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MLB 2011 Preview: Can the Cincinnati Reds Defend Their NL Central Title?

Previewing the 2011 MLB season, we’ve already named the Phillies, Yankees, and Red Sox the top World Series favorites. Now we’re taking a look at the NL Central. Yesterday, the Cardinals. Today, the Reds

Reigning Division Champion: Cincinnati Reds

Off-Season Moves: The 2010 NL Central Champion Reds fortified what they had more than they changed it, re-signing MVP Joey Votto, promising youngster Jay Bruce and rotation fixtures in Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto to long-term contracts. They also added Edgar Renteria to bolster their bench play everyday for manager Dusty Baker.

Strengths: This team is very strong on the positional side, offensively and defensively. Between Votto, Bruce, Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs and Brandon Phillips, they have five guys who can hit and field. Their starting lineup features big-time power, led by Votto, with six players hitting 18 home runs or more last season. Their biggest breakout candidate is Jay Bruce who is entering his age-24 season. Last season Bruce started slowly, but in the second half he hit .306/.376/.575 with 15 home runs. He may not hit for that much average over a full season as he is still a bit strikeout-prone, but 30 home runs and an .875 OPS is a very attainable goal.

The Reds’ pitching is good and reliable and gives them a chance to win every night. No pitcher personifies that last sentence more than Arroyo, who has won 15 or more games the past three seasons and logged over 200 innings the past six. Arroyo may be hittable and prone to the long ball, but he battles and works deep into games, despite a difficult pitching environment in Great American Ballpark. While their rotation may be composed of more number-three and four-starter-types, they have a few guys with the capability to step up. Edinson Volquez was promising in his return from Tommy John surgery; if he can return to his pre-injury form, he might be their guy. Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto both have good stuff, but Bailey’s inconsistency and Cueto’s lack of size likely keep them from taking the next step.

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Reds Locking Up Core Players: Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto Get Extensions

The Cincinnati Reds have been busy signing their (mostly) young talent to multi-year extensions this offseason. In December, pitcher Bronson Arroyo signed a three-year deal that will take him through the age of 36. He’s the only player the Reds extended that’s over the age of 27. Shortly after extending Arroyo, the Reds signed 23-year-old Jay Bruce and 27-year-old and reigning NL MVP Joey Votto to six and three-year deals, respectively. On Thursday, the Reds signed pitcher Johnny Cueto, 25, to a four-year deal and are reportedly pursuing an extension with 27-year-old pitcher Edinson Volquez.

The moves signal that the 2010 NL Central champs are serious about contending for the foreseeable future. Since arriving in Cincinnati in 2006, Arroyo has won at least 14 games four times, including a career-high 17 last season. Arroyo also won a Gold Glove last season. Cueto went 12-7 last season with a respectable 3.64 ERA. Bruce hit 25 home runs last season, though 19 of those came at the Great American Ballpark — about as hitter-friendly a park as you’ll find. The main concern with Bruce is his strikeout numbers; he’s had more than 100 twice in his three major league seasons, and a career-high 136 last year.

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Cardinals and Reds Fight, Clear Benches

Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said on Monday that he hated the Cardinals and called them bitches. Word must not have gotten to the Cards until Tuesday because when Phillips came up to bat in the bottom of the first, catcher Yadier Molina had some words. The two started to exchange words and benches rapidly cleared.

Managers Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker seemed to have words for each other and both wound up ejected. Chris Carpenter, who verbally fought with teammate Brendan Ryan on Monday, was in the middle of the fight between the squads. Reds third baseman Scott Rolen, who played for the Cardinals from 2002-2007, was the peacemaker, calming Carpenter and Molina at times.

There’s no way anyone can be surprised that the teams threw down. How could the Cardinals not respond after being called bitches by Phillips? Of course they had to, and obviously each manager defended his team. Here is the Cardinals and Reds fight video and here are some pictures:

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How Long Before Dusty Baker Ruins Johnny Cueto?

In case you missed it Thursday, Reds rookie Johnny Cueto was rather impressive making his major league debut. The 22-year-old was perfect through his first five innings before giving up a solo HR to Justin Upton in the 6th, the only base-runner he allowed all game. Cueto went seven innings of one-run, one-hit ball, striking out 10 for the win. Needless to say, Johnny Cueto was nothing short of dominant. One problem, however. Given the fact that Cincinnati now has a new manager with a track record of abusing young arms, it didn’t take long for my man Pat Lackey to develop Cueto’s timeline to Tommy John. Check it out:

April 3rd- Dominant debut
May 27th- 14 strikeouts against the Pirates, Dusty ramps his pitch count to 125 to close out the 2-hitter. Some fans grumble, but are quickly given the evil eye.
June 15th- His first 130 pitch outing against the Red Sox
June 20th- His second 130 pitch outing against the Blue Jays
July 27th- “twinge” in his elbow
August 17th- Tommy John surgery
August 18th- FireDustyBaker.com gets one million hits

I’m not sure what was more impressive: Cueto’s debut, or Lackey’s timeline. Sad thing is, I think we’re looking at a realistic situation. These days it’s a surprise if a pitcher makes it through the first three-four years of his career without needing TJ surgery. What happened to the old days when they used to let pitcher’s throw with arms swollen like basketballs? Guess Dusty longs for those days.

