Cincinnati Reds: fantasy season preview

03/03/2013 § Leave a comment

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For the Reds in 2012, everything will revolve around new leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo (courtesy cincinnati.com)

The Reds went 97-65 in 2012, winning the NL Central on the strength of terrific pitching and decent offence.

2013 will be different. The Reds will once again be a good bet to win the division, but this time, it’ll be on the strength of their bats. In particular, the big change will be the addition of Shin-Soo Choo as the team’s centerfielder. This will have two effects:

1. Choo will bad leadoff, and the whole lineup will benefit.

In 2012, Reds leadoff hitters batted .208/.254/.327 in a combined 703 at bats. Read that again: that’s a .581 OPS, which is just brutal, miles below replacement level for any position. By comparison, the average NL leadoff hitter put up a .257/.319/.382 stat line.

Mostly, the Reds used no-hit shortstop Zack Cozart as their leadoff man last year, with sprinklings of Brandon Phillips and Drew Stubbs in there as well. In early Spring Training lineups, Cozart has been banished to the #7 spot, with Choo and Phillips at the top of the lineup. Stubbs was shipped out to Cleveland as part of the trade for Choo.

Choo wasn’t used as a leadoff hitter before 2012, but he really took to the role, batting .310/.389/.493 in 99 games last year in a weak Cleveland lineup. The upgrade is massive for everyone involved. If Choo, coming into his age 30 season, puts up anything close to that, this is going to be a monster lineup. It’s hard to imagine a bigger upgrade for any team in the majors.

2. Choo will be an awful centerfielder.

There is a downside to Choo: he has to replace Drew Stubbs, who FanGraphs rated as the third-best defensive CF in baseball last year. Choo, on the other hand, has played all of ten games in center in his entire career. He’s played mostly as a right fielder, and has been average most years but had awful defensive numbers last year.

As a result, you can expect the pitching staff to suffer. More fly balls will fall in for extra base hits, more runs will come around to score…you get the idea. Compounding the problem is the fact that Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick don’t have great range either. There’s a strong possibility that the Reds will be forced to acquire a real defensive CF, moving Ludwick to the bench. We’ll see what happens, but this is a serious problem for the Reds’ pitching staff.

One last thing to note: the Houston Astros are now in the AL. The Reds went 10-5 against them last year, with the pitching staff putting up a 3.03 ERA. Those 15 games are gone, and the Reds will have to play real teams for those games. Because of this, and the CF change, I’m encouraging caution with the entire Cincinnati pitching staff this year.

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Joey Votto will be a well-sought-after first-sacker again this year, but be careful about why you might pick him. (courtesy USAToday.com)

The Batters

Cincinnati’s lineup in Spring Training suggests that we’re going to see the following lineup to start the season:

Choo (CF)
Phillips (2B)
Votto (1B)
Ludwick (LF)
Bruce (RF)
Frazier (3B)
Cozart (SS)
Hanigan (C)
Pitcher

That’s a top-heavy, and fantasy-friendly, lineup. I initially feared Cozart would get the #2 spot, but thankfully Dusty has recognized his awful numbers and has moved him down.

Shin-Soo Choo (CF)
Projection: .283, 105 R, 20 HR, 60 RBI, 18 SB (note: these projections are rough, and I don’t do them for everyone. I’m generally nervous about making full-season projections because so much can vary in-season. Guys gain and lose jobs; they get hurt, and so on. These production levels are the sort of pace you might expect, but we must always adjust our expectations based on a player’s changing role.)

Obviously I talked about Choo above, but there’s a few more things worth adding. He’s going from a pitcher’s park in Cleveland to one of the better hitter’s parks in Cincinnati. He’s also got some excellent hitters behind him, so expect more runs scored.

Choo has a good shot at a 20-20 season, and should score oodles of runs in the stronger lineup. His RBI totals won’t be big as leadoff man (especially given that NL leadoff men have to bat behind the pitcher), but he should produce nicely if healthy.

Right now, Choo is projected to go #74 overall on MLB.com, #79 on ESPN and #88 on Yahoo; that’s a 7th/8th round pick in a 12-team draft. ESPN and MLB rate him as a $14 player in auctions.

I like him a lot more than that; if you ask me, he’s good value in the 5th or 6th round; I’d take him ahead of, say, Yoenis Cespedes, who is projected by most to be a top-50 pick.

Brandon Phillips (2B)
Projection: .285, 95, 18, 90, 13

Phillips has been strikingly consistent in the last few years, hitting 18 HR three straight years, producing a well-rounded stat line, and staying healthy. There’s not much reason to expect otherwise. He’s now 31 years old, and is stealing fewer bases, but otherwise should be a strong option.

Phillips, perhaps as much as anyone in the lineup, will really benefit from the addition of Choo. Phillips is a free swinger and will get more RBIs from having men on base; he may also get some time in the cleanup spot. Regardless, expect him to have nice counting numbers because of the strength of the lineup around him.

