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Cincinnati Reds Season Preview, Part 1

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Looking ahead to the 2019 season. Is the rebuild finally over?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Castillo will take the mound in GABP and unfurl the first pitch of the 2019 Cincinnati Reds season, and that’s close enough to happening now that you can count it in a matter of hours, not days.

The Reds have embarked on quite the odd journey since their last official game, swinging major roster-quaking trades that will hopefully, mercifully help them climb out of the NL Central cellar for the first time in years. The new faces don’t stop with the players brought in, either, as manager David Bell and his newly assembled staff will be bringing a new leadership angle to the dugout, one that we haven’t yet been able to see play out on the real stage.

Opening Day, though, begins our six month journey through the Major League Baseball season once again, and it’s basically here. With that in mind, I lobbed a few questions at my fellow Red Reporters to get their insights into where the Reds are, where they might be at season’s end, and how the team has been put together.

Part 1 of the Q & A is listed below with responses from luminaries like Charlie Scrabbles (CS), Tony Wolfe (TW), Derek Grimes (DG), Aaron Michael (AM), Cy Schourek (CY), Brandon Kraeling (BK), and Mitchell Clark (MC).

What are your overall thoughts on the Reds offseason?

CS: My initial reaction was absolute excitement over how aggressive they were being. They did more to improve from 2018 to 2019 than any other franchise. But now that I’ve had some time to digest it, I’m a bit more cynical. I’m feeling more and more like they were hyperactive but didn’t actually move very far. Sound and fury signifying nothing, and so on. They got a ton of new talent, but as it stands right now Sonny Gray is the only addition hanging around for a while. They will surely be a better team than last season (and waaaaaaaaaaay more interesting) but the long-term rebuild didn’t really make much progress. Which, you know, isn’t exactly a bad thing. Instead of making moves to make the franchise substantively better, they bought themselves a little time to let all the young prospects mature a bit more. It isn’t the best, but it’s not bad, either.

TW: I remember thinking I had hallucinated the Tanner Roark trade the day after it happened. There were just so many questions. Why didn’t the Nationals want Tanner Roark? Why did they want Tanner Rainey? Why was no other team willing to surrender more than a live-armed 26-year-old reliever with zero big league success in his past for Roark? And finally: Why would the Reds trade for a starting pitcher who is in the final year of his contract?

Of course, a few weeks later, Cincinnati doubled down on that strategy, adding Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to the books for one year in a trade from the Los Angeles Dodgers. A few weeks later, they went out and got yet another pitcher in his final year of team control in Sonny Gray, but this time, they managed to extend him past the 2019 season.

I questioned deals like this when they happened, but I quickly came around. The Reds have been historically bad on the pitching side, and there weren’t any new prospects that were likely to spend significant time in the majors in 2019. Quiet competence like what the Woods and Roarks of the world can give is a significant step up from where the Reds have been lately, and considering the low price Cincinnati paid in total for these acquisitions, they strike me as low-risk chances to potentially drastically improve the day-to-day product on the field.

Does that mean the Reds should get complete credit for improving the roster in whatever way possible? It does not. They apparently were never in on either of the two biggest free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, even though they are both historic talents that the team absolutely has the money to afford. The bullpen is still below-average with Craig Kimbrel sitting unsigned, and the team allowed Yasmani Grandal to sign for essentially a qualifying offer price with a division rival despite the fact that catcher is, without a doubt, the largest hole on the Reds’ roster.

All of which is to say the offseason was fine, mostly. It was mostly fine, I guess.

DG: The Reds offseason has been pretty good, though I feel like I’m grading it on a curve given how the last several offseasons have went. We’re past the point in the rebuild/reboot that the biggest offseason moves are grabbing a reliever or two, so that’s a great thing. Dumping Homer Bailey was a masterclass in personnel management, especially considering they got useful, if only short term, players back in the same deal. The only problem, if you can call it that, with the offseason is that with all of the moving and shaking, one might reasonably expect the pieces that were received would matter for longer than one season. Outside of Sonny Gray and a yet-to-happen extension, the new faces will be gone by 2020 or earlier. The Reds didn’t give up major assets in any of these deals, but they did give up assets, and might not have a thing to show for it come 2020. If they were closer to contending for a championship, that wouldn’t matter even a little. Since they’re probably not, it’s a bit concerning, I guess.

