I doubt that I am in the minority in holding this opinion, but it was incredibly refreshing to see a new crop of teams in the MLB playoffs in 2010, especially longtime doormat Cincinnati. They had been a very poorly performing team for quite some time, but slowly they started getting the chips in place, and they aren't done yet. This team may have been blown out of the water by the Phillies in the NLDS, but as the Reds have a bevvy of young talent on their roster, this is not the last we will have heard of them.
Joey Votto, First Base
In case you haven't heard his name yet (although if you hadn't then you probably wouldn't be reading this article), stud first baseman Joey Votto, who ran away with the National League MVP Award last season, is now in the elite class of first basement with Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrian Gonzalez. Votto, 27 this year, finished his fourth full season in the league with a .324 average, 1.o24 OPS, 37 home runs, and 113; he was surely the biggest, but not the only reason why the Reds got back to the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
Did I mention that monster year was just his fourth season? Votto improved his numbers in the batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage departments for the past three seasons, while posting home run/RBI totals of 24/84 in 2008, 25/84 in 2009, and finally 37/113 last year, also adding 91 walks and 16 stolen bases. Although his 2010 totals made a huge jump, Votto remains a stud with potential for further improvement.
Brandon Phillips, Second Base
Ever since arriving in Cincinnati via trade from Cleveland, Phillips has been given a chance to play-- and he's delivered a huge return on the Reds' investment. Phillips has averaged 151 games, a .275/.326/.447 line, 21 home runs, 81 RBI, and 24 steals in five seasons, and although he doesn't draw too many walks, he also doesn't strike out a lot, either. The 29 year old's speed and power have dropped off a bit from his 30-home run, 32-stolen base season in 2007, but Phillips remains one of the more productive, dependable options at second base in your fantasy baseball league this year.
Drew Stubbs, Outfield
In 2010, just three players reached the 20-home run, 30-steal plateau: Alex Rios, Hanley Ramirez, and Drew Stubbs. You may not have heard of Stubbs, a 26-year old who enters his third year in the majors in 2011, and sadly you may not be alone. Still, Stubbs it is imperative to keep an eye on Stubbs in your fantasy baseball draft, as he is not an overly hyped player yet he is one of the few out there who can give you 20-homer, 30-steal production.
Stubbs hit .255 in 2010, with 22 home runs, 77 RBI, 30 steals, 6 triples, and 91 runs. This being Stubbs' first full year of action with the Reds, there is definitely room for more growth, so don't be surprised if Stubbs is involved in the conversation for the biggest breakout of this baseball season.
Johnny Cueto, Starting Pitcher
Cueto's young career as a whole so far may not live up to the excitement of his 7 inning, 1-hit, 10-strikeout major league debut in 2008, but the 24-year old righty who owns a career 32-32 record and 4.27 ERA, has been showing signs of improvement, culminating in a 12-7 record, 3.64 ERA, and 138-56 K-BB ratio in 185 innings. The highly touted young prospect has been getting better a little bit at a time, but he has one to improve on one thing before becoming a true fantasy stud: his home/road splits. Despite Great American Ballpark being a notorious hitter's ballpark, Cueto made himself right at home with a 3.20 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 7.1 K/9 in 15 starts. On the road, Cueto sported an uninspiring 4.10 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 6.3 K/9, not terrible numbers, but not nearly on the same level as the young pitcher performed at home.
Regardless of that big split in Cueto's numbers, it doesn't change the fact that he is the most serviceable and has the highest upside out of all his rotation-mates. Bronson Arroyo may have just had a career year, Mike Leake has a lot of upside and did a heck of a job as a rookie last year but needs to show that he can go a full year without fading down the stretch, and Edinson Volquez is coming off of Tommy John surgery. Because he is still young and has tremendous upside, it is likely that Cueto will make leaps and bounds in his development, not just this year, but in the next few coming seasons. Reeling him from your fantasy baseball draft is definitely worth it.
Jay Bruce, Outfield
Once a very hyped prospect, Bruce finally had the long-awaited breakout year in 2010, batting .281/.353/.493, with 25 home runs, 70 RBI, and an .846 OPS. Bruce, 23, has gotten a little bit better in each of his three years in the Majors, and given his high talent ceiling, there is no reason not to believe that he won't continue to improve this year.
He's always been able to hit for power, given his three consecutive years of 20+ home runs, but where Bruce really impressed in 2010 were his improvements in batting and getting on base. Bruce drew 58 walks last year, not much but a big improvement over the 38 he took in 2009, and he also showed that he can perform as a pure hitter, not just a slugger. Bruce batted .240 over his first two seasons before improving to .281 last year, and assuming he can keep that up or even get better, while improving further in his ability to draw walks, it should only help raise his OBP to elite territory, essentially making him a high-average, high-OBP, high-20's home run hitter who can score and create plenty of runs. Along with Votto and possibly prospect Yonder Alonso, Bruce will be a cornerstone in a great lineup for years to come.
Bounce-back candidate: Edinson Volquez
Volquez was filthy in 2008, pitching to a 17-6 record, 3.21 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 206 strikeouts. His 14 hit batters and 93 walks show that he got wild at times, but for the most part he didn't struggle to get outs and simply dominated the opposition. He never really had a chance to get going in 2009, and when it appeared he was just beginning to heat up, he was shut down with Tommy John surgery. Since his breakout 2008 season he's struggled to an 8-5 record and 4.33 ERA over 112 injury-plagued innings. Last year he pitched very well, especially considering the major reconstructive surgery he was coming back from. Francisco Liriano has shown us before that the road back from TJ can be a roller coaster with plenty of ups and downs, and this shone through a bit in Volquez' year in 2010 and should continue to do so into part of 2011.
Still, Volquez has a ton of talent, and now almost two years removed from Tommy John, is reaching that point where pitchers either return to their dominant form or show that they are permanently wrecked goods. Whichever Volquez is we may find out this year, but if you own him in your fantasy baseball league remember to keep him on a loose leash; be patient.
Keep an eye on: Aroldis Chapman
Chapman, a highly touted international prospect from Cuba who can routinely touch triple-digits on the radar gun, absolutely needs to be monitored this year. While reports have said that Chapman will stay in Cincinnati's bullpen this season, he is viewed as a closer in the long run, although given his sheer dominance on the hill it's not out of the question to imagine him closing games if the Reds were to lose or trade Francisco Cordero, an expensive, inconsistent veteran.
Chapman, 22, pitched to a 3.57 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in AAA last year mostly as a starter, before getting called up to the big club, for which he pitched 13 innings. In 15 relief appearances, Chapman allowed 9 hits and 3 earned runs while punching out 19, so he looks like the real deal no matter what role he's in.
Despite his prospect status and Stephen Strasburg-like ability, Chapman's value is directly tied to his role with the Reds, which is why it is imperative to keep an eye on him. If Chapman gets a spot in the rotation, his value would skyrocket, although as a relief pitcher his value is exclusively tied to his upside and the fact that he is believed to have a future in the starting rotation, and in your fantasy baseball draft or in a trade he will come at a much lower premium than if he actually had a rotation spot waiting for him in 2011.