2015 NL Central Preview: If They Can Stay Healthy and Cheat Father Time, Reds Could Get Hot

2014 record: 76-86, 4th in Central

2015 projection: 79-83, 5th in Central (based on PECOTA)

Projected lineup:

Billy Hamilton (CF)

Joey Votto (1B)

Devin Mesoraco (C)

Jay Bruce (RF)

Todd Frazier (3B)

Marlon Byrd (LF)

Brandon Phillips (2B)

Zack Cozart (SS)

Projected rotation:

Johnny Cueto

Homer Bailey

Mike Leake

Tony Cingrani

Anthony DeSclafani

Raisel Iglesias may beat out one of the last two on that list. 

Those in the business of predicting the outcomes of major league baseball games have little faith in the 2015 Cincinnati Reds. Not a single one is giving the Reds a chance to win the NL Central. Most see the Reds with a losing record.

That pessimism is well grounded in the club’s 76-86 finish in 2014.

On top of last year’s record, add another dreadful offseason, where the front office failed to achieve its stated goals, and it’s easy to understand why not much is expected from the Reds. The club traded away two-fifths of their 2014 starting rotation – Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon – in moves that were described by the club itself as payroll reductions. They traded for 37-year-old Marlon Byrd, coming off a poor second half of 2014. And they signed Burke Badenhop for the bullpen. Woo-hoo.

But Reds fans do have a few nice things they can look forward to watching. That starts with a healthy Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey. A full and productive season from those two left-handed bats combined with the emergence of Devin Mesoraco gives the Reds a middle of the order with pop.

Devin Mesoraco’s breakthrough appears legit. The 26-year-old catcher hit .273/.359/.534 in 2014 with 25 home runs. His average batted ball distance jumped from 275 to 297 feet. His HR/FB rate more than doubled. Mesoraco not only hit more homers, he hit more doubles (25, up from 13). Expect him to get more at bats, so the counting numbers will go up. In the wake of Mesoraco signing a four-year contract with the club in January, manager Bryan Price announced he will no longer rest the catcher every fifth day. That, combined with Mesoraco playing DH in American League cities, could produce 550 plate appearances, up from 440 last year.

No variable is more important than Joey Votto returning to form. Votto is a career .310/.417/.533 bat. The first baseman has changed his approach since his monster 2010 MVP season, but he still hit 24 home runs in 2013. Votto hits the ball to all fields, which makes him less susceptible to defensive shifts than his fellow lefty, Bruce. Early indications point to his healthy return. In that case, expect him to play more than 150 games, hit over .300 with an on-base percentage over .400, hit around 25 homers and 35 doubles.

The starting rotation will feature Johnny Cueto, who finished second in the NL Cy Young race in 2014, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake at the top. It’s hard to imagine Cueto matching his career year, but Bailey’s improved health should offset a slight decline from Johnny Beisbol. But one of the biggest uncertainties for the club heading into 2015 is who will fill the Latos and Simon slots. Primary candidates are three pitchers in the 24-25 age group: LH Tony Cingrani, who missed much of 2014 with a shoulder issue; Anthony DeSclafani, who the Reds acquired from the Marlins in the Mat Latos deal; and Raisel Iglesias, who pitched mainly as a reliever for the Cuban National team.

For many Reds fans, Aroldis Chapman is worth the price of admission to Great American Ball Park. The hard-throwing reliever is coming off a historically great season; in his 54 innings last year (he sat out until mid-May after being hit in the head with a line drive during spring training), Chapman struck out an all-time record 52.5 percent of the batters he faced. Not 52.5 of the outs he recorded: Chapman struck out more than half the hitters who came to the plate against him.

He gave up one home run. Hitters didn’t manage a single line drive against him in July. They swung and missed at 20 percent of Chapman’s pitches. His average fastball velocity was 100.3 mph. Plenty Reds fans believe the team is wasting Chapman’s talents in the closer role, but it’s still exciting to watch him dominate the ninth.

Why they will win:

The Reds can win if they can put the best parts of 2013 and 2014 on the field. They have to combine the 2013 Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey with the 2014 Johnny Cueto and Devin Mesoraco. They’ll win if they get decent pitching out of their #4 and #5 rotation candidates. They’ll win if the bullpen can even be average setting up Chapman. They’ll win if Marlon Byrd and Brandon Phillips can cheat Father Time one more year. They’ll win if they continue to get Gold Glove caliber defense up the middle from Hamilton, Cozart and Phillips.

Why they won’t win:

The Reds’ main weakness is their tissue-paper-thin roster. They have no credible backup in case of injuries to or non-performance from their starting outfielders, corner infielders and catcher. If Votto is sidelined again with a leg injury or if either Cueto or Bailey misses substantial parts of the season, the Reds won’t be able to compete. The offense still faces the issues of Billy Hamilton’s youth and Brandon Phillips’ age. And if the Reds aren’t in contention around the time they host the All-Star game in July, look for general manager Walt Jocketty to start trading off big parts like Cueto, Byrd, Mike Leake and even Chapman.

Players to watch:

Raisel Iglesias may contribute to the pitching staff either in the starting rotation or from the bullpen. J.J. Hoover could bounce back from a catastrophic season in the bullpen. If the Reds suffer an injury in the outfield, watch for the possible call-up of Jesse Winker, one of the best pure hitters in the organization. Winker will start the season in AAA.

Fun facts:

Aroldis Chapman threw his slider and changeup a combined 300 times in 2014 and gave up only three hits, two singles and a double. Only one hitter managed to put a bat on one of the Cuban Missile’s 73 changes (a line drive out).

Final thoughts:

If everything goes right, the Reds will be in the mix for another NL Central championship. This group of players proved in 2010 and 2012 they could pull that off. But another lackluster, bare-minimum offseason hasn’t provided enough depth for the club to withstand the more likely circumstance where everything doesn’t go right.

Other NL Central Previews:

St. Louis Cardinals

Pittsburgh Pirates

Milwaukee Brewers


You can read more of Steve’s Reds coverage at Redleg Nation and you can follow him on Twitter @spmancuso.

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