Playing Pepper 2019: Cincinnati Reds

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Cincinnati Reds
67-95, fifth in NL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

For so many teams, a situation like Cincinnati’s means only one thing–sell off everything you possibly can, plan for the top pick in the draft, and start building up a team that might contend in 3-4 years.  For whatever you might think of the team, you have to give the Reds credit for not going that way this offseason.  The Reds might have been the busiest team remaking their look, grabbing in three-fifths of their starting rotation and a couple of bats as well.  Will all this wheeling and dealing pay off?  Let’s find out what the bloggers think.

Writer Site Twitter
Wick Terrell Red Reporter wickterrell
Jim Walker Redleg Nation jn_walkerjr
Shawn Weaver coweaver

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Wick: Man, what a whirlwind! Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Kyle Farmer, Alex Wood, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Zach Duke…that’s a pretty impressive haul, all told. Initially, I was a bit hesitant to really endorse the moves since they were so heavy on one-year rentals – more on that in a bit – and the Reds just don’t project to be super viable as a playoff threat in 2019 alone. That said, the cost to acquire that many big names was minimal in the grand scheme, yet it both made the club significantly better and super-significantly more interesting, which eventually won me over, as did the extension doled out to Gray after picking him up.

Would I have loved to see a big trade for a controllable ace like Corey Kluber? Perhaps, but after watching Nick Senzel hit in Cactus League play a bit, I’m incredibly excited the Reds had him off-limits. The same can be said to a lesser degree with potential trade targets Marcus Stroman or Trevor Bauer, since it seems the Reds just weren’t willing to sacrifice the most important pieces of their long term future this winter.

The one thing I think I would’ve really enjoyed is a pursuit of Craig Kimbrel, since after adding starting pitching and OF depth the only other real place they could augment is the bullpen, but it appears he’s still out of their price range despite a very, very tepid market.

Jim: What’s not to like about the Reds off season? The front office indicated that (finally) the future is now, or at the least has started, by hiring David Bell as manager and turning over the MLB level coaching staff. They transformed Homer Bailey’s remaining $28M millstone contract obligation into Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig, and Matt Kemp, three players who will help them get the future started in 2018. The team also picked up Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray to along with Wood further fortify the starting rotation. This was all accomplished without mortgaging the future beyond extending Gray through 2022 for a modest $30.5M and giving up Shed Long and Jeter Downs, infield prospects rated in the #5-10 range in most evaluations of the team’s minor league talent, along with a couple of lesser prospects.

What more could have been done? At the press conference to introduce David Bell as the Reds new manager, team CEO Bob Castellini sounded what became many fans’ mantra for the off season when he said the team intended to “Get the pitching”. There is some undercurrent that the team instead settled for “SOME pitching” versus “THE pitching”. In defense of the Reds front office, their two apparent top trade targets, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians, have not been moved and may never have been seriously on the market. As for free agent leftie Dallas Keuchel, word is that the Reds saw something in his medical profile which induced them not to seriously pursue him.

Additionally, after nontendering long time centerfielder Billy Hamilton, the Reds elected not to acquire the services of an established centerfielder despite not having a true centerfielder ready to step in take over the job. Suffice to say, time will whether this was a good or bad decision. Hint: I’ll have more to say later about why the team thinks it was a good decision.

Shawn: For the first time in years, the Reds actually took concrete steps to improve the team for the upcoming season. Bringing in three new starting pitchers and two new outfielders, even if most may leave after one season, gives fans reason to get excited about the 2019 season. Yasiel Puig has gone out of his way to win over fans in his new city, which has gone over beautifully.

C70: Which of the new starting pitchers are you expecting to have the best season?

Wick: Assuming his early spring elbow stiffness issues are out of the way, I think Sonny Gray is the most likely to return to form. And by ‘form’ I mean the burgeoning ace he was when healthy in Oakland, which had him earn a Top 3 AL Cy Young Award finish once.

It’s obvious the Reds did their due diligence on him before the trade, as they’ve brought on his former Vanderbilt pitching coach to be their head pitching coach in Derek Johnson, and did so prior to the move. Later, they added his former Vandy teammate Caleb Cotham as assistant pitching coach, and this is all while his former Vandy catcher – Curt Casali – is still on the roster. That plus the potential 5 year, $50 million extension they gave him signals to me that they’re expecting a big bounce-back from him, and I’m of the mind to agree with those tea leaves.

Jim: I like Sonny Gray to recover his form and take this prize. The right hander is a new face in the National League. His high groundball rate should play well at Great American Ball Park. He is reunited with Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson who was his college pitching coach/ guru at Vanderbilt. Caveat: Gray has been as little slow out of the box this spring due to “elbow stiffness”; however, he recently threw a bullpen session off a mound and subsequently said he felt certain he would be good to go by opening day. 

Shawn: It’s always hard to tell with pitchers; with Alex Wood’s back troubles, I think Tanner Roark may be the best of the bunch, but I think Luis Castillo will emerge as the team’s best starting pitcher.

