Will talks with Jeff about Cincinnati’s chances in the Reds Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download mp3.

While there are no powerhouses in the NL Central, the Reds still could use a little help elsewhere. Here are some of the things that could go wrong for their divisional foes:

St. Louis Cardinals: The rotation, already shaky enough last season, fails to recover from the free agent defections of Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver. Mark Mulder doesn’t come back until August and is mediocre upon his return. Jim Edmonds, behind schedule with foot and shoulder injuries, finally breaks down for good. Adam Kennedy flops as badly as Aaron Miles did in 2006.

Houston Astros: Roger Clemens either stays retired or signs with the Yankees, and Jason Jennings and Woody Williams fail to fill the yawning gap left by the departures of Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The Astros’ OBP killers (Brad Ausmus, Adam Everett, and Craig Biggio) remain in the lineup, even after Biggio achieves his career milestone of 3,000 hits. Manager Phil Garner remains impatient with Morgan Ensberg and yanks him at the first sign of a slump, playing Mike Lamb instead.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers were killed last year by key injuries, none more than the continued unavailability of Ben Sheets. They experience more of the same this year, and the defense behind Suppan is significantly worse than what he’s used to. They keep finding new and creative ways to keep Corey Hart out of the lineup, all while starting Geoff Jenkins against lefties to appease the veteran.

Chicago Cubs: Mark Prior‘s shoulder doesn’t hold up, nor does Kerry Wood‘s. Jason Marquis gets 32 starts and proves that last year’s flop wasn’t a fluke. They bury Matt Murton, and instead play Cliff Floyd and Jacque Jones regularly through bad seasons. Mark DeRosa‘s carriage turns back into a pumpkin, and Ryan Theriot doesn’t get another chance to prove whether his cup of coffee with the Cubs was a fluke or not.

Pittsburgh Pirates: For once the Pirates’ offseason didn’t consist of the franchise-killing, self-defeating moves they’ve been known for, like letting Bronson Arroyo go for free, not protecting Chris Shelton in the Rule 5 draft, or signing over-the-hill mediocrities like Joe Randa to block existing young alternatives. The Pirates are still banking on their young pitching to carry them, but it’s going to take another year to develop, and they still are a bat or two short of having a threatening offense.

The concept of “hope and faith” isn’t too difficult to maintain if you’re a fan of an NL Central team, not after the Cardinals’ World Series victory after they had an 83-78 regular season record last year. The Cincinnati Reds were alive until the penultimate day of the season, and their 80-82 record left them only 3.5 games behind the Cardinals at season’s end. While other teams in the division appeared to upgrade their rosters, no team in the NL Central seems strong enough to run away and hide. If the Reds make just a few marginal improvements, they could get their record over .500, giving them a chance to win the NL Central. Once they get there, as the Cardinals showed, anything can happen.

So where can the Reds make those marginal improvements? Let’s look at what has to go right.

1. Homer Bailey is Ready for Prime Time: In Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, the Reds’ rotation is solid at the top, but it gets murky after that. Eric Milton‘s ERA dropped by over a full run last year, and yet still was 5.19. Kyle Lohse had his moments of competence, but he’s hardly a sure thing. It’s possible that Bailey is the Reds third-best starter, right now. They may start him at Triple-A Louisville, but they need to call him up early and have him be their version of a 2006 Francisco Liriano (no elbow surgery, please) or Justin Verlander. Bailey is on virtually every prospect list’s Top 10, and one of the top remaining elite pitching prospects in the minors following last year’s bumper crop. His numbers improved as he made the leap from the Florida State League (High-A) to the Southern League (Double-A). An effective Bailey gives the Reds a rotation that can compete with the other top teams in the division.

2. Adam Dunn Bounces Back: Dunn faded badly in the final two months of the season, hitting .174 with just nine homers and 21 RBI. His collapse down the stretch came at a time when the Reds needed him the most, following Ken Griffey Jr.‘s toe injury and GM Wayne Krivsky’s unforgivable trade of Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, de-clawing a once-potent Reds offense. Dunn has reported to spring training allegedly in better shape and motivated for a better season. While such reports this time of year are so common as to rise to the level of boilerplate, if there’s any substance to this one, Dunn could return to his 2004 level. Let’s just hope that Krivsky doesn’t trade him in July to the Twins for Jesse Crain and a 1987 “Señor Smoke” poster in order to shore up the bullpen yet again.

