If it seems like the Cincinnati Reds are nothing but Joey Votto and a bunch of random men in funny outfits, you’re not alone. After watching teammate after teammate from the 2013 NL Central champs be traded away, Votto himself has wondered when the help will arrive. He has continued to soldier on amid the rubble around him, and put up another ho-hum seven-win season in 2017. His league-leading .454 on-base percentage and 168 OPS+ were very impressive, but then you remember he topped both of those figures just two years ago.
While their record doesn’t show it, that help might finally be on the way. The Reds received breakout performances from infielder Scooter Gennett and old friend Eugenio Suarez at the plate last year, the latter of whom has 47 home runs over the past two seasons (yes, the knife twist was intentional). Combined with Votto and the now-departed Zack Cozart, Gennett and Suarez helped the Reds put together a solid offense that ranked around league average in most statistical categories.
The pitching staff as a whole was awful again — we’re talking “worse than the Tigers” here — but the Reds saw positive signs from the right guys. Flamethrower Luis Castillo burst onto the scene, and looks like a true ace in the making. Raisel Iglesias continued to be the most underrated closer in the game. Unheralded righties Tyler Mahle and Sal Romano opened some eyes, and post-hype prospect Robert Stephenson finally found his strikeout touch (let’s ignore the walk rate for now).
Is this enough to get them over the hump? That’s the multi-million dollar question. In particular, it’s worth wondering how many millions it will take for the Reds to catch up with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals when it’s time to compete again. Barring a last minute surprise, Cincinnati will open 2018 with a $96 million payroll, roughly $20 million shy of a team record payroll set back in 2015. While some of that will be coming off the books soon — Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco are taking up about one-third of that on their own — being at such a financial disadvantage puts pressure on Cincinnati to do everything else right. Even if top prospects Nick Senzel and Hunter Greene pan out, the Reds will have to find a way to spend efficiently to help shore up any other holes and supplement the few emerging youngers they already have.
That subplot should make for a fascinating offseason next winter. This year? Yeah, it probably won’t be too much fun.
Team at a Glance
2017 record: 68-94 | 2017 pythag: 70-92 | 2018 farm system rank: 9
Manager: Bryan Price (5th year)
SB Nation site: Red Reporter
Key additions: RHP David Hernandez, RHP Jared Hughes
Key departures: SS Zack Cozart, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Drew Storen
The Reds’ lineup continues to revolve around Joey Votto, who is a superlative hitter showing no signs of slowing down. Votto hit .320/.454/.578 last year and finished second in the National League MVP voting. It was the sixth time in eight years he has led the NL in on-base percentage, and the eighth time in nine years he has maintained a 155 OPS+ or better. Miguel Cabrera -- Miguel Cabrera! -- only has seven such seasons in his career. On the infield, Votto is flanked by second baseman Scooter Gennett, who became the poster child of the Juiced Ball ERA when he hit 27 home runs and posted an .874 OPS last season. Gennett’s fame came in one game: a June 6 tilt against the Cardinals in which he became the 17th player in MLB history to hit four homers in a game. He would have been a wonderful case study for ESPN’s Hit Tracker (R.I.P.), but we’re not allowed to have nice things. Instead, we get to see him regress and lose his job to Jose Peraza when Nick Senzel comes up.
Speaking of Peraza, the young Venezuelan will move into full-time duty at shortstop following the departure of Zack Cozart this winter. Peraza was the jewel of that wacky three-team trade for Todd Frazier a couple years back, but things haven’t quite panned out yet. Peraza hit well in his debut season with the Reds, but poor defense around the diamond negated nearly all his value. His bat regressed with more at-bats in 2017, and he finished with an on-base percentage of .297. The Reds are hoping that handing him a starting job on day one will boost his confidence, but that only goes so far with a limited offensive profile. Breakouts are possible, though, and we saw one out of third baseman Eugenio Suarez (sigh) in 2017. He hit .260/.367/.461 with 26 home runs and played great defense, resulting in 4.1 fWAR. While there are some concerns about his splits — 21 of his 26 homers came at Cincinnati’s hitter-friendly home park — there are real signs of improvement here. Suarez has more than tripled his walk rate over the past two years, and has improved to a plus defender at third base. Not that the Tigers could use one of those right now...
