The offseason that likely sealed a 2021 labor stoppage has lacked a lot of headlines. The biggest headlines are about free agents signing for fractions of what they were expected to get and pennies on the dollar from what they would have gotten in free agent markets from four or five years ago. Or the fact that a lot of guys didn’t even sign until February.
One team that made some headlines was the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are in the uber-competitive NL Central and have been an afterthought for the last five seasons. The Reds have finished dead last in the division in each of the last four years and were fourth and 14 games out in 2014.
Last year’s horrific 3-15 start was enough to get Bryan Price fired and the team showed flashes under Jim Riggleman before puttering to a 67-95 season. Somewhat inexplicably, the Reds were one of the few aspiring buyers of the offseason, as they were in the thick of Corey Kluber trade talks and added Sonny Gray from the New York Yankees in an effort to improve their starting rotation.
The timing is certainly odd. The Milwaukee Brewers fell one win short of the World Series. The Chicago Cubs won 95 games. The St. Louis Cardinals were a different team after Mike Matheny was fired. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a solid, though unspectacular team. The Reds look to clearly be the fifth-best team in this five-team division, but you have to give them credit for trying in a really soft market. Of course, they still didn’t spend much money on free agent bargains, but on the heels of four of the 12 worst seasons in franchise history, it’s fair to wonder what the vision actually is here.
General Manager Nick Krall, not to be confused with Nick Kroll, who played Ruxin on The League, is in a tough spot. Outside of Joey Votto, who had the worst season of his career from a power standpoint in 2018, the team has a lot of solid players under 30, but no superstars and a rotation that saw six starters make 20 starts and none of them had an ERA under 4.30. ERA isn’t the end-all, be-all, as you know if you’ve been reading this all along, but this is a team that needs more than Gray and somebody like Kluber to compete.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again and again. The worst place to be in any sports league is in the middle. Be really good. If you can’t, be really bad. Stockpile top-end draft picks. Keep your core players until they start costing money and then trade for prospects. Sign some marginal free agents with the intent to trade them to the Trade Deadline buyers. Don’t sit in the middle. Don’t finish 12th through 20th. Build a team that can legitimately win it all or won’t win much at all.
So, we’re left with a Reds team that is somewhere in the middle. If the pendulum swings right, the Reds will be striving for .500. If the pendulum swings left, they may fail to win 70 games for the fifth straight season.
With three teams very much capable of winning 90+ games and maybe even a division winner and both Wild Card teams, somebody has to lose in the Central Division. That somebody has to be the Reds, right?
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 67-95
Run Differential: -120
Pythagorean W/L: 69-93
BaseRuns Record: 70-92
BaseRuns Run Differential: -111 (4.45/5.14)
3rd Order Win% Record: 70.8-91.2
Record in One-Run Games: 10-29
Additions: Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Jose Iglesias, Derek Dietrich, Zach Duke, Connor Joe, Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, Tanner Roark, Kyle Farmer, Juan Graterol, Jordan Patterson, Christian Colon, Kyle Wren, Odrisamer Despaigne, Felix Jorge, Ryan Lillie, Reiver Sanmartin, Matt Bowman, Anthony Bass, Buddy Boshers, Tim Adleman, Felix Jorge
Losses: Billy Hamilton, Matt Harvey, Tanner Rainey, Jeter Downs, Josiah Gray, Homer Bailey, Shed Long
It was a busy winter for the Reds, both in terms of transactions completed and transactions discussed. The Reds were reportedly one of the most serious suitors for Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, but were seemingly unwilling to give up a package centered around Nick Senzel for his services.
Some teams’ offseasons are centered on the moves that they didn’t make. That could have been the case with the Reds, but they basically overhauled their rotation and the lineup has taken on a much different look. Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark joined Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani. That is a huge upgrade from Homer Bailey, Matt Harvey, and the rotating door of depth starters.
Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig should be great additions with a very favorable park factor in the Queen City. “Great American Small Park” should play a lot better for both of those guys than Dodger Stadium. With Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Taylor Trammell all about ready to contribute, the Reds have a different look on offense this year and in the future. Jose Iglesias and Derek Dietrich are two really good bench players to have. I love what the Reds did this winter.
BA: .254 (10th)
OBP: .328 (9th)
SLG: .401 (20th)
wOBA: .317 (14th)
wRC+: 95 (17th)
BABIP: .307 (4th)
K%: 22.1% (12th)
BB%: 9.0% (11th)
The Reds offense is actually on the cusp of being pretty good. Joey Votto is coming off of his worst power output ever in a full season with just 12 home runs and a .419 SLG. He almost posted a higher OBP at .417. The lack of power from Votto is a big reason why the Reds were top 10 in both batting average and on-base percentage, but finished 20th in SLG. That can’t happen in a park like GABP.
Eugenio Suarez paced the Reds from a power standpoint and finished second in fWAR by having a breakout season with a .376 wOBA and a 135 wRC+. Suarez still mashed lefties again, posting a .426 wOBA and a 169 wRC+ in that split, but he also posted a .356 wOBA and a 122 wRC+ against same-side pitching. That was the second straight season that Suarez hit righties well, so there appears to be some sustainability here, making him one of the better offensive third basemen in the league.
