NL Central Questions & Answers: Cincinnati Reds

Here at Obstructed View we’re publishing team projections for the NL Central teams as well as interview with someone who blogs about that team. This time we have Justin Inaz. If you’re not familiar with Justin, he’s one of the smarter people that blogs about a specific team. He’s written for Beyond the Box Score and is currently writing for Red Reporter. He also has his own site, Basement Dwellers, but it’s not updated much anymore. I’m thrilled to have his responses on Obstructed View. I started reading Jinaz’s stuff a few years ago on his old blog. The series he did on player value completely changed the way I looked at this game. Were it not for those articles, I can safely say that I’d not know nearly as much about baseball as I do today. I’m no sabermetrician and never will be, but those articles provided me with enough confidence to start writing regularly about sabermetrics. If you click on the Basement Dwellers link and scroll down until you find Player Value Series, I strongly encourage you read all 12 articles at some point. It will be well worth your time in my opinion. So thanks to Justin for taking the time to answer our questions.

Obstructed View: Will Aroldis Chapman get a chance to start at some point or is he strictly a reliever for the Reds at this point?  From afar it reminds me of how the Cubs treated Andrew Cashner last season, but I’m not familiar enough with Chapman.  What’s his future with the Reds?

Justin Inaz: I would be extremely surprised to see Chapman start this year.  They never really had him “stretch out” this spring to be a starter, and the intention all winter has been to use him as a weapon out of the pen this season.  Furthermore, despite the recent (apparently short-term) injuries to Cueto and Bailey, the Reds have a lot of depth in their starting pitching and do not expect to need him in the rotation.  I think that perhaps they SHOULD put him in the rotation, but I see where they’re coming from.  This season, I’d expect to see Chapman setting up Cordero all season long.  That said, I also wouldn’t expect him to get very many saves.  Dusty Baker is very loyal to his starters–probably to a fault–and so it will likely take an injury or an apocalyptic implosion from Cordero for Chapman to get many save opportunities.

Long term, I think most of the front office still views Chapman as a starter.  So, by 2012, he could well be in the rotation.  On the other hand, as we’ve seen with Neftali Feliz and Chris Sale this spring, managers love their relievers and hate to part with them.  I think Dusty would rather have him in the pen because it gives him a weapon that he can use.  This might be especially tempting with Cordero potentially leaving next winter; the Reds have an option on him for 2012, but I’d be surprised if he pitches well enough this year to make them comfortable paying him $12 million next year.

Obstructed View: Are you worried about a repeat of Prior/Wood with Dusty? I should point out that I do not in any way blame Baker for their injuries.  I’m one of the few Cubs fans who feels that way, but injuries to pitchers are just part of the game.  I’m just wondering if there’s a sense that he’s breaking some of the starters similarly to how some of the Cubs top starters went down earlier in the decade.

Justin Inaz: With the exception of being at least partially responsible for breaking Aaron Harang in 2008, I think Dusty and his crew have been extremely good with limiting our starters’ workloads.  As an example, with Mike Leake last year, they gave him extra rest whenever they could, and shut him down almost as soon as he started to show fatigue later in the season.  Pitch counts for young starters very rarely go over 110, and almost never go into the 120 range.  I really have seen zero indication that Dusty is a problem in terms of his starter usage in his time with the Reds.  If he was the guilty of this in Chicago, I think he learned from his mistakes.

Even in the case of Harang, while I think it was a bad idea to bring him back on short rest after his emergency relief appearance back in 2008, I think most people in the Reds’ organization thought he would be able to handle it: he was a big guy with a smooth and repeatable deliver, and an absolute workhorse to that point in his career.  Harang stated this offseason that he did think this was a factor in his rapid decline, but I also tend to think this was not just Dusty’s decision–those kinds of things almost have to be organizational decisions.

If I can insert a plug, Ken Massey wrote a terrific review of Dusty Baker’s managerial tendencies in the Reds’ Maple Street Press annual.  He explicitly looks at usage of starters, and finds no indication of a problem (again, based on his time with the Reds):

Obstructed View: Will Edgar Renteria still be a member of the team in October?

