Reds Opening Day outlook
Pitching will likely dictate success in 2007
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
The Reds had one of baseball's best Spring Training records, but of course, that is completely meaningless now.
The regular-season games that begin on Monday, and beyond, are what really count.
As usual, success will hinge on pitching. Can the back of the rotation support the efforts of Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo? Is the bullpen deep enough, and could a healthy Dustin Hermanson get it done as the closer?
Will Adam Dunn's new dedication and hitting discipline in spring lead to more well-rounded offensive production? How will Ken Griffey Jr. handle a late start to spring and a shift to right field? Will young hitters Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion continue to mature and improve?
1. Ryan Freel, CF:
His status as an everyday player without an everyday spot is over. Now the regular center fielder, Freel has 36 or more steals each of the past three seasons and is expected to remain a catalyst at the top.
2. Adam Dunn, LF:
Dunn hit 40 homers for the third straight season in 2006, but led the Majors with 194 strikeouts and was poor in the second half. Working with new hitting coach Brook Jacoby during spring seems to have paid off. Dunn has renewed dedication and has been hitting to all fields instead of just pulling the ball.
3. Brandon Phillips, 2B:
Phillips is coming off a breakout season, in which he had 17 homers and 75 RBIs. Reds manager Jerry Narron liked his plate discipline this spring and believes Phillips can produce from the three-hole.
4. Ken Griffey Jr., RF:
In a new position after 18 seasons in center field, Griffey didn't debut in spring until March 24, because he was slow to recover from a broken left hand suffered in December. It will be interesting to see if less than a week's worth of at-bats were enough to get the 37-year-old ready for the regular season.
5. Edwin Encarnacion, 3B:
For a young hitter, the 24-year-old is skilled at getting on base and also producing in run-scoring situations. After Encarnacion committed a team-high 25 errors last season, he'll have to make some improvement with his decision-making and throwing.
6. Scott Hatteberg, 1B:
One of the few hitters in this lineup not prone to striking out (he was the sixth hardest batter to strikeout in the National League in 2006, with one strikeout per 13.1 plate appearances), Hatteberg can be counted on for hits the other way, moving runs or taking a walk.
7. Alex Gonzalez, SS:
A free agent signed for his superior glove skills, Gonzalez and his .292 on-base percentage could be a lineup liability. But he has a little pop in his bat (23 homers in 2004 with Florida) that could benefit from Great American Ball Park. Gonzalez and Phillips could form an electric duo in the middle infield.
8. David Ross, C:
A late Spring Training acquisition last year, Ross had a breakout 2006 with a career-high 21 homers and earned a two-year contract and an everyday job. Now he needs to be more consistent. Ross batted .311 in the first half last season and .203 after the All-Star break.
1. Aaron Harang, RHP:
Underrated, despite being a 16-game winner who led the NL with 216 strikeouts and six complete games in 2006, Harang can change that by doing it again. Rewarded with a four-year, $36.5 million contract, he did not have a very effective spring but wasn't worried it would carry into the season.
2. Bronson Arroyo, RHP:
Arroyo welcomed himself back to the NL with his first All-Star appearance and led the Majors with 240 2/3 innings last season. It earned him a valuable contract extension that takes him through the next four seasons. The Reds were 21-14 in Arroyo's starts last year.
3. Eric Milton, LHP:
Signed to a three-year, $25.5 million free agent deal before 2005, Milton has one more season to do something positive for Cincinnati. An injury-riddled 2006 kept him from being consistent, again.
4. Kyle Lohse, RHP:
Poised for his first full season with the Reds, Lohse is trying to get back to the consistency that made him a 14-game winner with 201 innings in 2003 with Minnesota. The club remains in love with the right-hander's stuff, and a strong season would be a nice boost.
5. Matt Belisle, RHP:
A spectacular spring earned Belisle a starter's job after he worked out of the bullpen last season.
With Eddie Guardado out until midseason, the Reds are taking a chance with Hermanson as their closer. Hermanson pitched in only six games for the White Sox last season because of a back injury. It could be a risk with reward situation -- Hermanson, signed to a Minor League deal Feb. 28, looked very good in spring games. Todd Coffey was a workhorse with a club-leading 81 appearances in 2006, and will see action in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings. David Weathers lost the closer's gig with a rough first half last season but was sharp after the All-Star break. Being back in a setup role should suit him better. Lefty Mike Stanton, acquired as a free agent, has postseason experience and has been durable for multiple situations. Other lefties in the bullpen are Rheal Cormier and Bill Bray, which should give Narron plenty of situational options in the late innings.
Guardado, who had ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow in September, is targeting a June return. The left-hander began throwing off a mound for the first time in mid-March and will continue his rehab with the club up north.
Right-hander Gary Majewski's sore shoulder kept him out of games all spring. If Majewski doesn't begin the season on the disabled list, he'll likely be at Triple-A Louisville. After last season's trade controversy and cries of damaged goods toward the Nationals, it obviously wasn't the outcome the Reds were seeking.
The Reds have tried to convert to a pitching- and defense-minded team, but do they have enough pitching? After Harang and Arroyo, the last three spots of the rotation have a mixed track record -- at best. Milton never delivered results in his two years with the Reds. Lohse, who was acquired from the Twins late last summer, is trying to show that he can again be considered dependable and consistent. And Belisle is trying to establish himself as a big-league starter after winning the job in camp.
Last season, Harang and Arroyo combined for 475 innings and had a 3.52 ERA, while the nine other starters used by Cincinnati combined for 500 innings and a 5.58 ERA. That has to get better this season for the Reds to seriously challenge. If it doesn't, Homer Bailey could be promoted quickly if he shows he's effective early at Triple-A.
ON THE RECORD
"I think we'll be right there with all of those teams. That's the thing about the NL Central. Everyone seems to think the Central is the worst division. I think it's the best one. The teams are all pretty even. You can't look at the Central and think you have it easy. All of the teams are pretty even, and hopefully we can get away from the criticism [saying] we're a weaker division." -- Harang