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2021 NL Central Preview: Cincinnati Reds

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Unlikely contender in the division race could surprise

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Cincinnati Reds Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason Cincinnati Reds of 2020, the Reds that signed Mike Moustakas on the heels of two successful Brewers seasons, the Reds that signed Shogo Akiyama, and Nick Castellanos a month later, were not the offseason Reds of 2021. The offseason Reds of 2021 did very little aside from picking up 34-year-old reliever Sean Doolittle.

The 2020 Reds disappointed, with down seasons from all three of their significant offseason acquisitions and a slumping Joey Votto. However, the team surged at the end of the season, going 16-8 to claim a Wild Card playoff spot. As a sub-.500 team, they were soundly eliminated in the NL wild card series in 18 scoreless innings against Atlanta, a contender on an entirely different level than the expanded playoff Reds. The Reds have not scored a run in the playoffs in 7 seasons.

Most projections put the Reds on the low-end of a four-team division race, which makes every bit of sense. While the 2020 Reds disappointed, however, the 2021 Reds could surprise. Shogo Akiyama and Nick Castellanos are likely to have bounce back years in 2021. The Reds still have an impressive starting rotation, no shortage of bullpen pieces, and like many teams, their 2021 offense is likely to improve from 2020.

The subtraction of Trevor Bauer is more likely to be seen than felt in the Reds’ starting rotation. Bauer has somehow blustered his way to a name for himself and an astronomical payday on one entire sub-4.00 ERA season and being a high-profile terrible person. It’s hard to fault the Reds for making no moves to keep the incumbent Cy Young winner whose 2021 value is far too inflated off of an 11-appearance 2020 to be a reasonable acquisition for any team not named the Dodgers.

The 2021 Reds boast a top three-rotation in Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Tyler Mahle. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Reds’ top three of the rotation projects will be the best in the NL Central. Still, other sources will give the edge to the Brewers, especially when considering the rotation’s entirety. The Brewers rotation appears more stable than that of the Reds, but profiles similar to the Brewers in several ways. The Reds have the one-two punch of Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, while the Brewers have Woodruff and Burnes. The Reds have breakout candidates Tyler Mahle and Tejay Antone, while the Brewers have Adrian House and Freddy Peralta. In the middle of the rotation, both teams have a veteran who will range from reliable to completely derailed by injury. On the periphery are several pitchers who could move between the bullpen and a starter role.

The Reds lost important bullpen pieces in Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley in the offseason. They still have effective game enders, including Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims, two presently dominant relievers. Veteran reliever Sean Doolittle had an all-star season as recently as 2018 and played a critical role in the National’s 2019 World Series victory but struggled mightily from injuries in 2020. His struggles appeared to continued into the beginning of Spring Training with the Reds, but he’s put together solid appearances of late. For the Reds, Doolittle will likely be a late-inning reliever with a veteran bullpen presence. He could also recuperate enough to resemble his recent seasons as a dominant closer, which would make the final innings of virtually any game hard on opposing offenses.

The 2021 Reds are notable for their lack of a shortstop and their inability to acquire one in the offseason. Instead, they have Kyle Farmer, a swiss-army knife of a defender who, at 30, has played nearly every position across four major league seasons and 18 games. Farmer’s value is concentrated in his versatility. He has a career 74 wRC+ and can also fill in as a backup catcher. Farmer, as a utility player, is a valuable piece. As the only shortstop in the Reds’ depth chart, he’s a signal to fans that the team isn’t trying to compete in a competitive division.

Obviously, the Reds need to do more on offense than they did in 2020, and it’s reasonable to expect them to do that. Last year’s Reds hit .212 on the season in 2020. Most of their key offseason acquisitions slumped in 2020. Mike Moustakas had a roughly average season with the Reds despite two stints on the IL. A healthy, 162-game season means Moose is likely to improve, but even if he puts up another average year again, he’s a valuable piece for the Reds.

Joey Votto’s .226/.356/.446 slash line was among the worst of his career, but it featured a distinct split between before and after August 25. After an 0-19 streak, Votto was lugging around a .647 OPS. He boasted a .941 OPS from the final days of August through the end of the season. Votto is undeniably declining, but it’s not a stretch that he improves between 2020 and 2021.

Shogo Akiyama got on base often enough in the Reds’ leadoff spot in 2020, but otherwise disappointed, slashing 245/.357/.297. 2020 was his first year in MLB, and Akiyama was the first Japanese player in Reds’ history (yes, in 2020). These are reasons enough that Akiyama would have a down year, and a shortened season likely exacerbated these pressures, it’s reasonable to expect an offensive improvement from Akiyama, who was an all-star his last five seasons with Nippon Professional Baseball. He’ll start the season on the IL with a nothing-serious hamstring injury.

Nick Castellanos was probably the biggest disappointment for the Reds in 2020. After signing a four-year, $64 million contract, he slashed .225/.298/.486. According to Castellanos’ Statcast profile, the right fielder can undoubtedly crush a baseball when he can hit it. Castellanos was among the top 20% of the league in strikeouts and top 10% in whiffs in 2020, numbers that back up his assertion that he was trying too hard to crush the baseball in every at-bat of a shortened season. To make matters worse, he was among the worst players in MLB in Outs Above Average. Reds fans can expect a better performance from Castellanos in 2021 simply because the bar is so low, and he can relax at the plate across more at-bats.

Whatever shapes up for the Reds in 2021, The Crew will have some time to adjust. They won’t face the Reds until May 21. The teams will compete 19 times in the regular season, predominantly in the middle of it. The Crew could benefit from a few more match-ups, especially late-season ones, from a team PECOTA projects to win ten fewer games over the season.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, Statcast, and Baseball Prospectus.