The Second Best Team in the NL

With less than a week to go before Opening Day all the picks for World Series champs are starting to trickle in and many people are picking the Washington Nationals. Four out of seven SI writers picked the Nats to win it all, five out of seven the NL, seven out of seven the NL East, and several of the same writers picked Harper to be MVP and/or Strasburg to win the Cy Young. The 2013 Washington Nationals are what you would call the best team on paper. The question here is which team has the next best chance at being the best team in the NL, and the answer is not what many may expect, the Cincinnati Reds.  

While the Atlanta Braves arguably made the flashiest move of the off-season in acquiring Justin Upton from the Diamondbacks after adding his brother BJ; they also lost a lot of talent with Chipper Jones retiring, Michael Bourn leaving via free agency, and the inclusion of Martin Prado in the Justin Upton deal. In total the Braves lost 15.3 fWAR from their 94 win 2012 roster. The acquisitions of the two Uptons, increased playing time of Medlen and Simmons, and Maholm and Teheran instead of Hanson and Jurrjens is nothing more than treading water. There was one team a lot closer in 2012 to the 98 win Washington Nationals in the NL than the Atlanta Braves and that team, the 97 win Cincinnati Reds, didn't lose much and arguably gained more.

The main difference in the Reds over the Braves as the next best team to the Nationals is the starting pitching staff. While Hudson and Medlen are very good and both will have good seasons and Teheran is a Rookie of the Year candidate; the Reds starting staff is more solid and full of known commodities. During the 2012 NL Cy Young race one of the more overlooked pitchers was Johnny Cueto who ended up finishing third in the league in ERA, 0.05 points behind eventual winner RA Dickey and 0.11 points better than third place Cy Young finisher Gio Gonzalez. Despite being this solid while pitching 217 innings and winning 19 games Cueto finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

Behind Cueto in the Reds rotation is the former Padres Ace, Mat Latos. Latos had what some considered a down year in 2012 but still finished the season with a 3.48 ERA and 3.85 FIP over 209 1/3 innings pitched. After him comes the breakout star of 2012 Homer Bailey who pitched better than he ever had before in his career and with a 3.68 ERA over 208 innings finally looked like he was putting his potential into productions. Rounding out the staff are the inning eaters Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake who are nothing if not dependable for innings. In fact the Reds biggest strength in 2012 was that they only used six starters and the sixth starter, Todd Redmond, only pitched 3 1/3 innings. The Reds top five starters pitched a total of 1015 1/3 innings an average of 203 innings per starter. No other team had that type of health and consistency from their starting five.

There are skeptics who will say that Dusty Baker is the manager and that type of starting pitching health can't last, but predicting someone to get injured just because they didn't over the course of a year doesn't seem the wisest course of action. There is nothing about the Reds starting pitchers workloads or history that suggest any are a near certain injury risk and in almost every case it is quite the opposite. As far as the rest of the Reds pitching goes their bullpen in 2012 behind Chapman, Broxton, and Marshall was lights out. At 6.3 fWAR they were second only behind the Braves among teams that didn't have a 75 pitch limit on their starters, and finished with the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors.  

If this sounds like a lot of talk about 2012 it is and it should be. The Reds won 97 games in 2012 and the only major change they made from 2012 to 2013 is the addition of Shin-Soo Choo who helps to fix one of the Reds biggest weaknesses. In 2012 Reds lead-off hitters combined to have an OBP of .254. Choo brings a career OBP of .381. That is a massive improvement and will add to the already powerful Reds offense. The other two major offensive upgrades for the Reds come from players that were already on the team in 2012. Todd Fraizer played in 128 games batting .273/.331/.498 and while that looks like a rather average batting line for an NL third baseman consider that the Reds played Scott Rolen in 92 games and he batted .245/.318/.398. The final difference in the Reds projected offense from 2012 to 2013 is that Joey Votto missed significant time in 2012 and ended up playing in only 111 games. If Votto even plays in only 140 games at his career levels he is an easy MVP candidate. 

The one big weakness for the 2013 Reds is going to be outfield defense. Neither Choo nor Bruce should be playing centerfield and Ryan Ludwick has never been known for his glove. The good news for the Reds is that Billy Hamilton is coming, and could be ready mid-season if not sooner. Up until this past Arizona Fall League Hamilton had only played short stop in the minors but with Zach Cozart at the majors the Reds made the decision to move Hamilton to centerfield where all reports are that he is fantastic. His speed on the bases has translated to the outfield and he is a prospect that could have a major impact on not just the 2013 season, but baseball in general. Billy Hamilton is a different type of player. There aren't any players in baseball right now with the game changing speed of a Ricky Henderson, Lou Brock, or Tim Raines. Hamilton has that type of speed and between two levels last season stole 155 bases. Now if your first thought is the old cliché of, "You can't steal first," Hamilton has an MiLB batting line of .289/.364/.389, and with bunts and infield singles is very capable of stealing first.

Add Hamilton atop the Reds line-up with Choo batting second, Votto third, Bruce fourth, Phillips fifth, and this might be the best line-up in baseball. It is certainly just as good as what the Braves will put out there with a top five of Simmons, Heyward, Upton, Freeman, Upton and the Nats with Span, Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, and LaRoche. Hamilton at the top of that line-up gives the Reds a dimension that no team in baseball currently has. Not only a player that can get on base, but one that can make things happen once there. Teams are going to have to invent new ways to stop the running game because of Billy Hamilton.  

While all the ink is being spilled on the Nats to be the best team in baseball and for the Braves to be their chief rivals do not forget about the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds lost nothing from their 2012 roster, added one of the best OBP lead-off hitters in Choo, and by mid-season will be adding a player with the potential to change the game of baseball. The Reds are a team to watch and after taking a 2-0 NLDS lead into Great American Ballpark and losing three straight to the Giants are just as heartbroken and hungry as the Washington Nationals. The Reds are being ignored by a lot of people right now, but on paper they are the second best team in the NL and perhaps even all of baseball.  

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