is the manager, where Bryan Price takes over for Dusty Baker. Baker often drew the ire of sabermetrically-minded baseball fans, so there’s some hope among that group that Price will be able to better utilize the team’s best player, Joey Votto. Traditionalists look at Baker’s results with a division title and three playoff appearances in four seasons and wonder if that can be replicated with a different manager.
Why bet the over?
The biggest reason to like the Reds is because of their pitching staff. The rotation boasts Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and the likely fifth starter is Tony Cingrani. If all five guys are healthy, this is a very formidable group capable of giving the Reds good length for a National League team and chances to win a lot of ballgames.
Latos is the guy most likely to take a big step forward this season. Latos went from pitcher-friendly Petco Park in San Diego to hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park to start 2012 and hasn’t dropped off at all. His peripherals remain consistent. He’s become a workhorse with back-to-back seasons of over 200 innings. There’s reason to hope that Latos can be even better this season as his strikeout rate doesn’t quite correlate to his high swinging strike rate. He also allowed the highest percentage of line drives last season. It coincided with a drop in fly ball rate, which is good for his home park, but if the line drive rate moves back towards his career average, preferably with an increase in ground balls, Latos should be around the same or better.
Cueto managed just 11 starts in 2013, so it’s rather impressive that the Reds won 90 games without the services of their staff ace. Cueto’s high ground ball rate coupled with a low walk rate makes him a very valuable starter. Cueto is sure to be mislabeled as a major injury risk because of what happened last season. With the exception of a 24-start season in 2011, Cueto made 30 or more starts in his other four Major League seasons. Keep this in mind as well. Cueto’s injury was to a lat muscle, not his arm or shoulder. His offseason training regimen likely focused on strengthening his core and that should allow Cueto to make 30 starts again. Even while pitching through the lat problem, Cueto maintained his velocity and control. Expect a big bounce back season from him.
Like his other rotation counterparts, Homer Bailey has great control. What makes the Reds rotation so good is that they force hitters to get on base by putting the ball in play. Bailey is no exception and his increased strikeout rate and improved home run rate make him a possible breakout candidate in this rotation. The Reds noticed these trends and rewarded Bailey handsomely with a six-year, $105M extension, so there could be some concern about Bailey putting too much pressure on himself to live up to the contract. But, that seems like grasping at straws rather than appreciating Bailey for what he is. He’s in the prime of his career as a pitcher and his peripherals are trending in the right direction.
Mike Leake posted a 3.37 ERA last season over 31 starts by limiting his home runs and increasing his ground ball outs. If Leake can continue that, he gives the Reds rotation tremendous depth as a back-end of the rotation starter more than capable of performing above average. Tony Cingrani is the wild card of the rotation. Cingrani threw predominantly fastballs in his 19 starts last season and was still able to keep Major League hitters from making solid contact, if they made any contact at all. He racked up tremendous strikeout numbers in the minors and those, at least to date, have translated to the bigs.
Behind the main five for the Reds, Chien-Ming Wang and Jeff Francis may provide some veteran intangibles in case of injury. David Holmberg, acquired in the Ryan Hanigan trade, is the standard issue, reliable lefty starter with a fastball that can barely break glass but he throws strikes and has a four-pitch mix to keep hitters off balance.
The Reds bullpen is a pretty deep group anchored by flame-throwing Cuban Aroldis Chapman. Some people continue to insist that Chapman should be stretched out as a starter, but he has been a dominant reliever, especially over the last two seasons with a strikeout rate above 43 percent and 76 saves. Chapman was stronger in the second half last season, quieting fears about his durability as a short-inning reliever in back-to-back seasons.
The rest of the bullpen is a rather unassuming group of solid relievers. There are no big ticket setup men on the roster, but a collection of guys with above average strikeout rates and good matchup options combine to form a solid, deep bullpen behind Chapman. Sean Marshall, one of the game’s top matchup lefties, missed most of the 2013 season and the bullpen didn’t miss a beat without him. With Marshall hopefully healthy, the Reds pen, which finished 20th in fWAR last season, should move up. Also, a HR/FB percentage of 11.7 percent was likely park-aided, but was much higher than 2012, so that should regulate this season.
The hope is that new manager Bryan Price will find a more effective place for Joey Votto in the everyday lineup. There continues to be debate about Votto, who is perennially among the league leaders in walks and on-base percentage, because he is the most gifted hitter in the Reds lineup but doesn’t produce the RBI or home run totals that some people believe he should. Votto is a believer in sabermetrics, possibly leading to his approach at the plate. Dusty Baker inexplicably bunted in front of Votto with regularity during his Reds tenure, a point to expand on shortly. Under Price, perhaps Votto becomes even more production in a traditional sense.