Justin Inaz: I think so.  Janish is the starter right now, but if he struggles in April or May, I can easily see Renteria taking a lot of his playing time.  Even if the Reds don’t need Renteria, though, who is likely to want him come July?  He’s just not very good.  And assuming the Reds are in contention, I expect that Dusty will want him around because of his past post-season clutchiness.

Obstructed View: Is it possible Yonder Alonso is made available near the trade deadline if the Reds are in contention or do the Reds intend to move him to another position?  Votto has that position locked down for awhile

Justin Inaz: I think this is very possible.  They have attempted to play Alonso in the outfield from time to time, but by all accounts it’s not a very successful experiment.  I honestly expected that Alonso and a starting pitcher would get traded this offseason to upgrade a position like SS or LF over the winter, but I think teams aren’t really sold on Alonso’s value given his fairly disappointing production in the minors (given his position and draft hype).  Alonso did have a better second half, however, and may still have been recovering early in the season from a hand injury.  I think the Reds are counting on him having a great first half to push his value up, and then they may try to deal him as a cheap, mlb-ready option at first base.

Of course, the other possibility is that if the Reds somehow tank this year, they may hold onto Alonso and try to trade Votto next winter while he still has two years on his contract.  They’ll want a huge return in that case.  But Alonso does give them an option at first base with some nice upside and little cost.

Obstructed View: The Reds improvement as a team coincides with their dramatic improvement on defense. I actually remember an article you wrote a few years ago about how much the defense was improved (think it was entering the 2008 season).  They’ve gone from basically -30 UZR to +45 and it happened in one year.  Does the organization have a stats guy that focuses on defense or was this something the team wanted to do based on scouting reports?

Justin Inaz: I’m not sure I’d say it was a stathead-driven change as much as an old-school baseball man decision.  But it was clear, as Dunn and Griffey left after 2008, that the Reds made a very conscious decision to change the design of the team such that it emphasized fielding.  The all-offense-no-field teams of the mid-2000’s were not good teams, and if nothing else, I think they figured it was time to try something else.  That, and the departures of Dunn and Griffey makes it pretty easy to upgrade a team’s fielding, as they were among the worst outfielders in baseball.

The Reds did produce a very good fielding team in 2009, though they were a bad offensive team, making for little apparent progress in the standings.  Last year, they were just as good in the field, and somehow also turned out one of the top offenses in the league.  Their offense will likely take a step back this year, but I do expect their fielding to continue to be strong–it might even be better, with a full season of Janish at SS and perhaps some reduced playing time from Jonny Gomes in LF in favor of Chris Heisey (or just about anyone else who has a pulse).

Obstructed View: What do the Reds have to do to contend.  What do you think the final standings will be in the NL Central?

Justin Inaz: To contend, the Reds need to stay healthy, keep playing good defense, and the offense needs to not take an enormous step back (though I think they can survive a smaller regression).  To win the division, I think it will help a lot if one of the starting pitchers can really step it up a notch and become something more like an ace than we had last year.  The biggest contenders for a big step forward, in my view, are Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey.  The others–Arroyo, Wood, Cueto, Leake–I’d be thrilled if they can keep on doing what they did last year.  It also wouldn’t hurt if a few hitters, especially Jay Bruce, can really take the next step forward and increase their production to counter the inevitable declines from other parts of the offense.

I think the NL Central is clearly a three team race between the Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers, with the Cubs within striking distance but likely finishing 4th.  Even without Wainwright, the Cardinals still have Chris Carpenter, Pujols, and lesser stars like Holliday, Rasmus, and Garcia to go with their scrubs.  They’ll at least be decent.  And while the Brewers may struggle in the field, the offense is as good as any team in the league, and their rotation is probably the best in the division.  The Reds, meanwhile, probably have the most complete, well-rounded, deep team of the bunch.  It’s a long season, so I like the Reds’ depth to carry them to the top and repeat the division title.