He’s ranked at about $21 or in the 4th or 5th round on most sites; that’s fair value. Second base is deeper than usual this year, so you shouldn’t reach for him. That said, he’s a really safe pick, as he’s much more likely to play every day and bat high in the lineup.

Joey Votto (1B)
Projection: .320, 105, 29, 105, 8

We all know who this guy is. He’s going between 7-10th overall in the early rankings, which looks about right. First base isn’t as deep as it once was; a few years ago, it felt like there were stacks of 30-HR guys, but as players like Teixeira, Howard, Konerko, Ortiz, Hafner and others have aged, more teams will have to settle for a 25 HR/ 85 RBI guy. So Votto gives you a lot more stability in that regard.

Votto walks a lot, which is a great skill in real baseball but not so useful in fantasy (unless, of course, if you’re in an OBP league; then Votto is a top-5 pick). He’ll miss out on RBIs that other 1Bs will pick up. On the other hand, replacing Stubbs with Choo will probably cancel that out, and more.

There is reason to be cautious about his power output, and for that reason, I’d probably rather feel safer taking Pujols or Prince Fielder at the same draft position (all three are going at about the same time), but Votto does rate better for AVG. If you’re expecting to load up on power bats in rounds 2-7, take Votto. If not, I’d rather have Pujols or Fielder. If you’re picking, say, 10th or later, I’d much rather have Votto than, say, Justin Upton or Giancarlo Stanton.

Ryan Ludwick (LF)
Projection: .260, 55, 20, 75, 0

Ludwick had a good season at age 33 last year, belting 26 homers and 80 RBIs in a less-than-full-time role. He looked like he was done after only hitting 13 HR in 2011, but don’t be fooled: he spent much of 2010/11 in San Diego, which killed his production. He’ll be batting cleanup in a big offence on Opening Day, and could return nice value as a 5th outfielder that is rated as a $1 player by most sites. There are a lot of interesting options at outfield late in drafts, and I’d be happy to have Ludwick if my roster looks light on HR/RBI.

As I mentioned above, there is a risk Ludwick will get bumped from the lineup if the Reds want better defence in CF. A lot will rest on how well he plays in the first two weeks. If Ludwick hits, he could lock down the cleanup spot and get a more full-time role, and could randomly give you 100 RBIs. On the other hand, if he stinks early, he could find himself batting sixth and sitting two days a week. Like I said, he’s good value for a dollar or a 19-20th round pick.

Jay Bruce (RF)
Projection: .260, 88, 35, 110, 7

All the indicators are moving in the right direction for Bruce. It’s easy to forget that he’s still just 25 – so he may still have room to grow. Even if he’s simply as good as last year, he’s a good bet to put up third-round value (which is about what the line projected above is worth).

Bruce, interestingly, has 97 and 99 RBI in the last two seasons, which I think causes people to rank him lower than he probably should be. We all assign value to round numbers in our heads – if a guy hits 34 HR and 99 RBI, he’s got talent but ‘doesn’t produce in the clutch’, or some other bull. The fact is, he’s a power hitter who should hit 30+ doubles and HRs. Don’t read too much into his counting stats; he, like the rest of the Reds lineup, was hurt by the lack of a leadoff hitter.

Some sites have him ranked in the fourth or fifth round; others have him ranked in the late third. I’d be happy to draft him in the fourth round without a doubt.

Todd Frazier (3B)

I’m not going to do a projection on Frazier, because he’s not a guy you want on your team. I’m really nervous about 26-year-old rookies that put up his sort of line while striking out so much. He clearly has power, but it’s silly to assume that 1) he’ll hold down the everyday job and 2) you can project his 19 HR over a full season and expect that he’ll top 25 this year.

When I look at players like Frazier, I ask myself: how safe is his job? What’s his role? And while he’s the first choice for the Reds, they’ve also got Jack Hannahan there as a platoon option, and Cesar Izturis as a utility infielder…if Frazier slumps in April, he could find himself in a job-share and become worthless fantasy-wise. You can prepare for this possibility: and the way to do that is to not draft Todd Frazier. Or, to not pay the $4-6 various sites suggest he is worth.

There’s just not enough upside here. Various sites have him ranked in the top 15 rounds, and I wouldn’t touch him at that price. I’d much rather take a flier on a player like Ryan Ludwick (see above), or if you need a 3B, there are plenty of similar gambles available much later. In the 15th round, I’d rather get that third closer or fourth starter than taking Todd Frazier just because he might hit 20 homers.

If you’re anything like me, you don’t need Frazier in the 15th round because you’ve focused on big bats in the first ten rounds. In the 15th, you should be picking up one of the many good SPs or closers who will still be available.

