Playing Pepper 2018: Cincinnati Reds

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Cincinnati Reds
68-94, fifth in NL Central
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

It’s not easy to be a Reds fan right now.  The team has a great player, some interesting players, and some players that, well, you just don’t know what they are capable of.  It’s a team that doesn’t necessarily expect to contend last year.  And yet the Cardinals had huge problems with this team last year.  One of the reasons they didn’t make the playoffs was their scuffles against the team from the Queen City.  So what does 2018 have in store for Cincy?  Let’s let our great panel of bloggers fill you in!

Writer Site Twitter
Nick Vorholt Blog Red Machine blogredmachine
Wick Terrell Red Reporter wickterrell
Shawn Weaver coweaver
Jim Walker Redleg Nation jn_walkerjr

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Nick: The Cincinnati Reds aren’t quite done with their off-season or at least they shouldn’t be. Their laundry list was help the bullpen, sign some veteran pitching depth and look for a back-up shortstop. The bullpen is rebuilt, but the other two items remain undone.

The Reds signed a pair of 30-something year-old relievers to help set-up for Raisel Iglesias. David Hernandez and Jared Hughes both came over on two year deals. They should make the Reds’ bullpen better even if they regress to closer to the MLB reliever norm.  The Reds have done almost nothing to support a starting rotation that had to use sixteen different pitchers in 2017. Their only signing was Vance Worley and his days as an MLB starter may be done for good. That puts all of the pressure on the big three of Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, and Brandon Finnegan.  On the defensive side of the ball, the entire microscope is focused on Jose Peraza. He failed as the everyday starting second baseman in 2017, after looking like a great super sub the second half of 2016. The Reds’ defensive plans all require him to be solid at short as the roster stands now.

This isn’t a case of addition by subtraction. This is a case of addition by experience. Compared to the end of last season knowing what they have in new ace Luis Castillo is worth losing a season of service from Dan Straily.  Not only do the Reds know what they have in Castillo, but they know what they have in Austin Brice, the other player from that deal. He looks like a middle reliever with closer upside. Likely, he will start the season either in Cincinnati or closing for Louisville.  The addition of Hernandez and Hughes will also help. In addition to being short on starting pitchers for much of the season, the Reds had to use starting prospects Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson in the bullpen to start 2017. Now any extra starters will begin the season in Louisville’s starting rotation.

Only time will tell if the Reds have really improved since last season. Experience will help six of the eight position players be better professionals. However, the real test will be how the pitching performs day in and day out.

Wick: If Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, and Brandon Finnegan are all healthy, the Reds improved greatly this offseason simply by getting three of their biggest horses back. At least, that seems to have been the team’s M.O. this winter, since they opted not to add another starter despite the beleaguered rotation’s struggles in 2017. That trio, though, paired with the additions of Jared Hughes and David Hernandez to the bullpen, could help rectify the team’s biggest issue over the last two years, which has obviously been their pitching.

There’s a ton of talent there, but certainly not a ton of dependability. Still, I think I like the course of action.

Shawn: Improvement in the club will have more to do with young players getting player than anyone acquired. Can’t say the team will be better losing Zack Cozart, but we’ll see if some pitching develops. That’s the key.

Jim: Underwhelming may not be sufficient to describe the Reds lack of off season activity. They signed only a couple of journeymen relievers, Jared Hughes and David Hernandez to MLB contracts. There is a typical crew in camp on minor league deals for a look/see. Cliff Pennington and Ben Revere are the “headliners” of this crew. They could emerge as backups at shortstop and centerfield respectively. Definitely underwhelming.

At best the Reds’ front office has done no harm in the off season. However, there is a case to be made if they weren’t going to step up and compete for a playoff spot in 2018, they should have moved players such as Scooter Gennett, Adam Duvall and Billy Hamilton both to obtain more near MLB ready talent and clear major league playing time for nearly ready internal prospects and the newly acquired talent. This double-barreled passivity may have actually hurt the team in the long run. Time will tell.

C70: Scooter Gennett had a huge season last year (as Cardinal fans well remember). How much of that is reasonable to expect for 2018?

Nick: After a breakout season for the Cincinnati Reds, the team needs to maintain realistic expectations. Last season Scooter Gennett was the best offensive second baseman in the National League, once he began playing everyday for the Cincinnati Reds. Gennett played second, third, and some outfield for the Reds in 2017. Last season, Gennett was second in the NL among second basemen with at least 400 plate appearances with an offensive WAR (wins above replacement) of 13.0. He had a -4.8 WAR defensively for a net WAR of 2.4. That WAR ranked him twelfth in MLB among all second basemen with 400 or more PA. There should be no expectation the Gennett produces anywhere close to that number. Instead of a 2.4 WAR, something in the 0.7 to 1 WAR range seems more realistic. That puts him towards the lower end of veteran starting second basemen.

