Lets get this out of the way before we start. The premise of this article is very unlikely. This isn't a scenario I expect to play out over the course of 2016. However, we'll have plenty of time to be negative during the season. Last time I checked though it was still spring, and spring is a time for dreaming.
So why don't you dream a little dream with me. Imagine this scenario. It's the first week of October. PNC Park is filled to capacity because the Pirates will inevitably find themselves in another wild card game. Loud chants of "Lets Go Bucs" can be heard through your TV, and you look on at over 38,000 fans swinging black towels over their heads. It's an intimidating sight, but then you look at the mound. Who's that throwing his final warm up pitches? It's Homer Bailey getting ready to lead the Reds into one of the most improbable playoff appearances in recent memory.
This dream feels good doesn't it? In reality, the end of the season for Reds fans will likely involve dreaming about what could be in the future, but what if they could pull this off? As of today Baseball Prospectus projects the Reds to win 73 games. Fangraphs offers a much more pessimistic projection with Cincinnati winning 64 games. So for the purposes of this exercise lets use the BP projection. We're going to need all of the help that we can get.
In 2015 it took...97 wins to get a wild card?!?! WHY ARE WE IN THIS DIVISION. However, if you go back one more season both of the wildcard teams were able to clinch a playoff birth with 88 wins (Pirates and Giants). Hopefully 2016 will look a lot more like 2014, but even in this scenario the Reds still need to out perform their projection by 15 games. Is it conceivable that a projection system could be that wrong about a team (not located in Kansas City)?
You only need to go back to last season to find a comparable example. Prior to the 2015 season PECOTA projected the Minnesota Twins to win 70 games. By the end of the season they had 83, and only missed out on the playoffs by three games. So how were they able to do it? Early in the season Aaron Gleeman attributed their unlikely success to three things: they were hitting unusually well with runners in scoring position, their bullpen produced in high leverage situations, and an underwhelming starting rotation found ways to be passable.
For the Reds to shock the baseball world it will likely take some similar occurences. They'll need a whole lot of cluster luck. It will likely require some unusual success in one run games. For example, Baltimore somehow went 29-9 in one run games in 2012.
However, for this exercise lets look at potential individual performances. Since we're using BP's PECOTA projection for their win total we'll also use their individual WARP projections from this year's BP Annual. Which players could potentially provide more value than expected?
If Cincinnati is playing meaningful baseball in October...it could look a little something like this.
Joey Votto Keeps Doing Joey Votto Things
When you ask people about the most impressive offensive seasons of 2015 they will likely bring up Bryce Harper and rightly so. However, somewhat quietly Joey Votto had the second best offensive season in baseball last year. By wRC+ it was also Votto's second best offensive season of his career. You probably don't need a reminder, but in case you do Votto hit .314/.459/.541 a year ago. He also led the league with 143 walks (keep reminding yourself, more base runners = more runs, see here).
Last season Joey Votto was worth an additional 7.6 wins to the Reds over the production of a replacement level player. Only Mike Trout is projected to reach that level of production this season. BP Predicts Votto to come in at 5.4 WARP. Is it possible that he could keep up last season's level of production? For most 32 year-olds you would predict an inevitable downward trajectory to begin.
However, if you were drawing up the prototype for a hitter who could age well its Votto. His approach at the plate won't lend itself to falling off a cliff like some power or bust hitters. He appears to be in good spirits this spring, and he's showing no signs of slowing down. If he can find a way to reproduce what he did a year ago it could be worth a couple of extra wins to the Reds. Even if he can't hit 7.6 WARP again many will still bet on him to out perform his projection. He hasn't been below 6.1 WARP in a healthy season since 2010.
A dialed in Joey Votto is one of the keys to unexpected success for the Reds this season. There's no reason to believe that Votto won't be Votto again this year. Of all of the possibilities we'll throw out here this is the most likely to happen.
Devin Mesoraco Parties Like Its 2014
One of the most disappointing storylines of 2015 was Devin Mesoraco's injury troubles. He only played in 23 games before being shelved due to a hip issue that would ultimately need surgery. Those recent injuries might have caused some to forget just how good Mesoraco was in 2014. By Fangraphs reckoning he was a top five catcher in baseball, and he had the BEST offensive season of any catcher in baseball.
Because there isn't much of a track record to go on Mesoraco is only predicted for 1 WARP this season. Most reasonable fans would conclude that it will probably take some time for him to get comfortable again, but we don't have time to be reasonable. If Mesoraco could improbably match his 2014 projection, then he has the potential to be the biggest over performer in the Reds lineup this season.
If Cincinnati were to sneak into the playoffs it would likely require a magical return for Mesoraco. Given the departure of Todd Frazier, the Reds will definitely be looking for someone to make up for the lost production. When you look at the likely Opening Day lineup no player provides a wider range of possible outcomes than Mesoraco. If he can find his groove again, quickly, it could be the difference in 2-4 games for Cincinnati.
