The Cincinnati Reds captured the second National League wild card spot in 2013, winning 90 games and finishing behind St. Louis and Pittsburgh in the NL Central. The Reds had just the 18th-highest team batting average (.249), but sixth-highest OBP (.327), drawing the second-most walks in the majors. First baseman Joey Votto was the league leader in walks (135) with Shin-Soo Choo coming in second (112). They were two of three players to draw 100 or more walks last season, and set the table for Jay Bruce (109 RBI) and Brandon Phillips (103) to land in the top 10 for RBI in 2013.
Choo fled to Texas in the offseason, and will be replaced by speedster Billy Hamilton. In a 13-game stint last year, Hamilton hit .368 with a .429 OBP, scoring nine runs and stealing 13 bases. Over five minor league seasons, Hamilton produced a .350 OPS (and .280 average), so the drop-off from Choo to Hamilton at the top of the order shouldn't be too significant. In fact, it may be an upgrade. Hamilton's base-stealing skills (he famously stole a record 155 bases in 2012 in the minors) could get him into scoring position following singles or walks, opening up easier RBI opportunities for the players following him.
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Votto will be one of those players following Hamilton in the lineup (likely after Zack Cozart), and while his owners in Head-to-Head leagues love his high walk totals (he's led the NL in each of the last three years) and tendency to hit doubles (he's averaged 38 over the last five seasons), he's been a bit of a mixed bag for Roto owners, who were hoping for the 2010 version of Votto (37 home runs, 16 steals) rather than the one they've seen in every other season (over 25 home runs just once outside of 2010, no more than 10 steals in those years). Roto owners, in short, don't need Votto to walk or double. They need him to drive in Hamilton and Cozart and hit home runs. Here's a quick exercise that makes Votto's status as a first-rounder in Roto formats somewhat questionable:
There's no question Votto is the better of the two. But he costs $30 (or a first round pick), while Morales costs $1 (or a 24th round pick). Roto owners should at least be aware of Votto's shift from a home run hitting RBI source to a frequently-walking run scorer. While there's been some indication from new manager Bryan Price that the team may encourage Votto to swing more and walk less, it's no guarantee that the Reds will be able to change his habits to the point where he gets back to his 2010 stats.
The rotation is packed with talent, but there are a few worries up top. Johnny Cueto only pitched 60 2/3 innings last year -- making several trips to the DL with a strained lat -- but when he was healthy, he was tremendous; Cueto had a 2.80 ERA last season and a 2.61 ERA in 433 2/3 innings over the last three seasons. Mat Latos had 14 wins, a 3.16 ERA, and a 1.210 WHIP in 2013, but had October surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. So he may be shaking off rust early. Still, the starting five finishes stronger than most. Homer Bailey set career-bests in ERA (3.49),WHIP (1.12), and strikeouts (199). Mike Leake did the same in ERA (3.37), games started (31), and strikeouts (122). And Tony Cingrani produced a 2.92 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 10.3 K/9 over 104 2/3 innings last season. If Cueto and Latos can stay healthy, this could be one of the best rotations in baseball.
The bullpen is similarly excellent, with Aroldis Chapman -- one of the top three closers in the game -- leading the way. J.J. Hoover (2.61 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, with a 9.1 K/9 over the last two seasons) and Sam LeCure (2.66 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 9.7 K/9 last season) make for solid backup closer options, and could be nice additions to NL-only Roto staffs as low-ratio, high-strikeout relievers.
The Reds are full of talent again this season. And while there's little indication on what kind of coach Pryce will be (what streategies he will employ, how much he'll run, etc.), things probably won't be radically different from Dusty Baker's reign. The Reds will produce plenty of wins and Fantasy-helping stats in 2014.
