by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 5th team preview of the series, featuring the Cincinnati Reds.
The last of the group of teams that failed to cross the 70 win threshold, the Cincinnati Reds had an interesting season in 2017. They were surprisingly one of the best offensive teams in the league, finishing 10th in the OPS category with a mark of .761. They were 13th in the league in home runs with 219, and statistically most of their position players had above average years at the dish. Unfortunately, as a team in the middle of a rebuild, the Reds were forced to rely upon subpar veterans and talented but inexperienced prospects which ended up being their downfall. The pitching staff finished with a cumulative 5.17 ERA, ahead of just the Tigers.
The Reds were a much better team at Great American Ball Park than on the road. They went 39-42 at home while finishing with a run differential that was almost even (39-42, 402 RS, 417 RA), as opposed to struggling mightily away from home (29-52, 351 RS, 452 RA). They were also in first in the NL Central as late as May 7th before ultimately faltering; there was a stretch of games in the middle of June when the team went 1-13. They allowed at least five runs in 11 of those 14 contests. In the final game of that stretch, the Reds allowed 18 runs to the Nationals, which obviously isn’t a good look.
At the age of 27, Tucker Barnhart proved that he can be a solid option behind the plate at this point in time for the Reds. He’s not exactly offensively gifted—the .270/.347/.403 triple-slash he put up in 2017 was a career best and 67 of his 100 hits were singles—but his plate approach isn’t awful and he does just enough with the bat to be valuable. Barnhart’s value comes from behind the dish; while his -2.5 adjusted FRAA doesn’t jump off the page, he was able to save 21 runs according to Fangraphs.
Playing on mostly non-appealing Reds teams for his entire career, Joey Votto doesn’t seem to get the recognition that he rightfully deserves. He’s such a unique player in that he does just about everything you could imagine at the plate. He hits for a high average, he gets on base a ton, he can easily hit 30 bombs a year, and on top of all of that he walks more than he strikes out. The 19.0% BB% was incredible, and he only struck out 11.7 percent of the time. If that’s not enough, Votto also provided plus-defense at first, finishing with a 6.6 UZR.
Scooter Gennett was always a fairly solid option as a batter. He could hit for a respectable average, get on base at a nice clip, and hit out several home runs a season. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the former Brewer connected on 27 long balls last season, almost doubling his previous career high of 14. Why did the sudden power surge occur? His ISO of .236 was a career high, but the more telling stat was his HR/FB ratio—the 20.8% mark doubled his previous career best of 10.5%.
A shortstop that was always known for his defensive prowess, Zack Cozart has quietly become an above-average contributor with the bat in recent years. The seven consecutive positive UZR’s he’s posted are definitely welcomed, but slashing .297/.385/.548 and hitting 24 home runs made Cozart a much more valuable commodity than ever before. His approach at the plate vastly improved in 2017—while the 15.4% K% was right in line with his career norms, the 12.2% BB% was by far a career high.
Eugenio Suarez, as with Cozart, was another infielder who was better known for his contributions on defense as opposed to what he did at the plate. That has changed in recent years, too, as the former Tiger has posted above average wRC+ marks in two of the last three seasons (106 in 2015, 117 last year). The man who played the hot corner for the Reds in 2017 hit 26 home runs and also benefited from an improved approach at the dish, as his 13.3% BB% was a new career-high.
Adam Duvall proved that 2016 wasn’t a fluke, hitting 31 home runs last year after blasting 33 the year before. The overall slash-line wasn’t phenomenal (.249/.301/.480) due to somewhat poor plate discipline, but even in today’s hitter-happy MLB, 30 home runs in two consecutive years is still impressive. Billy Hamilton continued to prove that he’s one of the fastest players in baseball, swiping 59 bags after stealing 56, 57, and 58 the previous three campaigns. He’ll never hit for power and he could stand to approve his plate approach a bit, but with his speed and the 7.6 UZR he posted in center field in 2017, he’s a valuable asset regardless. Scott Schebler also smacked 30 dingers in 2017, and if his BABIP wasn’t a career-low .248 the overall .233/.307/.484 triple-slash would have looked a lot better. Special recognition goes out to top prospect Jesse Winker, who performed well in his debut season. Over 137 plate appearances, Winker (who has a 70-grade potential hit tool) slashed .298/.375/.529 while maintaining respectable 10.9 and 17.5 walk and strikeout percentages, respectively.
