Cincinnati has claimed the N.L. Central flag in two of the past three seasons, winning 97 games last year, and this team has to be considered the favorite to take the division title in 2013. Last year's pitching staff was outstanding, ranking fourth in MLB in team ERA (3.34), third in WHIP (1.23) and fourth in quality starts (98) — crazy numbers when you consider the fact that Great American Ball Park is among the most hitter-friendly (and power-friendly) environments in baseball.
The Reds have added Shin-Soo Choo to the lineup this season, presumably in the lead-off spot, giving the team a table-setter with respectable speed, pop, and on-base skills (.381 career OBP). Choo will be followed in the batting order by Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce, four guys who've collectively made eight All-Star appearances, winning three Silver Sluggers and an MVP award.
In a nutshell, this team should not have much trouble scoring runs, nor preventing runs. That's a decent combo. It's a good time to be a Reds fan. Cincy appears to be poised for a period of sustained success. Votto is under contract for the next decade-plus, Bruce is locked up through 2017, and both Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos are under team control through 2015.
Another impressive detail about this franchise is that much of the major league talent is homegrown. Six of Cincinnati's nine opening day starters are likely to be players who were drafted or originally signed by the organization. The Reds also have one of baseball's buzziest prospects in their system, freakishly fast 22-year-old Billy Hamilton.
We've got a pennant contender on our hands today, gamers, and a fantasy smorgasbord. Let's hit the Big Red Questions...
Q: Aroldis Chapman is expected to transition from the 'pen to the starting rotation this year. How painful with this move be, exactly? Where do we draft him?
A: We saw several power arms attempt to make the same transition last season, and the results ranged from disastrous (Neftali Feliz) to brilliant (Chris Sale). What we can say with relative certainty about Chapman is that he'll be on an innings-limit this season, after throwing 71.2 frames as a reliever last year. Sale successfully made the jump from 71.0 innings in 2011 to 192.0 last season, so think of his performance as the best-case scenario for Aroldis. It seems safer and more realistic to expect 145-165 innings, however, assuming good health.
Chapman will clearly need to change his change his approach a bit this season, mixing in secondary stuff — last year, he threw the fastball 87.9 percent of the time, occasionally dropping in a slider. If he possesses a credible change-up, we'll need to see it in 2013. Presumably he won't be able to maintain his ridiculous triple-digit velocity with a much larger workload.
There's basically no chance that Chapman will strike batters out in 2013 at anything like last year's rate (15.3 K/9), yet it would still be a shock if he didn't deliver an elite K-rate. Aroldis didn't crack my overall top-100, so I'm assuming I won't own him anywhere. (He's close, though, at No. 117. He's in the Samardzija-Lincecum-Lester neighborhood). My guess is that there's going to be at least one owner in every draft who's willing to take him somewhere in the first 7-10 rounds. If for some reason Chapman were to remain in the 'pen, then I'd rank him as the No. 2 closer on my board, behind only Kimbrel.
Q: If Aroldis is indeed out of the bullpen picture, who gets the ninth?
A: Back in November, the Reds re-signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year deal with an option for 2016. He figures to handle closing duties in the year ahead. Broxton opened the 2012 season in Kansas City, finished in Cincinnati, and delivered useful ratios along the way (2.48 ERA, 1.26 WHIP). It's important to realize, however, that he's lost a couple ticks from his fastball compared to his prime pre-injury years. Last season, Broxton's average fastball velocity was a still-respectable 94.7 (down from 97.8 in 2009), though he gave us a career-low 6.98 K/9.
Still, the big man still has a closing-quality arsenal and a respectable history in the ninth. He's likely to be a relative bargain at your draft. Broxton's current Mock Draft Central ADP is 237.8, which is strangely low. He won't be quite that cheap in non-mock environments.
Q: When the heck are we gonna see Billy Hamilton? Any chance he'll crack the opening day lineup?
A: Well, I wouldn't bet on seeing him in the majors in April, no. The Reds are shifting him from shortstop to center, and planning to assign him to Triple-A Louisville to begin the season. He'll likely emerge as Cincinnati's starting center fielder in 2014, since Choo will be a free agent after this year.
At this point, I think it's widely accepted that Hamilton is the fastest man in baseball, so he'll be a must-start fantasy asset as soon as he arrives in the big leagues. He swiped 155 bases last year across two levels, breaking Vince Coleman's 29-year-old minor league mark (145). Hamilton also reached base at a .410 clip, coaxing significantly more walks than he had the prior season — 86 BB in 2012, 52 in 2011 — over nearly the same number of plate appearances.
Hamilton won't be the easiest call at the draft table this year (at least in non-dynasty) because the Reds haven't given him a clear path to the majors in 2013. He's a draft-and-stash prospect, though, because the kid has the talent to single-handedly win a category for fantasy owners.
Q: Any other Reds minor leaguers we should care about?
A: None at Hamilton's level, but there are nonetheless a few names of interest within the organization. Left-handed starter Tony Cingrani, 23, had a stellar season at two levels last year, delivering a 1.73 ERA and 1.03 WHIP with 172 Ks in 146.0 innings. Cingrani actually finished his season in Cincinnati, pitching in a relief role. He figures to open 2013 in Louisville, but he'll be worth a look whenever he finally draws a start in MLB. JJ Hoover saved 13 games at Triple-A last season, striking out 55 batters in just 37.0 innings while yielding only five earned runs. Hoover maintained excellent ratios in Cincinnati as well (2.05 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.10 K/9), appearing in 28 games for the Reds.
Hard-throwing righty Robert Stephenson is an intriguing prospect, too, but he won't turn 20 until later this month, so he's years away from assisting the fantasy community. Outfielder Jesse Winker, 19, probably has a similar timeline. Winker hit .338 in the Pioneer League last season, leading the circuit in on-base percentage (.443).
Q: Are we gonna see a healthy Votto this spring? He basically had zero power when he returned from injury in September.
A: Votto underwent a pair of surgical procedures on his left knee last season, missing half of July and all of August, then went homer-less after returning to the lineup. He still lived on base, hitting .343/.527/.448 in September, so it's not as if he was totally useless.
Back in early December, Votto offered a fairly encouraging statement about his progress:
“I feel like I’ve made tremendous improvement over the last month. I struggled before, initially after the surgery, to crouch down even. I had too much swelling, not enough mobility in the joint, too much pain. Now I’m to the point where I can sit on the back of my heels, do a full squat. I can do all kinds of crouching. My strength is not at 100 percent yet, but it’s getting there. I can run at full speed, do jumping and do a lot of strength work. As far as improving, it’s been a great deal.”
So there's no obvious reason for panic here. In Votto's absence last season, Todd Frazier stepped up nicely. The 26-year-old hit a blistering .330/.393/.587 in the month of August, delivering 15 extra-base hits. Frazier finished his season with a .273 average and 19 homers in 422 at-bats, positioning himself as the team's presumptive opening day third baseman for 2013. He offers double-digit power/speed potential at a low-risk price (ADP 205.7).