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Four things the Cincinnati Reds are banking on for the 2021 season

SPOILER ALERT: Free agent spending is not one.

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Cincinnati Reds v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Pitchers and catchers report to big league camps in a little over three weeks. Three weeks! Despite the overall malaise among MLB clubs in terms of signing players, spending money, and trying to make themselves better at the sake of revenue, that puts the 2021 MLB season firmly in the ‘just around the corner’ stage.

While the Cincinnati Reds are sure to actually, tangibly do something between now and the start of the season, it’s become clear that the bulk of what they expect to be for the upcoming campaign will consist of what they’ve already got in-house. While a shortstop addition here and another arm signed there might still be boons to the overall equation, what the Reds will be banking on for 2021 is pretty firmly in the spotlight already. So, today we’re looking at four aspects of this team as a whole that will need to be true for them to go anywhere other than into obscurity this upcoming season.

1) Eugenio Suarez’s 2021 shoulders > Eugenio Suarez’s 2020 shoulders

Though it seems like eons ago, it’s been almost exactly one year since a muffed dive into a Florida swimming pool sent 3B Eugenio Suarez under the knife for shoulder surgery. The injury and subsequent rehab likely would’ve cost him the start of the season had the season, y’know, actually started on-time, and while he was reportedly at full-strength when summer camp reconvened, it was still a system-shock and took him out of his routine just months after wrapping his stellar 49 dong campaign.

Whether it was rust, pain, weakness, or a combination of it all, Geno looked rough to start 2020. Very rough, really. Through the first game of an August 19th doubleheader - 20 games played, and 13 through the shortened season - he was hitting just .118/.268/.235, with only 2 homers to his name. The bat looked slow, and he’d K’d 25 times in just 82 PA.

Fortunately, the Geno of old burst out of that shell later that day, socking a homer in the back-half of the doubleheader en route to a torrid finish to the season. His final 37 games played saw him hit .246/.336/.592 (.928 OPS), with 13 dingers in that span (a 57 dinger-per-162-games pace). As the Reds themselves dug out of the middle of the pack and into a playoff spot, it was Geno’s bat providing much of the fuel.

The hope here is that he can dodge another freak injury heading into 2021 camp, and the kind of bop we saw from him in 2019 and to finish 2020 is there to lead the offense through the entirety of the 2021 season.

2) The Tyler Mahle and Tejay Antone breakouts are real

The departures of both Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani leave undeniable holes in the Reds pitching depth, even given Disco’s relative struggles during the abbreviated 2020 season. But in some ways, the word ‘abbreviated’ is the single most important word I used in that opening sentence.

A 60 game season that even featured multiple 7-inning doubleheaders meant that nary a pitching staff in the game was tasked with anything close to the usual amount of innings pitched they face in a normal year. So while the Reds are shedding Bauer and Disco, they’re simultaneously asking what arms are still around to step right back up to cover 102 more games than they played last summer, too.

In Tyler Mahle and Tejay Antone, you have perhaps the two biggest breakouts of last year’s Reds team, arms that didn’t just post solid surface numbers (133 ERA+ and 171 ERA+, respectively), but also matched them with impressive peripherals (more on that in a second). If the Reds are truly going to lean on their pitching like they did last year, they’re going to need these two to largely repeat their success, and do so in a sustained fashion for a pile more innings, too.

That could come in piggy-back scenarios, as the rotation and bullpen roles have yet to be truly defined. It could even come as part of an expanded 6-man rotation at times, too, given the need for so many arms to ramp back up in terms of innings. Regardless, these two are going to be counted on heavily to not just be successful second-fiddles, and instead to help power the staff.

3) Kyle Boddy and Derek Johnson can work more magic

In Mahle and Antone, you’ve got a former 7th round pick and a former 5th round pick, the latter of whom was a 26 year old rookie. The former, Mahle, topped out on prospect lists as the #84 ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prior to the 2018 season while never once cracking the Top 100 from Baseball Prospectus. Yet there both were in 2020, mowing down opposing hitters with aplomb.

The idea of developing pitchers within the Reds organization is one that we’ve long grappled with as a concept, as it so often has simply fizzled in epic fashion for much of recent history. With Boddy overseeing organizational philosophy and Johnson pulling strings at the big league level now, though, the idea that pitchers can actually get markedly better as they advance through the minors is now something in which we fans, and the Reds themselves, are beginning to lean into quite hard.

Mahle, for instance, saw his fastball spin rank in the 26th percentile as recently as 2018, his curve in just the 37th. By 2020, he’d risen those to the 73rd and 62nd percentile, respectively, despite ‘increasing spin rates’ being something almost all pitchers everywhere were primarily focused on improving. Antone, meanwhile, rocketed right to the top of those metrics, ranking in the 98th percentile in fastball spin and 95th in curve spin in his initial foray into big league ball, according to MLB’s Statcast.

Somehow, Lucas Sims managed to be even better, his fastball spin in the 99th percentile and curve spin at the top in the 100th. Spin rate, of course, isn’t the end-all be-all for pitches, but it does correlate quite strongly with movement and deception, two aspects that paired with solid velocity make it increasingly difficult for hitters to react to what’s coming quick enough to do much with it. It’s a damn good trait, to be short.

The methods, the pattern, the implementation, and even the acquisitions (Jeff Hoffman and Edgar Garcia, to name a pair) suggest the Reds are trying to uncover arms that can replicate similar paths, not just arms that may have posted a respectable ERA in 2019. Means, not ends, and for the 2021 pitching staff to truly succeed, they’ll need to uncover a few other arms to roll out in key spots once again.

4) Shogo Akiyama figured it out

Two things became evident in a hurry once Shogo arrived as the first Reds player ever from Japan: he was a plus runner on the bases, and could play outfield defense at a level unmatched by his peers on the active roster. Those two traits, if all that were there, were still going to earn him plenty of playing time, but the production at the plate during the first portion of the season simply wasn’t much to write home about.

31 games into the 60 game season - with 27 games played under his belt - Shogo was hitting just .183/.264/.232 after 91 PA, the bulk of which had come with him in the leadoff spot. He was far from the lone reason why the offense had largely sputtered, but he certainly wasn’t doing much to stem that tide. As C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic noted a few weeks later, though, it was a game against Cubs ace Yu Darvish on August 29th that just might have been the spark Shogo needed, the drying of the ink on his contract that finally convinced him he didn’t just belong in MLB, but could thrive.

From August 30th to the end of the season, Shogo absolutely raked. He hit .319/.453/.377 over his final 86 PA (25 games), the lack of power overshadowed by the fact that he walked more often (16) than he struckout (13). I’m not suggesting that he’s poised to completely replicate that absurdly good OBP, but now that we’ve seen that type of production is possible in short-stints, the idea that his ebbs and flows will be less pronounced and more stable in 2021 certainly seems possible. And an elite defender with plus OBP skills atop the lineup most days would do wonders for the run-scoring possibilities for the 2021 offense as a whole.