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Monday, April 4, 2011
Reds' depth makes them NL Central pick

By David Schoenfield

I picked the Reds to win the NL Central for several reasons, including:

1. Joey Votto. Canada’s hero gives the lineup a true superstar hitter.
2. Adam Wainwright's injury.
3. Concerns about Milwaukee’s defense and bullpen.
4. The Reds’ depth.

I’m going to focus on reason No. 4. The various projection systems all predict the National League as a complicated playoff struggle, with as many as 10 teams having a legitimate shot at the playoffs if things break right. Maybe 12 if you’re so inclined to include the Mets and Padres in that mix.

That means a key component becomes who avoids injuries, who doesn’t, and who has the depth to fill in.

Leake
Mike Leake started 22 games as a 22-year-old rookie last season.
The Reds are already being tested, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey landing on the DL out of spring training, opening up rotation slots for Mike Leake and Sam LeCure. Here are Baseball Prospectus’ projections for those two:

Leake: 140 IP, 155 H, 50 BB, 92 SO, 4.88 ERA, 1.9 WARP (wins above replacement)
LeCure: 135 IP, 147 H, 53 BB, 100 SO, 4.86 ERA, 2.0 WARP

Those numbers may not blow you away, but they are very serviceable for sixth and seventh starters. Leake, who makes his 2011 debut Tuesday against Houston, in particular has some upside as a former No. 1 pick who jumped straight to the majors last season. The point isn’t that these two are necessarily stars, but that they’re solid replacements for Cueto and Bailey. Those two are projected for a combined 5.9 WARP, meaning the drop to Leake and LeCure is about two wins over a full season.

But it’s not just the rotation where the Reds have solid reserves.

Ryan Hanigan, who hit two home runs and reached base five times on Sunday, is the best backup catcher in the majors. He posted a .361 OBP in 2009 and .405 OBP in 2010. He can particularly destroy left-handed pitchers, a nice complement to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce if the opposition tries to stack its rotation with lefties. Power isn’t his forte, but he’s worked hard on his stroke, saying, “I want to be a dangerous guy.”

Ramon Hernandez remains the starter, with Hanigan serving as Bronson Arroyo’s personal caddy and playing regularly against lefties. Hanigan has tired in the second half in previous systems, thus Dusty Baker’s reluctance to increase his playing time beyond two or three times a week.

In the outfield, Chris Heisey is a nice fourth outfielder, a good glove at all three positions who can hit some. He had a 103 OPS+ as a rookie last year, a fair representation of his minor league numbers. Factoring in his defense, he may actually be an upgrade over regular left fielder Jonny Gomes. Paul Janish is the team’s starting shortstop and if he falters, Edgar Renteria is around. He’s past his prime, of course, but there are worse fallback options. Waiting in the minor leagues are top prospects like first baseman Yonder Alonso, a former first-round pick, catcher Devin Mesoraco, who hit 26 homers in the minors in 2010, and outfielder Dave Sappelt, who hit .361 in Double-A.

Finally, I’m more bullish on Travis Wood than most. Wood is a small, skinny lefty without overpowering stuff who nonetheless had excellent strikeout rates throughout the minors. He averaged 7.5 K’s per nine innings as a rookie and posted a 3.51 ERA. The caveat is that he’s an extreme flyball pitcher (32 percent groundball rate) but allowed just nine home runs in 102 2/3 innings, an impressive total considering his bandbox home park, and a .259 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). The analysts would say he’s unlikely to be so well-served by the baseball gods in 2011. ZiPS, however, projected him to a 3.64 ERA and if he can match or exceed that figure, the Reds have a solid No. 2 or 3 starter for their rotation.

Plus, they still have Joey Votto. Did I mention that?

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.