2018 Season Preview: Cincinnati Reds

Photo: John Minchillo / Associated Press

Cincinnati Reds

by Cam Cain

2017 Record: 68-94 (5th NL Central)

2017 Payroll: $115,323,803 (24th)

Projected 2018 Lineup:

All player projections for 2018 from Steamer

  1. CF Billy Hamilton, .242 AVG/.303 OBP/.345 SLG, 1.2 WAR
  2. LF Jesse Winker, .275 AVG/.358 OBP/.422 SLG, 0.9 WAR
  3. 1B Joey Votto, .295 AVG/.429 OBP/.521 SLG, 4.2 WAR
  4. 3B Eugenio Suarez, .251 AVG/.337 OBP/.438 SLG, 2.4 WAR
  5. 2B Scooter Gennett, .259 AVG/.309 OBP/.427 SLG, 0.5 WAR
  6. SS Jose Peraza, .278 AVG/.317 OBP/.379 SLG, 0.9 WAR
  7. RF Scott Schebler, .247 AVG/.314 OBP/.462 SLG, 0.8 WAR
  8. C Tucker Barnhart, .254 AVG/.331 OBP/.380 SLG, 1.5 WAR

Projected 2018 Rotation:

  1. Homer Bailey, 138.0 IP/4.81 ERA/1.43 WHIP, 1.5 WAR
  2. Brandon Finnegan, 116.0 IP/4.69 ERA/1.46 WHIP, 1.0 WAR
  3. Luis Castillo, 144.0 IP/3.91 ERA/1.26 WHIP, 2.6 WAR
  4. Robert Stephenson, 63.0 IP/5.06 ERA/1.51 WHIP, 0.6 WAR
  5. Sal Romano, 109.0 IP/4.48 ERA/1.40 WHIP, 1.2 WAR

*Potential ace Anthony DeSclafani is injured and will likely miss opening day. As of the time of this writing, there is no clear timetable for his return.

Offseason Recap:

As everyone expected, it’s been a very quiet offseason in Cincinnati. The most notable difference to the roster will be the loss of All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart. A lifelong Red, Cozart signed a 3 year deal with the Angels following a breakout 2017 in which he led all major league shortstops with a 141 wRC+. For the time being, his spot in the infield will be filled by Jose Peraza.

The Reds did make a few minor signings that will instantly improve their bullpen. The first new reliever is Jared Hughes, coming off a phenomenal season in Milwaukee. The second is David Hernandez, who was similarly great with the Angels at the beginning of the season but struggled down the stretch after being traded to the Diamondbacks. Both should get a lot of innings in a bullpen that has somehow put up -1.0 WAR over the past 3 seasons. Additionally, the Reds have invited several former major leaguers to spring training, such as Kevin Quackenbush, Vance Worley, and Ben Revere. Any contribution from these guys at the major league level would be a welcome surprise, but it would also most likely mean that multiple key players had gone down with injuries this March.

Season Preview:

Hey, remember the Reds? It’s ok if you don’t. After making the playoffs 3 times in 4 years from 2010-2013, they faded into obscurity, save for the occasional Votto fact or depressing bullpen statistic. The past 3 years for Reds fans have been an exercise in masochism. There’s a sick amusement in watching the endless conveyor belt of crappy Reds relievers pitch 10 terrible innings in the majors only to disappear into obscurity. (Steve Delabar, anyone? I can’t believe I watched this entire game.) But a few years back, the Reds were perennial contenders. In 2010, I was an impressionable 12-year-old, and I fell in love with the Cincinnati Reds, who won the NL Central and swiftly exited the playoffs with less of a bang than any team in history. 8 years later, only Joey Votto and Homer Bailey remain from that team. The only thing in common between the 2010 Reds and the 2017 Reds is that Votto was the rightful NL MVP in both seasons. And yet, it’s not hard to see this current Reds core developing into something like that resembles their most recent competitive team. It’s time to remember the Reds, because they could turn the corner sooner than you may think.

Any conversation about the Reds begins with Joey Votto. Votto has been a rock at first base for the Reds for a decade now, and he may have put up the best season of his career last year at age 33. Playing in all 162 games, he led the NL with a staggering .454 OBP and 165 wRC+. Despite his notorious slow starts to the season, he has finished in the top 7 in MVP voting each of the last 3 seasons, and he hasn’t finished a full season with an OBP below .410 since his rookie year. Votto has always hit for some power, but his eye is what sets him apart from all players in the majors, and it’s a skill that should age gracefully. The Reds are lucky to have Joey Votto, and he should continue to be well worth his $225 million contract.

