“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
— The Who, 1971
The 2018 edition of the Cincinnati Reds look a lot like the 2017 vintage. The same holes, the same questions that need to be answered, but with maybe a little less pessimism and a little more positivity coming towards them. As teams that go through these multi-year rebuild projects know, the natives start getting restless at some point. In Cincinnati there’s nothing but negativity coming from the fan base, as year 4 of this process is getting ready to commence. And, while the hardcore baseball community knows that this is a thing that needed to happen because it’s just how the business of the sport is conducted today, you cannot blame the fans, for as The Who once said, they won’t get fooled again.
Any question of the Cincinnati Reds is going to start with the pitching staff. And finally, hey, there’s a bright spot. As Luis Castillo made his major league debut on June 23 and immediately got the hype machine rolling. It’s probably not wise to count on a 25-year-old to be your ace, as the Mets would probably attest, but he’s undisputably the guy. Bryan Price has already penciled in 4 of the 5 starters, those being Castillo, Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, and Brandon Finnegan. Each of them has question marks of their own, health-related mostly, performance-related in Bailey’s case.
DeSclafani has been good when he’s pitched. But, he’s rarely pitched the past 2 seasons, and not at all in 2017. Apparently, as of right now, he’s good to go, but we know that can sometimes be fleeting. In the 2 years he’s pitched for Cincinnati, he’s thrown 308 above-average innings (108 ERA+), and the peripherals and fielding independent statistics are pretty much in agreement with that. If healthy, and it’s a big IF, DeSclafani is a solid middle of the rotation pitcher.
Homer Bailey is also allegedly healthy, and he did at least pitch towards the end of the previous campaign, but the question remains if he actually has anything left in the tank. A 6.43 ERA in 18 starts would suggest that maybe he doesn’t, or he was just working off rust, or any kind of excuse you can think of. None of that will matter if he’s terrible again. There were signs down the stretch that he wouldn’t be totally useless going forward, however. In his last 7 starts, he had an ERA of 3.58 with a FIP of 3.74, which is of course a short sample, but it does show the ability to still be able to pitch in the major leagues, and fairly well, if only for a short time. Eno Sarris was high on Brandon Finnegan in the past couple of years. Then he got hurt. Then he fell off a boat (?!) and got hurt again, and now instead of the “guy who Eno likes to write about,” he’s “that guy who fell off a damn boat.” For the Reds to be good in 2018, he needs to be a guy who pitches well.
Candidates for the fifth starter position are Sal Romano, Robert Stephenson, Tyler Mahle, Michael Lorenzen, and Amir Garrett. Romano, Stephenson, and Mahle likely have the best chances to win the job. Lorenzen is getting the opportunity to win the spot in spring, but it’s likely that he will wind up back in his old setup role. Romano pitched really well last spring training and almost won a rotation spot out of camp. Romano later made his debut in the majors and made 16 starts, struggling at first, but did have an ERA of 3.17 in his last 8 starts. Robert Stephenson was impressive on the surface after joining the rotation in July after a horrible stint in the bullpen to begin the year and a demotion to the minors, but a 3.30 ERA doesn’t look quite as good when you walk 14% of the batters you face. (5.5 BB/9 if you prefer it to be framed that way.) If he stops walking people he could be an ace–the stuff is that good–but walks could doom him to journeyman status if he’s not careful. High ceiling, but a pretty low floor for such a high ceiling.
Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo were both on the same Pensacola team until Castillo was called up, and Mahle was actually better at that level than Castillo was. Mahle was probably the best pitcher in the Southern League last year while he was there, if you judge strictly on performance, even without the prospect pedigree of some of the other guys in that league at the time. He was later called up to AAA and acquainted himself quite well there as well before making his major league debut in August and making 4 starts. While they were also good, he walked way more batters than he did in the minors. But it’s only 4 starts, and 22-year-old pitchers walk batters. Mahle did exhibit good control all throughout the minors, at every single level, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he breaks out this upcoming season.
