After a one-year hiatus, the Reds returned to the playoffs in 2012, beating out the never-say-die Cardinals for the NL Central title.
Their pitching staff was the main reason for their success. While their lineup was at times a hodge-podge -- particularly during that period when Joey Votto was sidelined by a torn meniscus -- their starting rotation was a model of consistency, featuring five pitchers that accounted for 161 of the team's 162 starts.
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Johnny Cueto stayed healthy enough to break through as the ace. Mat Latos, after some initial struggles, adapted to the friendly confines of Great American Ballpark, demonstrating the same efficiency and strikeout-per-inning stuff that made him so successful with the Padres. Homer Bailey finally capitalized on his long-awaited potential, producing an impressive final line despite some ups and downs along the way. Even Bronson Arroyo delivered 202 quality innings, bouncing back from a disastrous 2011 with his usual command and guile.
And that rotation is about to get all the more intimidating. A year after taking the league by storm as a closer, Aroldis Chapman gets his shot at the fifth spot this spring. It's between him and Mike Leake, who was the weak link in the rotation last year. Few expect it to be much of a contest.
Of course, removing Chapman's 102-mile-per-hour fastball from the closer role leaves a 102-mile crater in the bullpen, but the Reds are confident former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, who they acquired to set up for Chapman late last season, is capable of filling it. Sean Marshall, Jose Arredondo and J.J. Hoover are all reasonable fallback options and the kind of middle relievers worthy of consideration in deeper Fantasy leagues.
As for the lineup, it's still heavily dependent on Votto, who's probably the best left-handed hitter in the game, but the ultra-patient Shin-Soo Choo is a dramatic improvement over the swing-at-anything Drew Stubbs in center field and could be poised for a career year at Great American Ballpark. Todd Frazier, fresh off a 19-homer rookie season, gets to step in full time for Scott Rolen, who will presumably (and mercifully) retire. Brandon Phillips remains one of the better offensive second basemen in the league, and Jay Bruce is a bona fide slugger, if nothing more.
Buyer beware ... Aroldis Chapman, relief pitcher
After a couple years of tantalizing everyone with his triple-digit-but-hard-to-locate fastball, Chapman finally made good on all the hype last year, putting up numbers that would have made him far and away the most dominant closer in baseball if, you know, Craig Kimbrel didn't exist. And now he's moving to the starting rotation, where he can make even more of an impact in Fantasy. Great news, right? Not so fast. The transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation doesn't always go smoothly, as Daniel Bard showed last year. Even in successful cases, the pitcher still typically loses something on his fastball. The concern with Chapman is only amplified because of his past control issues. Even with the reduced walk rate last year, he still ranked among the leaders in pitches per plate appearances. If he lasts only five innings at a time, who cares what his strikeout rate is? Granted, if he looks like Jonathan Sanchez out there, he'll just go back to closing, but with all the lumps he'll have taken along the way, you'll be wishing you had drafted Adam Wainwright or Yovani Gallardo instead.
Sleeper ... Ryan Ludwick, outfield
Even after a resurgent season in which he hit 26 home runs, Ludwick still isn't getting much love in Fantasy. Understandably, owners have lumped him in with other dubious sluggers whose obvious shortcomings make them not so likely to repeat their 2012 seasons -- guys like Alfonso Soriano, Jason Kubel and Brandon Moss. The difference for Ludwick is he has a clear explanation for why his numbers came roaring back last year and why they went wrong in the first place: PETCO Park. A midseason trade brought him there midway through 2010. It was big. It was scary. It made him swing the bat differently. He became a dead pull hitter, and that swing carried over to his short stint in Pittsburgh late in 2011. It continued last year as well, but because the Reds stuck with him, he eventually righted himself, batting .298 with 21 homers and a .942 OPS over his final 91 games. He won't maintain that pace over a full season, of course, but when you consider who he was before he went to PETCO and where he plays now, perhaps his numbers aren't so dubious after all.
Impact prospect ... Billy Hamilton, shortstop
With his minor-league record 155 steals last year, Hamilton's speed has become the stuff and legend, and judging by his .311 batting average and 86 walks between Class A and Double-A, he gets on base enough to make the most of it. The Reds resisted the urge to call him up last season, but by moving him from shortstop to the outfield this offseason, they've given themselves more ways to slot him into the lineup if the need a rises. In a best-case scenario, an injury or slumping Zack Cozart opens the door for Hamilton to play full time, but his skill set is such that he doesn't need significant opportunity to make a significant impact in Fantasy. When he gets on base, he runs. It's a rare enough approach in this day and age that even if he arrives midseason and gets only sporadic at-bats as a fill-in around the infield and outfield, he'll still likely rank among the league leaders in steals. That kind of assurance deserves at least a late-round flier.
Other than Hamilton, whose steals record last year makes him about as well-known as any prospect in Fantasy, the Reds farm system doesn't have many bats of note, but it does have three future members of the starting rotation in Tony Cingrani, Robert Stephenson and Daniel Corcino. Cingrani actually debuted last September, but as a reliever. The Reds don't have an opening in their rotation for him just yet, and for the sake of his Fantasy value, you should hope they keep him in the minors until they do. Given his 1.73 ERA between two stops last year, the Reds likely wouldn't want to confine him to the bullpen long term. Corcino has slowly worked his way up the minor-league ladder over the last five years, earning comparisons to Johnny Cueto along the way. He's just as likely as Cingrani to get a call midseason if the need arises. Stephenson, a first-rounder in 2011, actually has the highest upside of the three, but at age 20, he's still years away from contributing.
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