If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
Say what you want about the Reds, but they’ve done an excellent job of bucking the rebuilding trend. Many teams in their situation would strip everything down, lose 100-plus games for a couple of years, then build back up with drafted talent. The Reds, on the other hand, have done their best the last couple of years to put a respectable product on the table, making trades and signing free agents in a way that was pretty traditional up until the last decade. Is it enough to push them to the top of a division where the rest of the teams were much quieter with their winters? Let’s find out. (An aside: Doug Gray stepped in when one of our regular contributors, Jim Walker, had some health issues come up. We want to wish Jim the best as he goes through things.)
|Doug Gray||Redleg Nation||dougdirt24|
|Abby Caldwell||Blog Red Machine||abigailrae_94|
|Wick Terrell||Red Reporter||wickterrell|
C70: It’s been a very busy couple of years as the Reds have actively tried to improve their roster. What move this offseason will turn out to be the most important in your opinion?
Doug: From where I stand it feels obvious to me: Picking up Nick Castellanos. While the Reds were certainly active in picking up more than a few quality free agents, Castellanos just feels like a guy who got out of Detroit and into more hitting friendly environments and went off. It’s not likely he goes out and put up an OPS over 1.000 like he did after joining Chicago last season, he’s a middle of the order bat that when coupled with Mike Moustakas and Eugenio Suarez gives three legitimate power threats in the middle of the order to hopefully drive in guys at the top. Extending the lineup, one that struggled to find consistency in 2019, is big given the starting pitching that Cincinnati has.
Abby: Yes it has! It’s been so refreshing as a Reds fan to see the roster improve and the team move up as contenders. As far as this offseason is concerned, I find myself absolutely thrilled with the signing of Mike Moustakas. He has so much to offer as a player and will provide a big surge in the offensive lineup, which we desperately need. It came at the perfect time, right before RedsFest and really did a lot to prove that this team is serious about contending in 2020. This was the move that showed us they were all-in. I also had the privilege of meeting Moustakas on the Reds Caravan tour in January and he seems so genuinely happy to be with the Reds, so that always feels really good. I’m so excited to have him!
Wick: Great question, and my answer’s going to be a bit nuanced. On the surface, I think the offensive upside Nick Castellanos will bring to this club is going to be the single most important for the 2020 Reds, but the opt-out clauses in his contract make me wonder if he’ll be around beyond just this year. If he can continue to improve defensively in RF to only be ‘slightly’ below average, I think his bat with GABP as a home park could result in a repeat of his performance with Chicago during the latter half of 2019. That’d be phenomenal.
Mike Moustakas brings that kind of upside offensively, too, especially with his ability to use all fields and his extreme fly-ball proclivity. That he’s under contract for a full 4 years makes me think that, on the whole, he’ll end up providing the Reds with more than a solo year of Castellanos, but Nick will (hopefully) be the bigger 2020 piece. Both certainly look set to bolster an offense that clearly needed upgrades.
C70: Trevor Bauer struggled a bit after coming over from the Indians. Was there a reason for that and what are the expectations for him this season?
Doug: A lot of the reason came down to luck. With Cleveland he had a 28% strikeout rate, a 9.5% walk rate, and a 14.2% home run per fly ball rate. With Cincinnati his strikeout rate was 28%, his walk rate was 7.7%, and his home run per fly ball rate was 17.9%. The peripherals were pretty similar. The ERA simply wasn’t. That’s going to happen in a small sample size. With that said, I can’t speak for the expectations of everyone. For me, I think he’s a guy that should be expected to throw 185+ innings. Beyond that, I expect him to be similar to former Reds pitcher Homer Bailey before he got hurt – a guy who can go out and absolutely dominate at times – but fights consistency, too. In the end, he’ll be a guy with an ERA around 4.00 who has some real good stretches, answers the call every five days, and keeps you around most games. You hope for better, but expecting and hoping are different things.
Abby: I wasn’t all that surprised to see Trevor Bauer’s performance take a little bit of a dip when he moved to the Reds. Changing teams isn’t easy. I don’t know that there was a specific reason for it, but I don’t expect to see the same performance this season. Bauer is arguably the best pitcher on the team and we cannot overlook the Derek Johnson effect. Everyone wants to work with Johnson. I fully expect Trevor Bauer to return to form this year. He’s an integral part of one of the best pitching rotations in baseball, and I don’t expect that to change.
Wick: It was so odd. His K/9 actually was better with the Reds, as was his K/BB. His 4-pitch mix was roughly the same, but the extremely good production he saw in 2018 from his fastball/slider combo simply wasn’t there despite the velocity being pretty much the same.