AM: I think overall it’s been pretty positive. There are some things I think I’d rather see them prioritize. Specifically, I wasn’t the most excited about the Sonny Gray trade but I’ve been sold on it over time. They were able to keep their three top prospects and all the things being said from David Bell and his coaching staff has been really nice. I’m still a big fan of Dick Williams and think has this ball club moving in the correct direction. Mouth breathers be damned. They’re fecking stupid.

CY: They did more or less the damn thing! I don’t think they’re going to go from worst-to-first, but they took several active steps to a better team, which was frankly refreshing, and at a small cost.

BK: Overall, I am cautiously optimistic about how the Reds’ offseason has gone. I think they took some chances by bringing in a big personality like Yasiel Puig, and I think they were careful and brought in some good pitching depth in Wood, Roark, and Gray. To me, that’s a balanced offseason that addressed their main deficiencies for next year. They made some moves, they spent some money (to extend Gray), and they took some chances. That’s more than we can say for the last few offseasons, so I’m all about it.

MC: Overall, I thought the Reds had a good offseason. The acquisitions of Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, Tanner Roark, and Yasiel Puig via trade are immediate upgrades to this team, and they really didn’t have to give up much to do it. There a couple of things that kept this off-season from being great, though. They didn’t spend as much in free agency as I would have thought, especially with their “record payroll” promises of the offseason. I get that they still ended with a record payroll but they didn’t exactly break the bank, either. Secondly, they botched the handling of Nick Senzel. I won’t harp on it more than what’s been done on these pages, but his handling definitely put a sour note on an otherwise positive offseason.

What are your expectations for the 2019 Reds?

CS: If everyone stays healthy, they will be tons of fun to watch. I’m especially interested to see how Joey bounces back, how Winker looks with a full-time gig, how Puig hits in Cincinnati, and how Luis Castillo is throwing. They might be only a .500 team, or they might win 162 games. My prediction is that they will win 162 games (Don is a jerk).

TW: My instinct is to lean toward pessimism, of course. This tail stretch of the spring that has included the demotion and injury of Nick Senzel and other injuries to Scooter Gennett and Alex Wood already have the feel of the baseball gods saying, “whoa there, tiger. This can all still be very terrible very easily. Don’t tempt us.” I’ve also been burned by hoping for various players to reach their supposed ceilings in recent years, and should be hardened enough by now to know Jesse Winker won’t finish in the top five of MVP voting, that Eugenio Suarez can’t possibly continue to improve at this rate, and the back-end of the bullpen isn’t actually as good as I think it could be. At the end of the day, the Reds are a 78-win team, and I’d be foolish to think any differently.

On the other hand, this roster looks pretty different from any other recent Cincinnati roster, doesn’t it? Look at all the hitters! The honest-to-god capable bench! The starting rotation that actually sports more than one legit MLB arm who should be in their prime! The bullpen that has a real track record of success! It isn’t a stretch to think this might be the best offensive outfield in the National League, or that the Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray can’t both be top-of-the-rotation-quality arms. After everything shakes out, I think the Reds have a top-five offense in the NL, with an average bullpen and rotation.

DG: I think the only reasonable expectation I have for the Reds in 2019 is that they will be fun to watch. The lineup should compete with anyone and given even a little bit of health luck in the pitching department, I think they’ll really compete with anyone. I don’t know that I’m convinced that they’re demonstrably better in a way that they’ll need to be to push for a truly memorable season, but I expect that they’ll have a chance in nearly every game they play. Do I expect wire-to-wire? Of course not. I don’t think I even expect a playoff berth (though it wouldn’t be shocking). I do expect that they’ll be several magnitudes better than what we’ve become accustomed to since 2014, and that’s not nothing.

