Cincinnati Reds: Why they’re not a sure thing

Don Pavletich

Don Pavletich was one of the catchers who kept the position behind home plate warm for Johnny Bench. Platooned with Johnny Edwards. Pavletich slugged .513 and .519 in 1965 and '66 respectively in part-time duty. Plate appearances dropped from 258 in 1967 before Bench to 110 in 1968, Bench's rookie year.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Looking for the Reds’ top prospects? Try San Diego, where they sent hitter Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal and reliever Brad Boxberger. Try Cincinnati, where shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco may start. Don’t try overhyped Todd Frazier, and don’t try the Reds’ farm system, which has been emptied for a pennant run in 2012. And don’t try Billy Hamilton, who might be everyone’s first pick if this was a sport in which players carried a baton rather than a bat. Hamilton stole 103 bases in Class A last year, almost as many times as he struck out (133). An infielder, Hamilton is where Michael Bourn meets Cesar Izturis. Watch lefty pitcher Tony Cingrani, who fanned 80 and walked only 6 in 51.1 innings in rookie ball last summer. He has a long way to go, but he may pass Hamilton in the race up despite the latter’s head start.

What is this man doing here? says pitcher Brett Tomko returned to the Reds “carrying something that the younger version of himself didn’t have during his first turn in Cincinnati:” humility. If so, he came by it the old-fashioned way — he earned it. Tomko will be 39 shortly after spring training, and nearing the end of a mediocre career. He’s won 100 games, lost 103. His career ERA is 4.65, his career WAR is 7.6 — in 14 seasons. He’s pitched for 10 teams — 3 times for the Padres, though we can’t imagine why they wanted him the first time, let alone the second and third. Tomko may be Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan’s greatest success: in 2003, Tomko was 13-9 and pitched 202 innings, despite giving up 252 hits and having a 5.28 ERA — opponents batted .305 and slugged .513 vs. Tomko. We’re not sure why the Reds want Tomko in camp, because whatever role they plan on him competing for, Bronson Arroyo (46 home runs allowed, a 5.07 ERA in 2011) already fills it.

What he said: Brandon Phillips on his contract negotiations: “I don’t want Prince Fielder money or nothing like that. I just want to be within the other second basemen. That’s what I’ve asked for.” What he meant: “Have you seen what the Braves are paying Dan Uggla? $62 million for five years? For a guy who plays every ground ball as if it were a bad hop? I won’t sign for a penny or year less.”

Outlook: Divisions abhor a vacuum, and the Reds sensed one was created when Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, two of the game’s best sluggers (well, two if Pujols rebounds), bolted the two teams that finished ahead of them in the NL Central last season.

The Reds moved quickly to fill it, trading for Mat Latos and Sean Marshall, and signing Ryan Madson to replace Francisco Cordero. But like a poker player who keeps raising the stakes to intimidate his opponents, it’s hard to tell whether the Reds are sure they’re the best team in the division, or trying to convince their opponents.

The Reds are a good team, but despite all their moves, they’re not a full house better than their rivals’ pair of deuces. Latos helps, the bullpen is good if not great, but the outfield is ordinary and third baseman Scott Rolen is 37 — and hasn’t played 150 games in nearly a decade or 140 in half of one. That’s quite a descent from Rolen to Frazier or Wilson Valdez or Miguel Cairo.

As the Brewers and Cardinals did last year, the Reds have contract talks to distract them. Joey Votto’s shouldn’t be a problem — he’s not a free agent until after 2013 — but Brandon Phillips may well be.

Much depends on the two rookies who may start, and better they should at shortstop where Cozart is certain to be an upgrade over Paul Janish, but not at catcher, where Mesoraco may not improve on Ramon Hernandez. If not, Ryan Hannigan is insurance.

The Reds may yet win the division in 2012, just as they did in 2010. But the air of expectancy built up around them — whether by the media or the Reds themselves — is troubling. And undeserved.

Team song: The Smiths: How Soon Is Now?

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