Zack Cozart (SS) and Ryan Hanigan (C) are terrible options, and should be avoided unless you’re in an NL-only. Even then: yeah, they have jobs, but they’re bad.

Finally: Billy Hamilton, fastest man alive, is a possibility to appear with the Reds this season. He’s expected to start at AAA, but as I mentioned, Shin-Soo Choo is miscast in centerfield. Hamilton could be next in line if they decide they need a better defensive option there. Hamilton won’t do much more than steal bases, but it’s entirely possible he could get 60 steals in half a season (he stole 155 in the minors last year). So keep an eye on him. If there’s concerns about OF defence, or if Hamilton gets hot in the minors, he could be a great waiver pickup.

Homer Bailey could provide front-line production this season at a cut-rate price (courtesy espn.go.com)

Pitchers

Johnny Cueto
I was lucky enough to have Cueto on several teams last year – he does several things well, has good control, he keeps the ball on the ground, and pitches late enough into games that he can get wins. Cueto, despite a number of positive indicators, was available later in drafts last year and proved to be a great payoff, putting up 19 wins and a 2.78 ERA.

This season, though, the price has changed: you’ll need to pay a 6th round pick to get him. Cueto is not an ace: he doesn’t pick up enough strikeouts, and his ERA is way out of line with the peripherals. He’s more likely a 3.50 ERA-ish guy. Like every Reds pitcher, he’s going to see problems from the presence of Choo in CF. I just don’t think Cueto’s a good enough value this year.

Mat Latos
Latos profiles as a pretty similar pitcher to Cueto, though he’ll get more Ks while giving up more walks, flyballs and homers. Again, though, you’ll need to spend a sixth-rounder to get him…I’m generally a proponent of bats-first strategies and that means I’m not taking starting pitchers in the sixth round. I’d rather take a guy like, say, Shin-Soo Choo, or Carlos Santana, who’s also available in the sixth in many drafts. Bats-first strategies are about quantity; it’s not enough to pick up hitters in the first three rounds, and five of the first seven; you need as many as you can and then get your pitchers later.

And for that reason, I’m passing on Latos in the sixth. If you feel the need to take a pitcher at that stage, Latos and Cueto are decent enough options. They’re both fair bets to get 15 wins and a 3.50 ERA.

Homer Bailey
Ok, how about this: Homer Bailey had similar strikeout and walk rates (7.27/9, 2.25/9) to Cueto and Latos, pitched a lot of innings (208), but had a higher ERA and won fewer games because of a higher BABIP. As a result, he’s rated to go in the 14th-16th round by most sites. Now that’s a bargain. Like Cueto and Latos, he’s going to be hurt by the Reds outfield defense, but at that price, you can afford the risk. He’s almost as good as Latos and Cueto, and just as good a bet to get 15 wins with a 3.50 ERA. Take him in the 13th round and enjoy your profit; he’s as good as pitchers like Brandon Morrow, Doug Fister and Jon Niese who are going in the 9th-10th round.

Aroldis Chapman
Chapman is an awesome talent, but converted relievers make bad fantasy investments. Think of Neftali Feliz; think of Daniel Bard. Even if Chapman does well, he’s going to have a lot of starts where he pitches five innings, gets 7 Ks, and leaves the game without a win because he can’t consistently reach the 7th inning. I don’t like it at all.

Chapman is going in about the 7th round, which would be fine if he were still a closer. Instead, he’s going to put up 150 innings, 170 Ks, and eight wins. Maybe I’m wrong, but he’s not for me.

Mike Leake/Bronson Arroyo
Both guys are decent enough pitchers; neither is good enough for a full time spot in a mixed league. See who wins the job; they’ll be worth occasional starts against weak opponents.

Jonathan Broxton
How the mighty have fallen; once upon a time, he was a top closer. He’s not as powerful as he was, but he’s good enough to succeed. He’s worth drafting for sure.

With closers, my preference is for decent pitchers with jobs, particularly guys that have only recently gotten the role with their current team. Those guys are available more cheaply than similarly-talented closers that have held the job for longer. The fact is, though, their job security is pretty similar. Long-tenured closers can still get turfed after a bad week; new guys can perform well and hold down the job all year.

Sean Marshall
The next guy in line. If you’re in a holds league, Marshall adds good value; with fellow lefty Chapman out of the pen, he’ll get more innings and a few saves. Even if you’re not in a holds league, Marshall will  put up strong enough numbers to help you. A good late-round middle reliever.

Rory Johnston’s main credentials for fantasy baseball prognostication are that he has an internet connection and has managed to defeat a similarly uninformed group of baseball fans some years in his fantasy league. He blogs on baseball and hockey at armchairbluejay.blogspot.com, and is an occasional contributor to The Wanderer (https://wanderersports.wordpress.com/) and The Offside Sports Law Blog (http://offsidesportsblog.blogspot.ca/). Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/rnfjohnston.

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