AM: I expect them to challenge. I expect them to be in the race for the wildcard. I’m going to root for them the entire season, but I’m also planning on keeping my expectations low. I think a .500 season and some fun baseball is a good enough expectation. Being competitive just sounds so enticing.

CY: Is “rambunctious” fair? Again, I don’t think 90 wins is happening, but I could see 86, a wild card spot, and generally being a pain in the ass to play against.

BK: I think they’ll be better, and have a chance to be good. At the very least, I think the Reds have put themselves in a position this season where they’re probably in decent shape if things don’t go their way, and at a point where if they have some luck fall to their favor, they can really make some waves. They shouldn’t struggle to score runs, they have enough pitching depth, and they should be okay defensively. If they can stay healthy and get some lucky breaks in the NL Central, this club could sneak into the postseason.

MC: I definitely expect this team to be competitive in 2019. Having a rotation that projects in the middle of the pack is already a massive improvement over the 2018 squad, so long as the offense continues to perform and they can overcome what will likely be a subpar defense. If they play like they did in that June-July stretch of 2018, we could really be in for a fun season.

Is the NL Central just too damn good regardless?

CS: On the contrary, I think the division is going to be incredibly competitive. There is a very real possibility that the fifth-place team in October will be over .500. Nobody looks dreadful and nobody looks unbeatable. It should be fun.

TW: Probably. But I think it’s important to keep in mind the Reds don’t need to smoke the rest of the division to be a playoff contender. In 2013, the last time Cincinnati made the postseason, they went 90-72. That included a 40-36 record inside the division. I wouldn’t dare say that’s *likely* by any means, but it also doesn’t seem wildly unrealistic. This team went 26-50 against NL Central opponents in 2018, which already seems like a figure that should improve by regression to the mean alone. I don’t suspect that the Pirates, for example, will go 14-5 against the Reds again in 2019 the way they did last year. If the Reds can play near-.500 ball against the NL Central, they’ll be in the hunt.

DG: Probably, but baseball’s funny, man. It wasn’t all that long ago that we expected the Cubs to be a dominating dynasty for years to come based upon the young roster that they built. They were still very good in 2018, to be sure, but all they had to show for it was a loss in a game 163 and then a subsequent loss in the one-game Wild Card. 95 wins is a great season, but it fell well short of what we would’ve expected of the Cubs going into the season. The Brewers are great and just went seven games into the NLCS, but they’ll be starting the season with three very young arms in their rotation. As a Reds fan, it doesn’t take much time to imagine how that may go wrong.

The Cardinals are the Cardinals and will always be fine.

So yes, I expect the NL Central to be very good, but also very competitive. I don’t really know what that means for the Reds, but I do know the margin of error for Cincinnati is much larger than it’s been in recent past.

AM: I don’t really think of it this way. Yes, the talent of all the teams is the top compared to other divisions but those things tend to figure themselves out. The Reds play 16 games against all of them and they have to play each other 16 times. The cream will rise to the top so to speak but someone will have to fall off. Honestly, I think it’s going to turn into a slug fest by July and each team is going to beat the hell out of each other. I think it’s a super good bet you’ll see three .500 teams. The biggest race is going to be the scrap for the WC spot.

CY: I don’t necessarily think “too” damn good, but I do think there won’t be a lot of off days.

BK: As a fan who followed Big East basketball this past season (timely, huh?), I see a lot of similarities. I don’t think there are any truly bad teams in the NL Central this year, and there aren’t any teams that strike me as being leaps and bounds better than the rest of the division either. That parity, along with the fact that I think that for most teams in this particular division, there is a pretty high ceiling for 100+ wins, and a low floor of ~90 losses. I have no idea what the Brewers are going to do, I have no idea how new-look Cardinals will be like, and no idea if we should expect the same Cubs as we’ve seen over the past few seasons. This division is gonna be FUN.

MC: Unfortunately, this factor may be too much to overcome. This is a team that projects to have around 80 wins next season, and it could still be a team that finishes last in the division. While I don’t think that will be the case, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility. That’s just how tough the division is.

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Check back tomorrow - actual Opening Day! - for Part 2 of our RR Q & A.