2019 Season Preview: Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati Reds

by Cam Cain

2018 Record: 67-95 (5th NL Central)

2018 Payroll: 100,365,708 (25th)

All projections from Steamer

Projected 2019 Lineup:

  1. LF Jesse Winker, .284/.377/.439, 1.9 WAR
  2. CF Nick Senzel, .276/.339/.448, 1.6 WAR
  3. 1B Joey Votto, .278/.409/.464, 3.4 WAR
  4. 3B Eugenio Suarez, .257/.348/.466, 3.4 WAR
  5. 2B Scooter Gennett, .262/.313/.427, 1.3 WAR
  6. RF Yasiel Puig, .276/.351/.501, 3.1 WAR
  7. SS Jose Peraza, .281/.322/.398, 2.0 WAR
  8. C Tucker Barnhart, .247/.323/.373, 2.0 WAR

Projected 2019 Rotation:

  1. Sonny Gray, 154.0 IP/3.89 ERA/1.33 WHIP, 2.5 WAR
  2. Alex Wood, 137.0 IP/4.00 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.9 WAR
  3. Luis Castillo, 173.0 IP/4.00 ERA/1.26 WHIP, 2.6 WAR
  4. Tanner Roark, 143.0 IP/4.56 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 1.4 WAR
  5. Anthony DeSclafani, 153.0 IP/4.34 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 1.8 WAR

Offseason Recap:

After an active, hectic, and overall exciting offseason, the Reds come into 2019 with an overhauled rotation and a brand new outlook. They began this offseason by addressing the coaching staff. Only Freddie Benavides remains from the disappointing 2018 season. While the team did look a little better under interim manager Jim “I Like Big Bunts and I Cannot Lie” Riggleman, it was clear that they needed to bring in a new, younger, more analytically-driven leader. Enter David Bell.

If you were to rank the David B’s of the world (as one does), Coach Bell doesn’t quite live up to the immortal Byrne. But while Bell doesn’t have something like “Once in a Lifetime” or even “Slippery People” on his résumé, he still is the clear man for the job. The Cincinnati native emerged victorious from a lengthy list of qualified candidates that included new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, and a mysterious mustachioed fellow named “Pryan Brice.” Bell has spent the last six seasons with the Cubs, Cardinals, and Giants. During this time, he has become acclimated to analytics, the likes of which have never been seen in the home dugout at Great American Ballpark. In his own words, Bell plans to use all the information available to him in order to make managerial decisions.

In addition to a new manager, the Reds will have new hitting and pitching coaches this season as well, both of whom come highly acclaimed. New pitching coach Derek Johnson is credited for turning the Brewers’ ragtag rotation into one that nearly got them to the World Series. And Milwaukee did not give him up without a fight. The same is true of hitting coach Turner Ward, whom the Reds lured away from the Dodgers. In Cincinnati, Ward will get to work with exciting hitters such as Joey Votto, Nick Senzel, and a certain friend of his.

At the beginning of the offseason, GM Dick Williams declared that the Reds would be active this winter. And that they were. From Keuchel to Kluber, the Reds publicly declared their interest in every starting pitcher who was even remotely available. In the end, they made three big moves to acquire players, all through trades. The first such move came in early December when they acquired Tanner Roark from the Nationals, who instantly became the team’s second-best starter. All they had to give up was reliever Tanner Rainey, who somehow was worth -1.0 bWAR in just 7 innings.

The biggest and most surprising trade came just weeks later when the Reds traded Homer Bailey and two low-level prospects to the Dodgers for Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, and Kyle Farmer. The Dodgers immediately cut Bailey, who is on the books for two more years. Meanwhile, Puig, Wood, and Kemp are all free agents after this season. While the Toms Verducci of the world questioned the Reds’ motives in making this deal, I love it for several reasons.

First and foremost, the Reds found a taker for the albatross that is Homer Bailey. Not to beat a dead horse, but Bailey has been really, really, really bad for four years now, and the fact that the Reds won’t have to pay him $28 million over the next two seasons is huge. With cash considerations coming back the Reds’ way, the deal is fairly even financially, with Cincinnati taking on just a bit more salary. But in essence, the Reds traded millions of dollars that wouldn’t have helped the team, in exchange for a similar amount of money that will. Alex Wood may be the team’s best starter, and our new friend Puig will slot into the middle of the lineup as the Reds’ starting right fielder. Kemp is probably the team’s fourth or fifth best outfielder, but his bat can still be valuable off the bench. The team is clearly better in 2019 with these players on it.

