Cincinnati Reds 2011 Season Preview

Leading up to the start of the 2011 Regular Season, Diamond Hoggers will preview each of MLB’s 30 teams . Today’s preview features the Cincinnati Reds. Stay tuned as Diamond Hoggers previews every team division by division until the start of the regular season.

If it were possible, it would be appropriate to book Micheal Buffer to be in the house on March 31st at Great American Ball Park. Have him stroll out of the dugout right after the ceremonial first pitch is announced and the Cincinnati Reds take the field for the first time in game 1 of 162. Have him call out his signature line that has made him a multi-millionaire; “Let’s get readdddddy to rummmmmble!”. That’s how I feel about the Cincinnati Reds 2011 season.

We’ve waited a long time for this haven’t we? The seeds were planted so long ago. We’ve came a long way; patiently waiting for the sun to shine on our harvest. Now the tree is bearing some fruit. The crop was good last year but wasn’t quite at the volume that we wanted. But there’s no more excuses. The heavy artillery is finally ready at the big league level and with a little bit of luck and some health–the Reds should be ready to come out guns blazing in 2011–leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

This season is going to have a different feel to it. If you’re boasting around your office a little bit, no one can say you’re insane for it. If you have the Reds winning the NL Central, that’s something that should be not only attainable but expected. They’re going to be the hunted, not the hunter this year. For a lot of these guys it’s their first time in that spot. You hope that they draw from their experiences of a pennant race in 2010 along with a quick exit from the playoffs; leaving a bad taste in their mouth that left them hungry for October success.

Jay Bruce, the man, the myth, the legend

He’s our favorite ballplayer that has ever breathed air. We love the way he plays the game, the way he treats fans, the person that he is. And in 2011 he’s got a chance to pull off a sneak attack on pitching staffs around baseball that will allow him to leave them in equal parts shock and awe before he’s a known stud for the rest of time.

His ascent has been a slow one. Bruce would tell you himself that last season was a wild roller coaster ride from boom to bust and back again. He basically had a July that awarded him no counting stats, and then finished by hitting .338 with 15 home runs in the final two months. If he can cut down on the time between his peaks with fewer time in the valley; you’re going to see some scary results. Predicting break out years for Bruce before now was probably premature. He’ll be just 24 on Opening Day, and if you’re a Jay Bruce fan this should have been the presumptive year that you had circled on the back of his valuable ‘futures’ all along. Barring an injury, Jay Bruce; and not Joey Votto, could be the MVP candidate in the Reds lineup come September.

When he’s hot, there isn’t a pitch or spot that can get him out. He can carry a team through a week and do it several weeks in succession. Couple all of this with him being the best right fielder in the game (yes, even better than Ichiro), and you’ve got a complete ballplayer to build around for years to come. The Reds saw this and decided to make Bruce the face of the franchise with a long-term contract in the off season. Bruce isn’t a guy who was ever playing for a contract anyways, he’s playing for fulfillment and greatness. If we had to give honest expectations of Bruce’s 2011 season; we would tell you he was going to hit around .280 with 35 home runs and finally reach the 100 RBI plateau. If his walk rate improves, he’ll score 100 runs. If he is comfortable with the little things in the game, he’ll steal 10 bases in his sleep. It’s not uncommon for a player to start to run more once the game slows down for them.

Dusty Baker needs to be patient with Bruce and leave him alone in the 5-hole for the duration of the season. Even then his protection will be a Johnny Gomes or Drew Stubbs on most nights. It’s not ideal–it’s not Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, or even Votto; but it’s better than what he was working with last season with Paul Janish, Ryan Hanigan, and Ramon Hernandez getting him pitches to hit.

The reigning MVP

Joey Votto is a confusing case.

Votto made a serious triple crown run last season that won him the National League MVP award, becoming the first Red since Barry Larkin to do so. The Reds would have liked to have signed him long-term, but Votto had some mixed things to say about that. He wasn’t open to making a long-term commitment so instead the Reds gave him a good faith raise for three years.

We think that Votto will be really good again in 2011, he’s too good of a pure hitter not to be. But he’s not going to top his MVP numbers from last season. It’s nice to have a guy like him that you know you can depend on to wear out pitchers in the 3-hole all year long. You can worry about other concerns on your team, because you have a bonafide great run producer in the middle of your lineup. He’s 27, so he should be sustaining his maximum production for a few more years. But in a few years when Votto is no longer in Cincinnati and they’re on the cusp of winning a World Series or two, he’s going to wish that he had signed that 8-year, $120 million dollar contract (or something to that model). As we’ve seen with Albert Pujols, there is not going to be a way for the Reds to give him 10 years and $200 million no matter what he does on the field.

