At the conclusion of the 2017 season, the Cincinnati Reds looked like a team without a future. Aside from another MVP-caliber year from Joey Votto and shortstop Zack Cozart’s delightfully fluky 4.9 WAR outburst, the lineup was subpar. The farm system received average-to-decent grades from prospect pundits, but much of the offensive help was years away from making an impact in the bigs. That’s without mentioning the pitching, which was a betentacled nightmare. Cincy’s pitchers gave up a then-record 258 dingers, which was laughable even in fun-sized Great American Ballpark. Their 5.17 ERA was “good” for an 87 ERA+ and matched nicely with their 5.08 FIP. All these issues resulted in an unfortunate 68-94 record, their second consecutive 94-loss campaign.
Then, for a change of pace, they lost 95 games in 2018, with many of the same problems. Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suárez hit like All-Stars, but the lineup was top-heavy and the pitching couldn’t recover from its terminal case of “dingeritis”.
With all this in mind, it was surprising when Cincinnati’s front office decided to make a run at the playoffs in 2019. In a sport whose owners and GMs seem to value team control more than actual on-field production, Cincinnati’s willingness to throw caution to the winds and make a break for the postseason was refreshing. Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the Reds’ payroll jumped from a modest $100 million to $125 million, with owner Dick Williams promising a $150 million squad before Opening Day 2020.
The new Reds with money were okay in 2019, which was a welcome change following the 90-plus-loss doldrums of the three previous seasons. Cincinnati jumped all the way to seventy-five wins, and their Pythagorean record (based on runs scored versus runs allowed) placed them at a perfectly cromulent 80-82. With some extra luck, Cincy might have had an outside shot at a Wild Card berth.
The evolution of Luis Castillo from flamethrowing enigma to Cy Young candidate and the rebirth of Sonny Gray turned Cincinnati’s rotation into a major strength. The projection system Steamer thinks Trevor Bauer will return to All-Star form after an embarrassing 2019, and the steady presences of Anthony DeSclafani and new guy Wade Miley should be solid at the back of the rotation. Bullpens are notoriously mercurial, but none of last season’s regulars project to fall apart. Another good reliever on the level of a Sergio Romo or Steve Cishek wouldn’t go amiss, but there’s no team in baseball that can’t say the same thing. As it stands, the Reds’ pitching staff is solidly above-average going into 2020.
The same cannot be said of the hitting. Reds bats limped to an anemic .736 OPS in 2019, twelve percent below league average. Big-time acquisitions like Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp underperformed and spectacularly underperformed, respectively, while Votto regressed and top prospect Nick Senzel disappointed. Sluggin’ Aristedes Aquino was a homer-smacking demigod last year, but projection systems and underlying batted-ball metrics are very down on his ability to perform at a similar level in 2020. Scooter Gennett had a terrible 2019, and now he’s gone. Eugenio Suárez is still a marvel, but he can’t carry an offense (just ask Mike Trout).
If the Reds realistically want to contend next season, Dick Williams will have to make good on that promise of a $150 million payroll and make a splash in the free-agent market. Cincy has dealt a lot of prospect capital in recent offseasons, so a trade involving assets from the farm would be unwise.
A top priority in the Reds’ front office should be shoring up their outfield. Senzel is probably more useful to the team at shortstop rather than center field, and the aforementioned Aquino isn’t likely to maintain his offensive output in 2020. Cincy’s recent signing of NPB import Shogo Akiyama is a good start, but another outfield signing would help immensely. Marcell Ozuna‘s average glove and big bat would provide a great all-around boost to the current Reds outfield. Nicholas Castellanos would add some big-league power to the lineup, but his atrocious defense makes him an iffy target for a National League club. The recently non-tendered Kevin Pillar wouldn’t be much of an offensive force, but Cincinnati pitchers would no doubt be grateful for his defense in a corner spot.
Another area ripe for improvement is the catching corps. Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali combined for an aggressively mediocre 1.3 WAR from behind the plate last year. That won’t do for a serious contender, and Cincinnati ought to be on the lookout for upgrades. Robinson Chirinos‘s league-average bat and solid defense would be a marked improvement, and his contract probably wouldn’t break the Bank of Williams either.
At the end of the day, the Reds are just a few smart moves away from being legitimate playoff contenders. If Cincinnati’s management is truly gunning for a playoff spot in 2020, they just need to spend a few extra dollars to make all the effort worth it.