Baseball has been played professionally in Cincinnati since 1869, with the current iteration of the Cincinnati Reds having been an official team since becoming a charter member of the American Association in 1882. They’ve been mighty successful at times, too, what with five World Series championships under their belt. In fact, since their reboot in 1882 as the Cincinnati Red Stockings, they own an overall record of 10,457 wins versus 10,211 losses, a net of some 246 games over .500.
It’s taken 136 seasons of professional ball to work their record to 246 games over .500, which becomes a more pertinent reference point when placed side by side with the 96 games under .500 the Reds have been since 2014 alone. The Reds, of late, have done copious amounts of losing, a stretch of cellar-dwelling rivaled only by their putrid run in the early 1930s.
It has been largely calculated and deliberate. In more than one way, it has been been exhausting, the turnstile of players in nonstop rotation. The hope is, however, that the 2018 season becomes the first berm against that flood of losses, and that the young core put together after a years-long teardown will finally start to put more runs on the board per nine innings than their opposition.
The 2018 Cincinnati Reds have a lot of talent, which is something that merely looking at their previous records and offseason transactions wouldn’t really tell you. There are also precious few position battles going on in camp, something that also doesn’t usually jive with a team that’s been on the losing end of so many games for so long. That, too, is by design, as GM Dick Williams and the front office have been adamant about letting the young players they’ve brought in through their litany of trades take their lumps and mature at the big league level. The hope is that the patience will pay off with incremental improvements year by year.
On the position-player side, that certainly seems to have been prudent so far. Led by the inimitable Joey Votto, the team ranked a respectable 10th in all of baseball in 2017 fWAR from their non-pitchers, a mark that ranked ahead of playoff teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks (19.8) and Boston Red Sox (17.8), as well as their division rivals from Milwaukee (16.5) and Pittsburgh (11.0). The departure of Zack Cozart to free agency (and subsequently to the Angels) will take a bite out of that mark, but the hope is that 23-year-old Jose Peraza has enough of a bounce-back year in 2018 to fill the shortstop shoes competently enough. That, the return of the rest of the group, and the addition of prospects Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel should be enough to have an everyday eight capable of competing with anyone in the game.
Senzel, in particular, is a player on whose shoulders sit great expectations. The #2 overall draft pick in 2016, the University of Tennessee product has rocketed up prospect lists, ranking as the #7 overall prospect in all of baseball by each of Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus. A 3B throughout his minor league career, Senzel got time at both shortstop and 2B in his college days. He has also played plenty of shortstop in camp in Arizona this spring, a development that provides both insurance should Peraza stumble again in 2018 and great anticipation for the future of the Cincinnati infield. The owner of a .315/.393/.514 in 797 career PA in the minors - most of which have come in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League and at a home park in Pensacola that is hell on right-handed hitters - Senzel has long been thought of as a bat-first prospect, but if he proves capable of handling shortstop, he’ll have the potential to completely transform the outlook of the Reds’ infield.
That infield, of course, also boasts 3B Eugenio Suarez, who signed a seven-year contract extension this spring that’ll guarantee him at least $66 million. Fresh off a 4.1 fWAR season in which he hit .260/.367/.461 with greatly improved defense and a career-high 26 homers, it’ll be interesting to see how he, Peraza, Senzel, and incumbent 2B Scooter Gennett work their way around the infield in coming years. That’s obviously a good problem for the Reds to be facing.
Have a sip of water and a deep breath with me, if you would. The concept of saving the best for last is 100% being employed in this preview of the Cincinnati Reds and their 2018 hopes, but the word “best” needs a qualifier in this instance. Best, here, certainly does not mean the best aspect of the Cincinnati Reds. Here, best means the most vital, the most volatile, and most watch-worthy aspect of the team, the group on whose backs this season will absolutely be made or broken. Here, best means the pitching, since the collective pitching by the Reds over the last two seasons hasn’t just been the worst in all of baseball, it’s been atrocious on a historic level.
Dating back to the start of the 2016 season, Reds pitching has been worth a grand total of 2.3 fWAR. While ranking last among all 30 teams is bad enough, that the 29th-ranked San Diego Padres have provided 16.1 fWAR in that time should be far, far more alarming. It’s downright chuckle-worthy, to be honest. The best pitcher by fWAR in all of baseball over the last two seasons has been Chris Sale - with 12.7 fWAR - meaning the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff could’ve had Chris freaking Sale on their staff during that time and would still have been the single worst unit in the entire game.
