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Cincinnati Reds: Five Things That Could Ruin the 2014 Season

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Reds will enter the 2014 season without the services of longtime starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, one-year rental sensation Shin-Soo Choo, and veteran defensive backstop Ryan Hanigan.

While none of these losses are insurmountable for the Reds to vie for the NL Central title, there are some uncertainties about the Reds that could ruin the team's 2014 season.

Here are five issues that could cause the Reds' 2014 season to take a significantly downward turn:

Brandon Phillips Meltdown

It's one thing to verbally belittle the players of another team the way Brandon Phillips did with his comments about the St. Louis Cardinals' players in 2010. It's another thing altogether to bash the owner of your team in print and obscenely berate a beat reporter on video the way Phillips did in 2013.

Phillips would serve the Reds best in 2014 by letting his play on the field do his talking. If Phillips is not traded in the interim and decides he will be an ongoing distraction, the clubhouse environment under new manager Bryan Price could deteriorate to the point that it impacts the overall success of the team in 2014.

Johnny Cueto Injury

The Reds survived the loss of ace Johnny Cueto for most of the 2013 season, but Cueto wasn't recuperated enough to produce at his usual ace-self when he faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL wild-card game. That disappointing outing brought back the cloud surrounding Cueto and his health: Will he be able to pitch again at the level he had prior to a lat injury that knocked him out of Game 1 of the 2012 NL Division Series and limited him to 11 starts and three trips to the disabled list in 2013?

A healthy Cueto is a potential 20-game winner and one of the top five pitchers in the major leagues (second in ERA among starters in the majors since 2011). Now that the Reds' rotation no longer includes the rubber-armed Bronson Arroyo, a less than healthy Cueto in 2014 could be even more of a loss than Cueto's extended absence was in 2013.

Billy Hamilton Flop

No one in the Reds organization expects rookie Billy Hamilton to replicate the on-base percentage of on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo. But the speedster is expected to be a leadoff hitter capable of stealing bases by the bunches while being a significant upgrade over Choo in center field.

If Hamilton reaches second base enough to be in a position to score at least 90 runs as the leadoff hitter, the rest of the Reds' lineup should be able to do the rest. The Reds enjoyed the services of Choo as their primary leadoff hitter in 2013, but this group of Reds understands that the success of the leadoff hitter isn't the end-all for team success -- in 2012, the Reds collectively scored 83 runs with a .254 OBP at leadoff and still managed to have the second-best record in baseball.

Still, an abject disaster by Hamilton to start the season could cause a freefall that could force the Reds to dig themselves out of a first-half hole.

Tony Cingrani Crash

The biggest reason why the Reds survived the loss of Cueto for so much of the 2013 season was the emergence of Tony Cingrani in the rotation. Armed with pretty much just one pitch, Cingrani thrived in his conversion from reliever to starter, posting a 2.92 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 104.2 innings.

Cingrani may be able to deliver at the level he did in 2013 before back spasms finally shortened his season. But even if he slides a little, the Reds can manage as long as Cueto returns without further injury issues.

Should Cingrani completely lose effectiveness or experience further injury issues, the results could be disastrous now that Arroyo and his 200 innings a year are gone. If neither Cingrani nor Cueto can deliver, the results could truly ruin the 2014 season.

Ryan Ludwick Struggles

The Reds' 2013 season got off to an unlucky start when cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick tore his shoulder trying to slide head-first into third base on opening day. Ludwick returned for the final two months of the season but failed to deliver at the plate like he had in 2012, when he belted 26 homers and produced 80 RBIs in just 422 at-bats. The .240 average clip with just two HRs and 12 RBIs that Ludwick produced in 129 ABs in 2013 simply will not do in 2014.

The Reds were able to adequately replace Ludwick in the cleanup spot with second baseman Brandon Phillips but never really got much production out of the left-field position vacated by Ludwick. Two of the reserves -- Xavier Paul and Derrick Robinson -- who replaced Ludwick in left field are no longer Reds.

Should Ludwick continue his late-2013 struggles into this season, the offense will suffer. If Ludwick can't live up to even half of the $13.5 million he'll make (including a $4.5 million buyout in 2015) for one year of play and both Phillips and Hamilton don't live up to even the most modest of expectations, the Reds could find themselves on such a disastrous course that their battle could be with the Chicago Cubs for division cellar dweller instead of the rest of the teams in the NL Central for the division crown.

Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years and maintains the Football Nostradamus website. You can read his articles about the Reds here.

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