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Jan. 30, 2007, 11:14 AM
Cockcroft: Cincinnati Reds preview By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com


For a brief period last season, the Reds were the toast of the National League Central. Winners of 17 of their first 24 games, they held at least a share of the division lead as deep into the season as July 1. But Cincinnati managed merely a 36-46 record from that date forward, displaying the kind of inconsistency that has characterized the team so far this century. It marked the sixth straight year the Reds finished with a losing record.

Part of the problem is that the Reds' roster is filled with high-risk, high-reward players. On the hitting side, for instance, players like Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edwin Encarnacion bring big power, but also big strikeout totals. As a team, the Reds finished third in the majors in home runs (217), but also sixth in strikeouts (1,192). Those lofty homer numbers might attract less-experienced fantasy players -- they should change that old slogan to "chicks and fantasy owners dig the long ball" -- but the team's 28th-ranked batting average (.257) tells the true story of this team's up-and-down performance.

Let's look at the Reds' hitters individually: Dunn is coming off three consecutive years of 40-plus homers, yet he's a career .245 hitter who batted .234 in 2006. Griffey has averaged one homer per 14.6 at-bats the past four seasons -- 34 per 500 at-bats -- but 93.3 games played during that span. Brandon Phillips managed a 17-homer, 25-steal breakout season in 2006, but had a .243 batting average and .287 on-base percentage after the All-Star break. Encarnacion has 24 homers and 103 RBI in 617 big-league at-bats the past two years, but has struck out once per 5.3 at-bats. There's upside here, but expect the lineup to run cold at times, during which time all Reds players might be tough to have active.

PROJECTED LINEUP:
RF Ryan Freel
1B Scott Hatteberg
CF Ken Griffey Jr.
3B Edwin Encarnacion
LF Adam Dunn
2B Brandon Phillips
C David Ross/Javier Valentin
SS Alex Gonzalez

DEPTH CHART: (Projected starters listed in bold, players expected to begin the year in the minors listed in italics)
C: David Ross, Javier Valentin, Chad Moeller, Ryan Jorgensen
1B: Scott Hatteberg, Jeff Conine, Mark Bellhorn, Adam Dunn
2B: Brandon Phillips, Juan Castro, Mark Bellhorn, Ryan Freel, Jeff Keppinger, Jerry Gil, Anderson Machado
3B: Edwin Encarnacion, Juan Castro, Mark Bellhorn, Ryan Freel, Jeff Keppinger
SS: Alex Gonzalez, Juan Castro, Mark Bellhorn, Jerry Gil, Anderson Machado
LF: Adam Dunn, Jeff Conine, Chris Denorfia, Ryan Freel, Bubba Crosby, Josh Hamilton, Norris Hopper, Dewayne Wise
CF: Ken Griffey Jr., Bubba Crosby, Chris Denorfia, Ryan Freel, Norris Hopper, Dewayne Wise, Jerry Gil
RF: Ryan Freel, Jeff Conine, Chris Denorfia, Bubba Crosby, Josh Hamilton, Norris Hopper, Dewayne Wise
SP: Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, Kirk Saarloos, Elizardo Ramirez, Homer Bailey, Victor Santos, Paul Wilson, Bobby Livingston, Michael Gosling
CL: David Weathers, Mike Stanton
RP: Todd Coffey, Bill Bray, Gary Majewski, Rheal Cormier, Brian Shackelford, Matt Belisle, Victor Santos, Michael Gosling, Jason Kershner


On the mound, Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang combined for 30 wins, 400 strikeouts and a 3.52 ERA, but fatigue is a mild worry since they ranked one-two in the majors in batters faced (Harang 993, Arroyo 992) and pitches thrown (Arroyo 3,852, Harang 3,747). One can only figure each might experience a mild drop-off in performance, which would be a mild problem for a team that lacks top-quality arms behind them. That's why there's such a buzz surrounding top prospect Homer Bailey, likely to begin the year in Triple-A.

There's not much more depth in the bullpen, either, with the dreaded bullpen-by-committee the probable opening-day strategy. David Weathers has led the team in saves in back-to-back seasons, totaling 27, but he'll begin sharing time with Mike Stanton, who had four wins and eight saves after a midseason trade to the Giants last year. It's a combination that might not much fare much better than last year's mix, which blew 24 of 60 save chances.

FANTASY STUD: Aaron Harang has improved his numbers in wins, ERA and strikeouts in each of his three full seasons in Cincinnati, culminating in career highs of 16 wins, a 3.76 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 2006. Despite the worries that he might suffer from the hefty workload, it's a promising sign that he had a 3.63 ERA and 1.104 WHIP in his final nine starts, meaning it could easily be 2008 before we see any effects of overuse.

OVERRATED: Name value alone might help to inflate Ken Griffey Jr.'s draft price, and it's true that he has actually been fairly productive when healthy the past two seasons, with a combined 62 homers and 164 RBI. But the fact remains that he has missed 87 games total during that span, and now he's 37 years old, managed the third-worst OPS of his career (.802) and didn't seem to drive the ball nearly as well in 2006. Griffey's career is clearly in decline, and at this stage, he might not offer enough upside to warrant the high risk.

TOP SLEEPER: Bill Bray could ultimately be the Reds' long-term answer at closer, as the team probably wouldn't have traded Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez for him and other bit parts if they didn't have high aspirations for him. Bray managed a 3.31 ERA and 1.330 WHIP in 35 games after July 1, not bad rates for a rookie, he has the arm to close and, most importantly, he's on a team where there isn't one clear-cut closer standout.

INTRIGUING SPRING BATTLE: The closer race is one to track, as is Homer Bailey's quest for the fifth-starter role, but it's the catcher battle that warrants the most attention in the short term. David Ross and Javier Valentin each possess 20-homer power (at least) in Cincinnati's ballpark, but it's not going to happen if they evenly split the starts. In a straight platoon, incidentally, Valentin could be an intriguing No. 2 option.

PROSPECTS FOR NOW:
SP Homer Bailey: The Reds claim he'll begin the year earning more experience at Triple-A Louisville, but they also haven't ruled him out as a contender for the fifth-starter role. The ballpark might hurt Bailey's ERA initially, but he has huge strikeout potential.
OF Josh Hamilton: Remember this name? Yes, this is the same Josh Hamilton who was picked first overall in the 1999 draft, but has since struggled with off-the-field problems. A Rule 5 pick this winter, Hamilton will get a long look as a fifth outfielder.

PROSPECTS FOR LATER:
OF Jay Bruce: Though his .291 batting average and 16 homers in Class A ball might not impress, Bruce is only 19 years old, and most scouts feel he'll become a future .300-30-100 type annually. In fact, he has been compared to a young Larry Walker.
1B Joey Votto: He's a little older, a little more polished than Bruce, though defensively speaking, Votto has a bit more to learn at first base. He could be ready for the majors to start 2008, though, and profiles as another heart-of-the-order hitter.

THE BALLPARK: So Colorado's Coors Field surrendered its crown as the reigning highest-scoring park in baseball last year? Well, guess what, but Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark took it over, topping the Park Factor page in runs scored (1.153) and ranked third in homers (1.275). It's particularly friendly to left-handed hitting sluggers.