Adam Dunn Pranks Rookie Jay Bruce

Now don’t get the wrong idea here and think for a second that I’m about to buy into the hype and start posting wonderful tales about Reds prospect Jay Bruce, who can supposedly hit home runs one-handed, and throw balls so hard the whizz makes girls skirts go up. No, I’m just a fan of baseball pranks, and this certainly was a good one. The Enquirer has the details:

Dunn’s most elaborate prank happened Monday. Copies of the “Reds Report,” with Bruce on the cover, arrived in the clubhouse.

The headline next to Bruce’s photo was “The Next Big Thing.”

Dunn had Bruce sign copies for a number of people, including manager Dusty Baker.

Dunn then made Bruce deliver the copy to Baker and ask him if he knew Bruce was the next big thing.

“He came in here all shy,” Baker said. “ ‘It wasn’t my idea. It really wasn’t, Mr. Baker.’ I said, ‘Who’s idea was it?’

“ ‘Adam Dunn.’ ”

“Dunn came by later. I asked him whose idea it was.

“Jay’s all the way.’”

That’s a solid prank right there. Most players are uneasy seeing publications with their names and mugs on the cover. So to personalize one for your manager? That really has to stink. I feel bad for the kid. Thought not as bad as I felt for Kyle Kendrick. That could go down as possibly the greatest prank ever, probably because it was documented on video. If you still haven’t seen it, you must, just keep reading.

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Dusty Baker’s Hiring a Race Issue for Reds Fans?

Word came out over the weekend that the Reds had hired Dusty Baker as their new manager. Apparently the news was not well-received by fans in Cincinnati. Tom Fornelli over at MLB FanHouse quotes someone from the Dayton Daily News who’s suggesting the negative fan reaction is the result of Baker’s race.

Well, Cincinnati Reds fans wanted a big-name manager and now they have one.

Turns out, plenty of them seem to have wanted a big-name WHITE manager.

Saturday night the Reds signed Dusty Baker to a three-year deal – making him the first black manager in the history of baseball’s oldest franchise – and by Sunday morning the move was being met with some very nasty venom on internet web sites and call-ins to talk radio shows.

I’m guessing there are some fans out there who might be opposed to having a black manager (in addition to having a black head coach in Marvin Lewis), but I’m really thinking that most people are upset because they know Dusty Baker is a poor manager. Really, to know all you need to about Dusty, just look at the biggest game he ever managed — Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. Facing a predominantly left-handed hitting Angels lineup, Baker elected to start Livan Hernandez over southpaw Kirk Rueter, who threw six innings in a Game 4 win, and shut the Angels down coming out of the pen in Game 7 (after the damage had already been done). Oh yeah, let’s not forget that Baker elected to pinch hit Japanese slugger Shinjo over Dunston when the Giants were threatening with two men on in the 9th. Shinjo did what he does best — struck out to put the Angels one out away from the World Series win.

Baker is just a bad decision maker, and that’s why I’d be upset if he were hired to manage my team, and that’s why I’m guessing Reds fans are upset. That, and they were probably hoping for Tony LaRussa. But sure, blame it on race, that’s always good as an attention-grabber.

Nick Lachey Almost Bought the Reds?

About a year ago, man-bander Nick Lachey became an owner of a minor league baseball team called the Tacoma Rainiers. That’s cool to me, because the dude can probably pour a little bit of cash into the organization should the need arise. What I didn’t know however, was that Lachey almost joined the elite company of Marge Schott. In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he says he almost bought the Cincinnati Reds.

How did you get involved with the Tacoma Rainiers?

About two or three years ago, I was involved with a group that was trying to buy the Cincinnati Reds, which is my hometown. And we didn’t get the team, but obviously it kind of sparked that interest in me. The Rainiers were up for sale and… it was a good opportunity.

Hot damn, I’m just glad we didn’t have to find out what the 7th inning stretches would have been like at that ballpark. Who would’ve thrown out the first pitch on Opening Day? Backstreet Boys? O-Town? Good thing we didn’t have to live through that chapter of life. Could you just see Lachey chewing out Edwin Encarnacion after a game? ROTFLMAO!