COMMENTARY | The defending NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds have to be the favorite to repeat in 2013. Whereas the only two other teams that can be expected to contend in the Central -- the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers -- have to have a lot go right for them to emerge as division champs, the Reds have to have a lot go wrong just to give these two teams a shot.
The Reds' rotation is solid from one to five with two ace-caliber, front-end starters in Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, a budding star in Homer Bailey, and two steady if unspectacular workhorses at the backend of the rotation in Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake. Only the loss of Cueto and Latos would make it debatable which team has the best rotation in the division.
The Reds' bullpen is even more formidable than the rotation, now that the Cuban Missile Aroldis Chapman will remain with Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall at the backend of the pen. If the Reds have the lead after the sixth inning, Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brennaman might as well pronounce that, "This one belongs to the Reds" before the seventh inning even starts.
The most glaring weakness of the Reds' offense in 2012 was addressed with the addition of Shin-Soo Choo as the leadoff hitter. A healthy Joey Votto will also give the Reds one of the best hitters in baseball at their disposal for at least 40 more games than he played last year.
From top to bottom, there is no easy out for the Reds among the position players, and when Leake is pitching, the batting order is even more formidable.
The talent gap between the Reds' batting order and those of the Cardinals and Brewers is not as wide as it is with pitching, but it still gets the edge, provided Reds cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick can perform at the level he did last year.
For all the flash and stunts in the field, Brandon Phillips is far and away the best fielding second baseman in the game. The rest of the Reds' defense also features Gold Glove-caliber position players in catcher Ryan Hanigan, shortstop Zack Cozart, first baseman Votto and right fielder Jay Bruce. The Reds are likely to drop quite a bit defensively in center field with the switch from Drew Stubbs to Choo, but the overall defense is still overall the best in the division.
Reds manager Dusty Baker can taste the World Series on his toothpicks, so he's not going to let the division slip away again, like it did in 2011 after the Reds won the Central in 2010. After health issues last year sidelined Baker late in the season, he knows there's only so many go-arounds left, and he'll be determined to win -- the eventual decision to return Chapman to the bullpen attests to that win-now determination.
The Reds also benefit from a very capable bench coach in Chris Speier, who can assume managerial duties if needed, and an excellent pitching coach in Bryan Price.
The Reds also benefit from an organizational commitment to bring in former players for key roles in the development of their players. Whether it's Ken Griffey, Sr., Tom Browning, Mario Soto, Eric Davis, Joe Morgan, Billy Hatcher or Johnny Bench, the Reds' coaching family has instilled greatness of past teams in the development of recent teams -- largely through the commitment of the Castellini family ownership to bring another World Series trophy to the Reds Hall of Fame Museum showroom.
Add to the mix a scouting staff that has picked a string of ringers for the past decade and an exceptional general manger in Walt Jocketty, and there's no compelling reason why the Reds won't win the NL Central in 2013.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds season here.
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