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2018 NL Central Preview: Cincinnati Reds

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Can a youth movement (and the ageless Joey Votto) help the Reds avoid a fourth straight last place finish in the division?

Cincinnati Reds v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s no secret the Cincinnati Reds have not tried to win for several years. The team gave out mammoth contracts to Joey Votto and Homer Bailey years ago, and while Votto has proved to be worth the money, Bailey broke down almost immediately and the organization was never well-stocked beyond the major league level.

Once the core that took the Reds to 3 posteason appearances in 4 years between 2010 and 2013 got old and the pitching fell apart, Cincinnati was left with little choice but to tear everything down to the studs (and Votto).

What’s followed is three straight seasons of at least 94 losses, and while there’s some glimmer of hope on the horizon for the first time in almost 5 years, a fourth straight 90-loss season still seems like a good possibility.

Additions and Subtractions

The biggest sign the Reds are still a year or two away from even considering being competitive was their lack of any truly significant offseason moves. While plenty of teams sat this winter out, the Reds were the NL Central team that was the most content to basically do nothing.

Their biggest moves of the offseason were signing two middle relievers to extremely modest deals. They scooped up Jared Hughes after he was non-tendered by the Brewers on a 2-year deal for a total of $4.5 million, then signed former Arizona Diamondbacks reliever David Hernandez to a very similar 2-year, $5 million deal. Those were the only major league contracts they drew up this winter.

They did look for value in the minor league contract market, though, signing infielder Cliff Pennington to a minors deal that will pay him $1.5 million if he makes the major league club, which he likely will as the team’s supersub. They also gave minor league deals to veteran pitchers Vance Worley and Oliver Perez and outfielder Ben Revere.

Cincinnati decided not to bring back free agents Drew Storen and Scott Feldman, and lost Zack Cozart to the LA Angels. Oddly, the decided against giving Cozart a qualifying offer despite a career year that saw him hit .297/.385/.548 with 24 home runs and 24 doubles at shortstop. Cozart will play third for the Angels after signing a three-year, $38 million deal.

Infield

The Reds decided to move on from the 32-year-old Cozart and give the shortstop job to Jose Peraza full-time. Hopes were high for Peraza last year after hitting .324/.352/.411 in 72 games as a 22-year-old in 2016, but he struggled mightily during his first full year of action. He hit .259/.297/.324 in 518 plate appearances last year, splitting time between shortstop, second base and the outfield.

A breakout season from Eugenio Suarez also might’ve had something to do with the decision to let Cozart walk. Taking hold of the Reds’ third base job, Suarez raised his OPS by 100 points in 2017, hitting .260/.367/.461 with 26 home runs and 25 doubles, and improving his BB% by more than 5%. All of that was good for a WAR of about 4 when you average the various value measures, good for third on the team behind Votto and Cozart.

Elsewhere on the infield, we’re all aware of what Scooter Gennett did while the Brewers’ second base situation devolved into a garbage fire. At this point looking at his numbers is like scrolling through the Facebook page of an ex who’s doing great and taking care of themselves while you’re sitting on the couch, so let’s just be happy for him and not dwell on things, okay? It’s great he’s doing great. Just great.

But on the topic of numbers, Votto probably should’ve been named the NL MVP last year, but he was hurt by the Reds never really trying to compete last year, while Giancarlo Stanton at least was in the news for the last month of the season as he made a run for 60 home runs. The fact that Votto is six months from 35 and still capable of hitting .320 with a .450 OBP and 30+ home runs is crazy and doesn’t get enough attention.

At catcher, Tucker Barnhart will return to a starting role after winning a gold glove and hitting .270/.347/.403 last year, with former hyped prospect Devin Mesoraco handling backup duties.

Outfield

Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler both posted 30-home run seasons last year, but only hit .249/.301/.480 and .233/.307/.484, respectively. For that reason, prospect Top-100 prospect Jesse Winker (98th according to Baseball America, 82nd according to MLB Pipeline but a borderline Top-50 prospect heading into 2017) could end up stealing playing time, especially after a successful first taste of big league action last year, when he hit .298/.375/.529 with 7 home runs in 137 plate appearances.

Billy Hamilton will again likely handle centerfield duties. Never an offensive threat, he dropped from a career-best .294 wOBA and 79 wRC+ (which isn’t good to begin with) to .278 and 66 last year. Still, he was worth about a win due to his work on the basepaths and defensively. He’s had a rough spring so far and the Reds may finally be giving up on the idea of him hitting leadoff, but he’s still a weapon in the rare occasion he gets on base.

