The easiest way to end up the 25th man on a National League 25-man roster is to lack versatility and play poor defense. That’s an easy way to end up player 26 when a team has just 25 roster spots at all, frankly, which is why there have been persistent rumblings about whether Matt Kemp has a full-year future with the Cincinnati Reds in 2019. Kemp, 35 in September, still swings a mighty bat - he’s hit 40 dingers over the last two seasons combined - but his staggering -11.6 dWAR over the last five seasons has relegated him to LF and LF only, a position where the Reds have no fewer than five other options they turn to regularly.
Of course, there isn’t a single player in camp with the Reds in Goodyear who has topped the 8.0 dWAR Kemp posted in his single best season. Not Joey Votto, not Scooter Gennett, not Sonny Gray, not Yasiel Puig. That monster 2011 season landed him 2nd in the NL MVP voting behind *Ryan Braun, you’ll remember, and you can also point at a pile of old calendars and easily mention that 2011 was an eon ago in baseball terms.
Votto, on the other hand, already hit age 35 last September, and that’s the official age in which his 2019 will be categorized. And while his .417 OBP led the NL for the billionth time, the resurgent mid-30’s power he showed in spades during a brilliant 2017 campaign completely evaporated, his 12 dingers last year even fewer than SS Jose Peraza’s 14.
These have been Joey Votto’s Reds for a full decade, in which time the Reds have won a pair of NL Central crowns and also looked completely abysmal for years on end. Every year, despite the roster upheaval and tanking projections, we’ve watched on Opening Day with the knowledge that their star 1B was, when healthy, hands down the best player on the roster, with only Johnny Cueto really doing anything in that time to share the pedestal. But with age increasingly up against him, the backdrop of 2018’s massive power outage, and the influx of established talent all around him on the roster, who the best damn player on the 2019 Cincinnati Reds will be seems as much up in the air as its been since the 2009 season.
The other clubs in the NL Central have been through this often lately. The Chicago Cubs have seen the spotlight move from Anthony Rizzo to Jon Lester to Kris Bryant to Javier Baez in recent years, while the St. Louis Cardinals moved from Albert Pujols to Adam Wainwright to Yadier Molina to Matt Carpenter - and then traded for perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain just anchored a brilliant 2018 Milwaukee Brewers club that had for years seen *Braun as their obvious headliner, while the end of the Andrew McCutchen era in Pittsburgh passed the torch to the likes of Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Gerrit Cole, and Jameson Taillon.
Votto, in his brilliance, could still be the guy in 2019. In his conversation with The Athletic’s Eno Sarris earlier this week, he hinted that a few adjustments to his Hall of Fame swing might have him back in 2019 to what he was in 2017, when he hit .320/.454/.578 with 36 dingers en route to his highest single-season OPS and was robbed of his second NL MVP award. Safe to say, if he reverts to that level of production and isn’t the team’s best player in 2019, he’d probably be the first to admit he’d be happy as hell about someone else being that damn fantastic.
This Reds roster, though, has about as many potential options to emerge as its best player as any in baseball. Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are both fresh off 4+ bWAR seasons that saw them flirt with the NL lead in several stats, and it’s not hard to even wonder if they’ve got a bit more in the tank in 2019. Suarez, for one, might not break his hand and miss 17 games again, and his defense might revert back to the stellar level it was in 2017. Scooter’s shoulder, which often had him throwing nearly underhanded at times last year, might be healthier, in which case his late-career breakout might still have even more upside left in it.
Then there’s Puig, whose legendary power has been somewhat muted by playing his previous 6 seasons in the cavernous ballparks of the NL West. He’s a popular pick to have a monster offensive season in this, his final year before ideally landing a huge contract in free agency. With regular playing time in a smaller home park, it’s easy to envision him threatening 40 dingers, and that paired with healthy hamstrings and plus RF defense could easily have him among the NL’s MVP contenders in 2019 if all goes right.
On the pitching side, it’s also hard to ignore that if Sonny Gray is back to his old ways, he, too, has the potential to take center stage for these Reds. He owns a 5.3 bWAR season and a Top 3 Cy Young Award finish already, and with a multi-year contract extension and a safety net of a coaching staff almost built around him, it’s obvious that the Reds, themselves, are expecting big, big things from the former star. And given how badly things ended for him with the New York Yankees, there’s no doubt that he’ll be pitching in 2019 with something to prove.
Then, there’s Nick Senzel, whose potential to hit the ground running as the next great Cincinnati Red is something I’ve been daydreaming about for months now. As a plus athlete who projects to hit for both average and power, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Reds will end up being his team for years at some point, and if that all materializes in year one - and it wouldn’t be the first time a top prospect stepped right into the spotlight - he’s got the tools to immediately be the best player on this particular roster.
Here we are, a thousand words into who the best player on the 2019 Cincinnati Reds will be, and I’ve not even mentioned two players who were the best players on the 2018 Reds for long, long stretches. Jesse Winker just ran off a .400 OBP season before injury, and hit a stupid .404/.505/.607 in the final 29 games before he got hurt. Jose Peraza, meanwhile, stretched out a sample of excellence over his final 459 PA last year, hitting a robust .310/.347/.465 with 12 homers in that span - that’s a full-year 20 homer pace for a guy who plays solid defense at the most important position on the diamond and has 30+ steal potential!
What stands out as obvious here is the depth this roster possesses, and if each of these talented players peaks like they’re capable, it will go down in history as a very, very special season in Reds history. The odds are, of course, that won’t happen, as injuries, age, luck, and simple underperformance always permeate even the best of players at times. Still, you can make a very reasonable case that any one of the above players could end up being the face of the 2019 Reds, and that’s something that hasn’t really been a realistic claim for a decade now. And while We Love Joey Votto as much as life itself, that’s a very, very good sign for these Redlegs.