Moving on to the bullpen, the one thing we know is that Raisel Iglesias will be the closer, unless he is traded, as rumors persisted during the offseason. Iglesias was, while not a super-elite reliever in the Kenley Jansen/Felipe Rivero/Andrew Miller/Craig Kimbrel mold, he was solidly in the tier below those guys. He was arguably better than a lot of players that are considered superior, Aroldis Chapman and Cody Allen notably. David Hernandez was the Reds’ only semi-major free agent add, and he’s solid, if not spectacular. Michael Lorenzen wasn’t as good in 2017 as in 2016, but that could be the FIP monster coming, because even in 2016 he overperformed his FIP by quite a bit, so 2017 may be the normal Lorenzen, but for a third or fourth guy in the pen he’s not bad at all. There’s still a chance he could wind up starting, but it’s more likely he’ll slot in here.
After that things get a bit fuzzy with Wandy Peralta, Cody Reed, Jared Hughes, Ariel Hernandez, Kevin Shackelford, Kyle Crockett, and a cast of thousands competing to fill out the bullpen. Hughes is interesting because of a high ground ball rate, which is important in Great American Ball Park, with only 6 qualified relievers in 2017 posting a higher rate of grounders than his 62.2%, which is right in line with the rest of his career. Reed is also interesting, given his status as a flamed out starter now being given a bullpen opportunity, but the plan is for him to start in AAA if he doesn’t break camp with the squad.
Offensively, this wasn’t a bad team in 2017, finishing 6th in the NL in OPS+ and outperforming two NL playoff teams (Arizona and Colorado), so even with the loss of Zack Cozart to free agency, this is an offense that can compete. And of course, the place to start is Joey Votto. A lot has been written about Votto. Everyone knows he’s amazing. Even the somewhat overblown meme about how everyone loves Votto except for Reds fans and Cincinnati media has quieted down after these last two monster seasons. According to PECOTA’s long-term projections, which should admittedly be taken with a grain of salt, Votto would be over 80 WARP by the end of his contract, which almost has to make him a Hall of Famer.
Eugenio Suarez had a bit of a breakout in 2017, putting up a 117 wRC+ and improved defense, leading to a 4.1 fWAR. The breakout of Suarez somewhat blocks top prospect Nick Senzel, who is almost definitely getting called up at some point in the season. Senzel is even working at shortstop in the spring, which has almost no downside. If he can handle short semi-competently it’s worth it, if the bat is as advertised. If the shortstop experiment doesn’t work out then he’ll probably wind up being a bit of a Ben Zobrist starter kit, playing a little second, third, and both corner outfield spots, but they are going to get him in the lineup somehow.
There’s basically four outfielders for three spots here, and as of right now the plan is to rotate them in and out a bit so they all get time. Billy Hamilton is fast. He still can’t hit. In his 4 full seasons he’s put up nearly 10 fWAR, and that’s without hitting a lick, so he still has value, but he’s not going to be that superstar he could have wound up being. Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler are power-first guys in an era where everyone is popping home runs, and a Duvall/Schebler platoon would probably be the best option here, allowing Jesse Winker to play every day, but it doesn’t look like that’s in the cards, at least not at this time.
Speaking of Winker, the FanGraphs depth chart projections (that consist of a 50/50 mix of Steamer and ZiPS) have Winker as the Reds’ third best hitter already, with only Votto having a higher OBP. Winker never exhibited a whole lot of power in the minor leagues, but since the ball might just be juiced that might not matter. Winker did hit 7 home runs in 137 MLB plate appearances and slugged .529 after only hitting 2 home runs and slugging .408 in 347 plate appearances in AAA, so that’s weird, except for, you know, the ball is juiced. Either way he’s been a good on-base guy his entire career and that’s something the Reds haven’t had other than Votto in several years. He should probably be hitting leadoff every day, honestly.
Tucker Barnhart has become a decent hitter for his position, and led all catchers in runs saved by throwing (according to Baseball Prospectus’ catching numbers) in 2017. He’s a below-average framer, but is great defensively in every other way so you can overlook that a bit. Scooter Gennett had a bit of a dream season in 2017, and it’s highly unlikely he replicates that, but even a drop off from that would still make him a decent hitter. The problem is, he’s just not very good defensively, and with Senzel needing a spot to play, he could find himself riding some pine if he gets off to a slow start, because if he’s not hitting there’s no reason to have him out there.
The bottom line is, this team is going to go as far as the pitching takes them, and last season that wasn’t far. This team still seems to be another year or two from being a serious contender, but there’s 2017 Twins upside here if everything breaks just right. Chances are, however, that everything doesn’t break just right, because it almost never does. Can you squint and say, if this happens, and this happens, and this happens, the Reds could sneak into a wild card spot? Absolutely. But is it likely? Nah.
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