That, it would seem, is a gap that’s insurmountable by any single transaction, let alone by a series of them to completely revamp the entire unit. It would also seem that signing relievers Jared Hughes and David Hernandez to two-year contracts would do nothing to bridge that gap, but that’s not what the Reds are actually banking on regarding their beleaguered pitching staff. No, the Reds are instead banking on the return to health from a huge portion of the arms in their system, and while that’s a decidedly risky roll of the dice, there is ample talent there, too.
Homer Bailey is overpaid now, and has been since he signed his mammoth six-year, $105 million extension prior to the 2014 season. He’s also managed to produce a grand total of 0.0 bWAR in that time, as three arm surgeries have limited him to just 49 starts in those four years. Still, this is his first healthy offseason in that time, and while the results he produced last year were awful (6.43 ERA, 1.69 WHIP), the 93.5 mph average fastball velocity he had was the fourth-highest of his eleven seasons as a pro. Now nearly two full years removed from Tommy John surgery, perhaps there’s still some of the same talent in his 31-year-old right arm, the same arm that has two no-hitters to its credit.
Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan are both in a similar boat. DeSclafani missed the entire 2017 season with a sprained UCL in his right throwing arm and is now sidelined with an oblique injury that’ll cost him the first month (at least) of 2018, while Finnegan was limited to just 13 IP in ‘17 thanks to persistent shoulder issues in his left arm. That pair combined for 5.3 bWAR in 2016 as the two most productive members of the Cincinnati staff, and getting them back into regular rotation should, at least in theory, cause a ripple effect all the way down the staff. Of course, with DeSclafani’s setback and the forearm scare that Finnegan faced in his first Cactus League start, how soon that pair can make an impact on the mound remains to be seen (once again).
Perhaps no single player in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot has a bigger spotlight on him at the moment than Luis Castillo, though. His breakout rookie year in 2017 saw him pitch to a 3.12 ERA and 3.41 xFIP after being called up directly from AA Pensacola, and his 97.5 mph average fastball velocity ranked second in all of baseball among pitchers who threw at least 80 innings. The 25-year-old owns a devastating change-up and his 2.4 BB/9 in his minor league career suggests he has the kind of control to go along with that elite velocity, a combo that has him on the verge of being absolutely elite.
Banking on returns to health and a sustained breakout from a player who never once was a Top-100 prospect (and has never once thrown a pitch at AAA) is certainly a pitching strategy laden with risk, but on talent alone it’s not too crazy to think the top of the rotation could be quite good. That and the additions of Hernandez and Hughes could do a ton to help alleviate the load on the bullpen, whose 610 IP in 2017 was the second-highest workload in baseball. Heck, it might even get a few more leads to closer Raisel Iglesias, who has continued to emerge as one of the most dynamic relief arms in the game since his full-time transition to the bullpen late in 2016.
In between the top of the rotation and the newfangled bullpen is the biggest question mark at the moment, though. Filling out the rotation will be some combination of Sal Romano, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, and Tyler Mahle, all of whom got their feet wet in the big leagues in 2017 to varying results. How much improvement the Reds see in their pitching stats as a whole will largely depend on that group’s maturation, and while there’s little guarantee with young pitchers, at least three of them come with the pedigree of being Top 100 overall prospects - and Romano, the lone one of the four who doesn’t carry that pedigree, posted a respectable 99 ERA+ in 87.0 big league innings in 2017.
In all, 2018 looks the part of a prototypical platform year for the Reds. Their rebuild has rebuilt, and this is the first real season where we’ll get to see if it can hold up against the pressure from the rest of the game. We’ll get to see if manager Bryan Price - again in his final year under contract - can turn this young core into a competitive unit, since even a threat at a .500 record come July could prompt the front office to finally dive back into the acquisition market as opposed to the sell-offs they have been through the last three years.
With a payroll somewhere in the region of $96 million for 2018, they sit some $20 million below their team record marks from the 2013-2014 seasons, suggesting there’s some wiggle room financially if the current crop begins to show signs of life. A trade akin to the ones that brought Mat Latos, Scott Rolen, and Shin-Soo Choo to town during the club’s last run of success is realistic both financially and on the prospect-side, as the Reds’ farm system is as stocked as it has been in years. Some winning, though, is the catalyst for a move of that magnitude to come to fruition, and for the first time since the team began tearing itself down in 2014, the 2018 season looks like it could provide a taste.