Pressing Questions: The Cincinnati Reds

In a busy and buzzy offseason for NL Central clubs, the Reds have been happy to settle into stealth mode. And maybe that's a good thing; perhaps this team is best suited to make a playoff run while some fans and pundits aren't fully ready for it.

The Cardinals, of course, have champagne on their lips and championship rings headed for their fingers (but no more Albert Pujols to anchor things). The Brewers have been in the news plenty, dealing with Prince Fielder's defection and Ryan Braun's looming suspension. The Cubs generated plenty of Internet clicks with the Theo Epstein hire, the frisky Pirates are looking to build on last year's solid first half (forget the crash landing in the second half), and the Astros can at least dream of a better life, someday, in the American League.

Last year's Reds fell 12 games behind their division-winning pace of 2010, though a portion of that was bad luck (Cincinnati outscored its opponents and probably should have won 83 games, not 79). Improvements are obvious in several areas: the club added a stud arm for the rotation, it moved for a younger closer, and things should be better in left field. If Cincinnati gets any improvement from its impressive collection of young starting pitchers, this team could be a gate-to-wire champion in a division that's there for the taking.

You've been dealt a strong hand, Dusty Baker. Show us what you can do with it.

Is Mat Latos in for a messy season, trading Petco Park for Great American Ballpark?

While it's natural roto instinct to worry about this type of park switch, Latos can probably weather the storm fairly well. The home assignments will be tougher, sure, but if you look under the hood, you'll find reason for comfort.

Great American Ballpark is close to neutral when you look at batting average and runs scored (consider the park index to the right; a score of 100 is neutral). The biggest issue pitchers face in Cincinnati is the threat of the home-run ball, especially to right-handed batters (32 percent float). Latos probably can offset some of that risk with his wicked stuff; he's held right-handed hitters to a puny .208/.277/.298 line through his career. Keep dominating the platoon advantage, big guy, and we'll sleep a lot better at night.

And while Petco Park should have been a major boost to Latos, he didn't turn in extreme splits during his three years there. His career WHIP is the same, home and away, and his strikeout rate is just about the same. His career ERA is 3.11 in Petco and 3.57 on the road, some bias but nothing crazy. Latos might be mildly underrated at the table this year as some roto players mildly overrate his change of scenery. And don't forget that he was hurt for most of 2011's first half; the post-break numbers (2.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, .205 BAA) give us an idea of what Latos might be capable of at his best. I've slotted Latos at No. 21 on my initial starting pitcher board.

What's the story in the ninth inning?

It might not look like much of a swap here, letting Francisco Cordero walk and signing Ryan Madson, but it's actually a tremendous improvement for the Reds. The new closer is five years younger than the departed one, and he's a much better pitcher besides.

Although the ERAs were similar for these pitchers last year (Cordero was at 2.45, Madson at 2.37), the peripheral-suggested ERAs tell the better story. Madson checked in with a 2.37 FIP and a 2.94 xFIP, while Cordero somehow got by despite a 4.02 FIP and a 4.14 xFIP. Cordero's strikeout rate also dropped to 5.43/9 and he lost a mile-and-a-half off his fastball. There's a good reason why no one ran at him with a closer job this winter; he's expected to be a set-up man in Toronto. It's better to be a year early than a year late on this type of veteran; well-played, Cincinnati.

Madson is an easy sell for the ninth inning: he throws strikes, gets ground balls, misses bats (better than a strikeout per inning), and is used to working in a batter-friendly park (coming over from Philadelphia). Baker is a manager that will be good to his closers, managing by the save rule whenever possible and not panicking if a rough patch sets in. Madson should be a Top 10 fantasy closer easily, perhaps even a Top 5 guy.

If you're in a league where non-closing relievers have value, Sean Marshall should be on your radar. The Reds acquired him from Chicago and he'll get plenty of high-leverage work in the seventh and eighth innings. Marshall is nasty against lefties and still effective against righties, and he's logged 150 innings the last two years. He's a welcome addition.

All this talk about the bullpen — what about Aroldis Chapman?

The Reds still aren't sure what to do with their talented but enigmatic lefty. Chapman was shut down early in the Arizona Fall League (sore shoulder), and the club decided to hold him out of winter ball. It's a shame it fell that way, because Chapman was expected to be a starter in Puerto Rico, a dry run for a hopeful transition this year. Now, no one knows.

Chapman was a trick-or-treat proposition in 2011. He lost his release point and his confidence in May, walking nine batters while recording just one out over a crazy three-game stretch. The Reds shut Chapman down for a while, then got got him healthy and mechanically sound for the summer (42 strikeouts against 11 walks over 25.2 innings), but it was back to the wheel of fortune in September (nine walks, nine strikeouts over 9.1 frames). It's the Little Plastic Castle with Chapman, a surprise every time.

The Reds aren't in immediate need of a starter now that they've scooped Latos (to go along with Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo), so Chapman figures to open the year as a spot-starter or long man in the bullpen. He'll have to play his way into our mixed-league plans.

With Ramon Hernandez moving to Colorado, is the deck cleared for Devin Mesoraco?

Yes and no. The 23-year-old backstop surely will make the Reds out of camp, but he's probably going to be the No. 2 catcher for a while, watching Ryan Hanigan get the majority of starts. The Reds already feel comfortable with Hanigan's defense, and everyone knows Baker's MO by now — he never met a veteran he didn't want to favor. Rookies are seldom forced into action on his watch.

Mesoraco's bat wasn't an immediate success shortly after being drafted in 2007's first round, but he's rounded into form nicely over the last two years. He clubbed 26 homers at three stops in 2010, and he posted a tasty .289/.371/.484 line at Triple-A last year, with 15 homers in 438 at-bats. It's going to happen for him eventually, it's just a matter of when. But I'll be shocked if he gets more playing time than Hanigan in 2011. In a non-keeper mixed-league draft, there's no reason to strike now.

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