The bigger question is his home run power. Last season he was fourth among all second baseman and first among NL second basemen with 27 home runs. Looking at his career stats, a regression to closer to twenty home runs seems more than likely, even accounting for playing in Great American Ballpark.

Last season, Gennett played a career high 141 games, despite starting the season on the bench. He should play about that number again. The Reds will likely bench him against tough left-handers. His .531 slugging percentage is another stat to watch. With a career .446 slugging percentage, something close to .450 is a better expectation. This is especially true if Gennett hits 8-10 fewer home runs. His OPS was also a career high .874. Something closer to his career number of .769 is more likely. Even that may be a stretch if both his OBP and slugging percentage regress to normal. The hope has to be that his defense returns to an MLB average state without too large of an offensive regression. He is making enough from arbitration that he is not likely to be traded. That means that Gennett has to hold a starting job for the Reds all season long.

The good news is that Gennett is a career .283 hitter with a career OBP of .323. Those numbers play fine in Cincinnati anywhere in the batting order. They will play even better if the Reds let Gennett bat clean-up to start the 2018 season.

Wick: Every single projection for him sees him as much more of the player the Reds claimed off waivers a year ago than the dinger-smasher he turned into in 2017, and while I do think he’s a bit better than that baseline, I think that’s a fair estimation. He sported a .339 BABIP last year, but he’s always been a guy with a better BABIP than most, so I don’t see a ton of regression there. However, the 20.8% HR/FB rate seems way high even with the ‘new’ baseballs in the game, and I’d wager that number scoots back down to just a bit higher than his 11.5% career mark.

He pulled the ball more (42.4%) than he ever has last year, though, and that does suggest that he modified something from his previous approach. He was also in his age 27 season, which has always typically been viewed as when players ‘peak.’ Still, if they let him face righties everyday and sit him against lefties, something along the line of .280/.330/.460 sounds reasonable.

Shawn: Gennett had his career year last year, but 80% of that would still be pretty good. We’ll hold out hope for that.

Jim: Let’s start by looking at Scooter’s 2017 numbers versus his career numbers prior to 2017. His 2017 slash line was .295/.342/.531 compared to career line prior to 2017 of .279/.318/.420, The only truly seismic uptick in Gennett’s slash line in 2017 came in his slugging % driven by 27 home runs which was just 1 short of doubling his prior seasonal best.

The popular projection systems all have Gennett regressing to figures near his previous career levels. However, given Gennett’s improvement was driven by a slugging surge, it is possible that the change in his home park to Cincinnati’s GABP with its notorious right field shooting gallery will allow the left handed hitting Gennett to continue to slug at a rate markedly better than he did prior to becoming a Red. It would not be surprising if he hit at least 20 HR and turned in an .800 or better OPS for 2018.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Nick: The Cincinnati Reds had two of the worst pitching seasons in franchise history over the past two years. In 2016 it was the worst pitching staff that the franchise had ever seen for most of the year. In 2017 the rotation was among the worst in baseball. Heading into 2017 the pitching staff was in shambles. Every one who was initially penciled into the rotation was down by the All-Star break. Over the course of the season sixteen pitchers made starts for the Reds. Now, ten of those pitchers will either start games for Cincinnati or Triple-A Louisville at the beginning of the 2018 campaign. Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey both look healthy at the same time since DeSclafani joined the Reds. Brandon Finnegan also appears to be back to his old self.

That’s not the story here, though. The real story is the last two spots in the rotation and all of the young guys that have a chance to compete for them. Luis Castillo appears to be the ace of the next generation. After that the team has a top prospect in Tyler Mahle, a former top prospect in Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano, who looks like a big league starter. These three will likely contribute this season. All three of them have something that looks like a weakness for this season.

The great secret weapon on Reds’ current roster may be Keury Mella. He is the other guy that came over in the Adam Duvall for Mike Leake deal. He has only pitched one inning this spring, but will likely start the season in Louisville’s starting rotation. Jackson Stephens is also in a similar situation. He made his MLB debut last season and looked impressive with a 1.12 WHIP. This spring Stephens has only pitched 5 ⅔ in four games. As course, there is also Amir Garrett. He was in the opening day rotation last season, but a hip injury ended his effectiveness after two months. Some more development could make him a factor.

The Reds literally have a now and later rotation. Five pitchers look ready now and five more look like they need more development. Hopefully, the Reds are positive about who is ready and who isn’t.

Wick: I’d say their team defense. Tucker Barnhart took home a Gold Glove last year – rightfully so – and despite the fact that Billy Hamilton somehow doesn’t have one in his trophy case yet, he’s as elite as they come. Eugenio Suarez, Adam Duvall, and even Joey Votto have graded out quite well at their positions, too, and their collective 26.6 DRS in 2017 ranked 4th in all of baseball. Heck, their team UZR/150 of 4.8 was the best mark in all of baseball.

