As one of two rebuilding teams in the National League Central serving as easy prey for the Big Three, the Cincinnati Reds are undoubtedly in for a long season. A couple of big offseason trades were not given a stamp of approval from most baseball analysts and columnists, but the Reds are definitely going to take a methodical approach to this rebuild. There are some really intriguing arms, but a clear lack of position player talent to put around Joey Votto means that 2016 is going to be rough and 2017 could be just as difficult.
The Reds were not as bad as their 64-98 record last season. By Pythagorean win-loss, they were 69-93, but the team completely gave up late in the season and it was painfully obvious. Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake were sent packing and the Reds packed in the season. The first half of the season wasn’t a major disaster with a 39-47 record, but the Reds were just 25-51 after the Break and gave up four fewer runs in 76 games than they had in the first 86. Cincinnati was just 5-12 in extra-inning games, 18-29 in one-run games, and lost by five or more runs on 27 occasions. It certainly didn’t help in August and September, when the Reds were 17-40, that Cincinnati’s schedule featured a steady diet of playoff teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, and Mets.
As far as I’m concerned, that means that their record was a little bit misleading. They weren’t very competitive, as only a handful of those losses over the final two months came in one-run games, but still. It’s hard to keep coming to the ballpark when a rebuild begins, especially on a team that had large amounts of success with three playoff berths in four years from 2010-13. I try not to put a ton of stock into September performances on teams with nothing to play for. It’s about development, utilizing the 40-man roster to its full value, and/or playing out the string.
One of the tough things to handicap about this season for the Reds is trying to figure out who else might get traded. Brandon Phillips has a year left on his deal. Jay Bruce will surely get dealt. Any reliever with a pulse has a chance to go. There aren’t a ton of trade pieces here, but Walt Jocketty will move whatever he can to further this rebuild. On one hand, it will be another tough blow in the clubhouse. On another hand, Bruce and Phillips aren’t overly valuable and the guys stepping in might not be that big of a downgrade.
Everything points to a brutal year for the Reds. They’re in a tough division with three legitimate playoff contenders and the World Series favorites. It is a season about individual development and not wins and losses, so that could dictate how certain relievers are used in leverage situations and the workloads for starting pitchers. That’s a lot of variables to consider.
Season win total odds:
BetOnline: 69 (100/-130)
5Dimes: 70.5 (130/-160)
Bovada: 70.5 (100/-130)
Key additions: Jose Peraza, Scott Schebler, Caleb Cotham
Key losses: Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Sean Marshall, Manny Parra, Brayan Pena
The Reds were dealt a bad hand by the actions of Aroldis Chapman. The Reds reportedly had a deal in place with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it came out that Chapman had been involved in a very serious domestic incident. Regardless of how the legal process played out, he was tainted in the eyes of most teams. That cost the Reds some serious trade value.
Not many people liked the Todd Frazier deal, in which the Dodgers seemed to get better prospects in the three-way deal than the Reds did. In any event, Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler were the two main pieces. The problem for the Reds is that they moved their top two trade chips at the Trade Deadline, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do this winter.
Why bet the over?
Honestly, I like the Reds a lot more than most people seem to. When you talk about the Reds, you have to start with Joey Votto. Inexplicably hated by far too many Reds fans and various broadcasters, Votto is an elite offensive player. The knock on Votto is almost incredulous – he walks too much. It’s hardly Joey Votto’s fault that the front office was never able to put the necessary production behind him in the order to take full advantage of an elite-level skill. Votto had a phenomenal offensive season that went largely unnoticed because his team was awful. He posted a .314/.459/.541 slash with a 20.6 (!!) percent walk rate.
The thing about Votto is that his contact quality is off the charts. He’s got such a smooth left-handed swing and sprays line drives all over the field. He’s actually got plus power, with 192 career home runs. He’s not what Reds fans want him to be. That’s their loss. They’re blinding themselves to one of the best hitters of this generation. After an injury-plagued 2014 season, Votto bounced back in a big way and returned to his usual levels. That’s a hell of a player to build around.
We go from elite hitter to awful hitter in Billy Hamilton, but he creates value in other ways. He’s an elite speedster and a very good center fielder. Hamilton was 48 percent below league average offensively and still amassed 1.9 fWAR. A .264 BABIP for a guy that stole 57 bases seems like a total outlier. He’s still not going to be an average offensive threat this season, but a more reasonable BABIP in the .285-.290 range would elevate him to a .250 average, which means more opportunities to run, and more chances to score runs. Regardless, he’s a player with a high floor because he has 126 steals in 279 games and 23 defensive runs saved in 2,220 innings. Even with the volatility of defensive metrics, he’ll be very useful.
