This is one tough road trip to start the season. First, the Astros face a Phillies team that many view as the best in the NL. Now, the Astros' adventure continues to Cincinnati, where a red hot Reds team hopes to repeat its Central Division championship. As you probably know, the Reds just finished beating the pants off the Brewers, sweeping a pretty good Milwaukee group in convincing fashion. So, let's take a look at this Reds team.
Let's start with the starting pitching. No, the Reds don't have individual star pitchers with the renown of Holliday, Oswalt, and Lee, whom the Astros just faced. But the strength of this Reds' rotation is the depth of good young pitching. The Reds' rotation has been hit by some significant injuries--with both Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey experiencing shoulder injuries. For most teams, this would be a huge blow. But it doesn't seem to create more than a ripple in the Reds' world. Let's look at the starting pitchers likely to face the Astros in this series.
Mike Leake, the rookie pitching wonder of 2010 who skipped the minor leagues and went straight to the rotation, was scheduled to be sent to AAA in 2011 after a rough spring record. But the injuries to Cueto and Bailey provided Leake a reprieve from visiting the minor leagues for the first time. Leake was tough on the Astros last year, posting a 2.33 ERA in 19 innings---so don't think the Astros are particularly happy that Leake wasn't sent back to the minors. Maybe, just maybe, Leake's 7.29 ERA this spring provides some hope for the Astros. Then, again, it's risky business hanging your hat on spring training ERAs. However, the spring performance may mean more than usual when you consider that Leake's performance tapered off badly in the second half last season. Leake's second half ERA was 6.91 vs. 3.53 in the first half.
Sam LeCure, the former University of Texas pitcher, is the 27 year old No. 5 starter. LeCure provided decent spot starting work in his rookie season last year. LeCure pitched well against the Astros last year, with a 2.53 ERA in two games. Despite the success against the Astros in limited innings, LeCure, like most No. 5 starters, shouldn't be seen as particularly scary. The projection systems predict a 4.50 - 5.00 ERA for LeCure. He is a righthander without great velocity (88 mph average on his fastball) who has to change speeds and rely on his defense.
When the rotation turns over, the Astros face Edison Volquez, the Reds' No. 1 starter. Volquez, the former Rangers' prospect, has electric stuff and seemed to be putting it all together before elbow surgery interrupted his path to stardom. Volquez returned from the surgery late last season, and the fastball velocity was as good as ever. He posted a 3.75 x-FIP last year, and one suspects that he will be even better this season as he puts the TJ surgery behind him.
For much of this decade, the Reds seemed to have an Achilles Heel called the bullpen. But the bullpen corps looks to be solid now. When you've got a Lefthand pitcher (Chapman) throwing triple digit heat as only a co-set up pitcher, you know the bullpen has depth. Francisco Cordero is one of the most overpaid (and perhaps overrated) closers in baseball, but he provides adequate protection in the 9th inning.Offense
The Reds offense is well balanced and young. Joey Votto had a breakout season, taking the MVP, and posting a 7.4 WAR. A 7.4 WAR is really good, by the way. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are also premium talents who excelled with WAR levels of 4.0 and 5.3. Scott Rolen, the grizzled veteran at 3d base, has a rebound season, posting a 5.0 WAR and a .367 wOBA.
After the Brewers' stomping, the Reds' offensive stats have a video game look. The Reds' catchers, Hannigan and Hernandez, are on fire, with slugging percentages of 1.571 and 1.400, respectively. That won't last, but we don't know if the regression will occur after the Astros leave town.. Drew Stubbs has been scalding the ball, with a .455 batting average and 1.538 OPS. One can only guess what kind of paroxysm will overtake Richard Justice. And, of course, Joey Votto has gotten off to a great start, with an OPS above 1.0. Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce are the exceptions to the quick starts seen by most of the lineup so far. Overall, the Reds' BABIP is otherworldly at this early stage, and the Astros can hope for some quick regression to mean.
In recent years, the Reds saw one of the biggest improvements in defense of any team in baseball. In 2008, according to UZR, the Reds were -30.5 on defense, but by 2010 the Reds improved to +44. The addition of premium defensive players like Paul Janish, Drew Stubbs, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce surely had something to do with the highly ranked defense.
OK, bring em' on.