Howdy folks, February of 2018 is coming to a close, March is preparing its leonine arrival and the sun-dappled fields of Florida and the sun-baked dust of Arizona ring with the sounds of slapping leather and cracking wood. We’re just about a month away from the Opening Day Parade and the beginning of the 137th season of Cincinnati Reds baseball. Let’s look back at how we got here, the current state of the roster and what the tea leaves predict for the near future.
Warning, it’s not pretty. The last postseason game the Reds played was a 6-2 loss to the Pirates in the 2013 Wild Card game, the last game in Dusty Baker’s tenure as manager. That 90 win campaign was the last time they finished above .500, the last time they finished above fourth place. The 2017 season was their third straight last-place finish and second straight season with 94 losses, 24 games behind the Division Champion Chicago Cubs.
2017 in review
The offense was led by Our Pal Joey Votto and breakout seasons from Eugenio Suarez at third base and Tucker Barnhart behind the plate. The Reds swung the fifth most valuable bats in the NL according to Baseball Reference WAR. (That would be wins above replacement, one of them newfangled statistics. I use B-Ref here because their site is really easy to use. Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus have their own proprietary measurements that differ slightly. I will refer to all of them at some point or another… feel free to complain in the comments!)
However they arrived at them, the Reds had no trouble putting crooked numbers up on the scoreboard. Keeping the other guys from doing the same? Therein lies the rub. The Reds had the worst pitching staff in the National League in 2017. Reds hurlers gave up a league-leading 5.36 runs per game, leaving few if any leads for a surprisingly effective bullpen to protect. No Cincy starter had a winning record and only youngster Luis Castillo sported an ERA+ above 100 in 89 innings. They even managed to send the ossified carcass of Bronson Arroyo to the mound for 71 innings of batting practice, where he gave up 23 of the staff’s league-leading 248 dingers, 22 more than the second place Padres.
The potential championship team of the first half of the decade is a distant memory. So what does this season promise? Let’s see…
There was only one significant subtraction this offseason. Zack Cozart picked the exact right time to have his best ever year at the plate and turned that into a free agent contract with the Angels. They will still run out most of the lineup that bashed 219 homers, the third most in team history.
That means Joey Votto at first, showing no sign of decline as he heads into his mid 30’s. Second base will be last years surprise story Scooter Gennett, paired with some combination of super-sub Jose Peraza and perhaps top prospect Nick Senzel. Eugenio Suarez returns at the hot corner and Tucker Barnhart at catcher. Theoretically, Devin Mesoraco is still listed as a catcher but it has been a long time since the once promising slugger could handle very much time behind the plate.
Even with some regression factored in for surprise players like Gennett and Barnhart, Fangraphs ZIPs projection still has the Reds with a potent offense and a decent defense, especially with Hamilton patrolling center field.
What about the pitching? Not so much… Luis Castillo is definitely the #1 starter in terms of talent, any turn around of the pitching staff begins with him. Homer Bailey will be another year removed from Tommy John surgery and will hope to recapture the two no-hitter talent he flashed before being injured. Speaking of injuries, Anthony (Tony Disco) Desclafani and Brandon Finnegan will also try to bounce back from a variety of ouchies. Last year’s rookie additions, Sal Romano (who is a colossal presence on the mound at 6’5” 270) and Robert Stephenson will try to build on decent if unspectacular starts to their careers.
The bullpen will be anchored by Latin fireballer Rasiel Iglesias and former starter Michael Lorenzen. The rest will be filled out with a collection of anonymous short relievers waiting for their arms to fall off just
like every other team in baseball these days. Bryan Price may not be a great manager, but he has shown a willingness to buck conservative trends in bullpen management by using Iglesias more like a fireman of old than a one-inning specialist like most managers
The Manager and the competition
Speaking of Bryan Price, he will be chewing sunflower seeds in the dugout for at least the beginning of one more season at Great American Ballpark. He’ll be playing out the option year of his contract so there will definitely be some pressure for him to improve. The tenure of general manager Dick Williams is still young, he may take a bad start as a sign to start looking for his own man to fill the role.
Much of that may well be out of Price’s hands. The top of the NL Central is currently the domain of a legitimate powerhouse franchise in Chicago, a sentence I never in my life expected to type. Last year’s surprise Milwaukee Brewers showed that they are ahead of schedule on their rebuild. And the Cardinals are too well run an outfit to stay out of contention for long. By trading Andrew McCutchen to the Giants, the Pirates signaled their own rebuilding process, but MLB Pipeline rates them as the 7th best farm system in baseball (the Reds are 9th) so you can bet that they are going to try to turn it around fast. This division could be a meat grinder.
What is still to come…
I’m not a magician, I can’t make accurate predictions. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system is kind of like a wizard though. They project a Reds team that improves slightly, with a 75-87 record, still in 5th place. Projections aren’t destiny though. If the offense continues to thrive, all it might take for this team to get back into the first division is a breakout year from a couple young pitchers. Catching the Cubs is out of the question. However, the second wild card was snagged for 85-87 wins in some seasons. The Brewers almost pulled that off last year after a 2016 campaign with only 73 wins. So there’s some hope to hang onto.
No matter what, I’m a Reds fan. It’s more fun when they win, but it’s always fun. See Y’all at the ballpark, let’s have a fun year.
Featured Image by Wikimedia Commons
“From our Haus to Yours”