Sleeper ... Zack Cozart, shortstop
Price has ruled out Votto as the team's No. 2 hitter, and while Cozart batted second 64 times last year (the most on the team), he was shuffled back to seventh in mid-July, hitting there 64 times (also the most on the team), as well. So this sleeper pick is based on speculation that Cozart bats second, behind Hamilton. He will come up to bat with a ton of opportunity to drive in Hamilton, who can get on first and steal second. A rope from Cozart scores him. Over the last two years, Cozart has hit 63 doubles and 27 home runs. He had a quietly underappreciated 63 RBI last year -- just 11 fewer than Votto. With Price making an effort to break up the lefties in the lineup, it makes sense to put Cozart at No. 2 and Brandon Phillips at cleanup (to break up lefties Votto and Jay Bruce). So chances are good that Cozart will hit second, which should give him plenty of opportunities for RBI production thanks to Hamilton's OBP and base-stealing skill. This may also put him in a more comfortable place as a hitter, which could lead to jumps in average and power. If Votto is going to try and drive in more runs, Cozart's run production goes up; if Votto keeps walking, Cozart stays on base and has Phillips, Bruce, and Ryan Ludwick coming up next to drive him in. This is all still speculative, but if things play out in a manner similar to this, Cozart could be a steal later in drafts.
Injury bounceback ... Ryan Ludwick, outfield
Ludwick tore cartilage in his shoulder on Opening Day, and made it back to the majors by mid-August. In 38 games, he hit .240 with two home runs and five doubles. He can be forgiven for the down performance, considering he was hurrying back, shaking off rust, and probably still coping with the after-effects of the surgery. Ludwick enters 2014 with a full offseason to prepare, and the hope of 25-plus home runs in a lineup that should get on base at one of baseball's highest rates. It will be Ludwick's job to drive these baserunners in, playing in a park that is one of the friendliest for hitters. Granted, Ludwick has just two 25-home run seasons, but has seen 500-plus at-bats just once. In 2012, his first season with the Reds, Ludwick hit .275 with 26 home runs, driving in 80 runs over 125 games. It might be asking too much to pencil him in for a .280 average with 32 homers and 100 RBI, but if you set his baseline at .265/25/85, those numbers can be had for pennies on the dollar in deeper leagues.
Breakout ... Tony Cingrani, starting pitcher
Cingrani dominated the minors, with a 1.65 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in three seasons, striking out 301 batters over 228 2/3 innings. And over 109 2/3 innings in the majors, Cingrani, 24, has a 2.87 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, with 129 strikeouts. This is with Cingrani -- who had one relief appearance in the minors -- essentially bouncing between starter and reliever, with 18 starts in 26 appearances over the two seasons. And in his five games as a reliever in 2013, Cingrani had a 4.91 ERA, walking seven batters over 7 1/3 innings. As a starter, Cingrani had a 2.77 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. He threw 136 innings between the majors and the minors last year, so 180-plus is essentially a lock for 2014. With Bronson Arroyo gone via free agency, the fifth starter role is all Cingrani's. And with the low ERA and WHIP, coupled with the high strikeout rate and success at every level in his career, Cingrani is in line for a huge 2014.
Reds fans (and Fantasy players) should gird themselves for cringe-worthy literary puns soon, as Robert Stephenson is relatively close to making his major league debut. The 21-year-old pitcher raced up three levels in the minors last season, finishing with a 2.99 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 136 strikeouts over 114 1/3 innings. He only started four games at Double-A (his highest level), and delivered a 4.86 ERA and 1.80 WHIP there, so the Reds will probably need some very good numbers in the minors to bring him up at any point before September. ... Jesse Winker hit .281 with 16 home runs in 417 at-bats in Class-A last season, but showed a very good eye, walking 63 times against 75 strikeouts. He's still at least a couple seasons away, but could be a nice add for dynasty players. Baseball America regards Winker as the Reds' best power-hitting prospect. ... Phillip Ervin, the team's top pick in last year's draft, hit .331 with nine home runs and 14 steals over 172 at-bats last season. Like Winker, he's still a ways off, but is a great long-term pickup.