Out of the 30 pitchers who entered a game for the Reds in 2017, there might have been four that weren’t below average or even worse than that. One of those three was 24-year-old rookie Luis Castillo, who tossed 89.1 innings of 3.12 ERA ball. With a 3.74 FIP and 3.41 xFIP, Castillo’s performance in 2017 would seem to not have been a fluke. The strikeout percentage of 27.3 definitely jumps off the page, and Castillo flashed three solid pitches in a 60-grade fastball, potential 55-grade slider and potential 45-grade changeup. Two of the main flaws that Castillo battled through were his control (3.22 BB/9) and his tendency to let balls leave the yard (1.11 HR/9).
Sal Romano was the other member of the rotation that actually wasn’t too bad. Walks were definitely an issue, as the rookie allowed close to four free passes per nine innings. Still, he struck out 73 batters in 87 innings and kept the ball in the yard (0.93 HR/9). The other two pitchers that didn’t completely suck were relievers. Raisel Iglesias proved that he can thrive in a relief role, finishing with a 2.49 ERA (2.70 FIP) and pitching 76 innings. He struck out 92 batters while walking just 27 and, for what it’s worth, had 28 saves. Wandy Peralta improved immensely from his cup-of-coffee stint in 2016.In 64.2 innings, Peralta finished with a 3.76 ERA (4.16 FIP) and was much less apt to let up the free pass—he had an 8.59 BB/9 mark in 2016, and lowered that to 3.34 in 2017.
The rest of the rotation was awful. 40-year-old Bronson Arroyo was somehow allowed to make 14 starts, and while he finished with a nice 6.99 FIP, the 7.35 ERA was unsightly. Tim Adleman and Homer Bailey were also difficult to watch; the former finished with an ERA in the mid-fives while the latter pitched to an ugly 6.43 mark. Scott Feldman was mainly there to be a veteran presence in the rotation for a rebuilding club, and he pitched to a 4.77 ERA over 111.1 innings. Robert Stephenson and Amir Garrett, two of the young arms that the Reds would ideally like to rely upon in the future, had rough campaigns. Stephenson started 11 games, striking out 86 while walking 53 and finishing with an ERA in the mid-to-high fours (4.68). Garrett was much worse; he had control issues all season and finished with an ugly 60:43 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 7.39 ERA (surprisingly, his FIP was the exact same number).
The rest of the bullpen was extremely inconsistent, to put it nicely. Michael Lorenzen and Blake Wood were probably the best of the bunch; both posted high ERA’s (4.45 and 5.65), but the FIP’s for each pitcher (4.01 and 3.70) indicate that their struggles weren’t all on them. Former National Drew Storen made 58 appearances and wasn’t very efficient, finishing with a 4.45 ERA. Austin Brice and Kevin Shackelford both made 20-plus appearances and weren’t particularly effective, posting ERAs and FIPs in the high-fours. It seemed as though Tony Cingrani simply needed a change of scenery, struggling in Cincinnati before finding his groove with the Dodgers.
The Reds had a relatively quiet offseason, as they only made small signings and opted not to make any trades. Their most notable signing was Jared Hughes, a tall right-handed reliever who will be counted on to provide quality innings out of the ‘pen. During his seven year career (six with the Pirates, one with the Brewers), Hughes has pitched to a 2.85 ERA striking out 237 batters while walking 126.
The biggest departure of the offseason for the Reds was clearly Cozart. It won’t be an easy task replacing what Cozart provided both at the plate and in the field. Jose Peraza will be the name to watch as he’ll likely earn the starting nod to replace Cozart, but without an improvement in his approach at the plate Peraza won’t come close to matching his production.
Best Case: The Reds inch closer to becoming a contender, winning between 71-76 games. The offense doesn’t regress like many are expecting, as players like Scott Schebler and Scooter Gennett prove that their 2017 seasons weren’t flukes. Young talent such as Jesse Winker and Jose Peraza flash their upside and prove that they can be mainstays in the Reds lineup for years to come. The pitching staff regresses to the mean, and while the trio of Luis Castillo, Robert Stephenson, and Amir Garrett each have their own individual struggles, they prove that they can be three of the five arms in the Reds rotation when the team is ready to contend.
Worst Case: The trio of Gennett, Schebler, and Adam Duvall lose their power stroke, struggling to hit more than 20 home runs. Joey Votto is the only consistent source of offense for the Reds, as they finish in the bottom third of the league in OPS. The pitching staff doesn’t take a positive step forward, and the team flirts with 100 losses for the first time since 1982.
PECOTA Projected Record: 75-87, 766 RS, 831 RA