Outfield prospect Jesse Winker had a strong rookie season in 2017, hitting .298/.375/.529 with seven homers in 47 games. He momentarily allayed concerns about his power, and his excellent plate discipline didn’t wane once he reached the bigs. Winker is the worst defender of Cincinnati’s four-man outfield rotation, but his bat (and overall potential) should get him the lion’s share of playing time in one corner. He will cut into the at-bats Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall received last year, even though both hit 30-plus homers. Neither Schebler nor Duvall showed much plate discipline, though, and finished with OPS+ figures around league average. In terms of playing time, Duvall’s floor is a little higher, since he is the only righty in the mix. Schebler can hack it in center field, though, and could slide there if Billy Hamilton’s bat falls off any more. The speedster only posted a .299 on-base percentage, but still swiped 59 bases and stayed above replacement level thanks to his elite defense.
Like Hamilton, catcher Tucker Barnhart is mainly in the lineup for his defense. He won his first Gold Glove in 2017 after throwing out a league-high 44 percent of basestealers. Baseball Prospectus graded him as a slight negative as a pitch framer, however, and wasn’t quite as impressed with his work behind the plate — though he was worth 4.6 runs (nearly half a win) on his arm alone, according to their metrics. At the plate, Barnhart has a decent eye that will help him maintain a passable floor as a hitter. Backup Devin Mesoraco’s floor as a hitter is about as high as Barnhart’s ceiling, but Mesoraco’s glove leaves something to be desired. He also hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and has played just 95 games in the past three seasons.
Righthander Homer Bailey might be the presumptive ace of this Reds pitching staff, but most fans are simply counting down the days until his contract expires in 2019. Bailey has produced a 4.95 ERA and exactly 0.0 rWAR in his first four years of that ill-fated $100 million deal. Injuries have caused him to miss most of the past three seasons, though he was finally healthy enough to log 91 innings last year. The Reds were initially hoping for a bit of surplus value when they inked Bailey to that extension back in 2014, but they would probably just settle for 30-odd starts to help ease strain on the rest of the staff. The actual ace of the staff might be young righthander Luis Castillo, who blazed onto the scene with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball last year. Castillo struck out 98 hitters in 89 ⅓ impressive innings and led the Reds staff with 2.5 rWAR. Projection systems call for some regression, but he is already adding pitches to his repertoire and could become, as the scouts say, a “motherf-er.”
Anthony DeSclafani was supposed to start for the Reds on Opening Day in both 2016 and 2017, but missed those starts due to injuries. While he logged 123 ⅓ major league innings in ‘16, he missed all of last season due to an elbow injury that, surprisingly, did not require Tommy John surgery. Now healthy, “Disco” is hoping to return to the mid-rotation form that he displayed in 2015 and 2016, when he posted a 3.74 ERA and 3.78 FIP in 380 innings. He may also eventually serve as a mentor for younger starters like lefthander Brandon Finnegan, who hasn’t yet found his footing since arriving from Kansas City in 2015. The 24-year-old southpaw looked like a breakout candidate last year after a dynamite second half in 2016 — he put up a 2.93 ERA while striking out over a batter per inning — but a shoulder injury limited him to just four starts. He had offseason surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder, but has already faced live hitters this spring and should be good for Opening Day, barring any setbacks.
The battle for Cincinnati’s fifth starter spot might be one of the most under-the-radar position battles around baseball this spring. Former top prospect Robert Stephenson appears to be the frontrunner for the job due to his pedigree and a strong finish to the 2017 season. He discovered a lethal slider at one point, and it helped him post a 3.30 ERA with a strong strikeout rate in the second half. His command is still a concern, but he has the highest upside of anyone in this rotation, aside from maybe Castillo. Righthanders Tyler Mahle (23) and Sal Romano (24) are young players who showed glimpses of promise last season. Mahle has an above-average fastball-slider combination that he used to hold opponents to a 2.70 ERA in four starts down the stretch last year. While he walked quite a few batters in that small sample, he actually projects to have plus command — which he will need, since he doesn’t strike many batters out. Romano sports a double-plus fastball that averaged 96 miles per hour last year, but he too doesn’t project to create many whiffs. His secondary pitches still need refinement, and he doesn’t have the command Mahle does. Both look like back-end starters in the future, but will probably start out in the bullpen or Triple-A Louisville.