Ryan Ludwick’s 2012 season seems like a thing of the past after just 140 plate appearances in 2013. Ludwick is now 36 and the drop in production with age is a very real thing. But, Ludwick’s issue was a separated shoulder and not something with his legs, so there’s hope that he can return to being a productive hitter this season. Brandon Phillips posted the second-lowest BABIP of his Reds career, leading to a 20-point drop in batting average. Phillips also stole only five bases, the fewest of any season with the Reds. Price wants the runners to be more aggressive, so Phillips may add additional value on the basepaths.
Another victim of the BABIP monster was Todd Frazier. Frazier’s BABIP dropped nearly 50 points, even though his strikeout total remained the same. Frazier matched his 2012 home run total in 135 more plate appearances. Since home runs are not counted in the calculation of BABIP, this would indicate that Frazier was a bit unlucky.
Billy Hamilton will add a new dimension atop the Reds lineup as he tries to replace some of Shin-Soo Choo’s lost production. Hamilton is a burner on the bases. He stole 395 bases in 502 minor league games and 13 bases in 13 games during his short audition last season. Hamilton transitioned from shortstop to the outfield last season, so he’ll also fill a positional hole left by Choo.
The firing of Dusty Baker should improve the Reds. Baker often made questionable lineup decisions and lost a handful of games because of his hesitance to use Aroldis Chapman in non-save situations. A few times, Baker’s Reds lost in extra innings never having put Chapman in the game. One could argue that it’s far easier to lose a game than win it with questionable managing and given some of Baker’s head scratchers, a fresh start in the Reds dugout could prove beneficial.
Why bet the under?
How do the Reds replace Shin-Soo Choo? The Reds combined for 24.4 fWAR from their position players last season and Choo accounted for 5.2 of that. In terms of wRAA, weighted runs above average, an advanced metric that determines how many runs better than an average performer a player is, Choo was 44 runs above an average offensive player. As a team, the Reds were 2.7 runs above average. If Choo was replaced with an average player, the Reds would have been over 41 runs below average. That would have put them among the 10 worst offenses in that category.
Banking on Ryan Ludwick or Billy Hamilton appears to be a fool’s errand for the Reds. Hamilton will steal bases, but his very low on-base percentages and swing and miss tendencies are going to prevent him from getting on base a lot. Ludwick is definitely on the downside of his career and his health has been an issue.
It’s concerning that the Reds continue to want to change who Joey Votto is. Votto generates a ton of value for the Reds and the problem isn’t him. The problem is the front office failing to surround Votto with the necessary talent to maximize his value. Bounce back seasons from Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier would help, and it’s possible with their low BABIPs, but it’s entirely possible that Phillips’s decline is the start of his age showing.
Jay Bruce will continue to put up solid fantasy numbers in home runs and RBI, but his walk rate dropped, his strikeout rate increased, and his BABIP of .322 was 25 points above his career average. Bruce will still be a strong contributor for the Reds, but as illustrated above without Choo, the Reds lineup is probably going to be hurting for offense. Expect Bruce’s batting average and on-base percentage to drop a bit, possibly weakening an already questionable offense.
Outside of Cueto, the Reds rotation stayed extremely healthy last season. Four starters made 31 or more starts. That has to continue because the Reds do not have a lot of starting pitching depth. Furthermore, there have to be concerns about Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani. Leake and his well below average strikeout ability are always a concern in his home park, but Cingrani is largely a one-pitch pitcher and that will catch up with him at the top level. Leake’s FIP was nearly 0.7 runs above his ERA and he stranded an unsustainable amount of runners. Cingrani also had a FIP-ERA difference of 0.86 and his fly ball tendencies raise red flags.
Pick: Over 84 (BetOnline)
As I said at the top, you’ve got a pretty juicy middle if you have access to both numbers. Because you probably don’t, take the under on the highest number at your disposal. That said, over 84 looks like a decent bet as well. This is a pitching-heavy team that can stay in the hunt if they remain healthy. The Reds are banking on a very good rotation that lacks depth outside of the top five and an offense that will be lucky to be above league average. If the Reds are successful at being more aggressive on the bases as their new manager wants to do, it can lead them to be better than expected, but caught stealings are very detrimental and taking baserunners away from the Reds will make this offense suffer even more.
If Cueto manages a full season and some of the offensive guys have their bounce back seasons, it can offset the loss of Choo, but taking a five-win player away on offense that helped other guys drive in runs takes a lot of compensation and a lot of things need to go according to plan for the Reds to offset that loss. At 84, the offshore number, it’s a sharp number and the lean would be to the over because of the talent in the rotation and a full season of Cueto. Injuries to Latos, Cueto, or Bailey would kill this bet pretty quickly. The best play is probably to save your money for a different team.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.