3. The Reds Keep Finding Freely Available Talent: We slagged Wayne Krivsky for his one awful trade, but he deserves due credit for some other moves that worked out a little better. For nearly two years before Krivsky was hired, the Reds had a surplus of productive outfielders, and former GM Dan O’Brien never dealt from that strength to address the Reds’ pitching woes. Krivsky’s first big move in spring training was to trade Wily Mo Peña to the Red Sox for Bronson Arroyo. While there’s still plenty of time for that trade to even out, it clearly was a winner for the Reds in 2006, giving them a desperately needed reliable starter. Krivsky was able to procure Brandon Phillips for next to nothing, and acquired eventual starting catcher David Ross for a broken pitching prospect, Bobby Basham. In the case of Phillips, they grabbed a player who had talent, even though he didn’t necessarily have a place to play. Once given an opportunity to play, he forced his way into the lineup on a regular basis.

The Reds need to duplicate that success in 2007. It’s possible that they’ve already acquired similar bargains. Josh Hamilton’s woes are documented, but so is his upside. Maybe he’s this year’s Brandon Phillips-a troubled but talented post-hype sleeper without a place to play that later earns a spot in the lineup. Or perhaps Kirk Saarloos, now extricated from the American League, is this year’s version of Bronson Arroyo, and will take advantage of the change in leagues after winning the fifth starter’s job. It might even be someone more obscure than Saarloos, such as waiver claim Bobby Livingston. The point here is that there is a raft of freely available talent out there, and Krivsky has had a good eye for it.

4. Alex Gonzalez’s Defense is as Good as Advertised: Even though this is a hope-and-faith article, we’re not going to pretend that Gonzalez is going to help the Reds much offensively. He has a .293 career OBP and is on the wrong side of 30 for me to reasonably expect any improvement. At best, he’ll approach the power he showed in 2003 and 2004. However, the Reds didn’t sign Gonzalez for his bat, but rather for his defensive reputation. A couple of fawning profiles in the local Cincinnati papers, including one that compared Gonzalez’s defense favorably to former Reds great Dave Concepcion, made that abundantly clear.

Does Gonzalez’s performance match up with his reputation? That depends upon what defensive metric you find compelling. In traditional circles, you might find the fact that Gonzalez committed only seven errors and had a .985 fielding percentage compelling. But while that indicates that he’s sure-handed, it doesn’t address his range or his ability to turn the double play. By other measures, Gonzalez doesn’t measure out quite as well. Clay Davenport‘s Fielding Runs Above Replacement stats indicate that he’s been below the average shortstop for the last few years. John Dewan’s book, The Fielding Bible, measures both range and ability to turn double plays; in Dewan’s accounting, Gonzalez grades out well with double plays, but not with range.

There’s a silver lining to all of this, however. The man Gonzalez essentially replaces, Felipe Lopez, grades out much lower across the board. By any measure, be it fielding percentage, Fielding Runs Above Replacement, Range Factor, or turning double plays, Gonzalez is a far superior shortstop to Lopez. That relative improvement alone will bear fruit in terms of runs prevention, and the Reds also hope it imbues their pitchers with more confidence to throw more strikes.

5. Joey Votto takes Over at First Base: Scott Hatteberg and Jeff Conine will begin the year sharing time at first base. Their production at the position will probably be in the bottom quartile in the NL. The only other teams that are as vulnerable at first are the platoons in Atlanta and San Francisco, plus the Washington Nationals if Nick Johnson misses significant time. Hope is on the way, however, in the form of Joey Votto, the reigning MVP of the Double-A Southern League. He’s always had the raw power that drew the Reds towards him in the first place, but he refined that power while moving up a level in 2006. If he can take over by midseason, he’s capable of giving the Reds a badly needed offensive boost, perhaps as fellow Canadian Justin Morneau did down the stretch in 2004 for the Twins. Votto has a nice batting eye (78 walks in 508 Double-A at-bats last year) in addition to his power, and even stole 23 bases last year.

While the Reds certainly have many question marks, they have many reasons to be optimistic. If at least a few of these marginal improvements occur, then the team could win 85-90 games, which might be good enough to win the NL Central. Once they get to the playoffs, a top three of Harang, Arroyo, and Bailey might be enough to get the job done. It’s enough to give Reds fans reason to hope.

Will talks to Jeff about hope, faith, and the Reds on Baseball Prospectus Radio:

Click to download mp3

Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio’s “Fantasy Focus.” He can be reached here.

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