Perhaps you'd written off the Big Red Machine as just another relic of the '70s, a retired luxury model — not unlike, say, the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency or the Lincoln Continental Mark V.
But the Cincinnati Reds reasserted themselves last season, reestablishing the brand. They claimed a division title in a 91-win season, and they were led by a young core of exceedingly talented players, many of whom likely haven't entered their peak years. Joey Votto(notes) captured an MVP at age 26, leading the National League in both on-base percentage (.424) and slugging (.600) while finishing among the top-three in every Triple Crown category (37-113-.324). Jay Bruce(notes) delivered 25 home runs and an .846 OPS at age 23, and Drew Stubbs(notes) produced a 22-homer, 30-steal season at age 25. The Reds' pitching staff is loaded with youth, too, as Johnny Cueto(notes), Mike Leake(notes), Aroldis Chapman(notes), Travis Wood(notes) and Homer Bailey(notes) are all 24 or younger. At age 27, Edinson Volquez(notes) kinda seems like an old man on this team.
As if that weren't impressive enough, Cincinnati's farm system is well-stocked. Chapman is of course one of the elite prospects in the game, while first baseman Yonder Alonso(notes), infielder Billy Hamilton and catchers Devin Mesoraco and Yasmani Grandal all earn high marks. And Todd Frazier(notes) is still kicking around the organization, too. If you happen to be a fan of any other N.L. Central franchise, the Reds are a team to fear and respect. They're built for an extended run.
What's the plan for Chapman in 2011?
All the early signs point to Chapman beginning the season in a bullpen role, likely in the late innings. Long term, the 22-year-old is still considered a potential top-of-rotation ace, but the Reds have plenty of starting options at the moment (see above). There's basically no precedent for Chapman's skill set; he's a left-hander capable of touching 105 mph on the radar gun. At this stage of his career, it seems silly to rule out any future role. In 2011, however, we think he's a reliever.
OK, fine. Any chance that Chapman will be a ninth inning reliever?
Sure, that's a possibility. Again: He routinely hits triple-digits, and he's been clocked at 105. Chapman clearly has a closing-quality arsenal. Francisco Cordero(notes) wasn't exactly lights-out in 2010, either. Cordero finished with eight blown saves, an awful WHIP (1.43), and he posted his lowest K-rate in 10 years (7.31 K/9). When asked recently about the closer's role, Reds manager Dusty Baker offered this nugget:
"Well, I’ve got a closer right now and he’s making a lot of money," the Cincinnati Reds manager said. "Eventually [Chapman] might be, but what happens if, right off, I make him a closer and he blows a couple of saves? I can’t go as a manager to Cordero, put my arm around him and say 'Oh, I was just kidding.'"
So Cordero would need to pitch his way out of the job, and Chapman would need to earn his manager's trust. These things could very well happen, obviously, but Aroldis drafters will need to be patient. Chapman still has wildness issues to overcome. He walked 4.9 batters per nine innings at Triple-A last year, he hit five batters and he threw 14 wild pitches.
Who's the leadoff hitter in Cincinnati?
At the moment, it seems to be undecided. Brandon Phillips(notes) and Drew Stubbs both did time at the top of the order for Cincinnati last year, but neither player was terribly productive in the role. For what it's worth, Phillips hit just .251/.302/.394 when batting first, while Stubbs hit .220/.324/.370. Overall, the Reds' leadoff spot delivered a lousy .306 OBP, yet the team still led the N.L. in runs scored.
If Stubbs can pick up where he left off in 2010 — he hit .281/.355/.502 after the break — then he'll probably get the Reds' first at-bat of 2011. In another year or two, Billy Hamilton's name should appear first on the lineup card. The 20-year-old infielder swiped 48 bases in 57 attempts in the Pioneer League last year, reaching base at a .383 clip.
So is Baker going to exhaust all these young arms, 2003-style?
Dusty earned his reputation as an arm-shredder a few years back, when three of his starters finished among the top-8 in the N.L. in total pitches thrown. By now, everyone knows the cautionary tale of Wood and Prior and 125-pitch outings. Only Carlos Zambrano(notes) lives to tell the story.
But Baker wasn't nearly as rough on his rotation last season. None of his starters ranked among the top-25 in pitcher abuse points, and none ranked in the top-35 in total pitches thrown. (Bronson Arroyo(notes) was No. 38 total pitches, with 3,257 thrown over 215.2 innings). Maybe we should give Dusty a little credit; it's been at least 18 months since anyone has really blamed him for breaking a pitcher.
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