Losing Zack Cozart will hurt, to be sure, but there’s still enough to like about Jose Peraza defensively to think it’ll still be a plus unit, which bodes well for such an inexperienced group of pitchers in front of them.

Shawn: There is a lot of talent coming up, especially pitching; there are a lot of good arms here. It’s a matter of developing them and making them major league pitchers. So far that goal has been elusive.

Jim: The Reds offense could be very, very good, particularly if when Nick Senzel is called up, he is used primarily at shortstop instead of at the expense of playing time for players who are better offensively than the presumptive SS, Jose Peraza. 

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Reds to do well?

Nick: There is no secret who has to be the best player on the Cincinnati Reds in 2018. For the past several seasons Votto has been the second best offensive player only to Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout. For the Reds to succeed in 2018 Votto has to be the best player in the National League. It is easy to get seduced by the youth that Eugenio Suarez and Scott Schebler. They both seem to be on a power upswing. That though doesn’t mean much if players don’t get on base around them. It is easy to get seduced by the power of the slightly older duo of Adam Duvall and Scooter Gennett. Duvall is a true slugger, but has been one dimensional offensively for most of his time with the Reds. Gennett, meanwhile, hit more home runs than his metrics suggest. Of course, there is also the pitching that has been a weak spot for the past few years. The Reds cannot expect too much out of the pitching staff. The starting rotation just needs to be decent to be much improved.

Last year Votto lead MLB in OBP at .454. He also led MLB with 134 walks. He beat out Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins for the National League lead in OPS as well. The rest of team should step up a little bit. Duvall should continue to hit for power. Suarez and Schebler should each be a little better. Votto, though, must come close to doing what he did last year for the improvement of the rest of the team to mean anything. Votto must lead MLB in OBP again. That is the top priority. Votto has to continue to show his power. A top ten finish in the NL in slugging is another must. A top five finish would be meaningful.

With Stanton gone to the New York Yankees, Votto must lead the NL in OPS. There are not many players that will challenge him if he hits his OBP goal. This is what Votto must do for the Reds to be competitive in 2018. If the Reds don’t compete, it likely won’t be Votto’s fault. If he isn’t himself this season, though, they don’t stand a chance. He gets paid the big bucks and needs to continue to produce like it.

Wick: I think it’s DeSclafani, since the Reds have clearly banked on him being healthy despite him having had both elbow and oblique issues. If he’s the 3 WAR pitcher he’s shown he can be on multiple occasions (or, god forbid, improves on those numbers), that paired with the emergence of Luis Castillo gives the Reds a talented, cheap, and controlled 1-2 punch atop the rotation, which they’ve not really had in quite some time. (/crosses fingers)

Shawn: Joey Votto, obviously. The guy whose development would mean the most this year would be Jesse Winker (position player) and Luis Castillo (pitcher). A healthy and effective Homer Bailey and/or Anthony DeSclafani would mean a lot to the young staff. On a bad team, there’s a lot of key players.

Jim: The too easy answer here is Joey Votto who missed winning his second NL MVP award by just 2 points in 2017. Yet despite Votto’s stellar season, the team lost 94 games and, it has many offensive producers who as a group could mitigate much of an off year by Votto. If the lot of the Reds is to improve in 2018, it will be on the backs of their young pitching prospects. So, instead, I’m going with the man who won the NL Gold Glove at catcher in 2017, Tucker Barnhart, because his work with the young pitchers will be key to any such improvement.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Nick: Last year the Cincinnati Reds tried to catch the Pittsburgh Pirates for fourth place in the National League Central. Right now, it looks like 2018 will be a repeat of that show. The Pirates look like a potentially stronger team even with the loss of Andrew McCutchen, negating a modest improvement for the Reds. Creating an exact win-loss number is always difficult. Taking a less than scientific approach, the bullpen is a wash and the offense is likely one too. The starting rotation’s health should be worth one win and Luis Castillo being in the rotation for a full season should be worth two more. That places the Reds at 71-91. That feels pessimistic, but there were no major moves this off-season. The shortstop position is also very weak right now.

The fact of the matter is that free agent signees Jared Hughes and David Hernandez are only marginally better than the traded Tony Cingrani and the departed Drew Storen. The Reds didn’t address the loss of opening day starter Scott Feldman, nor the loss of All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart this off-season. The Reds are slowly getting better, but they still have the worse pitching/defense combination in the NL. As the pitching slowly increases in talent, the defense is slightly worse in the middle infield. Of course, the Reds still play in Great American Ballpark, which plays small at times.