C70: A lot of Cincy’s players are going to be free agents after 2019. What’s keeping this year, no matter how successful, from being an aberration?

Wick: Of the acquisitions, Roark/Kemp/Puig/Wood/Duke are all set to reach free agency after this year, and that’s in addition to existing Reds like Scooter Gennett and David Hernandez. That’s a ton to juggle during the 2019 season, as how the team plays will dictate who, if any, is put squarely on the trade block come July, and I’m as anxious as everyone else to see how that goes. The Reds never shied away from July trades during the rebuild – Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, etc. – but they’ve also been willing to ride out the season with important pending free agents and just letting them walk – Matt Harvey, Zack Cozart.

On the one hand, they could flip several of the pitchers for prospect depth even if they’re winning games come July, since there’s certainly a chance former top prospects like Tyler Mahle, Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan, or Lucas Sims are knocking down the door in AAA and deserve a call-up. That’s the real beauty of how this offseason was designed, I think. What’s undeniable whichever way they go, though, is that the 2020 roster will likely look a ton different than the 2019 edition regardless of how successful 2019 is in the win column, and while that leaves a ton to the imagination, it also could mean as much as $63 million coming off the payroll at season’s end, which opens the door for all manner of potential acquisitions for 2020 and beyond.

Basically, they got a lot better on paper for 2019, but didn’t block the long-term paths for any of their young, budding players like Senzel, Mahle, Jesse Winker, or even Taylor Trammell. That’s exciting!

Jim: Given the Reds last 5 seasons most fans would gladly accept an aberrant ~.500 season that at least kept them thinking about playoff possibilities into and past the All Star break, right? Nonetheless, a moderately successful season in 2019 should be a harbinger of things to come and not an aberration even if the Reds do not retain any of their pending free agents. Looking beyond 2019, in 2020 the Reds will return a solid core at the MLB level led by 1B Joey Votto, 3B Eugenio Saurez, catcher Tucker Barnhart, OF Jesse Winker and 2019 rookie sensation in waiting Nick Senzel (OF/ INF). On the mound the team will still have Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo to lead the rotation and several guys who with a year of development in 2019 should be ready to step up, beginning with Tyler Mahle. Raisel Iglesias and other contributors will return in the pen.

The Reds farm system is consistently rated in top third of all MLB farms. They had from 3 to 5 players listed in current MLB top 100 and top 130 prospect lists. Nick Senzel, the #6 overall MLB prospect will make his Reds debut this season. Outfielders Taylor Trammell and Jose Siri along with starting pitcher Tony Santillan are potential impact players who could be just a year away. Add in the front office’s new willingness to put together a competitive bridge team in 2018; and there is reason to believe they are positioned and willing to do what is required to open and maintain a continuing widow of competitiveness.

Shawn: Nothing will keep 2019 from being an aberration unless they can (a) continue to bring in new talent or (2) use the new talent to help develop their young guys by taking some pressure off of them.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Wick: The NL Central already looked like it would be a monster in 2019 from the moment the 2018 season ended. Then, it added the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew Miller, and Yasmani Grandal, and will welcome back versions of healthier versions of, Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, Alex Reyes, and Jimmy Nelson all on top of what the Reds have done. It’s one of the very, very few divisions where there is no team that’s obviously tanking – err, “rebuilding” – and that’s going to make for some really fun ball.

Where the Reds fit into that, I’m still not quite sure. On top of their player acquisitions, they’ve got a completely new managerial staff led by David Bell, and there’s certainly a sense of optimism that things might well be pointed in a much, much better direction. But that could still be mitigated by the brutal division and the potential roster turnover come July if things don’t start out swimmingly, and that throws a ton of standings-related scenarios into flux. I still think they find a way to get out of the division cellar and flirt with a winning record, though, because I’m still cursed with at least a smidge of blind homerism. I’ll say they claw their way to a 3rd place finish this year.

Jim: I’ve seen various projections which have the Reds hovering around .500. Who am I to quibble with them?

How about the Reds not finishing last for a change? The NL Central looks like it could be a real nip and tuck division this year with no clear favorite. Baseball Prospectus sees the division separated by fewer than 10 games top to bottom with the Reds third at an even .500 and none other than the Cubbies bringing up the rear at 79-83 which would be a rare joy Reds and Cardinal fans could share.

How do the Reds make the 12 game jump to .500? Their offense should be able to stand and trade with anyone. Given good health luck, they will have at least league average starting pitching and a reliable bullpen. The defense however could be an issue for both the infield and outfield. The bench may be short in number (they plan on a 4 man bench) but figures to be seriously upgraded in quality if as expected Derek Dietrich and Jose Iglesias, both in camp on a minor league deal, are retained. Good secondary depth at both field positions and pitching should be available at AAA. Let’s start playing the games and see how it all shakes out.

