01 April 2008

2008 Reds preview (extended)

OK, I really had meant to write a more extensive preview than the one-line post you saw yesterday. Call it a pique of frustration. The good news, for what it's worth, is that, for the first time in a long time, it's may actually be worthwhile for a Reds fan to be frustrated rather than resigned with Corey Patterson and his sub-.300 on-base percentage batting leadoff on opening day.

Yes, we can be carefully optimistic that hope is on the horizon. After years of perpetual neglect in the Schott era, the Reds farm system has finally blossomed and boasts four of the top prospects in baseball in outfielder Jay Bruce, first baseman Joey Votto, and pitchers Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. Throw in Edison Volquez, acquired in the Josh Hamilton trade, and you could forgive Reds fans for daydreaming of the Three Right Arms of Doom. And don't get Bruce lost in the shuffle; he enters the year as the undisputed top prospect in the world, though he'll begin the season in Louisville while Patterson's cool breezes keep the Great American Ball Park crowd relieved in the summer heat.

If the youngsters emerge in time and the Reds continue to get the reliably productive performance from Aaron Harang and Adam Dunn, then contending in the still-weak NL Central isn't out of the question in 2008. Ken Griffey, Jr., slowed by age and infamously recurring injuries, is still the team's second-best bat. Second baseman Brandon Phillips, a failed prospect picked up for chump change in 2006, has been a great surprise the past two season but could return to normalcy at any moment. Edwin Encarnacion may finally have started to fulfill his own promise during the second half of last season, but he's still a terrible defender whose future is probably at first base. That's where Votto begins the year backing up Scott Hatteburg, who's not been as terrible as you'd think but is still well below the expected production for a first-sacker.

The Reds new ownership has shown an increasing willingness to spend money, though whether GM Wayne Krivsky will spend it wisely is yet to be judged. Krivsky opened the checkbook for ex-Brewers closer Francisco Cordero to shore up the Reds abysmal relief corps, making Cordero the highest-paid of an already overvalued position. Then there's the matter of free agent-to-be Adam Dunn. Dunn has been the club's most valuable offensive player for the past five seasons, but has been the target of endless scolding and ridicule from the Cincy press for his unorthodox statistical profile. If management capitulates and lowballs Dunn, or lets him walk completely, it would be a disastrous blow to the club's chances of contention in the immediate future.

In defense of Krivsky's tenure, he's shown a deft touch for reclamation projects, recalling the heady days of Jim Bowden's term in the mid-90s. Phillips, Hamilton and shortstop Jeff Keppinger were all failed ex-prospects acquired for peanuts, and the club is doubtless hoping Patterson fits the same profile. Even the desperate 2006 trade deadline deal of Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns that left Reds fans dumbfounded hasn't turned out as bad as it might have.

To anchor the brave new era by the Ohio River, the Reds brought in celebrity manager Dusty Baker to stop the revolving door in the dugout. Baker, last seen running the Cubs into the ground, is perhaps best known for destroying the young arms of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior during the 2003 pennant race. With that in mind, it may be a blessing in disguise for the Reds to fall out of contention early, lest Baker be tempted to repeat this process with Cueto, Volquez and Bailey.

The Reds are in a state of flux and, for once, that's a positive thing. After 10 years of drudgery and hopelessness, the promise, however volatile, of a bright future looks worth the risk for Reds fans. However, it appears 2008 will be a placeholder year. Cueto is the only one of the Fab Five who begins the season as a starter, though the other four should be phased in by mid-season. If Dunn is re-signed and Harang continues at borderline-Cy Young form, the Reds should be Central contenders in 2009. The goal this year, though, should be .500 ball.

Prediction: 79-83, 3rd in Central.