Mar 8, 2014; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price (38) jogs to the dugout against the Chicago Cubs at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Season Preview: Cincinnati Reds

Last year, the Cincinnati Reds finished 90-72, which was good enough for just third in the loaded National League Central that accounted for over half of the National League’s playoff clubs – including both Wild Card teams. In a one-game playoff, the club fell short to division rival Pittsburgh, leading to the firing of longtime skipper Dusty Baker during the offseason. Apart from Baker, the club remained virtually 100 percent intact and will head into 2014 looking almost identical to last year’s team. Jay Bruce emerged as one of the most potent outfield bats in the league, hitting .262 and notching 30 home runs and 109 RBIs – both of which were team-highs. The pitching staff – which is arguably one of the most underrated in all of baseball – continued its development behind ace Homer Bailey, and should head into 2014 as one of the team’s biggest strengths under first-year manager Bryan Price.

Major Additions None. Yes, you read that right. The Cincinnati front office appears to place the blame for the club’s shortcomings squarely at the feet of former manager Dusty Baker. Despite losing major pieces this offseason (which we will discuss in just a moment), no moves were made. Instead, the team will rely on its own unproven talent to fill those voids moving forward, including the likes of Tony Cingrani and Billy Hamilton.

Major Departures The Reds lost three fairly significant pieces this offseason. The first, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, was simply out of this team’s price range. Or at least that’s the logic most have tacked to the club’s decision to not fervently pursue Choo as a free agent this winter. The Korean native signed a seven-year, $130 million deal with the Texas Rangers this winter, filling the void of the departed Nelson Cruz, taking his on-base skills south for 2014 and beyond.

The second, in my opinion, will be the most sorely missed – especially if Cingrani doesn’t remain consistent over the course of his first full big league season. Veteran right-hander Bronson Arroyo, who signed with Arizona, takes his uncanny consistency and durability to the National League West, leaving the Reds’ pitching staff with 200 innings and a dozen or so wins to replace moving forward.

One of the most overlooked moves made by this club this offseason was the three-team trade that sent catcher Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay. Hanigan is one of the most well-rounded game-callers in the sport today and Cincinnati sold low on him this winter, leaving the club moving forward with Devin Mesoraco, who will be lucky to hit his weight in 2014.

Payroll The club enters 2014 with just over $102 million in payroll obligations, including long-term obligations to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey – who was arguably the biggest signing of the Reds’ offseason. With this payroll, owner Robert Castellini will look to retake the National League Central in 2014, while also looking to sign some of the club’s young starting rotation to long-term deals in the coming year.

Player to Watch The fate of this team rests with the right shoulder of starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, who missed most of last season with arm troubles. If he can bounce back to his Cy Young-caliber form of 2012, when he went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 33 starts, then this Reds rotation will be a load come October. That being said, if he doesn’t stay healthy or fails to regain his former dominance, then it leaves a massive void in the Cincinnati rotation and could lead to the Reds missing the postseason for just the second time in the last five years.

X-Factor The deadly heart of the order Price has at his disposal is one of the best in all of baseball. Joey Votto is perennially viewed as one of – if not – the best first basemen in the National League. Last season, he drove in just 73 runs, but did hit 24 home runs and 30 doubles. Brandon Phillips picked up the RBI slack, driving in a career-high 103 runs in 2013, but hitting just .261 in 151 games for Cincinnati. As mentioned, Bruce put up monster numbers – albeit relatively quietly – and will be a major asset in the lineup, providing protection for the duo of Phillips and Votto. If this core can stay healthy and find their respective grooves in 2014, this could be the best three-hitter-combo in all of Major League Baseball.

Player Likely to Regress

Tony Cingrani pitched extremely well for Cincinnati last season, going 7-4 with a 2.92 ERA in 23 appearances – 18 of which were starts. Heading into his first full Major League season, the young pitcher faces an entirely different animal. Hitters will have seen his repertoire before and he will have to learn to avoid the potential pitfalls of an entire big league season.

That’s not to say that he’ll be terrible. But pitching to the tune of a sub-3.00 ERA seems unlikely. More realistic expectations for the southpaw would be a 12-8 mark with a 3.50 ERA – essentially what the team lost in Arroyo. But Cingrani’s season could fall either way. Only time will tell for certain.

Major Point/Question Heading into 2014?

Was Dusty Baker really part of the problem in Cincinnati? Could the installment of former pitching coach Bryan Price as the club’s manager breathe new life into a relatively young roster loaded on both sides of the ball with talent?

Most importantly, can the Reds pitching staff maintain its solid reputation while the big bats continue to rake? Experts either love this team or hate them – especially with the lack of offseason action on behalf of the front office. This is a big year for the franchise. A failure to reach the postseason could mean major changes in 2015 for the Reds.

Tags: Cincinnati Reds NL Central

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