With Wood, Puig, Kemp, and Roark all free agents after the 2019 season, the Reds are put in an interesting position. The team should be just entering its competitive window, and with a sudden influx of money coming off the books, they could make a big splash next offseason. One name stands out: Chris Sale. Now, do I really think the Reds will throw a bunch of money at Sale? Maybe, but it sure feels a whole lot more likely than it did six months ago.

The third and final major deal the Reds made was acquiring and extending starting pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees. They gave up second base prospect Shed Long, who somehow ended up on the Mariners after Jerry Dipoto swooped in at the 11th hour. Long is a promising young player, but his path to the majors was blocked by Senzel and recent first-rounder Jonathan India.

Other moves the Reds made include the additions of Derek Dietrich, Zach Duke, and Jose Iglesias, and the subtraction of Billy Hamilton, who had a career OBP of .298 with the Reds. The team also gave minor league deals to semi-familiar names Buddy Boshers, Odrisamer Despaigne, and Ian Krol, but it would require one or multiple horrible tragedies for any these guys to get regular innings in the Reds bullpen. In summary, the Reds filled their biggest need by acquiring three capable starting pitchers without giving up any of their top 6 prospects, while also cutting ties with their two largest negative contributors. Sounds like quite the successful offseason to me.

2019 Season Preview:

To understand the 2019 Reds, it’s important to first talk about the Reds from 2015-2018. Like many other teams, the Reds entered a rebuild, bottoming out for a few years in hopes of winning down the line. And they really bottomed out. During this time frame, their 267-381 record was worst in the majors, and their 19.3 WAR as a pitching staff was barely half as much as the 29th place Marlins (although the hitting was league average and trending upward.) After trading away their entire rotation save for the injured Bailey, the Reds set a record by using rookie pitchers to start their final 64 games in 2015, a season in which they went 64-98. (That list of rookies does not include William “Rookie” Davis, who posted an 8.63 ERA with the 2017 Reds.) From 2015-2018, the Reds used 85 different pitchers. From Axelrod to Weiss, Quackenbush to Shackelford, nearly all of them were terrible. Only eleven members of this group, which I have dubbed the “egregious eighty-five,” were worth 1.0 WAR or more. And that includes Cueto, Leake, and Chapman, who were all gone after 2015. 36 of the 85 had ERAs above 6.00, and 30 walked at least 5 batters per 9 innings.

It was the Reds’ worst 4-year stretch since the 1930s. And to an outside observer, it would appear that things are getting worse. After all, the Reds won one fewer game in 2018 than the year prior. However, the team’s poor record is largely due to their 3-18 start and historically unlucky 10-29 record in one-run games. It was the worst record in such games since the St. Louis Browns in 1937. As a matter of fact, I would say that the Reds took a major step forward in 2018. For the first time since 2015, their pitching staff was outside the bottom three in fWAR, and the bullpen was downright adequate. They saw young players thrive at the major league level, with many more yet to arrive. The Reds are ready to turn the corner.

What type of Reds preview would this be if it didn’t begin with Joey Votto? Votto wasn’t quite himself at the plate in 2018. For the first time in his career, he played a full season and did not lead Reds hitters in WAR. Though his .417 OBP led the league, it was his lowest in 7 years. And he hit just 12 home runs. However, his power numbers should bounce back this season. His HR/FB rate was just 9.5%, roughly half his career average. His average exit velocity actually rose from 87.5 MPH to 88.1 MPH. His plate discipline remained Votto-esque as he was one of just four hitters who walked more than he struck out. The 35-year-old Votto may no longer be the best hitter on the Reds, but I have no worries about him going forward.

If Votto isn’t the Reds’ best hitter, that title almost certainly belongs to third baseman Eugenio Suarez. After a breakout 2017, Suarez was rewarded with a 6-year extension. He was even better in 2018. His 135 wRC+ was behind only Anthony Rendon among NL third basemen, and his 34 homers and .366 OBP were behind only Rendon and Arenado. And his 91.2 MPH average exit velocity was 29th in all of baseball, just ahead of Mike Trout. Just 27 years old, Suarez should be the team’s cornerstone for years to come.

At shortstop for the Reds is Jose Peraza, whom I was ready to declare the worst player in the league early last season. But suddenly, something changed. From June to the end of the season, Peraza slashed .305/.344/.465 with a 114 wRC+. Though his walk rate is still lower than I’d like it, Peraza has shown that he can be capable of being a solid major league contributor for nearly a full season. He pairs his newfound hitting ability with great speed (23 SB) and adequate but improving defense (-2 DRS.) Peraza’s 2.7 fWAR from 2018 ranks him ahead of notable names such as Miguel Andujar, AJ Pollock, and Jose Martinez. And Peraza is younger than all three players, even the rookie Andujar. If Peraza can be a 3-win player at the bottom of the lineup, this team will be hard to beat.

