It is going to require Luis Castillo breezing through a trio of outs against the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, but we’re eventually going to see how the 2021 Cincinnati Reds offense is going to pick up the pieces from its dismal 2020 campaign. You know, the one that hit just .212 as a team with a collective 91 wRC+?
You already forgot about that, did ya? Good for you.
We’ve long gone over some of the peripheral factors that contributed to that performance. The abysmal luck on balls in play despite ranking 10th overall in hard-hit percentage was the primary culprit, and the team’s overall 11.3% walk rate was actually 2nd best in the game, showing that there might well be some offensive life left in this group after all.
As things stand, hoping things simply get better is still the overriding strategy of the Reds, as the front office made zero outside additions geared to augment the offense since the end of 2020. Beyond that, they jettisoned Curt Casali - the team’s 2nd best performer by wRC+ (min 90 PA) - and are adding a pair of unproven rookies to the lineup in Tyler Stephenson and Jonathan India as their reinforcements.
Further complicating things at the moment is the absence of Shogo Akiyama, whose on-base prowess over the latter half of 2020 had him the early leader to be the team’s primary leadoff hitter once the 2021 season began. He’s on the shelf with a hamstring issue that’ll keep him out for at least a week of play, and then will face the unfortunate scenario of rehabbing without any AAA baseball yet being played, only to then get to jump back into big league play having effectively lost his spring. Joey Votto is in a somewhat similar predicament, as his COVID diagnosis sidelined him for two weeks of Cactus League play, and he barely worked his way back before yesterday’s spring finale.
Those two issues are the primary drivers of manager David Bell’s decision-making at the moment, but there are a few other details that’ll vex him before filling out that lineup card on Thursday. Here are those concerns spelled out as the coffee just now begins to seep into my system:
- Who hits leadoff? Nick Senzel’s athleticism vs. his peers on the roster makes him perhaps the most classic leadoff man, but Jesse Winker’s on-base ability is the best on the club at the moment. Does he take Winker’s emerging overall game out of the middle of the lineup to stack his on-base leaders at the top?
- Where does Joey Votto hit? He’s been a perennial mainstay at either the #3 or #2 spot in the lineup, but as he inches closer to 38 years old, expecting that level of production is likely foolhardy...or, is it? Will Joey’s mid-2020 swing change again produce plus power and allow him to turn back the clock? Will his recovery from COVID mean he’ll sit more often than usual to begin the year, for more day games, or against LHP?
- How does the three-batter minimum for pitchers come into play? The dissolution of the traditional LOOGY means any lefty reliever brought in will have to face at least a trio of guys, perhaps incentivizing some knifey-spooney in the lineup to ensure a right-handed bat gets to feast on one. Splitting Winker and Votto and Mike Moustakas in the lineup would be the result here, spacing them out with Senzel, Nick Castellanos, and Eugenio Suarez in some form or fashion.
- Can Bell boot all those DH-dreams? After one very short year with the Designated Hitter in play, that’s gone again, with the classic National League pinch-hitters and double-switches baked back into his lineup theory. In other words, his lineup for innings 1-5 will rarely look anything like the one from innings 6-9, and figuring out how to move and shake that will again be in play.
- Picking up on that, how does the IP expectation for starters play in here? All pitchers are going to be tasked with ramping up from a 60 game slate to a 162 game one, and simply expecting 180-200 IP from starters absolutely won’t be a thing as a result. Does that mean Bell will get tricky with how he slots in his SPs in the order? Will they bat 8th in anticipation that they’ll only get a lone PA before a pinch-hitter comes in?
- Opening Day aside, how platoon-oriented will Bell get? Will Aristides Aquino bump Winker from the lineup against LHP? Will Tyler Stephenson and Tucker Barnhart be in a pure platoon behind the dish? Will Votto sit against LHP and allow, I dunno, Kyle Farmer regular PA against them?
- How protective of the rookies will Bell be? Will he hide Jonathan India at the bottom of the order even if he continues to be hot to start the season? Will Barnhart bat higher than Stephenson on his days in the lineup?
It’s certainly a big plate of lineup to digest everyday, albeit with a slate of options that should, in theory, produce a lot better results during the course of a full 2021 season than they did in the abbreviated 2020 version. After kicking around all of those considerations in my head for the last few weeks, here’s the lineup I think I’d begin the season with given the options on hand, at least against RHP:
- Nick Senzel - CF
- Jesse Winker - LF
- Nick Castellanos - RF
- Eugenio Suarez - SS
- Mike Moustakas - 3B
- Joey Votto - 1B
- Jonathan India - 2B
- Tucker Barnhart - C
- Luis Castillo - SP
Opening Day baseball is just 48 hours away. Let’s see your ideal lineups (and theories) in the comments below.