I don't know if it's because I immersed myself in the 1990 Reds for 3 months or if it's because the Reds didn't make any glaring mistakes during the off-season, but I find myself being ridiculously optimistic about the upcoming season. Don't get me wrong, I still don't have delusions of playoffs, but I feel like this team actually can be something more than a stepping stone for other team.
The reason for this is run prevention. One thing I learned from the '90 team is that you can have a mediocre offense and still be a good team. Those Reds were only league average on offense, but they led the league in run prevention. This was done through some very good pitching, led by Jose Rijo and the league's best bullpen, and some quality, though not incredible, defense.
How does this apply to the current team? Well, if they are going to be successful, it will have to be through excellent run prevention. Luckily, they are in position to improve in that area, but it's going to require a couple of things:
1. Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto make "the leap." They don't have to be aces, but both pitchers need to take the flashes of brilliance that they've shown and put them together for an extended period of time. I think people may forget how good Cueto was during the first half last year. Through his first 16 starts, he was averaging 6.5 innings per start and only allowing 3.2 runs per 9 IP, with 11 quality starts. He was due for a bit of a drop-off though as his FIP was 4.25 in that span. The big concern for Cueto in 2009 was his drop in strikeouts. Specifically batters only swung and missed at 7% of his pitches, compared to 10% in 2008. If can get those numbers back up and continue to maintain his control, he could become a dominant pitcher. Hopefully new pitching coach Bryan Price will help get him there.
As for Bailey, he just needs to keep doing what he was doing over the last two months of 2009. His FIP over his last 9 starts was 3.06. If he can get within 50 points of that in 2010, the Reds will be in very good shape. The important thing for Bailey is that he needs to be pitch efficient. Pitching deeper into games without throwing more pitches will help save the bullpen and will hopefully set the Reds up for success later in the season.
2. Jared Burton needs to get back some mojo. With Francisco Cordero, Nick Masset, and Arthur Rhodes, the Reds have a solid back of the bullpen, but bullpens can be volatile. They really could use another pitcher to step up and be dependable. Daniel Ray Herrera will likely be a LOOGY, and isn't the style of pitcher you want as a stopper typically. So that really leaves Burton as the best hope. He showed signs of returning to form after coming off of the DL due to fatigue issues last August. In the season's final two months, Burton posted a 2.35 ERA with 19 strikeouts and 6 walks in 23 innings. Those numbers were much more in line with what he had done in 2008. If he can continue to pitch like that, the Reds could have one of the best bullpens in baseball.
3. Orlando Cabrera needs to be better defensively. According to 2009 UZR numbers, the Reds have no terribly weak spots defensively except shortstop (and LF when Jonny Gomes is playing). If Orlando Cabrera is going to be the everyday shortstop, then he must perform better at the position than he did in 2009 when he posted a -15 runs, according to UZR. I expect that he will be better than that -15 number, but the question is how much. If he can get back to break-even, the Reds should still be solid in the field. If he's at +5, then things could be looking really good for the Reds' run prevention. If he sticks in the negative, and Baker never uses Janish for defensive replacement, then there might be some problems. Shortstop is one of two positions on the field (center field is the other) where I consider defense to be the primary measure for success. If the Reds aren't getting at least average defense there, then the Cabrera signing is a big waste of money, if you ask me.
On offense, the Reds have two key players in my mind. Well, all of their players are key, but these two guys will be big determinants in what sort of success they have this year.
4. Jay Bruce, please become a superstar. I don't ask for much, but I do know that if Jay Bruce doesn't break out in 2010, the Reds have little to no shot of putting an average offense on the field. This isn't a "challenge year" for him. I won't consider him a bust if he only puts up a 100 OPS+ or only hits 20 HR. He's still only 23. But I'm fairly certain that the Reds won't score enough runs to be successful if Bruce doesn't take a major step forward offensively this season. They just don't have enough weapons without him being one of the top 30 or 40 offensive players in baseball.
5. Scott Rolen, don't get old yet - Rolen batted .272/.366/.404 with the Reds last year. All of the other Reds thirdbasemen batted a combined .217/.305/.328. Having Rolen in the lineup "everyday" should be an immediate improvement to the offense. Last season was his best offensive year in the last three, and his 128 games was the most he'd played in since 2006. Sure the Reds have a couple of options in Louisville that might be able to fill Rolen's shoes if he goes down, but the team already has enough ifs. What they really need is a solid 135+ games out of Rolen. If he can do that, we might see a big bump in the offensive production of the team.
Sure there are other ifs and questions, but to me, these are the five that are most important to the Reds in 2010. If all 5 of them happen, the Reds could be a good team. If none of them happen, then we'll be looking forward to 2011 in June.