In reality, what happened is largely represented in his batted ball data. His GB% dipped to a career-worst 34.0% in his time with the Reds, down from what had consistently been above 45% for the previous three years. Though he wasn’t allowing more hard-hit balls, he was instead yielding a lot more fly balls, something that wasn’t a very good thing to do with the streamlined/juiced balls being used last year. As a result, his HR/FB rate spiked, too, and that pretty well defined his problems.
Hopefully, a full offseason with Derek Johnson and the Driveline guys can help him rediscover hammering the part of the zone that produces more grounders and keeps the balls in the park again. While I doubt he’ll again reach his 2018 dominance, I’m certainly expecting a bounce-back year from him, especially in a contract year.
C70: Joey Votto also had a rough 2019. It’s probably asking too much for him to return to his All-Star form but is there a bounceback waiting for him?
Doug: I’d agree that it’s probably too much to ask Joey Votto to perform like an All-Star again. But last season he simply messed with his swing too much. He had an over exaggerated crouch in his swing for a while, and he simply couldn’t produce with it. But he hung onto that for a while, too. In the first 90 games of the season he was hitting just .259/.350/.398. He went back to a more conventional stance after that, with a more upright position and that resulted in a .270/.375/.444 line over the final 52 games. That second half sounds like something that would be a reasonable kind of bounce back overall. With that said, Father Time is undefeated and eventually it gets to everyone. It’s certainly possible that today’s the day for Votto and that bounce back simply doesn’t come.
Abby: I am a life-long Joey Votto fan, and I always will be. I know that Votto himself would be the first to say that he was not at his best last season. I agree that we probably aren’t going to see another almost-MVP season or All-Star caliber season from him, but I do think he’ll be improved from last season. With a new hitting coach who will hopefully be able to bring some life back to his bat, and with the front office bringing in players to spark the offense I think it’s definitely in the cards. We would all like to see him hitting as well as he used to, but I think just getting his on-base percentage back up to form will make a huge difference now that there will be some consistently strong batters behind him in the lineup.
Wick: I’ve had the privilege of watching Joey Votto almost every danged day for the last 12 years, and for the first time in that time, he actually looked confused in 2019. Considering he’s one of the best studied, most cerebral hitters I’ve ever come across, that was nothing short of strange. He tinkered with his batting stance mid-year – something several players did – but so far this spring looks as if he’s settled back into the stance that he’s used predominantly over the last handful of seasons, the crouched, choked-up one that led to blisteringly good results as recently as 2017.
The weird thing is that despite being 36 going on 37, his hard-hit rates have actually gone up since 2017, and his 37.8% fly-ball rate last year was his second highest in the last decade. So while his power probably isn’t what it once was, the peripheral numbers don’t exactly suggest it’s evaporated despite the dip in slugging percentage.
The fact is, even in last year’s slump, he still posted an OBP of nearly .360, and that will continue to be his calling card. While the power numbers might not rebound to their previous lofty heights, I do still expect him to slug better than the .415 mark he’s put up over the last two years combined. His ZiPS projected line of .273/.384/.434 is something I think is quite achievable, and would make him a very nice fit for the #2 spot in what looks like a solidly revamped lineup.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Doug: I hope that everyone else feels much like I do – the National League Central is a 4-team race. Everyone except for the Pirates should feel like they’ve got a legitimate shot to win enough games to take things. Depending on which projection system you want to look at you could see the Reds, Cubs, or Cardinals winning the division. And while I don’t believe I’ve seen a system projecting the Brewers at the top yet, they are always right there with everyone else. For me it feels like the team that happens to have the most luck when it comes to health from their key players is the one that will just have that extra edge and win the division.
When it comes to the Reds specifically – I think the offense will be drastically improved in 2020 over 2019. They picked up three quality hitters to mix in, and they have multiple options at most positions. The starting pitching is both their strength and their weakness in my mind. The Reds rotation 1-6 probably stacks up with just about any team in baseball. But the fall off after that, at least heading into the season, is enormous. The top pitching prospects that they had who pitched in Double-A and Triple-A last season had some real struggles and are going to need to prove themselves in 2020. Multiple starting pitching injuries are going to be an issue for any team, but right now it feels Cincinnati is head and shoulders better in the rotation than the division – but injuries could really take that away from them given the other options.
If someone were to make me bet a large amount of money on where Cincinnati finishes in the division, I’d take them to win it. But I wouldn’t feel good about it. I wouldn’t feel good about picking any team, though – it’s close. It’s really close. I won’t be surprised in the slightest if any one of four teams get to print NL Central Champions in 2020 shirts when October rolls around.
Abby: I expect the Reds to make a big run at the division title and I like their chances at doing it. As I said, they have one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball. Now they have the offense to back that up. I might be overly optimistic, but so be it. It feels good to have that level of optimism again. The NL Central is a perplexing division because there isn’t one team who has dominated consistently over the last couple of years, it’s been a battle right up to the end of the season and the Reds have finally thrown their hats in the ring. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to cheer for my team in October this year.
Wick: Expectations! I actually have them again!
In all seriousness, after a handful of years where I honestly just grew to ignore the win/loss columns, I’m expecting wins this year – and lots of them. I think the front office has put themselves in a position to where anything short of the playoffs will be considered a major disappointment, and that’s where I stand, to. I say that with my fan hat on, of course, as I think there are still enough flaws on this club to where a 90+ season seems a bit of a stretch, but dangit, it’s been too long with too much losing to be rational at this juncture.
This team is good enough to contend for a playoff spot, and the exciting thing is that if they do put themselves in contention, I think the front office is willing and financially able to bring in additional pieces in July to help that push. I’m expecting to see that happen, honestly, and think that a first division title since 2012 is completely within reason (though I think a wild card spot is much more likely).
C70: What’s the main topic Reds fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Doug: I’m not sure there’s a single specific thing that really sticks out. Maybe the biggest one is exactly how manager David Bell is going to be able to find enough playing time for the four-headed monster of an outfield that now includes Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, Nick Castellanos, and Shogo Akiyama. And that doesn’t even account for Aristides Aquino, who hit 19 home runs over the final two months of 2019 – who might wind up back in Triple-A because, well, where’s the playing time going to come from?
Abby: I don’t really know of one thing specifically that we’re talking about. It’s more like, for the first time in forever, the Reds are actually being talked about by other teams. They’ve been understandably ignored for the last several years. The starting shortstop is still a big concern, and I doubt that we’ll have the answer we want anytime soon. Best case scenario is probably going to be making due with who we have for now and then possibly trading for a shortstop at the trade deadline. It was rumored that we were in on trade talks for Francisco Lindor, which seemed a little too good to be true. and the price was ultimately just too high. It’s a situation I hope they will rectify and the one of the only weak spots in the lineup.
Wick: The Reds added Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama to an already crowded OF mix, and brought in Moustakas to help fortify the infield as their 2B, but much of the winter was spent following the rumors surrounding some of the star shortstops in the game potentially being on the move. Francisco Lindor! Corey Seager, perhaps, if Lindor ended up in LA! Carlos Correa! Trevor Story!
At the end of the day, it’s just Freddy Galvis as the Reds incumbent at the position, as the club opted to pick up his option and let Jose Iglesias walk in free agency. And while Galvis is a perfectly average player there – a plus glove, a little pop, and not the worst ‘worst bat in the lineup’ you could have – shortstop just stands out as a place where the Reds could have made a serious upgrade, as evidenced by their failed pursuit of Didi Gregorius in free agency, too.
Perhaps the Reds knew they had an ace in the hole, though, as what we’ve seen from talented prospect Jose Garcia so far this spring suggests the Reds have something special to look to as their future at the position, and maybe even as early as late 2020. Currently, FanGraphs is the highest on him, as he cracked their Top 100 prospect list towards the tail end of it, but the 21 year old Cuban has flashed a brilliant glove to go along with a sweet swing that has all of us – Barry Larkin, included – lauding his talent. Maybe, just maybe, the Reds don’t need to spend big on prospect capital to upgrade at shortstop, as it now looks like they might have a future star there already in-house.
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Doug: The World Series parade at the end of October in downtown Cincinnati. But seriously, I think competitive baseball. The Reds have been to the playoffs three times in the last two-and-a-half decades. They’ve only been truly competitive a few times outside of those playoff appearances. It’s been rough. Last year felt like the team, while perhaps not ready to take the division, could at least be competitive. And they kind of were after starting out 1-8, but that start just took away any and all excitement from the fanbase, too. The thought that the team could make a run was over before the first week of April had gone by. The offseason for Cincinnati went well. On paper, the team isn’t just competitive, they may arguably be the divisional favorites. It should be a fun season.
Abby: Winning. It’s been so long since they’ve had a winning season that I’m not sure I remember what it feels like. It has been such a grueling rebuild and hard to watch as times, I really just want to see my favorite team win games and hopefully make playoffs. They finally have the necessary players to have a winning team. The players are ready, the fans are ready for it. We’ve all waited long enough, I think.
Wick: While the offense was upgraded thoroughly and repeatedly all winter, I’m looking forward to 162 more games of what we already got to see a ton of in 2019 – elite starting pitching up and down the roster. With Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, and Wade Miley around, that’s as potent a rotation as the Reds have seen in some time, and I’m banking on them continuing to put the club in a position to win games day in, day out.
The new bats will be fun, and I’m excited about that. But as a Reds fan, it’s been mostly a lifetime of watching big bats and poor pitching, so it’s always refreshing to get see that script flipped. I think this group has a chance to be really, really special in 2020.