Did you know that Scooter Gennett hit 4 home runs in a game? I’m almost tired of hearing this fact every time he steps up to the plate, but quite frankly, it was the most exciting moment for this franchise in years. Even looking past that magical night, Gennett was one of the biggest breakout stars in baseball last year. He hit 27 home runs and slugged .531, putting up 2.4 WAR in fewer than 500 plate appearances. His sudden power surge was a welcome surprise, given how dreadful Jose Peraza was at the plate last year. Now, just a year after being waived by the Milwaukee Brewers, Scooter will begin the season to Joey Votto’s right as the Reds’ starting second baseman. Heading into 2018, he is a very intriguing player. Any reasonable person would tell you that they don’t expect him to repeat last year’s numbers. Though his BABIP wasn’t out of line with his career total, his HR/FB% nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017. But Gennett is only 27 years old, 5 days older than Jose Altuve. He is still very young, and his increase in pulled batted balls suggest some sort of effective swing change. It’s easy to call him a bust candidate, and perhaps he will be a bust, but I believe at the very least he will be an effective major leaguer.

The Reds’ under-the-radar superstar is third baseman Eugenio Suarez. With his .367 OBP, 26 homers, and 4.1 WAR, and solid defense, the 26-year-old Venezuelan was the 6th most valuable third baseman by WAR in the majors, and ahead of such names as Kyle Seager and Manny Machado. His breakout last year was partly due to his sharp increase in walk rate, from 8.1% to 13.3%. Votto’s plate discipline must have rubbed off on Suarez, as he swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone while raising his OBP 50 points from 2016 to 2017.

The rest of the infield remains somewhat of a mystery. Jose Peraza will be the starting shortstop for the Reds this year following a miserable 2017 season. He was worth negative WAR over a full season, and his 62 wRC+ made him the fourth-worst hitter in all of baseball. Seemingly afraid to take pitches, his .297 OBP was somehow worse than that of Billy Hamilton (we’ll get to him in a bit). Thanks to his speed and ability to play multiple positions, Peraza will get plenty of chances to turn it around in 2018, but time may be running out. Many expected Dilson Herrera, the main return for Jay Bruce in 2016, to make the opening day roster as a backup infielder. However, he went down with yet another injury in training camp, and he will begin the season in AAA. It is likely we will see him in the majors at some point this year, but how he will fare remains to be seen. His injury does open up a spot on the roster for Cliff Pennington, signed to a minor league deal this offseason. He is a versatile defender who gives the Reds options off the bench, but don’t expect him to be another Scooter Gennett.

The Reds found their catcher of the future last year in Tucker Barnhart. Barnhart provides most of his value through his stellar defense behind the plate, but he still reached base at a .347 clip and was nearly a league average hitter. Following the season, the Reds declared their commitment to Barnhart by signing him to a 4-year $16 million extension. But the Reds have another catcher signed to a 4-year deal on the team as well. He has only played in 95 games over the past 3 seasons, but at one point Devin Mesoraco was the future of this team. Mesoraco is potentially a better hitter than Barnhart as evidenced by his incredible 2014 season, but his never-ending string of injuries since 2015 have limited his production to zero. He will make 13 million dollars this year before becoming an unrestricted free agent. If he can stay on the field, I still have hope that Mesoraco can at the very least be an effective backup catcher.

But the most exciting infielder the Reds have isn’t on the major league roster. It’s third baseman Nick Senzel, the second pick in the 2016 draft and #7 prospect in all of baseball. Senzel dominated in AA last year, hitting .340 with a 184 wRC+ in 57 games for Pensacola. He has spent most of spring training learning to play shortstop, a position where the team has a much more glaring hole. Reds fans are understandably eager for him to be called up as soon as possible, as he has the potential to become one of the next great hitters in this franchise’s storied history, but they will likely have to wait until September. Senzel has never played above AA, and he will need time in the minors to learn his new position. However, look out for him when the rosters expand at the end of the season. Perhaps this time next year and for the next dozen we will be penciling Nick Senzel in as the Reds starting shortstop. For now though, good things come to those who wait.

Speaking of (debatably) good things, the outfield is anchored by center fielder Billy Hamilton. By now, Hamilton’s reputation is well known across the league. He is the fastest man in baseball and an incredible defensive center fielder, but oh boy, is he a bad hitter. Many thought Hamilton had turned a corner in 2016, when he posted a career-high .260 batting average and .321 on base percentage. However, he was back to his old self last year, reaching base at a .299 rate and barreling exactly two balls. His 79.1 mph average exit velocity was lower than that of Jon Lester. Yet Bryan Price continues to bat Hamilton leadoff, citing old-fashioned dogma that tells you to put your fastest guy there. Simply put, it doesn’t make sense to give so many plate appearances to a guy who gets out so often. Hamilton can still be a valuable player due to his speed and defense, but he needs to hit more ground balls and bat lower in the order.

