The Reds have won 90 games in three of the past four years, so this team's fans have come to expect a certain level of regular season success ... followed immediately by postseason failure.
Cincinnati lost in the NLDS in both 2010 and 2012, then they were blasted by the Pirates in the Wild Card game in 2013. Dusty Baker was fired shortly after last year's playoff loss, replaced by pitching coach Bryan Price. Expectations remain relatively high for the 2014 edition of the Reds, even if the N.L. Central is suddenly a minefield. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are stacked with young talent, Milwaukee should be competitive enough, and Chicago is, um ... well, not good. But the Cubs' farm system is terrific.
If Cincinnati is ever going to win a title in the Votto/Bruce era, they should probably act fast. This year's lineup is again respectable, the rotation has a few near-aces, and the bullpen is anchored by Earth's hardest-throwing human. The biggest question facing the team, of course, is how they can replace Shin-Soo Choo, last year's leadoff man. Hopefully the kid pictured above is ready.
And that brings us to our first pressing question...
Q: What's the forecast for Billy Hamilton?
A: This is probably going to be an unsatisfying answer, but the range of possible outcomes for Hamilton is ridiculously wide. Best-case, he's the 1985 version of Vince Coleman. Worst-case, he'll be returned to Louisville in May.
As most of you know, Hamilton has rare speed — potentially all-time speed. He already holds the single-season professional record for steals (155 in 2012), and he'll stress any defense whenever he puts the ball in play, no matter how routine the grounder. He's just impossibly fast. Look at this nonsense. He's a bad, bad man on the bases.
However, reaching base will prove to be a challenge at the highest level. Hamilton delivered an unimpressive line at Triple-A last season (.256/.308/.343), despite swiping 75 bags in 90 attempts (plus 13 more in the bigs). He coaxed almost as many walks in 50 games at Double-A in 2012 (36) as he did in 123 games last season at Louisville (38). So it would be a mistake to regard him as a sure-thing. Many analysts have tossed out Dee Gordon as a scary comp for Hamilton; that's pretty much the nightmare scenario.
But we should note that Gordon, a very fast dude, isn't really in Hamilton's class as a burner. Billy is basically in a class by himself. If everything goes right for Hamilton, he'll steal ... well, who knows? 80 bases? 90? 100-plus?
I don't even know where to set the upper limit for his base-stealing potential. Again, check the tape. The man is just wickedly fast. If he can simply reach base at something like a .310 clip, he'll be utterly dominant in his core category.
My advice is to target him aggressively in mixed leagues, because you'll have no trouble at all finding a replacement outfielder, should things take a bad turn for Hamilton. He's often selected in the Round 4-6 range in mixed mocks. Hamilton is a much riskier buy in N.L.-only, simply because you won't have a safety net if he busts — which, again, is a distinct possibility.
The Reds has been linked to various center fielders in trade/signing rumors — including Brett Gardner and Grady Sizemore — so the team clearly believes a Plan B is needed. Still, I'm usually the guy who snags Hamilton in the early rounds. If he hits, even a little, he'll single-handedly win you a category. That's a rare trait, definitely worth a reach.
Q: Man, that was a long answer, yet you never actually delivered a forecast. What the heck, expert?
A: OK, fine: 95 R, 3 HR, 45 RBIs, 79 SB, .268 AVG. But really, the Hamilton draft-day decision is about floor and ceiling, and your willingness to accept risk.
Q: What's the story with Brandon Phillips? Wasn't he gonna get dealt?
A: Good luck with that effort, Cincinnati. Phillips is 32, entering the decline years, and he's owed something like $50 million over the next four seasons. So if the Yankees won't take him, no one will. You have to figure Phillips will hit 16-20 home runs in the year ahead, and you just hope he can assist in at least one other category.
Q: Tony Cingrani was plenty impressive last year after the call-up. Do we like him again in 2014?
A: Yeah, Cingrani is a strange case in some ways. The lefty was an absolute beast last season, posting a silly K-rate over six starts at Triple-A (14.1 K/9), then carrying the dominance over to the big leagues. He pitched 104.2 innings for Cincinnati, striking out 120 batters (10.3 K/9) while posting a 2.92 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Sure, the kid had some luck on his side (.241 BABIP, 3.49 xFIP), but he was pretty great.
If there's an issue here, it's perhaps the fact that Cingrani relies so heavily on one pitch. Last year, he threw his fastball 81.5 percent of the time, an uncommonly high rate. Only Bartolo Colon and Justin Masterson ever approach 80 percent among MLB starters. Obviously I'm not saying this approach can't work for Cingrani — it worked last year just fine — but it's certainly atypical. Long-term, you'd love to see him develop a credible secondary pitch (or two). Still, it's tough to argue with his recent results. His exceptional strikeout-rate makes him a pitcher of interest in our game. Cingrani has been priced as a top-35 starting pitcher in in early drafts and mocks, for what it's worth.
Q: Give us an ETA on pitching prospect Robert Stephenson, please. Can he have a Cingrani-like fantasy impact?
A: Stephenson made three different minor league stops last year, at age 20, finishing up at Double-A. His combined stat line was fairly impressive (2.99 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.7 K/9), so there's a lot to like here. Most prospect rankers will likely slot the righty as a top-25 talent entering 2014. However, fantasy owners shouldn't expect to see Stephenson in the bigs until very late in the season, if at all. Perhaps he can accelerate the timeline with an extended run of dominance in the high minors, but let's not assume he'll make a fantasy splash this season.
Q: Before we wrap up, you should probably say something about Joey Votto's power dip, no?
A: Well, our purpose in this series is not to discuss universally owned and drafted players, so I actually don't think Votto should get much attention here. But since you've asked...
Votto ranked No. 11 in the National League in slugging-percentage last season (.491), finishing ahead of Stanton, Bruce, Upton, Alvarez, Craig, and various other power hitters. He's fine — no, in fact he's tremendous. Nothing to worry about here. You should probably regard his 37-homer season as an anomaly, and simply appreciate Votto's value as an on-base machine who can sting the ball. I've got no complaints with this player, and you shouldn't have any, either. He's the No. 3 player at his position on my board, an obvious early-rounder. Draft and enjoy.