Series 7 Preview: Cubs at Reds

Vottoi

The Cubs will keep an eye on slugger Joey Votto. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The division front-runners didn’t rest on their laurels after a 2012 NL Central championship, addressing a perennial weakness at the leadoff spot. They’re the favorites again and currently sit in first place.

GM Walt Jocketty acquired left-handed outfielder Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade that saw the Reds send Drew Stubbs to the Indians and prospect Didi Gregorius to the Diamondbacks. Replacing Stubbs with Choo exchanged defense for offense, and the contrast has been sharp so far. While Choo has made a hash of center field—where he hadn’t played extensively since Single-A ball—he’s hit .382 AVG/.523 OBP/.632 SLG, outpacing perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto in all three categories. Even as those numbers come back to Earth, Choo will provide an above-average walk rate, speed and some power, making him the top-of-the-order weapon the Reds needed.

Votto is, of course, the team’s engine and one of the game’s best players. In five full seasons, he’s never once had a batting average below .297, and he averages 40 doubles and 30 homers every 162 games. But just as valuable is his .419 career on-base percentage, tops among active players. He’s also on a contract that will keep him in Cincinnati through at least 2023. Cubs pitchers will have a hard time getting Votto to fish outside the zone, though he’s done his biggest damage on pitches down lately.

Outside of Choo and second baseman Brandon Phillips, the entire starting lineup is homegrown. Fantastic shortstop Zack Cozart, sophomore third baseman Todd Frazier and promising backstop Devin Mesoraco all were selected in the first two rounds of the 2007 draft. Meanwhile, corner outfielders Jay Bruce and Chris Heisey were drafted in 2006 and 2005, respectively.

The Cubs will face a trio of talented starting pitchers age 25 and younger. Right-hander Mike Leake has struggled with consistency since his promising 2010-11 campaigns, but he has excellent command and can befuddle hitters despite lacking a fastball that gets much out of the 80s. Southpaw Tony Cingrani takes the hill in the middle game after an impressive big league debut. In striking out eight Marlins over five innings, Cingrani showed a deceptive delivery and consistent three-quarters arm slot that played up his low-90s fastball and great change-up combination. He struck out an astounding 34 percent of batters faced in the minors without leveling off in the upper minors. Finally, “veteran” righty Mat Latos closes out the series with some more heat. His 3.48 ERA last year virtually matched his 2011 mark despite moving from spacious PETCO Park to an environment that is much more conducive to offense.

The last thing the Cubs want to do is see triple-digit lefty Aroldis Chapman in the ninth—where it seems he’ll stay after consideration for the rotation—but there’s some softness before that point. Former Cub Sean Marshall is out with shoulder tendinitis and may not be ready to come off the DL when he’s eligible Tuesday. Jonathan Broxton should bring late-inning firepower, but he’s struggled mightily so far. Overall, it’s a bullpen the Cubs will want to get to by the middle innings.


[PROBABLE PITCHERS]

Monday, April 22—LHP Travis Wood (1-1, 1.83) vs. RHP Mike Leake (1-0, 4.26)

Tuesday, April 23—RHP Carlos Villanueva (1-0, 1.29) vs. LHP Tony Cingrani (1-0, 1.80)

Wednesday, April 24—RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-3, 3.38) vs. RHP Mat Latos (0-0, 2.73)

—Sean Ahmed

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