Righthander Michael Lorenzen and lefty Amir Garrett are also in competition for that final rotation spot, but are starting a step or two behind the three names listed above. Lorenzen has shown promise as a setup man in Cincinnati’s bullpen, though his overall numbers weren’t too pretty last year. The Reds will likely pencil him into the back-end of their ‘pen — though not a strict eighth inning role due to Brian Price’s creative bullpen manager — with closer Raisel Iglesias pumping high-90s heat behind him. Another failed(ish) starter, Iglesias has been electric out of the bullpen throughout his brief major league career. He has a 2.44 ERA as a reliever in 97 career appearances, and posted a 30.1 percent strikeout rate in 87 innings last year. Newcomers Jared Hughes and David Hernandez will be counted upon to bolster a middle relief corps that was one of the worst in baseball last season. Garrett, meanwhile, will probably start the season in the minors.
Down on the farm
The Reds boast one of the deeper groups of prospects around the game, highlighted by some very interesting top-end talent. Third baseman Nick Senzel is a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball after a monster season in 2017, half of which was spent in Double-A. He put up a .973 OPS in 57 games at Double-A Pensacola. Barring injury, he will almost certainly make his major league debut this season. Flamethrowing righthander Hunter Greene is quite a bit further off, but was arguably the most talented player in last year’s MLB draft. Cincinnati has already slotted him in as a pitcher after some talk he could play both ways. He has the raw stuff to be a truce ace. Outfielders Taylor Trammell and Jose Siri are also on the rise after strong 2017 seasons. Trammell hit for power and stole 41 bases in the Midwest League last year, but ceded crucial developmental time in center field to Siri, who is the better defender. Siri hit for even more power (24 dingers!) while also stealing 40-plus bags in Single-A ball last year. There are some concerns of how he’ll fare against more advanced pitching, though. They also have guys named Shed and Jeter, which is fun.
Player to watch: RHP Robert Stephenson
Stephenson has been one of the top prospects in all of baseball since the moment he was drafted in 2011. Scouts knew about his velocity, but were also impressed with his secondary pitches and projected him to have above-average control. Almost seven years later, two of those three things are still true. Stephenson reached back for 99 miles per hour at one point last year, and his slider was one of the best pitches in all of baseball. He also has a plus changeup. However, his control has been a major hindrance. Starting in 2014, Stephenson started walking nearly five batters per nine innings, and hasn’t really found the strike zone since then. Scouts still hoped he would work out the kinks over the next couple years, but he ultimately dropped off most top prospect lists after a rough 2016 season despite making his major league debut.
While his overall numbers in 84 ⅔ major league innings last season weren’t great, he picked up the aforementioned slider and looked the part of a top-of-the-rotation arm down the stretch. In his final eight starts, he posted a 2.74 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 42 ⅔ innings. Sure, he still walked a bunch of guys, opponents had a much tougher time squaring him up — he allowed just 0.75 home runs per nine innings in the second half. If he can maintain this production and start to spot his fastball too? Look out.
If we’re going to compare other rebuilding teams to the Tigers, think of the Reds as a mirror opposite to Detroit. They already have a useful offense in place, and it will only get better as Winker and Nick Senzel find their footing in the major leagues. Even their lower minor league rosters are loaded with positional talent, but a bit lacking on the pitching side. Teams can make this work — their NL Central rival Cubs sure did — but Cincinnati’s floor is much, much lower on this front. The ballpark doesn’t help either.
The Reds probably won’t be very good again in 2018, but hoping for general improvement isn’t enough. As Votto not-so-subtly hinted to reporters at the start of spring training, it’s time for them to start making a bit of noise on the scoreboard. Improvements should now be measured in wins and losses, as well as stronger statistical seasons from some of their young talent, the pitchers especially. If Castillo and Stephenson can make strides while the back of the rotation holds up, we could maybe be talking about the Reds as a sleeper playoff contender in 2019.
But not this year.