Season preview: New faces will be key for Reds

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Season preview: New faces will be key for Reds

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David Jablonski
Bryan Price talks to Mike Leake on the mound during a game against the Cubs on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Price is in his first season as Reds manager. David Jablonski/Staff

The Cincinnati Reds will be looking for their fourth postseason trip in the last five years when they open the season Monday against National League Central division rival St. Louis. And while many of the same names who guided the team to division titles in 2010 and 2012 and a wild-card berth in 2013 are back, it’s the new faces and new roles that could be the key to the team taking the next step and winning a playoff series for the first time since 1995.

Bryan Price takes over as manager in what the Reds hope will be a smooth transition after he worked the previous four seasons as the team’s pitching coach under Dusty Baker.

Price will begin his first managerial job with something Baker never had during his six seasons in Cincinnati – a true leadoff hitter. Billy Hamilton will be one of the biggest stories to follow, as the Reds are hoping he can be the final piece in what has the makings of a team built for a run deep into the fall.

Here is a position-by-position look at how the Reds are constructed:

Catcher

The Reds handed the reins to the pitching staff to Devin Mesoraco when they traded Ryan Hanigan to Tampa in the offseason. Mesoraco has built solid relationships with the pitchers, especially Homer Bailey, while catching 157 games over the last two seasons, but his offensive production has been slower to develop as he hit .212 in 2012 and .238 last year. He’s had the luxury of patience thus far, but the Reds need the 25-year-old to make significant progress. Playing five or six days a week as opposed to two or three should help him develop more consistency at the plate.

Brayan Pena signed a two-year deal to be Mesoraco’s backup, although he could end up starting Opening Day if Mesoraco is still dealing with the oblique injury he suffered March 20. Pena, 31, is a nine-year veteran who should be an asset in terms of giving Mesoraco advice in addition to a few days off each week.

First base

Joey Votto took a lot of heat from fans and the media last year regarding his walk rate, but the 30-year old former MVP remains one of the best hitters in the game and figures to be a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come with a $225 million contract that runs through 2023.

He had 73 RBIs in 726 plate appearances last year, but it had as much to do with lack of opportunities as it did lack of production thanks to the No. 2 spot in the lineup being a black hole all year. Votto ranked second in MLB with a .435 on-base percentage, but his declining power numbers are a concern. He had 57 extra-base hits last year, one fewer than in 2012 when a knee injury limited him to 111 games.

With Jack Hannahan out with a shoulder injury, Neftali Soto is a good bet to make the 25-man roster and be the primary backup at first. But barring an injury to Votto, who played 162 games last year and 161 in 2011, Soto will see most of his time at third. The 25-year-old rookie got a small taste of the big leagues last year with 13 at-bats in 13 games, going 0 for 12 with six strikeouts.

Hannahan, who also is more likely to see time at third than first, hit .216 with one home run and 16 RBIs in 83 games with the Reds last year.

Second base

Still one of the finest — and flashiest — defensive second basemen in the game, Brandon Phillips is declining offensively no matter how much he argues against the point.

His on-base percentage (.353, .321, .310), slugging percentage (.457, .429, .396) and OPS (.810, .750, .706) have declined the past two seasons, and his 98 strikeouts were the second-highest total of the 32-year-old’s career. Phillips did drive in a career-high 103 runs in 2013, but a lot of that had to do with hitting behind a pair of .400+ OBP guys in Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto. That will not be the case in 2014.

With offseason signee Skip Schumaker on the DL with a shoulder injury, Phillips will be backed up by whomever the Reds elect to bring north and round out the 25-man roster. It’s between Kristopher Negron, Ramon Santiago and Chris Nelson. Phillips has averaged 151 games over the last eight years, so versatility could be the key piece in choosing between the three potential backups, and that would seem to favor Negron, who also can play shortstop and outfield.

Third base

Following his breakout season in 2012, Todd Frazier fell off somewhat last year. He had the same number of home runs and more RBIs, but he also had 135 more plate appearances and his batting average plummeted from .273 to .234. At age 28 he’s still entrenched as the starter, but the Reds need him to be closer to the player he was two years ago. Frazier hit .210 away from Great American Ball Park last year. He’s solid defensively, and has thus far in his young career been durable, playing 150 games last year. He will need to be again as neither of the backups offers much offensively.

Hanahan, a 34-year-old journeyman with his fifth team in eight seasons, will get an occasional start when he’s healthy. Soto could get a spot start as well.

