Every Sunday, MLB FanHouse empties out its notebook in Baseball Brunch.
As pundits look for the 2009 version of the Tampa Bay Rays, many have pointed to the Cincinnati Reds as a breakout team.
And while it's hard to pick any team to improve by 31 games, as the Rays did from 2007 to 2008, the Reds do look better.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they're right in the hunt," said a scout who has followed them this spring.
For its part, Cincinnati isn't ducking expectations.
"We definitely feel we can contend this year," one Reds executive said.
The main reason to like Cincinnati is the same reason we should have seen Tampa Bay coming: pitching.
Four of the five projected starters have had at least one very good half-season over the past two years:
• Aaron Harang: 8-4, 3.41 ERA in the first half of 2007
• Bronson Arroyo: 8-4, 3.47 in the second half of 2008
• Edison Volquez: 12-3, 2.29 in the first half of 2008
• Micah Owings (likely to be the fifth starter): 3-4, 3.72 in the second half of 2007
If those guys can all put together a full season close to the potential they showed in those stretches, it's a potent rotation.
The other member is Johnny Cueto, who led NL rookies in strikeouts.
"Their starting pitching's pretty good," said another scout.
The Reds also like their pitching depth. Homer Bailey, the prospect yet to pan out, may start the season in long relief. And Daryl Thompson, Ramon Ramirez and lefty Matt Maloney are on the way.
A bullpen that last year ranked third in the NL with a 3.81 ERA returns intact, except for Arthur Rhodes replacing Jeremy Affeldt as the lefty.
The other part of the Tampa model is defense, and the Reds feel theirs is much improved, especially if shortstop Alex Gonzalez can stay healthy. According to Baseball Prospectus, the 2008 Reds were next-to-last in the majors in defensive efficiency - the rate batted balls were turned into outs.
This team is more athletic; new center fielder Willy Taveras could match last year's team total of 85 stolen bases by himself.
As the first scout said, "Getting rid of (Adam) Dunn and (Ken) Griffey I don't think hurt them."
Duly noted: Cincinnati's 28 outfield errors last year were most in the majors.
Dunn and Griffey supplied power, but the Reds figure they can get 20 homers from catcher Ramon Hernandez, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion (above, right) and Gonzalez and 20-30 from Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips (above, left). The first scout mentioned above said Hernandez, acquired from Baltimore, looks determined to bounce back from two off years.
Also going for Cincinnati: a suspect division, outside of the Cubs (although the Reds need to do better against the Astros than 3-12, which was last year's mark).
But before anointing the Reds, we must remember they went 74-88 last year. That means an improvement of at least 16 games to be a contender for the postseason.
So if not this year, maybe next. Cincinnati (which last made the playoffs in 1995) figures it has a pretty good two-year window since the only pitcher on the staff not signed or under control for 2010 is reliever Dave Weathers.
Overheard and Understood
• The Twins are quietly looking for a strike-throwing, setup reliever in front of Joe Nathan. "Publicly they're not making a big deal about it," said someone who has spoken to Minnesota's front office. "Privately they are."
• Because of a pitching shortage, a scout who has seen Colorado this spring said, "The Rockies are going to have to do something. Their 'pen is very thin." But an executive from another team said the Rockies seem to have severe financial constraints and speculated they could be dumping contracts midseason if out of contention. "Unless they move ($3.5-million salaried backup catcher Yorvit) Torrealba, they're not taking on any money," he said.
• Rookie Travis Snider, 21, is a bright spot for the pitching-deficient Blue Jays. "He's got all-fields power," one scout said. "His defense is a little suspect, but his bat plays." Said another: "That son of a gun can hit." A Toronto official said Snider, the team's first-round pick in 2006, might be the best of baseball's impressive group of young lefty hitters, which includes Bruce, Pedro Alvarez and Brett Wallace. "He's got a great demeanor, a quite confidence," the official said.
|Chart of the Week|
|The Blue Jays seem likely to open the season with four lefties in the bullpen: Jesse Carlson, Scott Downs, B.J. Ryan (if healthy) and Brian Tallet. Toronto last year became the first team to have four lefties - those same four - make 50 appearances. Teams with the most appearances by lefty relievers since 1954 (none made the playoffs):|
|Team||App. (Key LHRP)||Rec.|
|'08 Blue Jays||253 (Ryan, Carlson, Downs)||86-76|
|'06 Rockies||239 (Fuentes, Martin, King)||76-86|
|'93 Cubs||225 (Myers, Plesac, McElroy)||84-78|
|'06 Blue Jays||224 (Ryan, Schoeneweis, Downs)||87-75|
|'07 Mets||221 (Wagner, Schoeneweis, Feliciano)||88-74|
• It looks like, with Justin Duchscherer undergoing elbow surgery, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill will get the last two spots in Oakland's rotation. According to a person familiar with the pitchers, what sets Anderson and Cahill apart from fellow prospect Vin Mazzaro is a weapon to escape trouble. Cahill has a power sinker that can get a double play, and Anderson knows how to "go soft" with off-speed stuff. But Mazzaro "geeks up" - overthrows - with men on base.
• The woeful Padres "will claim anybody" who goes on waivers, an executive said. "They're dying for pitching. They're slowly trying to go back to more power arms." Thus last week's trade for Florida's Eulogio De La Cruz. Then again, after getting De La Cruz, San Diego lost reliever Jae Kuk Ryu on waivers to Cleveland, and one scout from another team liked what he saw of Ryu, saying, "He's got solid stuff."
• Bobby Abreu brings the Angels a different dimension: patience. Los Angeles hitters last year got to two strikes in 44 percent of their plate appearances, second-fewest in the AL. But Abreu is perfectly comfortable with two strikes, getting there 54 percent of the time and collecting 87 two-strike hits, most in the majors.
• San Francisco's top two pitching prospects are Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson, and a scout who has seen both said they are intriguing and hard to project for opposite reasons. Bumgarner, a 19-year-old lefty, throws "an absolutely effortless 95 (mph)" but is "so trackable" -- hitters can see the ball through his delivery. So can he add some deception? Alderson, meanwhile, is a 20-year-old, 6-foot-7 right-hander who is "funky, but with an average fastball." He has a feel for pitching and "guts," the scout said, and could wind up like San Diego's 6-foot-10 Chris Young, using his height to offset his lack of velocity.
• With Alex Rodriguez expected back in mid-May from hip surgery, the Yankees seem content with Cody Ransom at third base for six weeks. It's a nice career break for Ransom, a hard-working former Giants prospect, but a scout who has followed the Yankees this spring wonders if the Yankees might need a stopgap. "If (Ransom) plays on an everyday basis, he's going to get exposed," the scout said. "I see him struggling with sliders and off-speed stuff." Then again, if the Yankees need Ransom to hit, it means some high-priced stars aren't doing their jobs.
• Two Chicago pitchers with new long-term contracts have showed no signs of backtracking, one scout said. Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster, who re-signed for four years and $52 million, "is dealing. I would have thought last year was a fluke. I think this is who he is now." And White Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd (four years, $15.5 million) "threw lights-out for me. He has deception, plus velocity, plus movement, plus breaking ball, aggressive command. I don't think this guy is going to fall apart this year."
• Sticking with the White Sox, a scout told FanHouse's Jeff Fletcher that Alexi Ramirez's transition from second base to shortstop has been impressive: "He's incredible. Some of the best work ethic I've ever seen. Watching before a game early (when he's) taking ground balls, taking them at game speed and inventing plays. Like he gets bored."