Jay Bruce Builds a Time Machine
Well...not really, but it would be a huge boost if he could return to his production of a few seasons ago. You only have to go back two seasons to find Jay Bruce as a 5+ win player. In 2013 Bruce hit 30 home runs and drove in 109 runs. Not only was he raking at the plate, but Bruce was also providing incredible value in right field. That season he provided 18.5 FRAA (fielding runs above average).
The last two seasons have been very different for Jay. The Reds have admitted that Bruce's subpar 2014 season was in part due to rushing him back from knee surgery. The hope was that with a full offseason to recover 2015 would look like a more vintage Jay Bruce season. While he was better, he didn't get anywhere close to his pre-2014 numbers. He still hit 26 home runs, but his slash line was still well below his career averages. His defense also significantly dropped off (3 FRAA).
Is there any hope that a soon to be 29 year-old Bruce can get his groove back? Mike Podhorzer notes that there were some encouraging signs last year. "The good news is that his strikeout rate fell to its lowest mark since 2009 thanks in part to the lowest swinging strike rate of his career (11%). Combining career best contact skills with his ever present power should have yielded better results."
However, Podhorzer also points out that increased defensive shifts could be a major problem for Bruce. He has been working on bunting this spring, and its clear he knows this is a problem. If he can find a way to keep defenses more honest its possible that he could be in for a resurgence this season. Could he get back to the 2013 version of himself? It's unlikely, but it's not hard to imagine him being much more productive than he has been the past two seasons.
Homer Bailey Becomes a #1 Starter
When the Reds signed Bailey to a $105 million contract prior to the 2014 season it was clear they were putting all of their eggs in his basket. He was younger than some of their other proven options (Cueto), and he was coming off his best season (2.9 WARP).
Since then things haven't quite worked out how Cincinnati had hoped. Bailey was shut down in May on the heels of flexor mass tendon surgery, and he eventualy lost the rest of the season to Tommy John surgery. A small track record and mounting injuries have led Reds fans to question whether or not Cincinnati should have put so much faith in Bailey. This season would be a great time for Homer to remind everyone why the Reds were so excited about his potential.
That lack of a track record led BP to project Bailey for 0.4 WARP this season. He's still on track to join the rotation at some point in May. Looking at the current rotation he still provides the highest potential upside of any starter. Yes, he's only ever reached 2.9 WARP in his best season. Even if he can return to that level it would be worth a couple of wins to the Reds. If Bailey puts it all together and has the breakout we've been waiting for it would provide a major reason for optimism, this season and into the future
Raisel Iglesias and Anthony DeSclafani Keep Progressing
Two of the few bright spots in a disappointing 2015 for the Reds were Iglesias and DeSclafani. BP already projects Iglesias to be more productive than last season (1.4 to 2.2 WARP). Fangraphs also gives an optimistic projection for the twenty-six year old. It's exciting to hear that his, "strikeout stuff gives him the upside to be an ace." Iglesias has mentioned this offseason that he's altered his off-season routine to help him stay productive later into the season.
DeSclafani was also a welcome surprise. Until news came out today about his oblique injury, he was on track to be the opening day starter for the Reds. He ended the year leading the Reds in strikeouts and innings pitched. Jeff Zimmerman notes that his late season struggles were fueled in part by bad battled ball luck. As he continues to settle in on his pitch repertoire he has the potential for a big breakout this season.
One or two of these pitchers coupled with a resurgent Homer Bailey would give the Reds a solid 1-2-3 punch in rotation.
Cody Reed Becomes the X-Factor
Few things have been more exciting for Reds fans this spring than their introduction to Cody Reed (and his croakies). He came over from Kansas City in the Johnny Cueto deal, and there's a lot to like about the big left hander. Reed has regularly hit the mid-90's with his fastball, and outside of a rough inning he's been very impressive.
Reed hasn't yet pitched an inning of AAA baseball, and Cincinnati sent him to the minors a week ago. Given service time considerations this was the right move, and it will also give him time to work on developing a third pitch. However, if Reed does get things figured out he could be in the big leagues sooner rather than later. If he comes up and dazzles for a few months it could be the jumpstart the Reds need to find a few unexpected wins in 2016.
Even if all of these things broke right for Cincinnati, it would likely require a few more unexpected successes for them to dream of October baseball. The bullpen is a major question mark, and they would need career years out of Hoover, Diaz, and Cingrani. It would also require few players, if any, regressing. During the course of a major league season it's very unlikely that no one will regress, but that regression would have to be kept to a minimum.
Yes, this is a pipe dream. However, while its still spring why not dream about what could be? More than likely this season will be marked by potential trades (Bruce and Phillips), and tracking the progress of important prospects. Cincinnati could still takes steps in the right direction this season even if they are on the outside looking in at postseason baseball.
We could think more realistic about baseball than this article has, but for now isn't it more fun to dream of a season that ends like this?