It would be really great if Devin Mesoraco could stay healthy. The Reds invested quite a bit in the backstop and he only played 103 games in 2013 and 23 games in 2015. In between, he posted a .273/.359/.534 slash with 25 homers and quality defense. His hip injury required surgery, so who knows what 2016 holds, but you can make a case for him to bounce back if he’s healthy.
Brandon Phillips was a below average offensive player for the third straight season, but that’s because sabermetrics like guys that walk. Phillips doesn’t walk. If he can be a .290 guy with a .390 SLG again, he’ll be a good contributor for this team. He hit 12 homers and stole 23 bags. Even with clear signs of aging decline, he remains a good second baseman in the field.
Phillips’s middle infield partner, Zack Cosart, is coming off of major knee surgery, but he did pick up 1.3 fWAR in just 53 games last season. He was on pace for a career year when he went down. He’ll turn 31 in August, so it’s easy to be skeptical, but he was showing some signs of growth and almost all of his stats were trending in a positive direction when he went down.
There are some interesting position players left to cover. Eugenio Suarez had a .280/.315/.446 slash in 398 PA last season and hits lefties quite well. Scott Schebler hit 28 home runs in Double-A in 2014 and had 13 at Triple-A last season with a little bit of speed and passable defense in a small sample. Adam Duvall hit 30 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last season and then added five more in 72 PA with the Reds. Jose Peraza is a toolsy utility player with great speed and the ability to thrive with high BABIPs in the minor leagues.
I like a lot of the arms here for the Reds. To me, Raisel Iglesias is a big breakout candidate. The Cuban import got his first taste of the big leagues last season in 95.1 innings and struck out well over a batter per inning. His command was a little bit shaky at times, but he’s got decent velocity on a heavy sinker and a pretty good slider. He could easily hang a 3.50 ERA with some really nice peripherals.
Anthony DeSclafani may not have as much upside as Iglesias, but he figured things out late in the season. He made some big arsenal changes late in the year and started throwing more sinkers, curveballs, and sliders. He was BABIP’d to death late in the year, but he posted a 22 percent K% in the second half with a four percent BB%. His .354 BABIP led to a 4.52 ERA, but his FIP of 3.46 and his xFIP of 3.33 should be taken seriously.
John Lamb is one of those left-handers that teams will continue gambling on throughout his career. He came over in the Johnny Cueto deal and posted a 5.80 ERA with a 4.16 FIP and a 3.73 xFIP in 49.2 innings. Lamb had a lot of growing pains. His stuff was unhittable at times, but a high walk rate, awful command, and a .376 BABIP (remember, home runs don’t count towards BABIP) all led to that unsightly ERA. His stuff moves a ton, but he’s not exactly sure how to harness it yet, so it leaked out over the plate and his fastball location was bad. But, the raw tools and the stuff are there to make him a pretty good pitcher. His minor league numbers are all over the map and he bounced around a lot of levels. It seemed like the Royals had no idea what to do with him. He’ll get a chance on the big stage here.
Speaking of former Royals prospects, Brandon Finnegan is a guy I have watched closely since he came out of TCU. He’s another guy with good raw stuff from the left-handed arm slot. He’s got decent velocity, a sweeping slider, and a serviceable changeup that he doesn’t work in a whole lot. As a starter, he’ll have to. Most of his MLB work has been out of the bullpen. There’s a lot of upside here as well. He should make the Opening Day rotation because there are no veterans blocking him or any of these guys.
Homer Bailey will come back in May from Tommy John and he’s a giant unknown, so we’ll skip him for now. Robert Stephenson is another stuff guy with a lively fastball and a double-plus curveball. Control has been an issue in the minor leagues, but missing bats hasn’t been. He reached Triple-A last season and made 11 starts, so he’ll get a taste at the big league level soon.
Why bet the under?
The bullpen is a problem area. JJ Hoover will start as the closer, but probably won’t keep the job. Tony Cingrani’s fastball-dominant arsenal might work in short bursts in the pen, if he can throw strikes. Jumbo Diaz is the best hope for value here after bouncing around several different organizations before getting an MLB shot with the Reds. He struck out over 27 percent of the batters he faced. The Reds can move some starters back, but that’s not in the best interest of the organization. So, this bullpen will probably be among the league’s worst all season long.
Joey Votto spent most of 2014 hurt. He was healthy in 2015 and the Reds were still awful. Can he do enough to put this team on his shoulders? They’re going to need to score runs because the rotation, while extremely talented, is going to be inconsistent and the bullpen will be positively awful. I have a hard time with teams that are so reliant on one player. I’ve had this issue with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the past with Mike Trout. It was a problem with Oakland when they had Josh Donaldson. It was a problem in Arizona with Paul Goldschmidt before AJ Pollock came on the scene.