Shawn: I think this is an 85-win team. That probably puts them 3rd or 4th in this very good division.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Wick: Can Sonny Gray actually bounce back? Can Luis Castillo emerge as the ace he flirts with so, so often? Will Joey Votto’s power come back, or is this the beginning of the end? Will the Reds dole out a big dollar extension to keep fan-favorites like Yasiel Puig or Scooter Gennett around or are they major trade bait? Despite the buzz around him, can rookie manager David Bell really cut it? There are certainly a pile of big questions, but I don’t think there’s a single bigger one than this – can Nick Senzel be the team’s everyday CF?

Senzel’s an obviously brilliant offensive talent and consensus Top 10 prospect in all of baseball, but he entered Cactus League play with exactly zero career innings in the OF as a professional. He’s looked pretty good in CF in very limited action so far this spring, but his ability to cut it as the team’s CF in 2019 will go a long, long way to determining a) if this club is actually going to be any good, as well as b) what the Reds do with the rest of their roster beyond this year.

If Senzel takes CF by storm, they could well choose to keep him there long-term, which would mean a future Reds OF of him, Jesse Winker, and Taylor Trammell as early as 2020, which looks phenomenal on paper. That might mean a Scooter extension (since Senzel is no longer the 2B of the future) and trades of Puig, Kemp, etc. However, if he looks awful in the OF, then 2B becomes the one place you can fit him in going forward, which means Scooter’s chances of sticking around Cincinnati long term become tenuous and the Reds really don’t have a natural CF on the roster or in the system for 2019. Senzel’s ability to hit the ground running as the team’s CF will cause major dominoes to fall in either direction, and I think that’s the question whose answer will have the largest ripple effect.

Jim: Who plays Centerfield is the Reds’ biggest question mark. The team and fans hope the answer is Nick Senzel, at least for this season. To date Senzel has never played centerfield in a professional regular season game at any level. An infielder by trade, he has played some limited corner outfield in the minors. He was scheduled to be tutored at CF during the Arizona Instructional League last autumn. However, his tutoring was cut short for surgery to remove bone chips from his left (non-throwing) elbow. Nonetheless Senzel stayed in Arizona following surgery and to the degree his rehab allowed worked on outfield skills.

Last week, word came out of Reds camp that Senzel has been deemed “capable” of playing CF but will require game experience to be rounded into form. This would seem to indicate he may start the season at AAA (Recall the Kris Bryant rookie year service time situation. Coincidentally(?) Senzel is in the same position). Until such time as Senzel is regularly patrolling CF for the Reds, probably about 3 weeks into the season if things go to the presumed plan, look for the team to cover with some combination of Scott Schebler and Yasiel Puig in CF with quite possibly Michael Lorenzen (yes, the same guy who pitches and hits home runs) as a late inning defensive replacement.

Shawn: The biggest question is who play center field? The answer, by June 1 if not right away, is likely to be Nick Senzel.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Wick: Despite the focus on adding competent starting pitching for the first time in a half-decade, I think this team’s offense is going to be absolutely brilliant this season. A regular lineup of Winker LF, Senzel CF, Votto 1B, Eugenio Suarez 3B, Scooter 2B, Puig RF, Jose Peraza SS, Barnhart/Casali C with Kemp, Scott Schebler, Derek Dietrich, and Jose Iglesias as cover has the chance to be absolutely lethal in any ballpark, let alone with GABP as their home stadium.

I think the pitching will be way, way better than it has been, but that order – and the platoon cover for LHP it has – will flirt with the top of the runs scored standings in the NL, and can hurt opposing pitching in a number of different ways. And while I’m definitely a fan of good pitching duels, I’m a sucker for good offense, and I’m as excited about this lineup’s potential as I have been for quite some time.

Jim: I’m hoping to see Nick Senzel rapidly grow into an impact player be that in centerfield or back at one of his more familiar infield spots. If Yasiel Puig rediscovers his mojo, he will be pure joy to watch every day. His apparent excitement at being with Cincinnati hopefully bodes well.

Finally, I am also excited to see how the Reds decision to attempt to use pitcher Michael Lorenzen as a 2 way player works out. Manager David Bell has said the team will work during the spring to evaluate and prepare Lorenzen as a 2 way player with pitching still his primary duty. The team, has indicated they want carry 13 pitchers and use a 4 man bench which suggests they are serious about using Lorenzen in the 2 way role. For his part Lorenzen announced to the world that “the best thing I do on a baseball field is play center field (and hardly anyone knows that)”. Will they find ways to utilize Lorenzen in the field and at the plate? How will he perform if they do?

Shawn: Watching Senzel and Jesse Winker become established major leaguers would give me a lot of joy. So would seeing Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle become reliable major league pitchers. And I think watching Yasiel Puig play baseball is going to be entertaining as heck.

Appreciate these guys giving us their thoughts on the Cincinnati club.  I don’t think anyone in this division is going to be an easy win this season and there could be some good battles between the Cards and Reds!

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