February 5th is just about the time of year when it is no longer dark at 5 PM. You actually get to see your front door on the way home from work, with winter shutting off the lights for you just before 5:30. With the ball-foot season officially over on Sunday, that means we’re in that short little lull before baseball truly ramps up, with scenes like this one from Cincinnati earlier today there to prop up our excitement.
It’s a tad bit easier to track than Santa & Rudolph criss-crossing the sky on December 24th, and when that truck finally makes it to Goodyear, AZ, it’ll be joined shortly thereafter by the pitchers and catchers of the Cincinnati Reds, and spring training will officially begin. So, it’s not quite baseball season, but it’s oh-so-damn-close at this point - close enough that it’s probably time to look at some of the storylines the Reds will be facing.
Nick Senzel in CF
We wrote on Friday that Dick Williams had officially tipped his hand, suggesting that the Reds top prospect will get every opportunity to be the team’s CF in 2019, which was a breath of fresh air in many ways. For one, it shows the kind of flexibility in this front office which hasn’t necessarily been there for many years, and that, in theory, could mean more creative ways of managing the roster.
Of course, it’s only ‘creative’ in this instance because Senzel has never played CF before. Heck, he’s never played any OF in a professional game before. Blocked at 3B and 2B, he’ll get plenty of chances to show he can fill the void in CF as his way to the big leagues, and while he’s certainly athletic enough to pull it off, it’s going to be a bit of a process, to be sure. How quickly he can stake his claim will be vital, since if he hasn’t done so by the end of March, the rest of his season - and that of the Reds OF - is going to need a very quick regroup.
How the newfangled starting rotation shakes out
The Reds have been incredibly aggressive on the trade market this winter, bringing in the likes of Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood to help bolster a startingn pitching unit that has been the worst unit in the NL and secord worst in all MLB over the last two years. They’ll join the immensely talented Luis Castillo as the core of the upcoming rotation, but after that things get murky in a hurry.
The presumptive #5 starter is Anthony DeSclafani, as the veteran has managed to log a 3 fWAR season independent of a separate 3 bWAR season in his career, and certainly has plenty of upside. That said, he hasn’t been healthy for an Opening Day in three years, with oblique and elbow issues dogging him repeatedly, and his 4.83 FIP in 2018 hardly cemented his status as a lock to win a roster spot. He’ll be pressed by the likes of Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, and Cody Reed, primarily, with the out-of-options Robert Stephenson and whatever semblance of Brandon Finnegan still presumably in the mix, too.
While the bulk of the rotation’s core is pretty well obvious, how they perform under the watch of new pitching coach Derek Johnson will be worth watching, too, as will whether Gray looks the part of the Opening Day rock the Reds will need him to be after signing him to what could amount to a 5 year, $50 million extension.
Who’s on the bench?
Assuming Senzel gets the AAA treatment to start the year for service time issues (even if he shows he’s a capable CF), the day 1 outfield will likely include Yasiel Puig, Scott Schebler, and Jesse Winker - whose shoulder is now healthy. That will punt Matt Kemp to a bench role (on days against RHP, at least), where he’ll usually be alongside backup catcher Curt Casali.
After that, though, things get much less clear.
Phil Ervin should get a clear shot to be the 5th OF early on, at least until either Senzel is ready or until the Reds determine they need a more defense-first OF capable of covering CF, in which case Jose Siri or Mason Williams could get a call-up.
On the infield, Cactus League play might well dictate who emerges. Alex Blandino figures to be a regular backup across the diamond when healthy, but how his knee looks in Goodyear after a shredded ACL/MCL last summer remains to be seen. Blake Trahan is an all-glove, zero-bat guy capable of playing a plus defensive SS, which might well give him the inside-shot at a bench role even if Blandino is healthy. Then, there’s Kyle Farmer, who came to the Reds as the least-known piece in the massive Dodgers trade, who has appeared at C, 3B, and 1B in the big leagues, but also got run at both 2B and SS with AAA Oklahoma City as recently as 2018 in the mix, as well.
Then, there’s Connor Joe, who might well get an extended look as a righty bat on the bench given his status as both a Rule 5 draftee and former 1st round pick. His bat took a huge step forward in 2018 in the upper minors, and perhaps there’s something he specifically altered there that has the Reds confident he can contribute more than, say, Stuart Turner did two years ago when his Rule 5 status earned him an empty active roster spot.
Joey Votto is always a storyline. At least, he always should be.
The now 35 year old Votto is fresh off a 2018 season in which he led the National League in OBP for a seventh time, but his 125 OPS+ matched a career low thanks to his dingerosity evaporating. After swatting 36 homers in 2017, he hit just 12 in what was largely a ‘healthy’ 2018 season, including just 8 over his final 120 games played.
With 5 years and some $132 million still guaranteed on his contract, that power outage was certainly a bit concerning, even if he still managed to contribute in an insanely valuable way. So, the Votto storyline in Goodyear is certainly not if he’s out of gas, but will be more about what role he’s going to be tasked with filling this year.
Since he’s Joey Votto, there’s a damn solid chance he shows up and starts hitting the snot out of the ball, something many of his 2018 peripherals suggested shouldda-couldda still happened last year. If so, he’ll still be the battleship in the #3 hole the way he almost always has been, and all will be right with the world. If he looks more like the guy the Reds had in 2018, though, the lineup this year is deep enough and flexible enough to where that might not be his spot everyday anymore, with the likes of Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, Yasiel Puig, and Jesse Winker all expected to be potent offensive forces.
Votto in the #2 spot has long been something many of us have advocated to see, and that could be something that happens more often in 2019 than it has in recent years.
David Bell and his managerial strategy
Bell, of course, is the new Reds manager, and is also managing a big league club for the first time in his career. His blend of front office and dugout experience alongside his lengthy playing career make him oft regarded as a budding star as a manager, but that’s something we’re all just going to have to see to believe at first.
After all, Bryan Price was a first-time manager who many had high hopes for, too.
Anyway, it’s clear the Reds have through trust in Bell, as they wasted no time after hiring him in bringing in more reinforcements than any team in baseball, to date. How he handles those pieces, as well as the solid holdovers, will be greatly scrutinized, as will how often he actively incorporates advanced analytics into the way he manages.