NL Central preview: Billy Hamilton the key for Cincinnati Reds

NL Central preview: Billy Hamilton the key for Cincinnati Reds
March 14, 2014, 3:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

The Cincinnati Reds have built a very good core led by Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, but they lost Shin-Soo Choo and key role players from last year's 90-win team. They had a quiet offseason, opting to fill holes internally instead of spending big money in free agency.

So how long will that window of contention remain open? Do the Reds still have enough to compete with the St. Louis Cardinals and get back to the postseason? Will they miss Dusty Baker’s leadership? Can a first-year manager run the clubhouse and get the most out of his players? 

[NL Central preview: Everyone’s chasing the St. Louis Cardinals]

The Cubs are down, but the Milwaukee Brewers have become a trendy pick and this division produced three playoff teams last season. With Opening Day fast approaching, CSNChicago.com will be previewing the National League Central.

Last season: 90-72, 3rd place NL Central (Lost in NL wild card to Pittsburgh Pirates)
Manager: Bryan Price (First season)
New in 2014: C Brayan Pena, INF/OF Skip Schumaker, INF Ramon Santiago
Gone from 2013: OF Shin-Soo Choo, RHP Bronson Arroyo, LHP Zach Duke, C Ryan Hanigan, INF Cesar Izturis, RHP Nick Masset, OF Xavier Paul, OF Derrick Robinson

X-Factor: Billy Hamilton

Choo cannot be replaced offensively, as the veteran put up a ridiculous .423 OBP from the leadoff spot, scoring 107 runs last season. But assuming Hamilton can hold onto the leadoff spot all season, he will wreak havoc as the fastest man in baseball. His speed will also help him track down fly balls in center field, where Choo was clearly out of position last year. The big question: Will Hamilton get on base enough to take advantage of his wheels?

[RELATED: For the Cubs, it all comes back to the Cardinals]

Magic number: .308

That's Hamilton's on-base percentage in 123 games at Triple-A Louisville last year. That simply won't get it done at the top of the order, especially if Brandon Phillips (.310 OBP in '13) hits second. If Hamilton struggles to get on base, it will be difficult for Votto to increase his output (73 RBI last year).

Farm system rankings: 16 (Baseball Prospectus), 25 (Baseball America), 16 (ESPN.com)

They said it: "How the [expletive] am I declining? I had 100...ribbies [RBI] last year. And I did that with one...hand. And I won a Gold Glove? So how the [expletive] am I declining? Come on, man." - Brandon Phillips ripping the Cincinnati media during an interview with MLB.com.

Outlook: The 2014 Reds will rely on their rotation. Even with Bronson Arroyo gone, the rotation of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani could be the best starting five in the National League. Price made his name a well-regarded pitching coach.

But will they score enough runs?

[RELATED: Cubs prospects adjusting to life in the limelight]

Votto wrongfully came under fire for driving in only 73 runs last season (a year after totaling just 56 RBI in 111 games). But he has become arguably the best offensive first baseman in the game, leading the NL in OBP (.435) for a fourth straight season and walks (135) for the third year in a row. 

With Phillips, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier around him, Votto just needs to keep the same approach and the Reds should have a productive heart of the order. The question, again, remains about Hamilton setting the table at the top of the lineup.