To Peraza’s left is perhaps the league’s most surprising superstar. Scooter Gennett came over to the Reds as a waiver claim just shy of Opening Day 2017. After a magical season in which he became the first Reds player ever to hit 4 home runs in a game, many thought Scooter was a fluke. He silenced the doubters by improving even more in 2018, hitting .310 with a 4.5 fWAR that slotted him just outside the top 10 in the National League. Now, does his .350 BABIP from the past two seasons mean he is an aberration? Perhaps, but Gennett saw his hard contact rate increase from 28.9% in his final season with Milwaukee to 34.4% and 38.8% in his first two with Cincinnati. His future with the Reds is up in the air, as the team has a glut of infield prospects to sort through, and Gennett is a free agent following the 2019 season. Perhaps trading him at the deadline would be the best move, but Scooter keeps on rolling like some sort of man-powered vehicle. Who knows when his meteoric rise will stop?

Just a couple of months ago, it seemed the Reds’ catcher in 2019 would be JT Realmuto. Cincinnati was briefly the frontrunner in the race for the Marlins’ star backstop, who ended up going to Philadelphia. In the end, the front office decided to roll with fan favorite Tucker Barnhart. Barnhart’s .328 OBP and 89 wRC+ don’t inspire a lot of confidence, but they weren’t that far from league average at the position. The 2017 Gold Glover is mainly known for his defense, but that wasn’t quite up to his standard last year. Backing Barnhart up will be Curt Casali, who had an .805 OPS last year.

In left field, the Reds have perhaps the closest thing to Joey Votto since Votto himself. Rookie Jesse Winker reached base at a .405 clip, including a .517 OBP in July. His 1.07 BB/K was 5th among players with at least 300 plate appearances, tied with Votto. The reason I use such a low threshold, unfortunately, is that Winker injured his shoulder in July, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. But assuming he’s healthy, Winker is the archetypical leadoff hitter in the age of sabermetrics, despite his lack of speed (his 26.0 ft/s sprint speed puts him squarely in Mike Zunino territory.) Winker does have a major shortcoming, however: his defense. And without Billy Hamilton next to him, it may be exposed even more in 2019.

The Reds enter the post-Billy era without an experienced center fielder. But there is a clear favorite to win the job. Top prospect Nick Senzel, a college third baseman and MiLB second baseman, will likely start the majority of games in center for the Reds this year. Though Senzel is inexperienced in the outfield, he is a tremendous athlete, and coach Bell is confident that the 23-year-old can play there, at least for the time being. If Shin-Soo Choo was able to play 150 games in center field for the Reds, I don’t expect Senzel to have too many issues. When healthy, Senzel has hit at every level of the minors. With his vertigo issues seemingly behind him, Senzel will make a splash in 2019.

Starting in right field for the Reds is a familiar name to all baseball fans. Yasiel Puig instantly warmed himself up to Reds fans by declaring his love for the city, the team, and life in general. Last season, he had a 123 wRC+ and the highest hard hit percentage of his career. If he can play a full season, hitting 30 home runs isn’t out of the question at a park like Great American.

If the Reds could use a designated hitter, it would be Matt Kemp. Kemp bounced back in 2018 with a 122 wRC+ and an All-Star appearance, but his OPS dipped from .874 in the first half to .719 in the second half. His defense has also been notoriously awful for the entirety of his career. The team’s other utility outfielder is Scott Schebler, who has played all three outfield positions to some degree of success. Schebler was decent at the plate as the starting right fielder last year, but he will struggle to get plate appearances in a stacked lineup this year. Expect him to come in often as a marginally better defensive replacement for either Winker or Puig. Luckily, if there’s one ballpark where outfield defense doesn’t matter, it’s Great American Bandbox.

The Reds signed Derek Dietrich and Jose Iglesias to minor league deals to fill out the bench. Both players were extremely productive in 2018, and in entirely different ways. Dietrich played five positions for the Marlins last year and had a 109 wRC+, becoming the 10th Reds hitter who was at least league average at the plate in 2018 in 100 or more plate appearances. His .336 BABIP suggests he’s due to regress, and his defense was in Matt Kemp territory, but he still has an uncanny skill for being hit by pitches. Iglesias, on the other hand, is an all-glove, no-bat shortstop. He was worth 2.5 fWAR last season despite his .699 OPS, thanks to his 8.2 UZR. Neither player is particularly worthy of extended playing time this year, but they’re pretty solid as far as bench bats go. Other players competing for bench roles will be Alex Blandino and Phil “Phlervin” Ervin, neither of whom impressed in their 2018 rookie campaigns.

