The Cincinnati Reds entered the 2012 season as somewhat of a walking contradiction. Despite having been a sub .500 team in 2011, they were generally perceived as the favorites in the NL Central. They were perceived favorites despite lacking a proven leadoff hitter, a proven cleanup hitter, a closer, an ace, or above average rotation. If you really look at it, the only real known quantities the Reds possessed entering 2012 were that Brandon Phillips would be a stellar 2B, Jay Bruce would be an above average RF, and that Joey Votto would produce more at 1B than any other NL 1B.
In reality, only two of the certainties proved true, as Votto was injured for a large portion of the season. Thankfully, the pitching staff answered every question asked of it (both the starters and the bullpen), surprising many by outperforming even the usually vaunted Reds' bats.
What also stood out this year was the consistency of performance by the Reds' rookies, as there were numerous occasions where this 97 win team penciled in rookie starters at SS, 3B, and C in the same game...sometimes with a rookie relief pitcher on the mound, too. Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, and J.J. Hoover were tasked with a lot, and generally exceeded most expectations.
Let's dig in.
Zack Cozart - 600 PA, .246/.288/.399 (.687); 2.4bWAR/2.7fWAR, 15 HR, 35 RBI
Breakdown: Cozart was, by all accounts, stellar defensively while posting a UZR of 7.7 (good for 5th among all MLB SS) and 2.0 dWAR (per BBRef). His first half of the season was solid enough for a SS (.707 OPS), but he tailed off during the second half (.658 OPS). Like most Reds, he was much better in GABP (.740 OPS) than on the road (.642 OPS), despite the fact he hit more HR away from home (9 to 6).
Reasons to be Optimistic: Cozart tailed off in the second half of the season, but his 2nd half BABIP was only .266 (whereas his first half was .294), and his full season was only .282. Seeing that swing towards the positive luck side would look quite nice. Cozart was often miscast as a leadoff hitter, something he's not, but should be a perfectly cromulent hitter for the bottom of the order for years. Despite having stolen 30 bases in a season in the minors, he stole only 4 this year, and I'd expect him to be more active on the basepaths in future seasons. Also, it should be noted that his offseason was spent rehabbing from Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow; perhaps a full season of preparation (instead of one spent focusing on rehab) will lead to increased production. He's a keeper.
Todd Frazier - 465 PA, .273/.331/.498 (.829); 1.9bWAR/2.8fWAR, 19 HR, 67 RBI
Breakdown: Despite not breaking camp with the big leaguers following Spring Training, Frazier was quickly called up and inserted in the lineup, and he hit the ground running. Frazier was successful against both RHP (.817 OPS) and LHP (.858 OPS), and hit better on the road (.871 OPS) than at home (.786 OPS). He was asked to carry many gloves in his bag this season, logging time at 3B, 1B, LF, and RF, and accumulated a slight negative dWAR in the process (-0.2), but he'll likely benefit from playing one position more consistently next year. He, like Cozart, struggled down the stretch, homering only once in his final 31 games.
Reasons to be optimistic: For much of the amazing start to his season, Frazier's BABIP hovered around an unsustainable .350 level, but his season level finished at .316, something well within the bounds of "to be expected," so his 2012 was not fluky in that regard. As a starter, he slashed .262/.318/.474 (.792), and that's about what I think we can expect from him; a few more walks would be nice, and perhaps placing him more strategically in the batting order with a healthy complement of Reds around him will augment that. He saved a dude's life this season, too, so by the time he's 36 he'll be saving busloads of people each year. That'll do.
Devin Mesoraco - 184 PA, .212/.288/.352 (.640); -0.5bWAR/0.1fWAR, 5 HR, 14 RBI
Breakdown: By far the most highly touted of the three positional rookies, Mesoraco is also significantly younger than the others, starting the season at just 23 years old. It showed. Up until the All-Star break, it seemed as if it was merely a luck driven series of poor results, as he had a .689 OPS with a meager .227 BABIP, but his second half seemed completely devoid of production or even hard hit balls. His BB/K rate was great for anyone, much less a rookie, at 17/33, and that is in line with his minor league numbers and should be replicable. He took a major back-seat to Dioner Navarro following his suspension for ump-bumpin', and finished up his season unceremoniously in AAA Louisville. Ouch.
Reasons to be optimistic: BABIP! His home OPS of .624 included a freakishly low .190 BABIP, and that's just not going to continue. His power is real, and he showed that on occasion, and his defensive capabilities (while not Haniganny) were perfectly competent. He got a year's worth of learning his pitching staff, all of whom are slated to return and work with him again, and that will help significantly. He actually hit LHP quite well in a SSS this season with a .803 OPS to show for it. His full season .234 BABIP will rise, and though he may not be a world-beating superstar in 2013, he'll be fine. If anything, his minor league numbers should've alerted us that he may take a while to adjust.
J.J. Hoover - 1-0, 2.05 ERA, 30.2 IP, 0.978 WHIP, 208 ERA+, 9.1 K/9, 2.38 K/BB; 0.9bWAR/0.4fWAR
Breakdown: Acquired immediately before the season from Atlanta, Hoover acquitted himself quite well in his first major league season. Upon being called up in late April, he had a two month stint with the Reds that saw him used in increasingly higher-leverage situations, and he responded well. His fastball has averaged just under 93 mph, and he relied on it heavily (73.1% of the time). He's basically a two-pitch pitcher, as he throws his slider about 20% of the time and a change-up occasionally, but he hides the ball well. He allowed runs in just 5 of his 28 appearances, yielding just 2 HR in that time. His BABIP-against was just .200, so there will be some regression in the future, but his stuff is legit and location is one of his strengths.
Reasons to be optimistic: He's not Juan Francisco. While he was used exclusively as a reliever for the Reds this season, he was a starter throughout most of his minor league career with the Braves, so there's a chance he could be stretched out if need be. Given the timing of his acquisition, he was likely brought in as insurance in the wake of Ryan Madson's elbow injury, so I wouldn't rule out a return to the rotation just yet. He sports a career 9.9 K/9 and 3.61 K/BB over his 5 years in the minors, so his stuff has proven successful at most every stop. Also, he's not Juan Francisco.
Outlook - These 4 all project to be core members of the Reds for the foreseeable future, and it cannot be understated how important it is to have mature, cost controlled players as key cogs to a lineup. It's the fact that collectively they make less than $1.8 million in 2013 that allows players like Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips to be retained, and it's quite likely that their existence in the Reds' system gave Walt Jocketty and Bob Castellini the wherewithal to sign their stars. I expect a slight dip in performance from both Frazier and Hoover, though I'm convinced Frazier's power is real and Hoover's ability to strikeout major leaguers is real. Mesoraco will improve significantly...whether that's in 2013 or 2014 I don't know, but he's got too many tools to continue to struggle. I think Cozart showed us largely what he is, which is more than capable, but I wouldn't rule out a bump in his production from a full season of batting 7th in the lineup. Be thankful that they're a solid bunch, folks, since there's slim pickins in the upper minors behind them.