Devin Mesoraco is a really important guy. Not only is he a good defensive catcher, but he’s probably the second-best hitter on this team. He’s coming off of major hip surgery. Zack Cosart is coming off of serious knee surgery. Billy Hamilton had shoulder surgery this past offseason. The walking wounded list for the Reds heading into Spring Training is really concerning. Starter John Lamb also had a procedure and Homer Bailey is coming back from Tommy John. The one common thread for all rebuilding teams is that none of them have depth. Players have been traded away and backups and prospects have been elevated to bigger roles.
If you’ve been reading these write-ups, you know my thoughts on depth. Depth is almost a necessity for me to take a team’s season win total over. Outside of the starting pitching and the utility skills of Jose Peraza, the Reds don’t have a whole lot of depth to speak of and that concerns me.
In a more practical, non-hypothetical sense, this division is rough. The Reds have a comparable opponent in the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers, but the Chicago Cubs are a clear favorite to end their World Series drought. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates combined for 198 wins last season. Fifty-seven of Cincinnati’s 162 games come against the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates.
As mentioned above, the Reds will be sellers at the Trade Deadline. If things shake out as expected in the American League, there will be a lot of buyers and a small number of sellers. Brandon Phillips could go. Jay Bruce will go. Any reliever having a decent year will go. The balloon won’t pop as dramatically as it did when Johnny Cueto left, but it could deflate a little bit, leading to a similar August and September.
Pick: Cincinnati Reds Over 69 (Even – BetOnline)
Call me crazy, but I really like this team. I’m buying in to the starting rotation and I think the position players will be a lot better than people expect. The one thing that we’ve found out about prospects with power is that they will still hit for power when they catch mistakes. They won’t catch as many of them, because MLB pitchers are a lot better, a lot more efficient, and make fewer of them. But, even if the strikeouts go up, the barrel finding the occasional hanger and hits it out. Guys like Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall have some power. Eugenio Suarez has a little bit of pop. They aren’t household names, but they have some upside.
The Reds were 24-33 in those 57 games against the Cubs/Pirates/Cardinals last season. Can they repeat that performance this season? Truth be told, that’s not that bad. If they do, and this is a big if, that only leaves 46 wins in 105 games against the rest of Major League Baseball and there are other bottom feeders in the NL that the Reds are comparable to, if not better than. This is one of my stronger plays to date.
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-
Two teams in the National League posted winning records within the division and losing records for the season. One was the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were 40-36 against the NL Central and just 36-50 against everybody else. It was a season full of key injuries for the Reds, who lost Joey Votto for a long period of time and Homer Bailey and Mat Latos combined for just 39 starts.
You have to go back to 1982 to find the last time the Reds failed to score 600 runs in a season. That 1982 season was the only one in which the Reds lost 100 games. They didn’t even make it to 90 losses last season with a 76-86 finish, but Bryan Price’s first season as the manager was anything but successful.
It was a tale of two halves for the Reds, who were 51-44 when the league adjourned for the All-Star Break. The Reds were 25-42 the rest of the way as Alfredo Simon’s impending regression hit like a hurricane, Bailey went out, Votto remained out, and guys like David Holmberg and Daniel Corcino made starts. Mike Leake also fell apart in the second half, but pushed his way through it with the bad rotation.
The Reds went from almost four runs per game in the first half to 3.25 runs per game in the second half. One of the key areas to look for year-to-year regression is in a team’s record in one-run games. The Reds were horrible in one-run games last season with a 22-38 record. Most teams tend to be within a few games of .500, so there could very well be some positive regression in that record. Another odd element about their record is that they were 6-14 against the American League, even though they were +1 in run differential.
The Reds were involved in 30 shutouts last season, 17 of which were losses. They watched walk-off celebrations on 13 different occasions. It’s fair to wonder what the Reds could have been with Joey Votto in the lineup and their starting rotation fully healthy, given so many one-run losses and strange occurrences.
Oddsmakers aren’t expecting a whole lot of improvement from the Reds this season. BetOnline and Bovada are set at 77.5, while 5Dimes has 78 listed for the Reds.
Key additions: Marlon Byrd, Anthony DeSclafani, Eugenio Suarez, Jose Mijares
Key losses: Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon, Chris Heisey, Ryan Ludwick
It was a relatively quiet offseason for the Reds, but the trades of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon are the two transactions that have stuck in the minds of oddsmakers. Latos was sent to the Marlins for Anthony DeSclafani. The Reds shipped off Alfredo Simon for utility man Eugenio Suarez and a minor leaguer.
Latos faced declining velocity and ongoing health problems and Simon was the byproduct of tremendous batted ball luck in the first half of last season. Simon posted a 4.52 ERA and a 4.37 FIP in the second half, so the Reds were smart to get rid of him before the bubble completely burst.
Marlon Byrd is an intriguing addition in a good hitter’s park for guys with power. Byrd is still flashing good power in his late 30s, even though his bat-to-ball skils have regressed a bit. He’s a surprisingly competent outfielder in his elevated age and should be just fine at a ballpark where anything hit over your head is either off the wall or gone.
Why bet the over?
Oddsmakers are not properly respecting the injuries that the Reds had last season. Leg problems have limited Joey Votto in two of the last three seasons, but there’s no reason to pencil him in for anything less than five wins this season, which would be a four-win bump from last season’s .255/.390/.409 slash line. Votto may not come close to 30 home runs again this season, but he’s still an elite on-base guy. Votto’s career .310/.417/.533 slash might not be approachable this season, but then again, he’s a tremendously gifted hitter with one of the league’s best set of eyes at the plate.
The people that look down on Votto because he walks so much and doesn’t drive in runs are fools. Hitting is about not making outs. Votto is one of the best in the game in that regard. The power and the extra-base hits generally come from his great line drive swing. We’re talking about a player that should, at a minimum, be 25 percent better than he was last season and possibly better than that. With another power bat in Byrd and the impressive development of Todd Frazier over the last couple of seasons, Votto doesn’t need to change who he is.
Speaking of Frazier, it all came together for the third baseman last season. He hit 29 home runs, swiped 20 bags, which was a major surprise, and put up a .273/.336/.459 slash line. Now that he has fully settled in at third base, he is an above average defender at the hot corner, joining most of the Reds players as above average defenders. Frazier may not approach 30 homers with 20 steals again, but a 25/15 season with an average in the .270s and an above average OBP will play nicely.
All the waiting paid off on Devin Mesoraco. The Reds catcher hit 25 bombs in just 440 plate appearances and posted a nice 9.3 percent walk rate. His .273/.359/.534 slash with a .387 wOBA was one of the best performances by a catcher last season. There’s nothing in the statistical profile that suggests regression. Of course, it was an “out of nowhere” type of season for Mesoraco given his previous seasons, but the starting job was finally his and he hit at nearly every level of the minor leagues.
Billy Hamilton is the type of player that a lot of people are excited about. His bat-to-ball skills need a little work and he’d be a much different player if he walked, but he stole 56 bases and provided plenty of defensive value thanks to his speed. A .304 BABIP is probably the lower end of the spectrum for him and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the stolen base numbers and the batting average go up a bit this season.
The Reds are one of those teams with a lot of hidden value. Hamilton’s value on the bases is pretty much out in the open, but numerous Reds players rated above average defensively and they were the league’s top team in defensive runs saved last season with 67. As I’ve said throughout these articles, DRS shows no year-to-year correlation of significance, however, the Reds are still a terrific defensive team that will save more runs than they will allow. Brandon Phillips and Zack Cosart are awful offensive players, but replacement-level is doable overall because of how well they field.
There’s a bounce back candidate on the roster in Jay Bruce. After four straight seasons of being at least 17 percent above league average, Bruce was awful last season. He struck out more, walked less, and his power disappeared. Bruce slugged .373, nearly 100 points below his career average. Torn knee cartilage may have had something to do with it and his .269 BABIP was part of the season why his batting average dropped by 45 points. He hit fewer fly balls and there are other concerning trends, but he should at least perform at a league average level offensively again and that would be a 21 percent upgrade.
Clayton Kershaw is in a league of his own, but Johnny Cueto doesn’t seem to get the same love that other National League pitchers of his ilk tend to get. Cueto was dynamite again last season with 20 wins a 2.25 ERA, but some concerning signs of regression with a 3.30 FIP and a 3.21 xFIP. Cueto threw 243.2 innings last season.
The thing about Cueto is that he has almost always outpitched his advanced metrics. He has a great knack for stranding runners and his strikeout rate spiked last season. As he enters a contract year, Cueto will be a highly sought after commodity on the market. He missed a lot of time during 2013, so there’s risk involved, but Cueto is really good and has a tremendous defense behind him.
That’s the caveat about these good defensive teams. Mediocre pitchers are going to be elevated by a good defense. Oddsmakers often overlook that and that’s part of why defensive prowess is such a key for me in these win totals. That’s where the rest of the Reds rotation comes in. Mike Leake is not a high strikeout guy, but he is a high ground ball guy with a good walk rate and he fits that mold as a guy that can outpitch his advanced metrics. Leake posted a 3.70 ERA with a 3.49 xFIP, so there’s some room for growth there if he can stay out of the middle of the plate and let his defense do the work. His 3.51 SIERA also speaks to some positive regression. Surprisingly, his home run problem came on the road, so it could very well be an anomaly.
I expected huge things out of Homer Bailey in 2014, but a bulging disc and an elbow problem derailed his season. The drop in home run rate from 2012 to 2013 went away and his command dropped off. However, there were two big reasons for optimism. The first is that Bailey’s velocity increase from 2012 to 2013 was not a one-year wonder and the second is that Bailey induced more ground balls last season. He threw more sliders and less fastballs and curve balls, which is likely the reason why, but Bailey was never healthy and turned in a 3.53 xFIP. With this defense, Bailey could go back to the sub-3.50 ERA he had in 2013.
Southpaw Tony Cingrani tried to mix in some more breaking balls and it didn’t work out for him. He also missed significant time with an elbow injury, possibly from the strain of trying to develop secondary stuff so that he could develop into an effective starter. Trying to change his spots, Cingrani walked more, struck out less, gave up more home runs, and hurt himself. The best course of action for Cingrani and the Reds is to focus on fastball command and use the defense behind him. If he does that, he can probably find a way to overachieve his way to a decent ERA in spite of a high home run rate, just like he did in 2013.
Anthony DeSclafani might actually work out for the Reds. He had good strikeout rates in the minors, but his claim to fame is not walking people. He’ll probably become more of a pitch-to-contact fly ball guy, which is sort of terrifying in Cincinnati, but the Reds defense can go and get it and he’ll turn 25 in April. There’s room to grow. A third pitch would help, but he might not be as bad as people think. Depth is an issue behind DeSclafani with only Dylan Axelrod and David Holmberg, so there’s some pressure on him to perform. Paul Maholm may be a starting option as well.
The bullpen is in decent shape if Aroldis Chapman is healthy. Chapman struck out 52.5 percent of the batters he faced last season and AVERAGED 100.2 miles per hour with the fastball. The Reds bullpen doesn’t jump off the page because they didn’t strike out a lot of batters outside of Chapman and gave up too many long balls. Burke Badenhop is a strong, under the radar addition to this bullpen because he’s a ground ball, low home run guy that will play very nicely with this defensive infield.
I can’t stress this enough: Defense wins games at the Major League level. The Reds were +67 defensive runs saved last season. Each 10 defensive runs saved, on average, represents a win. When you consider that the Reds had some quirky run differential outcomes, a terrible second half, a bad record in one-run games, and still won 76 games, this win total line seems criminally low. Oh, yeah, and Joey Votto was worth four wins less than usual.
Why bet the under?
The Reds are a Johnny Cueto injury away from having one of the worst rotations in the National League. Great defense or not, there’s no replacing 200 innings from Cueto with the lack of depth that the Reds have. And it could certainly happen, too. Furthermore, if the Reds are out of the hunt in July, no player will garner more trade interest than Johnny Cueto. As an impending free agent, the Reds would be wise to trade him and get some bona fide young talent. With the second wild card and a lot of teams expected to be in the hunt for that, there will be an epic bidding war for Cueto’s services. The Reds will be forced to trade him because they won’t be able to pass on the offers they are going to get.
In a predictive sense, I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how the Reds rotation can outperform their advanced metrics, but there’s not a guarantee. The team is good defensively, but a lot of things can go wrong. Not only that, but continued regression from players like Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, and Zack Cosart will leave the Reds with at least three well below average offensive players in the everyday lineup in a league without a DH. That’s a major problem for a team whose rotation has to rely on batted ball luck and balls staying in the park to be successful.
Devin Mesoraco may have been a one-hit wonder. Marlon Byrd’s body may finally remind him that he’s 37 years old. Joey Votto’s persistent leg problems may resurface quickly and plague him throughout the season, zapping his power. Todd Frazier is not going to be a 30 HR 20 SB guy again this season because that power bump was completely out of the ordinary and mostly unexplainable.
The bullpen is an Aroldis Chapman injury away from being the worst in the league. They pitch to contact and give up a ton of home runs. The bullpen also lacks depth. There aren’t a lot of guys I’d be eager to give the ball to in high-leverage situations and it’s improbable that Bryan Price would be willing to send Chapman out for multi-inning saves very often.
The NL Central is a tricky division. Somebody will have to lose some games unless there’s a lot of parity with everybody within a 10-game difference. That would require some really good records against the NL East and NL West. If you look at the division, the Reds have the lowest win total in the 77-78 range and the Brewers are in that same boat. Everybody else is at 83+. Usually there’s at least one team that bottoms out and drops 90 games. The Reds seem to be the highest variance team in the division because of their starting rotation and how terrible their offense was last season.
Pick: Over 77.5
Don’t overthink this one. The Reds were missing their best offensive player by a mile in Votto and have the best defense in the National League, if not all of baseball. If you remember, and I’ve driven this point home a lot here, fielding seems to be the one inefficiency that oddsmakers don’t really account for because of its lack of predictive value from season to season. The difference here is that the Reds are obviously going to be good defensively and most of the bench guys on their team have Major League jobs because they can field.
The Reds are a top-heavy team with Cueto, Votto, and Chapman, so if any one of those three guys misses significant time, this bet is in trouble, right? Well, Votto missed time. Latos and Bailey missed time. Chapman only made 54 appearances. The Reds won 76 games. Sure, they fell apart in the second half when the injuries really mounted, but the first half is what this team is capable of when healthy and that’s a really good sign for the season.
Roll with the Reds over and take advantage of the value provided by the misguided perceptions of the oddsmakers.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
Among National League teams, only the Atlanta Braves have won more games over the last two seasons than the Cincinnati Reds. With 187 wins over the last two seasons, the Reds won the National League Central Division by nine games in 2012 and lost the wild card round game in 2013 after a 90-win campaign. The Reds, along with the Pirates and Cardinals, came together to form one of baseball’s best divisions in 2013, as those three teams posted a combined record of 281-205, the most wins of any top three teams in a division.
The Reds have not had three consecutive winning seasons since the team had four straight winning records from 1985-88 with a group that finished second in the NL West all four seasons. The last two seasons have been about pitching for the Reds, who are one of two teams to allow less than 600 runs in each of the last two seasons.
The Reds will have a different manager this season for the first time since 2007. Dusty Baker was fired after falling to get the team past the Division Series for the third time in four seasons. The team elevated pitching coach Bryan Price into the role of manager. With Price a bit of an unknown as manager and the loss of Shin-Soo Choo, one has to wonder what’s in store for the Reds this season.
The expectations from the sportsbooks are very interesting. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV hung a very optimistic total of 87 wins, with William Hill next in line at 86.5. LVH Superbook set a rather pessimistic total of 83. BetOnline opened at 84. If these numbers are still available in Nevada, a middle has to look like an intriguing proposition with a gap like that.
Key additions: Chien-Ming Wang, Jeff Francis
Key losses: Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Xavier Paul
The Reds went all-in and won a few pots with Shin-Soo Choo, but they couldn’t take down the World Series title. The Reds acquired Choo from the Indians prior to the 2013 season as part of a three-team deal that sent shortstop Didi Gregorius to the Diamondbacks and Drew Stubbs to the Indians. Choo was spectacular for the Reds, accumulating 5.2 fWAR, but he moved on to Texas with a very lucrative free agent contract.
The loss of Bronson Arroyo could be a difficult hole for the Reds to fill. Arroyo took a free agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. While Arroyo wasn’t the most talented pitcher, one could make a case for him as the most durable. Arroyo averaged 33 starts per season over his eight years with the Reds. Over eight seasons, Arroyo managed 14.6 fWAR with the Reds, which is hardly spectacular, but the onus is on the Reds and new manager Bryan Price to find somebody to throw Arroyo’s 200 innings.
Chien-Ming Wang and Jeff Francis, two veteran starters, will be candidates to replace Arroyo. Wang has thrown just 257.2 Major League innings since the start of the 2008 season, so the Reds are hoping that he can defy his recent injury history and be a contributor. Francis, the longtime Colorado Rockie, is familiar with the National League and knows what it’s like to pitch in a good hitter’s park.
The loss of Xavier Paul hurts a little bit more in the National League because of the need for pinch hitters and defensive replacements. Paul put up decent numbers for a part-time player, but his lack of versatility hurt the Reds last season since he was limited to playing left field and has severe batting splits.
Overall, it’s been a very quiet offseason for the Reds, who are banking on healthier seasons from their in-house options like Johnny Cueto and Ryan Ludwick. The biggest change is the manager, where Bryan Price takes over for Dusty Baker. Baker often drew the ire of sabermetrically-minded baseball fans, so there’s some hope among that group that Price will be able to better utilize the team’s best player, Joey Votto. Traditionalists look at Baker’s results with a division title and three playoff appearances in four seasons and wonder if that can be replicated with a different manager.
Why bet the over?
The biggest reason to like the Reds is because of their pitching staff. The rotation boasts Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and the likely fifth starter is Tony Cingrani. If all five guys are healthy, this is a very formidable group capable of giving the Reds good length for a National League team and chances to win a lot of ballgames.
Latos is the guy most likely to take a big step forward this season. Latos went from pitcher-friendly Petco Park in San Diego to hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park to start 2012 and hasn’t dropped off at all. His peripherals remain consistent. He’s become a workhorse with back-to-back seasons of over 200 innings. There’s reason to hope that Latos can be even better this season as his strikeout rate doesn’t quite correlate to his high swinging strike rate. He also allowed the highest percentage of line drives last season. It coincided with a drop in fly ball rate, which is good for his home park, but if the line drive rate moves back towards his career average, preferably with an increase in ground balls, Latos should be around the same or better.
Cueto managed just 11 starts in 2013, so it’s rather impressive that the Reds won 90 games without the services of their staff ace. Cueto’s high ground ball rate coupled with a low walk rate makes him a very valuable starter. Cueto is sure to be mislabeled as a major injury risk because of what happened last season. With the exception of a 24-start season in 2011, Cueto made 30 or more starts in his other four Major League seasons. Keep this in mind as well. Cueto’s injury was to a lat muscle, not his arm or shoulder. His offseason training regimen likely focused on strengthening his core and that should allow Cueto to make 30 starts again. Even while pitching through the lat problem, Cueto maintained his velocity and control. Expect a big bounce back season from him.
Like his other rotation counterparts, Homer Bailey has great control. What makes the Reds rotation so good is that they force hitters to get on base by putting the ball in play. Bailey is no exception and his increased strikeout rate and improved home run rate make him a possible breakout candidate in this rotation. The Reds noticed these trends and rewarded Bailey handsomely with a six-year, $105M extension, so there could be some concern about Bailey putting too much pressure on himself to live up to the contract. But, that seems like grasping at straws rather than appreciating Bailey for what he is. He’s in the prime of his career as a pitcher and his peripherals are trending in the right direction.
Mike Leake posted a 3.37 ERA last season over 31 starts by limiting his home runs and increasing his ground ball outs. If Leake can continue that, he gives the Reds rotation tremendous depth as a back-end of the rotation starter more than capable of performing above average. Tony Cingrani is the wild card of the rotation. Cingrani threw predominantly fastballs in his 19 starts last season and was still able to keep Major League hitters from making solid contact, if they made any contact at all. He racked up tremendous strikeout numbers in the minors and those, at least to date, have translated to the bigs.
Behind the main five for the Reds, Chien-Ming Wang and Jeff Francis may provide some veteran intangibles in case of injury. David Holmberg, acquired in the Ryan Hanigan trade, is the standard issue, reliable lefty starter with a fastball that can barely break glass but he throws strikes and has a four-pitch mix to keep hitters off balance.
The Reds bullpen is a pretty deep group anchored by flame-throwing Cuban Aroldis Chapman. Some people continue to insist that Chapman should be stretched out as a starter, but he has been a dominant reliever, especially over the last two seasons with a strikeout rate above 43 percent and 76 saves. Chapman was stronger in the second half last season, quieting fears about his durability as a short-inning reliever in back-to-back seasons.
The rest of the bullpen is a rather unassuming group of solid relievers. There are no big ticket setup men on the roster, but a collection of guys with above average strikeout rates and good matchup options combine to form a solid, deep bullpen behind Chapman. Sean Marshall, one of the game’s top matchup lefties, missed most of the 2013 season and the bullpen didn’t miss a beat without him. With Marshall hopefully healthy, the Reds pen, which finished 20th in fWAR last season, should move up. Also, a HR/FB percentage of 11.7 percent was likely park-aided, but was much higher than 2012, so that should regulate this season.
The hope is that new manager Bryan Price will find a more effective place for Joey Votto in the everyday lineup. There continues to be debate about Votto, who is perennially among the league leaders in walks and on-base percentage, because he is the most gifted hitter in the Reds lineup but doesn’t produce the RBI or home run totals that some people believe he should. Votto is a believer in sabermetrics, possibly leading to his approach at the plate. Dusty Baker inexplicably bunted in front of Votto with regularity during his Reds tenure, a point to expand on shortly. Under Price, perhaps Votto becomes even more production in a traditional sense.
Ryan Ludwick’s 2012 season seems like a thing of the past after just 140 plate appearances in 2013. Ludwick is now 36 and the drop in production with age is a very real thing. But, Ludwick’s issue was a separated shoulder and not something with his legs, so there’s hope that he can return to being a productive hitter this season. Brandon Phillips posted the second-lowest BABIP of his Reds career, leading to a 20-point drop in batting average. Phillips also stole only five bases, the fewest of any season with the Reds. Price wants the runners to be more aggressive, so Phillips may add additional value on the basepaths.
Another victim of the BABIP monster was Todd Frazier. Frazier’s BABIP dropped nearly 50 points, even though his strikeout total remained the same. Frazier matched his 2012 home run total in 135 more plate appearances. Since home runs are not counted in the calculation of BABIP, this would indicate that Frazier was a bit unlucky.
Billy Hamilton will add a new dimension atop the Reds lineup as he tries to replace some of Shin-Soo Choo’s lost production. Hamilton is a burner on the bases. He stole 395 bases in 502 minor league games and 13 bases in 13 games during his short audition last season. Hamilton transitioned from shortstop to the outfield last season, so he’ll also fill a positional hole left by Choo.
The firing of Dusty Baker should improve the Reds. Baker often made questionable lineup decisions and lost a handful of games because of his hesitance to use Aroldis Chapman in non-save situations. A few times, Baker’s Reds lost in extra innings never having put Chapman in the game. One could argue that it’s far easier to lose a game than win it with questionable managing and given some of Baker’s head scratchers, a fresh start in the Reds dugout could prove beneficial.
Why bet the under?
How do the Reds replace Shin-Soo Choo? The Reds combined for 24.4 fWAR from their position players last season and Choo accounted for 5.2 of that. In terms of wRAA, weighted runs above average, an advanced metric that determines how many runs better than an average performer a player is, Choo was 44 runs above an average offensive player. As a team, the Reds were 2.7 runs above average. If Choo was replaced with an average player, the Reds would have been over 41 runs below average. That would have put them among the 10 worst offenses in that category.
Banking on Ryan Ludwick or Billy Hamilton appears to be a fool’s errand for the Reds. Hamilton will steal bases, but his very low on-base percentages and swing and miss tendencies are going to prevent him from getting on base a lot. Ludwick is definitely on the downside of his career and his health has been an issue.
It’s concerning that the Reds continue to want to change who Joey Votto is. Votto generates a ton of value for the Reds and the problem isn’t him. The problem is the front office failing to surround Votto with the necessary talent to maximize his value. Bounce back seasons from Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier would help, and it’s possible with their low BABIPs, but it’s entirely possible that Phillips’s decline is the start of his age showing.
Jay Bruce will continue to put up solid fantasy numbers in home runs and RBI, but his walk rate dropped, his strikeout rate increased, and his BABIP of .322 was 25 points above his career average. Bruce will still be a strong contributor for the Reds, but as illustrated above without Choo, the Reds lineup is probably going to be hurting for offense. Expect Bruce’s batting average and on-base percentage to drop a bit, possibly weakening an already questionable offense.
Outside of Cueto, the Reds rotation stayed extremely healthy last season. Four starters made 31 or more starts. That has to continue because the Reds do not have a lot of starting pitching depth. Furthermore, there have to be concerns about Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani. Leake and his well below average strikeout ability are always a concern in his home park, but Cingrani is largely a one-pitch pitcher and that will catch up with him at the top level. Leake’s FIP was nearly 0.7 runs above his ERA and he stranded an unsustainable amount of runners. Cingrani also had a FIP-ERA difference of 0.86 and his fly ball tendencies raise red flags.
Pick: Over 84 (BetOnline)
As I said at the top, you’ve got a pretty juicy middle if you have access to both numbers. Because you probably don’t, take the under on the highest number at your disposal. That said, over 84 looks like a decent bet as well. This is a pitching-heavy team that can stay in the hunt if they remain healthy. The Reds are banking on a very good rotation that lacks depth outside of the top five and an offense that will be lucky to be above league average. If the Reds are successful at being more aggressive on the bases as their new manager wants to do, it can lead them to be better than expected, but caught stealings are very detrimental and taking baserunners away from the Reds will make this offense suffer even more.
If Cueto manages a full season and some of the offensive guys have their bounce back seasons, it can offset the loss of Choo, but taking a five-win player away on offense that helped other guys drive in runs takes a lot of compensation and a lot of things need to go according to plan for the Reds to offset that loss. At 84, the offshore number, it's a sharp number and the lean would be to the over because of the talent in the rotation and a full season of Cueto. Injuries to Latos, Cueto, or Bailey would kill this bet pretty quickly. The best play is probably to save your money for a different team.