This is the fourth piece in a week-long series in which the staff of Rising Apple makes their predictions for each of the six divisions for the 2013 MLB season.
We’re switching gears from the American League to the National League, as we first preview what life in the NL Central will be like without the Houston Astros, since they’ve left for the designated hitter and the top-heavy AL West. This should be a highly competitive division, as Dusty Baker and the Reds look to defend their division title, but Mike Matheny is hoping to build on the Cardinals’ deep run into the postseason in 2012, along with their rich farm system.
Cincinnati Reds (2012 Finish: 97-65, .599, NL Central Champs)
Key signings/acquisitions: RP Jonathon Broxton (re-signed), OF Ryan Ludwick (re-signed), 3B Jack Hannahan (FA), OF Shin-Soo Choo (trade), IF Jason Donald (trade), IF Cesar Izturis (FA), RP Manny Parra (FA), C Miguel Olivo (FA).
Dusty Baker’s crew will try to defend their NL Central title better than they did follow their 2010 division championship, and they’ve made some slight improvements to the roster to get primed for another run at the postseason.
The biggest acquisition they made was trading away center fielder Drew Stubbs in a three-team trade that netted them Shin-Soo Choo. This is a huge offensive upgrade, as Choo hit .283/.373/.441 with 16 homers and 67 RBI for the Indians last season. The inclusion of him in the lineup with big boppers like Jay Bruce and Joey Votto should make the middle of their order more formidable than last season. A big difference this season will be having Votto for an entire year; he was limited to 111 games last season because of knee troubles, and while the Reds didn’t suffer in the standings, he makes the Cincy lineup dynamic when he’s in it. The loss of Scott Rolen puts pressure on Todd Frazier to continue building on a solid rookie season in which he hit .273/.331/.498 with 19 homers and 67 RBI. Hopefully for Cincinnati, Frazier playing one position instead of bouncing around to multiple ones will aid him in continuing to progress with his bat.
The pitching staff will be an interesting situation as the spring continues to play out. In the hitter-friendly confines of The Great American Ballpark, the Reds hurlers were fantastic, as their team 3.34 ERA was ranked fourth in the Majors. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Not so much. Although their starting staff was solidified with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake, Cincinnati made the decision to bring back Jonathan Broxton to close, while switching current closer, Aroldis Chapman, back to being a starter. If I had to choose, I think Leake will be the man on the outside looking in, but that remains to be seen.
Rookie to watch: OF Billy Hamilton
The outfield may be set for 2013 with Ryan Ludwick in left, Choo in center, and Bruce in right, but that doesn’t mean Hamilton won’t have an impact at the Big League level. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com ranks him as the organization’s top prospect, with his current ETA in the Majors set for this season. Getting him acclimated in the Bigs this year is crucial for his future, as Choo is set to hit free agency next winter (and is a client of Scott Boras). So, his projected path to Cincy is more clear now than it was last year with Drew Stubbs occupying the position. How can he be an asset to the Reds this season? With his legs; between A+ and AA last season, he stole 155 bags in 132 games, which was his second straight season 100+ SBs. Combine that with the .311/.410/.420 line he compiled in 2012, and he could be a viable late-game replacement, whether it be on the base paths or in the outfield.
This team is incredibly balanced, both at the plate and on the mound. The offense has improved with the acquisition of Choo, while not losing any key players over the off-season. There is no reason to not pick this team to repeat as champions, but I find it highly unlikely they repeat the 97-win performance from a year ago, and I’m not a fan of them tinkering with Chapman and the pitching staff. I’m predicting 88-93 wins and a second place finish.