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No. 9 Reds: It's all about pitching ... and a particular former pitcher

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Pa. police: No charge in fight involving Reds wife
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Mat Latos should be able to resume throwing in 10 days. (AP)

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Cincinnati Reds.

2013 record: 90-72
Finish: Third, NL Central
2013 payroll: $116.1 million (13th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $118.8 million (12th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 9
Reds in six words: Go Billy go! Go Billy go!

OFFSEASON ACTION
Pacing themselves, either that or quite sure their flaws existed solely in their former manager, the Reds appear to be betting roster-wide improvement will carry their 2014 season.

Bryan Price, the longtime pitching coach who’d done time in that capacity in Seattle, Arizona and Cincinnati, replaces Dusty Baker on the top step. He takes over a club that lost its final six games, including the wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That fatal tremor continued a trend under Baker in which the Reds had become just good enough from April to September to have their hearts broken in October.

[Also: No. 10 Braves: Still good enough to win the NL East ]

Price will manage much of the same team Baker left behind. Leadoff hitter and center fielder Shin-Soo Choo is gone, having signed with the Texas Rangers, and Bronson Arroyo is expected to sign elsewhere.

GM Walt Jocketty added Skip Schumaker, a sound utilityman who could play center field if Billy Hamilton isn’t ready, along with backup catcher Brayan Pena. He also acquired 22-year-old lefty David Holmberg from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-way trade that sent catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Tampa Bay Rays.

REALITY CHECK
You can sort of see where Jocketty is coming from. The Reds are good. Maybe they should have been better. Maybe, with just a little help from the right places, they could be that in ’14.

In a tough park for pitchers, Reds starters have been quite effective the past two seasons and remarkably durable. They return all but Arroyo. That means Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, along with Tony Cingrani, the rookie left-hander who was 7-4 with a 2.77 ERA in 18 starts during Cueto’s injury. Depth is coming in Holmberg and Robert Stephenson, a 2011 first-rounder, and it might not be long before the Reds need them. Bailey can be a free agent after 2014, and Latos and Cueto the year after. Turn on the AC, Cincy, that window might be closin’.

The bullpen, which leads eventually – and often – to Aroldis Chapman, is plenty sturdy as well.

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Is speedster Billy Hamilton ready to be an everyday player? (USA TODAY Sports)

The plan for the moment is to replace Choo, the on-base machine and borderline defensive burden, with Hamilton. And this is where it gets interesting. There’s offense aplenty in Cincinnati, with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier. Ryan Ludwick returns to left field for what the Reds hope is a full season, and even Phillips, due to a lingering wrist issue, wasn’t quite himself during the second half. Still the Reds scored fewer runs last season than only the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies, in part because Votto and Choo went one-two in the league in on-base percentage, and Choo was a beast in the leadoff spot.

Along comes Hamilton, 23 years old, two seasons removed from 155 minor-league stolen bases, a few months from an electric September in which he stole 13 of 14 bases and even batted .368 (in 19 at-bats.) The question is: Is he ready? He became a center fielder only last season. His on-base percentage over 123 games in Triple-A Louisville – his first year in Triple-A – was .308.

“We think he’s ready,” Jocketty told the Cincinnati Enquirer, even after attempting to trade for Brett Gardner and then coming close – but failing – to sign Grady Sizemore.

It seems a lot of ground to cover for Hamilton, whose development might be better served in a less meaningful place in the order. Or in Louisville. That said, Hamilton has always been adept at covering ground, and the Reds will know more about him at the end of March than they do now, and they have enough talent to cover for him if he needs more time.

They’re good enough to wait. But not too long.

SAVIOR
Remember when owners and general managers didn’t trust the top step to former pitchers and pitching coaches?

Well, it’s not as if the big leagues are teeming with them, but Bryan Price joins John Farrell, who acquitted himself well in Boston, and Bud Black, terrific in San Diego, as former pitchers turned managers.

Price takes over a big job, but one whose clubhouse and dugout he knows well, and whose players he is familiar. All he’s being asked to do is beat the St. Louis Cardinals, perhaps the best returning team in the big leagues, retake the NL Central, then win a playoff series or two in Cincinnati for the first time in going on two decades.

Price is bright. He’s candid. He’s prepared.

All that’s left is to win. And win big.

HAIKU
I’m lukewarm on Reds
But Passan overruled me
He loves their pitching

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