Votto should remember the good faith the Reds organization has showed him–not just with the raise in salary when they could have moved on other players–but when he went through an unfortunate ordeal in 2009. And he should have signed long-term so it was not a distraction at all. That is, unless; he thought he would have trouble living off the largest contract anyone has ever signed with the Reds. I can’t tell a guy what he should sign for, but I point to what Jay Bruce did–taking a fair contract instead of trying to break the bank–to show you that it does happen. Just not for Joey Votto. Look for the reigning MVP to do what he does, .310, 35 home runs, 110 RBI.

The Young Guns

The Reds have made Edison Volquez the ace. We think this is in parts because they like his upside and stuff (and when he’s on, it’s hard to argue) and in part because they dealt Josh Hamilton to acquire him. We’ll say this, he’s a lot better option than Aaron Harang in terms of Opening Day starting pitchers go. From there, they’ll run out Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and upstart lefty Travis Wood as the #5.

The upside of this rotation is exciting. This is where the Reds have figured it out as an organization. You can hit all the home runs in the world and score all the runs you want but if you’re trotting out Jimmy Haynes and Brandon Claussen along with a few more #5 reclamation projects, the season is over before it starts.

The question lies in this: the Reds have to have one of these guys (and it won’t be Arroyo, who is more forever tapped out as a #2 starter) hulk up and become a true #1. The good news is that Volquez, Cueto, and Bailey have the potential to be just that. Travis Wood can be very good on a given night, almost no-hit good. And he’s probably a luxury as a #5 starter. But to hang with the big dogs, you need that #1. And that’s the biggest question mark facing the Reds as we enter this 2011 season.

The Dogfight of the NL Central

As we discussed in the Brewers 2011 Preview, the Reds are expected by many to be in the mix. Their not going to lose 90 games. It’s just not in the cards with the quality they have. At worst, if everything under the sun goes wrong; this club will not be any worse than a .500 team. But let’s not forget what the true end goal is here. We’ve won the NL Central, and the Reds should be focused on a greater goal: getting to the NLCS. Which requires getting into the playoffs and winning three games in that first series by any means necessary.

The Reds got some early good fortune (along with the entire rest of the NL Central) when Adam Wainwright went down with a season ending injury. Trust me, the guys in the NL Central know who is for real in this division and who is going to be playing for fourth place. The Reds were excited because they know a key cog in that race and their path back to the playoffs got easier.

The Cardinals will still be tough enough to split the season series with the Reds, but the chase that we see is between the Brewers and the Reds. One of these two teams will win the NL Central, and other will be left with the uncertainty that is the back door of the Wild Card race. We think that this race will rival the old Cardinals/Mets tilts back when Whitey Herzog was managing and Darryl Strawberry was a youngster. And there is some irony, because everyone expected this battle to be between the Cardinals and the Reds when the Reds came of age. But the Cardinals might have aged too quickly.

Why are you so confident that the Reds will be in the mix?

Looking at the roster we haven’t even touched on, you see guys like Brandon Phillips, Drew Stubbs, and Scott Rolen. The Reds also have a nice mix of Edgar Renteria and Paul Janish at shortstop. Their bench will be very good with options like Yonder Alonso, Miguel Cairo, and Freddy Lewis. There’s a lot of healthy competition going on right now with guys that won’t make it into this preview. When you can create that, you create tremendous depth. The same can be said for pitching. Guys like Matt Maloney, Sam Lecure and Mike Leake  will probably start in AAA Louisville but are more than capable of filling in should one of the starting rotation get hurt.

When you look around at caliber in the National League, the Reds have assembled a group that is right there in the upper tiers. From the manager, to the bullpen, to the lineup & rotation to the bench. There aren’t a ton of weaknesses. This was the best defensive team in the league last year. They’re build on good foundations.

For as often as I think that chemistry is overstated in baseball, when you get to know a club like this Reds group, you retract that statement. This is a group of guys who love playing together and came up through the minor leagues together. Now they’re all grown up and the epitaph is to be written. The only thing left to wonder is what it will read.

The Final Verdict

Like all heroes, sometimes tragic failure is involved. This team has storybook heartbreak written all over it; or maybe it’s my paranoia as a fan. But I think ultimately they’re left just barely on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, only to return in 2012 as a team who wins 100 games and rolls to the World Series.

They’ll be right there until the end, but if they win 91 games again this season they’ll be a game or two short. And we figure that they’re going to be right about that. It’s going to be an exciting fight to the finish, and they’re going to be a very good team. But in the end they’ll miss the NL Central by a game or two, and the Wildcard by just a game. We’ll say 92-70 misses the boat. But it’s still going to be a Hell of a ride.