Shortstop

Zack Cozart has shown gradual improvement in his first two full seasons, but the Reds are hoping he can take a much bigger step. Cozart struggled in the No. 2 hole last year, and he wasn’t much better anywhere else.

If the Reds can find a solid No. 2 hitter, they can live with Cozart’s middling offense in exchange for his excellent defense. The most curious stat on Cozart’s line last year was zero steal attempts, which is almost unheard of for a No. 2 hitter. Price has said he will run more than his predecessor Dusty Baker did, so that’s another area where Cozart can add value when given the green light.

Santiago, a 34-year-old veteran of nine MLB seasons, is expected to back up Cozart. The Reds are hoping that Santiago, who lacks speed (28 career steals) and power (28 career home runs), will not be counted on for more than an occasional start.

Outfield

Right fielder Jay Bruce anchors an outfield full of questions. Can Billy Hamilton hit major-league pitching? And can the former shortstop make the transition to center field. Can Ryan Ludwick return to the form he showed in 2012. And if not, is Chris Heisey ready to become an everyday player?

The Hamilton experiment will have everyone’s attention locally and nationally. He was electric during his September call-up last year, going 13 for 14 in steal attempts while batting .368. No one expects the 23-year-old speedster to hit like that in his first full season in the bigs, but even if he can get on base 35 percent of the time he will wreak havoc.

Bruce already has built an impressive resume as he enters his physical prime, turning 27 on Thursday. He’s hit at least 30 home runs and driven in at least 97 three years in a row, including a career-high 109 RBIs in 2013. Combine that with Gold Glove-caliber defense and Bruce could put himself in the conversation for NL MVP if he can be more selective at the plate and get his average above the .250/.260 range where it has lingered since he posted a career-best .281 mark in 2010.

In left field, Ludwick is hoping to bounce back from what essentially was a lost season in 2013. He suffered a shoulder injury on Opening Day that shelved him until August. And even after he returned, Ludwick was a shell of his usual self, finishing the year with just two homers in 148 at-bats with a .240 average. The 35-year-old should get the nod on Opening Day, but if he comes out of the gate slow it could open the door for Heisey, although the 29-year-old failed to take advantage of the increased playing time created by Ludwick’s injury last year. Heisey had a strong spring, leading the Reds in homers (six) and RBIs (12) through the first 28 games.

Offseason signee Roger Bernadina will be the other reserve. The 29-year-old is a career .236 hitter, so don’t expect him to push for a starting role in left, even if Ludwick and Heisey both struggle. Bernadina’s most valuable role may come as a pinch-runner, as he’s stolen 52 bases in 60 attempts the last four seasons.

Starting rotation

The starting five is expected to be Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani, but with Latos starting the year on the DL, Alfredo Simon will slide into that No. 5 spot.

It has the makings of one of the best rotations in the league with Bailey and Leake both coming off the best seasons of their career and are entering their physical primes at ages 27 and 26, respectively. Bailey went 11-12 due to some awful run support, but he posted a 3.49 ERA and signed a six-year, $105 million contract in February. Leake parlayed his ’13 season – 14-7, 3.37 ERA – into a one-year, $5.9 million deal.

Latos, 26, also had one of his best campaigns last year, going 14-7 with a 3.16 ERA, and should be back from a knee injury in the second week of the season.

Cueto is the big question mark. Or, more specifically, his health is. Cueto made three trips to the DL last year and started 11 games. When he was on the mound, he was his usual solid self, going 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA.

The Reds are hoping the injury problems are behind the 28-year-old, who averaged 30 starts his five previous seasons. He is scheduled to make his third consecutive Opening Day start.

Even if Simon begins the year in the rotation, he likely won’t stay there long. Of his 177 career appearances, 158 have been in relief.

Bullpen

The frightening injury closer Aroldis Chapman suffered on a line drive to his face combined with Jonathan Broxton’s elbow and Sean Marshall’s shoulder means the Reds will begin the year without three of their top bullpen arms. Broxton and Marshall are expected to be back soon, but Chapman is likely to be out well into May. J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure will be called on to close games until Broxton and Marshall recover, and maybe even after they return.

Logan Ondrusek also is back, along with Manny Parra, who will be the lone left-handed reliever until Marshall returns regardless of how Price elects to round out the pen. Four right-handers are battling for the final three spots — Nick Christiani, Brett Marshall, Pedro Beato and Jose Diaz. Christiani had the strongest spring, posting a 1.64 ERA in his first eight appearances.

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