With four outfielders all worthy of playing time, the Reds’ plan this season is to platoon them and get relatively equal playing time out of Hamilton, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler, and rookie Jesse Winker. This slight decrease in playing time will surely benefit Duvall, who has been known to struggle down the stretch. His career OPS in September is .655, compared to .930 in May and .883 in June. He has hit 64 home runs over the past two seasons, but they have come alongside a low batting average and very few walks. He was a top 5 left fielder by UZR last year, but that number is almost definitely inflated by Billy Hamilton’s limitless range. This platoon opens up playing time for Jesse Winker, who was impressive in his brief time in the majors last year. He is an ideal top of the order hitter for any team, and I believe he will be playing every day by the end of the season.

Calling the Reds pitching staff over the past two seasons a disaster would be the understatement of the century. In 2016 and 2017, the Reds as a team had an ERA of 5.04. 53 pitchers, from Abel de los Santos to Wandy Peralta, took the mound during that stretch. 34 of them contributed a negative WAR. As a comparison, just 9 of the Cubs’ 42 pitchers were below replacement level during that stretch. That number is absolutely absurd but hardly surprising. Reds pitching hasn’t just been bad, it’s been historically bad. But this year, the Reds finally have a group of young starters they might be able to rely on.

Quick! Can you guess who led the Reds in innings pitched last year? It wasn’t budding ace Luis Castillo. It wasn’t shutdown reliever Raisel Iglesias. And it certainly wasn’t Homer Bailey, who has been nothing more than dead weight since 2015. No, it was Tim Adleman, currently of Korea’s Samsung Lions. Barring an outrageous series of events, Adleman will not be on the Reds’ roster this season. It’s not that Adleman was terrible; he was a perfectly serviceable starter when the Reds were desperately thin at the position. But now that the Reds have a surplus of young starters to sift through, his services are unnecessary. Before the injury of Anthony DeSclafani, a crippling blow to this rotation, there were as many as 9 pitchers competing for 5 rotation spots, each with a compelling case to be made.

First, we must address the elephant in the room. His name is Homer “Two No-Hitters” Bailey, and he is absolutely terrible. Following the 2013 season, Bailey was signed to a $100 million extension. Since then, it has been injury after injury. And when he has been on the mound, he has not been the Bailey of old, not even close. Over the past three seasons, Bailey has made 26 starts, posting a 6.39 ERA. Though he is only 31 years old, he has lost velocity, and he is getting far fewer hitters to swing at his pitches outside the zone. It appears that the Reds will be treating Bailey as if he’s their ace, making him the opening day starter, but any positive contribution to this team would be a surprise.

The Reds do have an ace in their staff, however. Luis Castillo was incredible as a rookie in 2017, and he has garnered a lot of hype. He struck out nearly 10 batters per 9 innings with his 98 mph fastball and devastating slider. Despite pitching only 89 innings in the majors, Castillo is the Reds 7th most valuable pitcher by WAR of the past 4 seasons. Any way you want to put it, Castillo was great last year. It has not been seen how he will pitch over the course of a full season, but Reds fans are right to be excited.

The rest of the rotation is not quite as set in stone. The oft-injured Brandon Finnegan pitched only 13 innings last year, and it’s unclear if his bicep injury suffered during spring training will be costly. The lefty has struggled mightily with his control, moreso than any Reds pitcher not named Cody Reed. Finnegan pitched well out of the bullpen in a very small sample with the Royals in 2014, and that may be his fate in Cincinnati unless he learns to throw strikes. Other options for the rotation include Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, and Sal Romano. All have high potential, but all have been very inconsistent throughout their short careers. Garrett may have the highest ceiling of all of them, but he will start the year in Louisville after a rough 2017 campaign. Another pitcher trying to make the rotation is Michael Lorenzen. Lorenzen came up as a starter, but he has pitched out of relief the past two seasons. In all likelihood, he will return to the bullpen this year, and when he does, he needs to work on increasing his ground ball rate. It dropped by roughly 10% from 2016 to 2017, and as a result, his ERA rose by a point and a half. Any pitcher at a park like Great American Ballpark needs to cut down on flyballs to be successful, and if Lorenzen can do so, he could provide the Reds with a second relief ace or perhaps even a solid #5 starter.

There’s one pitching prospect I haven’t mentioned yet whom I like more than any of these young starters, with the exception of Castillo. His name is Tyler Mahle, and like Bailey, he has thrown a pair of no hitters. The first was in 2016 for High-A Daytona, and the second was a perfect game for AA Pensacola last year. It was the first perfect game in the Southern League in over 45 years, and Mahle retired all 27 batters on just 89 pitches. He has shot up the prospect lists and minor league rankings, pitching 4 games for the big league club in September. His ERA in those four starts was an impressive 2.70, but his peripherals suggest he may not have pitched as well as that number suggests. He struck out just 6.3 batters per 9 innings, walking nearly 5. However, these rates are both out of line with his minor league numbers and don’t worry me much at all. Mahle may begin the season in AAA, but I predict he will be a fixture in the rotation by July and for the next several years. I’ve been burned before expecting Reds pitchers to become the guy to solve all our problems in the rotation or bullpen (See: Amir Garrett, JC Ramirez, Caleb Cotham, etc.), but something about Mahle just feels special.

The Reds bullpen will be once again be anchored by Raisel Iglesias, a true relief ace. He struck out nearly 11 batters per 9 innings last year, en route to putting up a 2.49 ERA. What excites me the most about Iglesias is the way he’s been used. Even though he is the closer, he pitched multiple innings 15 times last year, showing that manager Price is willing to be flexible with his bullpen roles and make sure his best guys are pitching the biggest innings. It’s a good thing too, because the bullpen around him is still a big question mark. Besides Iglesias and Lorenzen, Wandy Peralta was the only reliever who stood out last year, and even he struggled down the stretch. The signings of Jared Hughes and David Hernandez should be great low-risk signings to immediately improve a weak spot on the team, but we said the same thing about Drew Storen and Ross Ohlendorf. One player to look forward to seeing pitch is Jimmy Herget. After a brilliant 2016 season in Daytona, Herget did not disappoint last year, pitching to a 2.90 ERA in AA and AAA while striking out just about every batter in his way. It’s extremely doubtful he will begin the season in the majors, but he will see action in Cincinnati this year. (Seeing a pattern?) Jimmy Herget will be the guy who finally provides the Reds with another solid reliever, as this bullpen hopes to be respectable for the first time in a long time.

All in all, the Reds have the pieces of their next playoff team. The hitting has been strong throughout the rebuild, and they finally have a group of young pitchers I can be semi-confident in. However, most of these players still lack the experience to truly surprise people. I’ve been saying for years now that the Reds push .500 in 2018 and finally make their playoff run in 2019. The latest DeSclafani injury derails their immediate-term plans, but I believe this team is hungry and finally beginning to turn that corner.

Predicted Record: 75-87

Player to Watch: Joey Votto

Joey Votto is simply a treasure. He is indisputably a top-5 hitter in baseball, he is dedicated to improving his craft, and to top it all off, he is committed to the city of Cincinnati. But even Votto showed a little bit of frustration with the team heading into the season. Before the season, he expressed sympathy for the fans, many of whom are tired of all this losing. He then reiterated that he believes this team is capable of putting it all together, and that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get back to winning. Votto is a leader and beloved figure in the Cincinnati clubhouse. It’s time to start picking up the slack for him; we all know how hard he’s tried.

Player to Watch: Jesse Winker

Before Senzel and Hunter Greene were drafted, Winker was the highly touted prospect in the Reds’ system. He has never been well known for his power, but his ability to reach base is off the charts. His first taste of the majors came in 2017, and it went even better than expected. In 121 at bats, Winker reached base at a .375 rate and hit a shocking 7 home runs, over twice as many as he hit in AAA in less than half the plate appearances. I don’t think he will be able to keep up his sudden power surge, but I could see 15 homers and a .360 OBP from him. If he does this, he could become the everyday left fielder by the end of the season and a dark horse rookie of the year candidate.

Player to Watch: Robert Stephenson

If Winker was the biggest Reds prospect in the mid 2010s, then Stephenson was the clear #2. But the majors were much less kind to him than Winker when he debuted in 2016. Bouncing between the rotation and bullpen, he has been battered around the past two seasons. By midseason last year, Stephenson was back in AAA and labeled yet another disappointment. Then, something changed. In August and September, Stephenson was dominant. His ERA in the final two months was 2.50 in 9 starts, and his problems giving up the long ball nearly disappeared. This sudden breakout can almost entirely be chalked up to his new slider, a pitch he learned last spring training and perfected during his demotion to the minors. It was instantly effective in the majors, giving him some much needed confidence. Stephenson still has serious control issues to iron out. If he can cut down on his walk rate, and that’s a serious ‘if’, Stephenson has proven he is still capable of becoming a fixture in this up and coming Reds rotation.

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