And now, for the pitching staff. The Reds don’t have a clear #1 starter at the moment. Rather, it seems they’ve assembled a group of 5 #3s. While that doesn’t sound flashy, it’s a whole lot better than anything the team has thrown out there in quite some time. The favorite to start on Opening Day is probably Sonny Gray. Gray came up in 2013 and quickly established himself as the ace of the Oakland A’s. After going to New York, however, he struggled, posting a 4.90 ERA and 3.94 BB/9 in 2018. Gray claims that overuse of his slider was the issue, but it was actually his most effective pitch last season. In Cincinnati, he will be reunited with his college pitching coach, Derek Johnson. Gray should bounce back to some extent in 2019, but Cincinnati is a hard place to do that for a pitcher.

The Reds pitcher with arguably the highest ceiling is Luis Castillo. He burst onto the scene in 2017 with a 3.12 ERA and 9.87 K/9 in 15 starts. 2018 was a little rougher, but he still posted a 3.69 xFIP and dramatically lowered his walk rate. After a difficult start to the season, Castillo was terrific down the stretch, allowing just 4 earned runs in the month of September. He has looked electric at times, but his inconsistency is worrying.

Both Alex Wood and Tanner Roark come to the Reds with one year remaining on their contracts. Wood has at times looked like the best pitcher on the Dodgers, his defining moment coming with his win in Game 4 of the 2017 World Series. However, he simply didn’t have a spot in the stacked Los Angeles rotation anymore, despite his strong 2018 season. Wood excels at limiting walks, but a back injury he suffered early this spring could keep him out for a little while. The 32-year-old Roark will probably slide in toward the back of the rotation. He heavily relies on his sinker, which he throws 40% of the time, to limit hard contract. His 106 ERA- and 105 FIP- make him a league average pitcher, which the Reds desperately need.

Sliding in at the back of the rotation is the oft-injured Anthony DeSclafani. After looking like a future ace in 2016, Disco missed the entirety of 2017 with UCL damage and struggled through 21 starts in 2018. Though his strikeout and walk rates looked good, he surrendered 24 home runs in 115 innings, the sixth highest HR/9 in the league. Assuming a DeSclafani injury at some point, the next man up is the #8 pitcher on that list, Tyler Mahle. The 24-year-old Mahle gained notoriety for throwing two no-hitters in the minor leagues, including a perfect game for AA Pensacola in 2017. In his young career, however, he has walked 4.36 batters per 9 innings, despite his low walk rates at all levels of the minors. Mahle has the potential to be a solid starting pitcher, but he needs to get his control figured out unless he wants to become the next Brandon Finnegan.

Anchoring the Reds bullpen once again is Raisel Iglesias. In 2018, he set a career high with 30 saves and a career low with a 2.38 ERA, but his 4.23 FIP should be a cause for some concern. His tremendously low BABIP and tremendously high HR/FB rate led to a strange season in which he allowed nearly three times as many homers as the year prior but allowed fewer runs overall. Iglesias, whose fastball sits around 96 mph, isn’t one of the top closers in the league, but he isn’t far off.

The Reds were fairly dormant in the 2017-18 offseason. But they did make two moves that worked very well for them, signing relievers Jared Hughes and David Hernandez. Both pitchers spun ERAs under 2.60 in 2018, as the Reds’ bullpen jumped from 27th to 15th in ERA. Jared Hughes, who has a penchant for sprinting to the mound in his appearances, posted a career-best 1.94 ERA with the Reds last year. Though he doesn’t strike many hitters out, Hughes outperforms his FIP better than anyone. Literally. His -1.23 difference between his ERA and FIP is the largest of all time. He has done this with his high ground ball percentage and high-movement fastball, which had an average 7.2 inches of horizontal break in 2018. Hernandez, on the other hand, succeeds with more traditional peripherals. His ability to limit walks is something the Delabar-era Reds could have used. Both Hughes and Hernandez will be key pieces in the back end of the Reds’ bullpen.

Michael Lorenzen may be best known for his bat, but he is a solid reliever as well. His 3.11 ERA in 2018 was among the best on the team. However, his 6.00 K/9 and 3.78 BB/9 do not make me confident that he will be able to replicate his run prevention from last year. Steamer agrees, projecting him for a 4.45 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 2019. Lorenzen is a fun story, but if he wants to remain a successful bullpen piece, he needs to control his pitches better.

Amir Garrett and Sal Romano are both slated to eat up innings in the Reds bullpen as well. Both pitchers came up in 2017 as starters, but they proved much more effective as relievers. Garrett in particular was tremendous last year, specifically in the first half of the season. Though he struggled down the stretch, he still struck out over 10 batters per 9 last year. Romano was a starter for most of last season, but after switching to the bullpen, his ERA dropped from 5.48 to 3.77, and his hard contact rate dipped from 36.9% to 22.2%. It seems the Reds realized that Big Sally is best in small doses.

Though they were active on the trading block, the Reds only signed one free agent to a major league contract. That was reliever Zach Duke. Duke pitched well in a short stint for the Reds in 2014, and as one of just two left-handed relievers likely to make the team, he should get plenty of innings this year. At 35, he is the oldest player at camp. In 37.1 innings with the Twins last year, Duke didn’t allow a single home run. As the team’s elder statesman, Duke will probably be a specialist against left-handed hitters; he allowed just a .602 OPS last year against lefties.

The only other lefty in the Reds’ pen is Cody Reed, a former top prospect. He was the main piece in the Johnny Cueto deal that saw the Reds acquire three high-upside pitchers: Reed, John Lamb, and Brandon Finnegan. At various points over the past four years, all three have looked like they could be staples in the rotation (ok maybe not Lamb), and all three have looked like busts. Much like Finnegan, Reed’s main issue was his control. In 2017, he walked 19 batters in 17.1 innings, good for a 6.67 FIP. But last year, Reed bounced back. He posted a 3.98 ERA with a less-bad 3.14 BB/9. His 3.51 xFIP was actually 2nd best on the team, behind only Hughes. Much like Sal Romano and Amir Garrett, Reed seems to have found a place in the Reds bullpen.

So where does this leave us? The Reds come into 2019 with a much improved pitching staff and a still-great lineup. After a lengthy rebuild, the front office finally feels comfortable adding to the team again. With a talented major league roster and plenty of reinforcements on the way, it feels like the 2020s will be a great decade for Reds fans. If the 2020 Reds are the Talking Heads’ 1980 album ‘Remain in Light’, the 2019 Reds are ‘Fear of Music’: a bold step in an exciting new direction that will soon be followed by even better things. The NL Central is going to be tough this year, but the Reds have what it takes to make it interesting, at least for a little while.

Predicted Record: 82-80

Player to Watch: 3B Eugenio Suarez

Remember when I said that 2018 was the first full season of Joey Votto’s career in which he didn’t lead Reds hitters in bWAR? That’s because he was usurped by Suarez. After dying his hair blonde, Suarez emerged as one of the best hitters in the game, slugging .526 and making hard contact on nearly 50% of the balls he hit. It’s never a bad time to point out that the Reds acquired Suarez from the Tigers in the 2014-15 offseason for Alfredo Simon, who posted a 5.05 ERA in his season in Detroit. With 6 more years in Cincinnati, Suarez is shaping up to become a club legend.

Player to Watch: IF/OF Nick Senzel

After going #2 overall in the 2016 draft, Senzel has done nothing but rake in the Reds farm system. He comes into the 2019 season as MLB’s number 6 prospect after slashing .310/.378/.509 with AAA Louisville. He also comes in as the frontrunner to play center field for the Reds this year, a position he has never played professionally. It seems a little too easy of a solution to just stick their best remaining hitter at the team’s biggest position of need, but the coaching staff believes he is athletic enough to play there. And if everything goes according to plan, Senzel will only be in the outfield for one season. With Scooter Gennett becoming a free agent after this year, Senzel should slot in at second base in 2020. The Reds’ center fielder of the future is BP’s #11 prospect Taylor Trammell, who should be in the majors by the end of 2020. 50% of all Trammells in major league history are in the Hall of Fame, so take that for that it’s worth.

Player to Watch: RP/OF Michael Lorenzen

Mikey Biceps is the best two-way player in baseball. This past season, his 3.11 ERA and 169 OPS+ were better than Shohei Ohtani. It was a disgrace that German Marquez beat him out for the Silver Slugger. But now, Coach Bell wants to do whatever it takes to get Lorenzen into the lineup. A center fielder in college, Lorenzen played the position for two innings on Monday. In that same game, he pitched a scoreless inning and batted against Mike Clevinger. Lorenzen very well may be the best defensive outfielder on this team, and he has the chance to be a true two-way player in 2019.

Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

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