Rotation

It’s a little hard to tell right now if the Reds’ potential starting rotation is bad or just really young. Spring injuries have ruined most people’s guesses as to what the rotation will look like, to the point where Homer Bailey -- who hasn’t posted an ERA below 5 in the past three injury-shortened years and had a 6.43 ERA (4.91 FIP) in 18 starts last year -- may be the favorite to be the Opening Day starter simply out of necessity.

Anthony DeSclafani recently suffered an oblique injury that may put the start of his season in jeopardy after missing all of last year with elbow problems (but avoiding Tommy John surgery). Brandon Finnegan missed most of last year with shoulder problems and recently left a spring start with forearm spasms and tightness, which has been known as a precursor to elbow tendon injuries.

That leaves a lot of question marks, at least to start the year. Behind Bailey, one of the few sure things is that Luis Castillo is going to be in the rotation. In his first taste of big league action last year, Castillo made 15 starts and struck out 98 batters in 89.1 innings, putting up a 3.12 ERA (3.74 FIP) and 141 ERA+ while finishing 8th in the Rookie of the Year voting. It seems likely that Castillo will be the Reds’ best starter this year, and could be considered the team’s #1 starter by the end of the year.

Bullpen

Raisel Iglesias is really, really good, and teams in the NL Central should consider themselves lucky that a team that’s been losing 94 games a year seems content to save him for 9th innings. He made 63 appearances last year and finished the game for the Reds 57 times, but only had 28 saves because, well, the Reds didn’t lead many games heading into the 9th. When he did get in a game, he struck out 92 batters in 76 innings and only walked 27, putting up a FIP of 2.70 and an ERA+ of 177. Whether or not he remains a Red the entire season could be up for debate, since rebuilding teams don’t have a whole lot of use for impact relievers, but he’s under team control until 2022.

As noted above, the team also added Jared Hughes and David Hernandez in an attempt to improve what was one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Iglesias was worth 1.8 fWAR last year, and he kept the entire group from joining the Tigers as the only bullpen in baseball to put up a negative WAR -- even with Iglesias’ total, the Cincinnati relievers combined for just 0.9 fWAR and allowed 332 runs, the second-worst totals in MLB. This year could be different, depending on what the Reds decide to do with young arms like Amir Garrett or Robert Stephenson if they don’t make the starting rotation.

Prospects

The Reds have about 5 Top-100 prospects in their system, and three of them seem likely to make at least some kind of contribution this year, which is a sign that the rebuilding effort might be coming to a head. As mentioned, Winker might be ready to start playing a larger role in the outfield as soon as the start of the year.

The spring injuries in the rotation are opening to the door for right-handed pitcher Tyler Mahle (ranked 90th overall by Baseball America and 84th by MLB Pipeline) to possibly sneak into the back end of the rotation. Mahle put up a 2.06 ERA in 24 starts between Double-A and Triple-A last season, striking out 138 and walking 30 in 144.1 innings. He closed out the year with his first taste of major league experience, making 4 starts and allowing 6 runs in 20 innings for a 2.70 ERA, although he did walk 11 in those outings. Unlike Castillo, he doesn’t have front-end stuff, but could be a solid middle-of-the-rotation option at his peak -- something that’s still very valuable, especially for the pitching-starved Reds.

But the big fish in the Cincinnati system is third baseman Nick Senzel, who comes into the year ranked as the 7th-best prospect in all of baseball by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline. The second overall pick in the 2016 draft has shot through the minor leagues and appears ready to make a contribution at the big league level at some point in 2018, although Suarez’s production and service time shenanigans may keep him in the minors longer than he needs. The University of Tennessee product hit .321/.391/.514 in his first full minor league season last year, including a combined 14 home runs and 40 doubles between High-A and Double-A. He’ll likely start the year in Triple-A, but he seems like a good bet for a mid-season call-up.

Further down in the minors, the Reds also have 2017’s #2 overall pick, pitcher Hunter Greene (29th overall for BA, 17th for MLB Pipeline) and outfielder Taylor Trammell (48th BA, 43rd MLB Pipeline), with MLB ETAs of 2021 and 2020, respectively.

Prediction

The youth movement is starting to make its way to the major leagues, but the Reds still feel more like the 2016 Brewers than the 2017 Brewers. As has been the case for the past few years, they’ll be involved in plenty of high-scoring games -- they’re going to score a ton of runs with their projected lineup, but it will again come down to pitching. Without a clear starting rotation, the additions to the bullpen may not help a ton.

Still, there’s a chance they finish better than last place for the first time since 2014, although that’s as much due to the moves made by Pittsburgh this year than anything. They’re being projected for anywhere between 68 and 75 wins, and the higher end of that feels about right if their young pitchers can put together some success. They won’t contend, but they might just be good enough to be really annoying for the Brewers.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs