It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Reds during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
A team that finished over .500 and in contention for a playoff spot in September is one thing. What the Reds are now is something totally different. After a rough offseason on both sides of the lockout, Cincinnati’s roster looks significantly different than it did last October. So now what? Let’s talk to some Reds fans to find out. Or at least give them a place to vent.
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Cincinnati’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Doug: Oh boy…. Where to begin? The team went into fire sale mode after a winning season with a payroll that was nowhere near extreme. The fan base has basically revolted against the ownership after moving on in one way or another from Wade Miley, Tucker Barnhart, Sonny Gray, Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suarez, and Amir Garrett. Not to mention that they never seemed to be serious at all about bringing back Nick Castellanos. Trading Tucker Barnhart away made some sense as it opened up the main catching spot for Tyler Stephenson. But every other move just left people scratching their heads. It would be one thing if the Reds were a bad team if they had kept all of those guys. They weren’t. Rather than make small additions to the roster and push the team to the mid-80’s in wins, which in an expanded playoff situation moving forward almost guarantees a postseason appearance, the team decided that saving money was more important and traded off key cogs.
As for things to like in the offseason – there’s not much. They did land the #3 overall prospect in the international signing period back in January. The trade of Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez sucked given that the team could have been a contender, but they did get back a good prospect in that deal with Brandon Williamson.
Wick: Oh boy.
Cincinnati’s offseason saw them cut money left and right, in the process becoming a shell of what they’d become – a shell of the team that was supposed to be the one that finally dug them out of their last deep, dark rebuild. Gone are Eugenio Suarez, Sonny Gray, Wade Miley, Tucker Barnhart, Nick Castellanos, and Amir Garrett from a club that almost went somewhere, and moving Geno’s contract cost the Reds Jesse Winker in a deal that I’ll despise until my dying days. To be quite clear, it was a salary cull, and I hated every last minute of it. This is all off a payroll that didn’t even exceed league average last year, either.
I do like the Tommy Pham addition, while Brandon Williamson looks like he could be a vital piece as early as this summer. Still, the Reds chose to once again step back despite having won nothing in an entire generation, all in the name of money. It’s embarrassing.
Jim: There was nothing to like about the Reds off season aside from Jonathan India winning the National League Rookie Of The Year Award until a few days ago when Tommy Pham was signed to a 1 year deal. And the Pham signing remains subject to further review as the season unfolds.
The tone to the Reds off season was set prior to the call date for 2022 options when the Reds traded long time catcher Tucker Barnhart to Detroit for their former 2019 draft pick (#47 overall) Nick Quintana who spent 2021, his age 23 season, at class A. This was clearly a move by the Reds to avoid paying the $500K option buyout against Barnhart’s $7.5M 2022 salary versus trying to extend him for less than the $7.5M or paying the option and looking to deal Barnhart on down the line for better return. A few days later Wade Miley, arguably the Reds most effective starting pitcher in 2021, was claimed off waivers by the Chicago Cubs. Miley was waived by the Reds to avoid payment of a $1M buyout of his 2022 contract ($10M). Reds GM Nick Krall subsequently claimed he had been unable to draw any trade interest in Miley. It is hard to fathom that Miley would not have been a valuable commodity in the spring if had the Reds been willing to ride out this situation through the lockout.
Following the lockout, Sonny Gray was sent to the Twins in a deal that took $12M in sunken costs off the Reds books. In return the Reds received the Twins 2021 #1 draft pick (#26 overall), pitcher Chase Petty. Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez were then sent to the Mariners in a deal that took between $40M-45M in sunken cost off the Reds payroll through the 2024 season. A key piece of the return in this trade, pitcher Justin Dunn (#19 overall pick in the 2016 draft), has not pitched at the MLB level since mid 2021 due to a “nonsurgical” shoulder issue but was apparently cleared by the Seattle and Reds medical staffs. However, it was recently announced that Dunn will likely miss at least 2 months of 2021 due the mysterious issue. But wait! There’s more! Reliever Amir Garrett was subsequently sent to the Royals for starter Mike Minor (Eh, something of a Wade Miley clone?) in a deal that saw the Reds actually take on a net of ~$10M for 2022. The latest news is Minor has a “minor” shoulder thing going on and may not be ready for opening day.
Oh, and Nick Castellanos signed a 5 year $100M deal in Philadelphia, just $2M more in AAV than he would have made with the Reds in 2022-23 had he not opted out of his deal with them at the end of the 2021. Yet apparently per a public statement by Nick Krall, the Reds did not even attempt to get involved in the bidding for Castellanos.
And how was the offseason of your favorite team?
Abby: To say the Cincinnati offseason has been underwhelming would be an understatement. I had what was probably false hope that Nick Castellanos would re-sign with the Reds and I expected to see mostly the same lineup as last year. Trading Tucker Barnhart was tough for me, I was a Tucker fan before it was cool, but it was not unexpected. Neither was the trade of Sonny Gray. The one that really hurt was losing Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winker. Winker had such a great season last year and I fully expected to have another this year. They both really became fan favorite players and it felt weirdly personal to see them go.
Shawn: The offseason was very disappointing for the Reds, because it became clear ownership was about saving money and not fielding the best team possible. The Reds shed players for financial reasons only, especially Wade Miley, who would have been well worth his $10 million option but was simply placed onto waivers for nothing and quickly snapped up by the Cubs. He couldn’t have brought even a small return in trade? They could easily have picked up the option and then dealt him. That they did no such thing reveals a deep, deep problem. This was a team that needed to add a bat and instead dumped off Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez. For all that, the club still looks like a 75-80 win club, not a disaster but just mediocre. Coming into the offseason they looked like a .500 team with a chance to move up if they added a bat and some relief help. What a waste of Hall of Famer Joey Votto‘s career.
C70: Jonathan India had an incredible rookie season. Can he do the same in his sophomore season?
Doug: Can he? Sure. Will he? That’s another story. We’ve seen many a sophomore slumps throughout baseball history. There are some reasons to think that India can repeat it, or perhaps do even better, though. Last year he thrived in the second half of the season. He was the one who made the adjustment. That’s what you prefer to see rather than a strong start that’s followed by a tailing off as the pitchers figure him out. India also showed up to spring training IN THE BEST SHAPE OF HIS LIFE ™. All jokes aside, he put on some extra muscle in the offseason and it’s noticeable. With his breakout in the second half last year and him getting stronger, it’s not tough to think he can continue along the path of being an All-Star caliber player moving forward for a while.
Wick: It really was incredible, especially given the lack of a 2020 minor league season and how he’d stumbled a bit as a pro after being such a high draft pick. His .326 BABIP likely will see a bit of regression, but he also seemed to evolve a bit during last season in a way that makes me think the overall production might sustain, even if it’s not 100% similar to last year. He seemed to find his power stroke mid-year last year, and I’m banking on him leaning into providing more pop this year than he did overall last season.
I also doubt he’ll get plunked a league-leading 23 times again, and though that’ll ding his OBP, it’s probably for the best. All told, I think he absolutely has another 4 WAR season in him this year.
Jim: If the first two weeks of spring training are a reliable gauge, the answer is a resounding yes. Since India, the #5 overall draft pick in 2018, emerged at the Reds alternate camp site during the 2020 COVID season, we have seen him time and again demonstrate two of the most important qualities required for long term success in MLB, a willingness to work hard and the ability to adapt. Every time the league seemed to be catching up to him in 2021, he found a way stay ahead of the pack. Expect more of the same this year; and with a year of MLB experience behind him, he may even be more impressive in 2022.
Abby: Absolutely. Jonathan India is incredibly talented and it has been great watching him develop into a big league player. He’s the kind of player that gets fans excited to watch a team play. I have no reason to expect that we won’t see the same kind of production from him in the coming season.
Shawn: Jonathan India looks like a real player. I wouldn’t expect a big improvement this year, but he is a solid player at the same level as his rookie season. The Reds found their leadoff hitter.
C70: There was some talk about trades of Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Was there anything to that and do you think both of them play the entire season for Cincinnati? (Of course, events made this question a little moot, but there’s still Castillo…)
Doug: I do think there was at least a little bit of smoke to the fire that were the Luis Castillo trade rumors. After moving both Wade Miley and Sonny Gray, the Reds clearly were looking to move some salary and while Castillo’s arbitration number wasn’t known down to the dollar, the expectations for it were about $7-8M and that’s eventually what he got. The rumors on Castillo were also around the previous offseason, but Cincinnati kept him. He probably wasn’t the guy that they wanted to move in their “let’s clear some salary” plan, but I do think if they couldn’t have been able to make a move for Gray, that Castillo was someone they would have explored moving.
With that said, I do think that he’s going to remain with Cincinnati for the entire year. At this point it seems like the team is probably done making deals. It’s time to set the roster and start playing games. Even with all of the strange moves, the projection systems still have the Reds around 80 wins this year. Sometimes the projections just get it wrong, but every team has a baseline expectation of talent should produce and right now the team is *around .500*. With 6 teams making the playoffs in each league that’s a ”hold steady and see what happens” kind of team.
Wick: Gray’s now in Minnesota, because the Reds chose to cash in on a lottery ticket arm to move him off the payroll. Castillo, though, is still around, and while I’d love to think he’ll play the entire season in Cincinnati, I do think the lack of a long-term contract extension with him means the Reds – who’ll almost certainly be long out of the playoff race during trade season – will field offers for him at that point. I’d love to see him in red and white for more years, but with his team control up after 2023, it’s probably worth moving him if they aren’t going to commit to him.
Jim: As detailed above, Sonny Gray has been traded to the Minnesota Twins. Subsequently, Reds GM Nick Krall said on the record that neither Luis Castillo nor Tyler Mahle would be traded during 2022. But all is not right with Castillo who has been notoriously slow out of the block at the beginning of seasons. The Red revealed on March 22 that Castillo had felt some soreness in his pitching shoulder was held back from throwing for several days. Reds manager David Bell went on to say that while Castillo has begun throwing again (from flat ground), he was “probably” out for opening day and perhaps the entire first turn through the starting rotation. As of March 27, Castillo has yet to appear in a Reds game and has not been reported to have thrown off a mound.
Abby: Well, obviously we had to say goodbye to Sonny. I wasn’t overly surprised that one of the members of the starting rotation was traded, I was a little surprised that it was Sonny who was dealt. I would have expected a better return had they traded Castillo. It’s a shame to see any of them go though; the starting rotation has been a strength for the Reds the last two years.
Shawn: The rumors of trading Castillo and Mahle were about shedding even more salary, and could still happen even though the Reds have said they will not be traded now. I hope not, because those guys anchor the rotation as it is and give the team a chance to reach the postseason even with this depleted club. I would much rather they stick around.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Doug: It’s probably a toss up between Hunter Greene and shortstop Elly De La Cruz. We’ll talk about Greene, though – he could make the opening day roster, but even if he doesn’t, the chances he’s not in a Reds uniform in the first half seem pretty small. As for why people should be excited for him to get to the bigs…..He averaged 100 MPH on his fastball in the minors last season and hit 104 MPH in games and 105 in spring training (2021). He’s got a plus breaking ball. He was among the youngest pitchers in both Double-A and Triple-A last season and posted a 3.30 ERA between the two stops. If that’s not something a fan of baseball can get excited for then what the heck are you a fan of this game for?
Wick: Hunter Greene throws the ball a billion miles per hour and we’ve been waiting to see him for so long it seems silly, but he’s somehow still just 22 years old. I think he’ll get held back to start the season – he’s thrown just 106.1 IP as a pro since 2018, after all – but we’ll see him at some point in a month or three, and I’ll be drooling like the rest of the baseball world.
Jim: Right handed pitcher Hunter Greene, (#2 overall draft pick in 2017) is the man everyone wants to see at MLB yesterday. Much like Jonathan India, Greene began to come of age in the 2020 alternate site camp as he returned from Tommy John surgery the previous year. Last year in his age 21 season, he opened at Class AA and looked like a man among boys from the get-go. Greene was moved to AAA in mid June and experienced some growing pains but nevertheless was recently described by manager David Bell as “looking ready” (for MLB) in camp this spring.
Until just a couple of days ago, most observers, including yours truly, expected Greene’s MLB debut would come well into the 2022 season. However now it appears that rather than try to fill the gap created by the supposed short term unavailability of Luis Castillo and Mike Minor with non roster organizational depth pitchers or pitchers previously destined for the MLB pen such as Tony Santillan and Jeff Hoffman, the Reds are moving toward beginning the season with Hunter Greene in the rotation along with another rookie, leftie Nick Lodolo, the #7 overall pick in the 2019 draft.
Barring a trade which brings in another MLB starting pitcher, it seems certain at least one of this pair will make an MLB start or two pending the return of Castillo and Minor. Greene would seem to have the inside track by virtue of already being on the 40man MLB roster while Lodolo had not yet aged to require a 40 man spot over the winter.
Abby: I would guess that most people are excited for Hunter Greene to hopefully make his debut this year, Greene is one we have been excited about for quite a while. I think the person I would be most excited to see Nick Lodolo called up this year. He’s looked great in spring training so far and it’s always nice to have a lefty in the starting rotation. I’m excited to see what Derek Johnson will do with both Greene and Lodolo though.
Shawn: Hunter Greene is looking ready to be in the majors now, and could really be an exciting addition with his 100-mph heat. That’s a pretty good third starter. Nick Lodolo, a left-hander, also could be in the rotation soon. And Elly de la Cruz, a shortstop who has come from seemingly nowhere, could be ready by the end of the year. Those are the team’s most exciting prospects, and they are exciting.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Doug: The 2022 Reds are intriguing. If I had to bet – and I’m not a gambler by any means – I’d say they are probably an 80-win team. Even with the trades they’ve made, they’ve still got a good, but not great group of guys at the big league level with Tyler Stephenson, Joey Votto, Jonathan India, Donovan Solano, Mike Moustakas, Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and some good arms in the bullpen. The downside there is that Joey Votto, a future Hall of Famer that he is, isn’t getting younger. At some point Father Time always wins. Mike Moustakas hasn’t been the healthiest of players in his time since joining Cincinnati. And Luis Castillo had a small setback this spring with a sore shoulder (he is throwing again and the team doesn’t seem concerned).
On the flip side of that the team has a good farm system with high upside guys on the verge of joining the team. They’ve got two top 50 pitching prospects in baseball who could break spring training with the team (Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo), and a third top 100 guy who could be there soon (Brandon Williamson). And that also doesn’t count Graham Ashcract, who throws 100 MPH, is a ground ball machine, and pitched well in Double-A last year. Jose Barrero is going to miss the first six weeks or so of the year after having wrist surgery to remove his hamate bone, but he’s also a top 50 prospect in the game (on the lists that count him as prospect eligible – some do not and have him as graduated from the lists). This group of guys certainly gives the team some interesting upside if two of them pan out this season, much less if things go really right for them.
The error bars on the team are pretty big. The safe bet is 80 wins and a 3rd place finish. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they won 74 or 86, either.
Wick: It’s because there was a talented roster that the offseason tear-apart has been so frustrating. They do have good parts! A young core of India and Tyler Stephenson, with the likes of Jose Barrero, Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft ready to step in and contribute, is exactly why we wanted to see them augment this roster with some vets to go somewhere. Instead, they’re going to just turn it all over to the youth, and I fear that’s more than Joey Votto and Pham can lug around all year.
I see them being a sub-.500 team heading into trade season, though not a complete traveshamockery. Of course, that’ll mean they’ll likely be sellers, with the likes of Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Hunter Strickland, and Pham all likely to draw interest from others at that point. So, that’s got all the makings of a 4th place finish in the Central, somewhere in the 74-88 range.
Jim: Before the Reds
traded dumped Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suarez and Sonny Gray, I believe they would have been in the expanded playoff scrum even without Nick Castellanos. Now however, who knows? Jonathan India and catcher Tyler Stephenson are poised to become major stars. Do the likes of Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas have a last hurrah left in them? Will Nick Senzel finally have a complete healthy season and in the process play up to his #2 overall (2016) draft projections in CF? What will Pham and Tyler Naquin contribute as corner outfielders to take up the slack from the departures of 2021 All Stars Winker and Castellanos?
Even if the seemingly abundant young pitching at or near MLB ready level blossoms, will the Reds exploit this development to do better on the field or simply use it as cover to trade the likes of Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle, pocketing some more money? Having so many questions make the Reds likely to end up in the 75 win vicinity, maybe a bit better if all goes well but even worse if they have key injuries. Still they should be better than the Pirates. So, I’ll say 4th in the NL Central with a shot to perhaps best the Cubbies for 3rd.
Abby: It’s tough to say, I don’t have a particularly good or bad feeling. My inner pessimist says that we’re in for a sub-500 season, but somehow I think the Reds might surprise us all. I would call myself cautiously optimistic.
Shawn: I think this is a 75-80 win club as currently constituted, fighting the Cubs for 3rd place in the division. The emergence of Greene and possibly Lodolo could improve that outlook, boosting the pitching to among the best in the league. If everything were to break right the team could win 90 games. If things go wrong, they have to fight the Pirates to stay out of the basement. The biggest question about the team is whether they can score runs. Where does the offense come from besides India and Votto? Can Votto continue his resurgence, or will he slip back again? A breakout year from Tyler Stephenson would help a lot.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Reds Twitter accounts to follow.
Wick: @RedsFan_Brandon is a great follow if you’re analytically inclined, as he routinely digs through stats (and video analysis) to provide some great tweetin’.
If you’re into podcasts, @riverfrontcincy is the gang who founded Redleg Nation and a good follow. (Full disclosure: I’m a guest on there every now and then, so take this recommendation with requisite grain of salt!)
Abby: Hmm…that’s a tough one, I have a lot of great friends I’ve made through Reds twitter. You can’t go wrong giving @BlogRedMachine a follow for any and all Reds news and projections, I also would recommend @LockedOnReds both on twitter and the podcast. And lastly, just for fun I’ll say @EvilJoeyVotto, who is not actually Joey Votto…as far as we know. But Joey Votto is officially on Instagram now!