The Reds also play in the ultra-competitive NL Central. With the improvements that they Saint Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers made this off-season, the Reds are practically destined to give up more runs to their in division rivals. The Chicago Cubs also look like a team focusing on offense. That cannot help the Reds keep teams from scoring. They may have a better offense than the Pirates, but they are outclassed by the rest of the division. Thanks to the Miami Marlins’ fire sale this past off-season, the Reds won’t be the worst team in the NL. They will battle the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves to avoid being the second worse team in the NL. At the end of the day, there will be about four teams worse than the Reds in MLB in 2018.

Wick: I’m optimistic for them in 2018, but I need to break that down a bit more. I’m optimistic that this is the year the Reds begin to turn the corner, but I only think this specific group can get them to 82, 84 wins. That said, I do get the impression that if the team as currently constructed is playing well at that pace, the Reds are ready to begin to add more proven pieces to that core, and that could happen as early as this July.

One thing they have accumulated is a lot of tradeable depth, both with young pitching and pre-arb position players, and I think any glimpse that they’re healthy and winning will prompt them to add once again in a way similar to how they added Scott Rolen, Mat Latos, and Shin-Soo Choo in their previous era of success.

I do, though, think 2019 will be a much, much more successful year for them than 2018.

Shawn: I would put the over/under at about 75 wins. There should be some improvement if only because the pitching can’t be AS bad.

Jim: A reasonable scenario is that the team seriously flirts with .500 for the season and along the way is on the fringe of the wildcard race into August. A best-case scenario is that the starting pitching gels early, the offense adds some consistency, there are no major injuries and the team is a legitimate wildcard contender into the last couple of weeks of the season. The more likely scenario is that the Reds win around 75 games and manage to escape the divisional cellar. 

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Nick: How did the Reds have such a bad off-season when there was so little to accomplish? There is little positive momentum from the Cincinnati Reds off-season. The Reds had specific needs and neglected most of them. Now the team is staring another 90-loss season in the face. The Reds had three needs heading into the off-season. They needed to add a veteran starter for depth, a versatile reliever, and a true MLB shortstop. They went one for three. The Reds signed veteran relievers David Hernandez and Jared Hughes. The case could be made that in signing two veterans, they added a starting pitcher as well. With the free agent duo added, Michael Lorenzen is back pitching of a spot in the rotation. Of course, the issue here is what happened once again. Anthony DeSclafani has an oblique strain and Brandon Finnegan also came up lame. That puts the Reds best two young veteran starters on the DL to start the season, the same as where they ended it. As far as shortstop goes, the Reds signed a pair of minor league free agents. They needed someone to back-up Peraza, but instead got a pair of guys that could be playing the entire season in Triple-A. The shortstop depth is scary thin.

The Reds also have three players that are blocking their top prospects. Rather than move them for prospects, the Reds held onto them. They are also eating up salary cap money. Devin Mesoraco, Billy Hamilton, and Eugenio Suarez are all blocking top prospects. Tyler Stephenson may not be ready to make his MLB debut, but he is darn close. He could replace Tucker Barnhart behind the plate. Hamilton has been close to leaving the Reds each of the past two seasons. With Jesse Winker ready to play everyday, Hamilton is a pricey extra piece. His value is also slowly starting to decrease. Speaking of decreasing value, third baseman Suarez could bring a king’s ransom right now. He is blocking top prospect Nick Senzel and is a legitimate 20 home run slugger. He should have been moved as an auctioned off bat.

That is what the Reds don’t do well. They don’t understand when to hold ’em and fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run. They just don’t take the chances that they need to turn this rebuild into a finished product.

Wick: You should’ve asked “Is Joey Votto really as awesomely amazing as it seems he is?

I’d have replied that he absolutely, positively is, and it’s been a privilege to get to watch him suit up for my favorite team everyday for the last decade. Though, if you’d actually asked me about Joey Votto, I’d have probably replied with about 12,000 more words, and we all know nobody’s got time to read through that.

Shawn: When is the next year the Reds can make the postseason? The optimist would say 2019 because the pitching will develop quickly. I think when it does gel, it will gel quickly, but not until at least 2020.

Jim: Given the Reds languid off season, when will the organization get serious about competing for a playoff position? The view here is that the Reds will not take any deep dives on major league level free agents or talent via trade until as late as 2020. They appear to be committed to the development of their in house starting pitching and are waiting to see positive signs of that development prior to spending dollar or talent resources to fill out the rest of the roster. However, with no less than Joey Votto recently wondering very publicly when the organization would show urgency about competing for the playoffs, maybe we will see a change in attitude.

As everyone knows, I always follow the Reds thanks to my wife’s father having been such a fan.  I’m glad that these guys came to talk about Cincy and I appreciate them filling us in about what to expect this season!

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