Launch angle disciple Scooter Gennett crossed 20 dingers again and posted a strong .310/.357/.490 slash line. Jose Peraza proved to be a league average hitter and the Reds got good offensive contributions from Scott Schebler. Adam Duvall and Billy Hamilton have been replaced by Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, which is an upgrade overall and a significant upgrade against lefties.
Jesse Winker is an OBP machine, as he posted a .405 OBP in 334 plate appearances last season and he’ll be a depth/platoon option, just to give you an idea of what this lineup has to offer this season. If the Reds have an injury, they’ll find a spot for Nick Senzel, who batted .310/.378/.509 in Triple-A before a bout with vertigo ended his season.
You certainly have to like the Reds offense. Based on the win total lines and some of the projections, so do the computers and the oddsmakers. It’s a big reason why this is such a high line. After all, the Reds haven’t even won 70 games since 2014. This requires a big leap.
ERA: 4.65 (24th)
FIP: 4.68 (27th)
xFIP: 4.28 (21st)
K%: 20.0% (24th)
BB%: 8.5% (17th)
LOB%: 71.5% (20th)
It’s a lot tougher to like the Reds pitching staff. We’ll start with the glass half-full. Luis Castillo was a punching bag early in the 2018 season, but he really rounded into form late in the year. Castillo finished with a 4.30 ERA, a 4.32 FIP, and a 3.69 xFIP. His 17.9 percent HR/FB% was an ugly outlier, but we saw the home run problem in 2017, so nobody should be surprised. In 103.1 innings in the first half, Castillo allowed a .264/.327/.473 slash with a .341 wOBA. In the second half, he allowed a .268 wOBA and just a .204/.256/.362 slash in 66.1 innings. His K% went up nearly five percent. His BB% fell 2.6 percent. His HR/FB% modestly improved from 18.4 percent to 17 percent.
That is a big building block going forward because he is the only guy with front of the rotation potential here. Anthony DeSclafani has shown flashes in his injury-riddled career, but last year’s 3.86 xFIP came with a 4.93 ERA. On the bright side, the overhauled Reds rotation does have some guys with some track records to maybe provide a little more consistency.
Sonny Gray needed to get out of New York. Maybe Cincinnati isn’t an ideal place for him, but things didn’t work in the Bronx and that was as mutual of a split as it can get. I’m tentatively excited about Gray, who had a 4.90 ERA with a 4.10 xFIP, which is usually a sign of positive regression. He’ll also be throwing to a good defensive catcher in Tucker Barnhart. Gray is only one season removed from a 3.55/3.90/3.76 pitcher slash.
Tanner Roark is a guy I always thought could do more with what he has. Back in 2016, all four of Roark’s pitches graded above average per Pitch Info Solutions and FanGraphs. That hasn’t been the case the last two seasons, but some tweaks to the arsenal could really help. If nothing else, Roark is a league average type of starter and that’s better than what the Reds previously had. Alex Wood is an above average arm that has posted at least 2.6 fWAR in four of his six seasons. His HR/FB% numbers may go up moving from Dodger Stadium, but he’s still a substantial upgrade.
The Reds were just 10-29 in one-run games last season. That is typically a stat bettors will use to find positive or negative regression. In this case, the Reds should be better in close games. Cincinnati’s bullpen was in the middle of the pack in ERA, but in the bottom seven in FIP. Raisel Iglesias had a nice 2.38 ERA, but a 4.23 FIP because of home run problems. Amir Garrett also had a bit of a home run issue at times and also had some control problems. Michael Lorenzen is the most interesting guy in the bullpen. Not because he can pitch, but because he can hit. Hopefully the Reds do deploy him as a two-way player.
Ultimately, the Reds remove Sal Romano, who posted a 5.31/4.95/4.68 slash in 145.2 innings, Tyler Mahle, who posted a 4.98/5.25/4.45 in 112 innings, and Harvey and replace them with Roark, Wood, and Gray. That’s not too bad at all.
Positives & Negatives
Because the Marlins are a dumpster fire, many believe that the NL Central is the absolute most competitive division top to bottom in all of baseball. That makes it tough for the Reds to really take a big step forward like the win total line implies. Those will be 76 very tough games. If Gray pans out and Castillo is able to sustain that second half surge, things will look a lot better.
A little bit of a random oddity here is that the Reds have underachieved relative to their Pythagorean Win-Loss record in five of the last six seasons. This is a team that hasn’t really done well in close games and hasn’t done a good enough job in run prevention. If that changes, and this is a big if, the Reds may live up to these expectations.
Pick: Under 79.5
For now, I just don’t see it. This is one of those scenarios where the Reds have to prove it to me. This is the best team since that 2013 Wild Card Game team, but we’re talking about a 13-win upgrade in the strongest division in baseball. They’re going to be better, but not 13 wins better.
While many seem to be thumbing their noses and the Cubs and picking a horse between the Reds and the Pirates to be the surprise team, I’m not sure about all three of those positions. I do believe two of them.
If the Reds go out there and win a ton of games, that’ll be good for the city and good for baseball, as the sport has a lot of rich tradition on the banks of the Ohio River.
I’ll be pulling for them because this is a really interesting collection of players and there are pitchers in the rotation that I have a soft spot for, so I’ll be tuned in regularly. I just won’t be buying the preseason hype. If anything, I’ll look to bet against it.