Season Preview: Young pitchers, lineup additions keys for Reds

The Cincinnati Reds finished at the bottom of the National League Central Division last season with a record of 68-94, four games better than 2015.

They were 32-57 in the first half but fashioned a respectable 36-37 record after the All-Star break.

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“It’s time to go out there and figure out what we can do,” manager Bryan Price said. “We have a nice group of regulars. We can’t just settle for 72 wins, we have to set much higher goals. To do that we need a lot of step-up from a group of young guys.”

Here are five story lines to follow as the season begins Monday at Great American Ball Park against the Phillies:

Young pitchers

Two rookies begin the season in the starting rotation. Rookie Davis and Amir Garrett will join Brandon Finnegan, who at 23 is two weeks older than Davis and younger than Garrett. Veterans Scott Feldman, 34, and the ancient yet youthful Bronson Arroyo, 40, are the veteran presences.

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Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani are recovering from injuries. Bailey had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow in early February. He won’t be ready until at least June. DeSclafani was shut down for three weeks and will need at least six weeks to build stamina.

Five other young arms — Sal Romano, Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Tim Adleman and Louis Castillo — are knocking on the door and fans can be confident they will be in the rotation in the near future.

Reed and Stephenson will learn on the job in the bullpen for now, available for emergency starts.

A better bullpen

A year ago, J.J. Hoover was given the closer’s role to lose when Aroldis Chapman was traded to the New York Yankees. And he lost it.

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This year, Drew Storen, a closer with Washington, signed as a free agent and joins Tony Cingrani, Raisel Iglasias and Michael Lorenzen at the back end of the bullpen.

“I would like to see all four of them get some save opportunities,” Price said. “Storen, Iglesias and Cingrani have done it before. Lorenzen not so much but he’s built for it.”

Rookies Barrett Astin, acquired in the trade for Jonathan Broxton in 2014, and Wandy Peralta, a left-hander, are other bullpen arms, with Reed and Stephenson also available.

Three shortstops

The Reds start the season with an athletic, more youthful infield. They traded Brandon Phillips, who at 34 was blocking the progress of Jose Peraza. Peraza, who was a shortstop in the Atlanta system but has moved to second base, started 29 games at shortstop with the Reds. He can also play the outfield.

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Eugenio Suarez was a shortstop coming up in the Detroit Tigers system. He replaced Zack Cozart in 2015 when Cozart suffered a season-ending knee injury. Suarez became an everyday player by moving to third when Todd Frazier was traded.

Cozart, still the regular shortstop, returns healthy and stronger two years removed from knee surgery.

This group has the ability to save the young pitching staff by cutting off ground balls ticketed for the outfield. They should be able to prevent runs, turn hits into outs and allow pitchers to go deeper in games.

Mesoraco’s health

Catcher Devin Mesoraco had a breakout year with the bat in 2014 but injuries limited the 28-year old to 39 games the last two seasons.

Mesoraco appears fully recovered but the Reds want him to work back to 100 percent before he is activated. Tucker Barnhart will be the top catcher until Mesoraco is ready to share the workload.

Stuart Turner is making the jump from Class AA. He had a good spring at the plate and was able to learn the pitching staff but the Reds have to keep him on the 25-man roster all season or offer him back to Minnesota after acquiring him in the Rule 5 draft.

Rob Brantly was farmed out but had a good camp.

A potent lineup

Scott Schebler, in right field, and Peraza are new additions to the everyday lineup.

“I am excited about having Schebler and Peraza for a full season,” Price said.

Schebler replaces Jay Bruce, who was traded to the New York Mets. The 26-year old struggled early last season trying to platoon with Adam Duvall in left. The Reds sent him to Louisville to play every day and he responded by hitting .311 with 13 home runs. After Bruce was traded, Schebler came back to Cincinnati and hit much better, belting nine home runs.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Peraza hit .281 in 71 games at Louisville and .324 in 72 games in Cincinnati. Even limited to half a season, Peraza ranked high among rookies in seven offensive categories. Price will put him behind Billy Hamilton at the top of the lineup to give the team two speedsters in front of Joey Votto.

Votto just needs to be himself. He struggled until the All-Star break then hit nearly .400 the second half. Staying healthy is the only question mark for the 33-year old who finished seventh in the MVP voting.

Duvall took control in left with surprisingly good defense for a player who was a third baseman in the minors. He finished strong this spring, hitting three home runs in the last two games. Last season he led all left fielders with 33 home runs, six triples and 103 RBIs. With Hamilton, Peraza and Votto hitting in front of him, he should be able to drive in a lot of runs.

Saurez started 2016 as one of the hottest hitters in the National League. He went into a slump but recovered late in the season and finished strong. Cozart’s .252 batting average was consistent with his other years but he contributed a career-high 16 home runs in 121 games.

Cozart believes this Reds team is better than many think.

“We have that underdog mentality,” Cozart said. “We’re going to surprise some people this year.”

A key, of course, will be Hamilton, who’ll lead off. He started to get on base more last season and the Reds hope it continues.

‘It is important that Billy sees himself as a leadoff guy,” Price said. “That’s what we started to see at the end of last year. His two-strike approach and his management of the strike zone was vastly improved.”

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