The Cincinnati Reds struggled through another disappointing season in 2016, as they finished with a win-loss record of 68-94 and missed the playoffs for the third straight season.
Clearly in the middle of a rebuild, the Reds have shipped out numerous veterans since the 2014 trade deadline, including Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips. All of these players had crucial roles on the last Reds’ playoff team in 2013.
The positive of all of these trades is the wealth of young talent the Reds have accrued. The goal for the 2017 season is for these players to continue to develop. The Reds are counting on players like José Peraza, Scott Schebler, and Brandon Finnegan to take the next step and become key contributors.
The Reds didn’t have a big offseason and failed to make a splash in free agency. Zach Buchanan, the Reds’ beat reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, told me that the biggest free agent acquisition was Scott Feldman. He called the fact that the Feldman signing was their biggest free agent deal “sad.” However, he said, “the rotation is so thin after the injury to Homer Bailey, that it makes Feldman’s presence absolutely necessary.” Mark Sheldon of MLB.com offered a different name. He said “I would say it was the free agent signing of Drew Storen to a one-year, $3 million contract. Storen brings a veteran presence to the back portion of the bullpen and will join Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Tony Cingrani in a four-way late-inning role.” They also signed Desmond Jennings, Ryan Raburn, and Bronson Arroyo to minor-league deals with invitations to spring training.
The biggest news to come out of the offseason was Brandon Phillips getting traded to the Atlanta Braves for pitchers, Andrew McKirahan and Carlos Portuondo. This was done to accelerate the rebuild by giving José Peraza a chance to develop as an everyday player at second base. McKirahan is a 27-year-old lefty, who made his MLB debut in 2015 and has a career ERA of 5.93. Portuondo, 29, is a right-hander from Cuba and has a career ERA of 3.63 in two minor-league seasons.
Many analysts are projecting this roster to struggle this year. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the roster heading into the season.
Starting behind the dish, the Reds have two very capable catchers, who are locks to make the Opening Day roster. Devin Mesoraco is finally healthy after only playing a combined 39 games the last two seasons. In 2014 (the last time he was an everyday player), he hit .273 with 25 home runs and 80 runs batted in. Due to Mesoraco’s injury, Tucker Barnhart was the everyday backstop last year and responded with seven home runs and 51 RBIs while hitting .257. MLB.com projects that Barnhart will get more at-bats on the season to the tune of .250, five home runs and 33 RBIs. Mesoraco is projected to bat .242 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs. Barnhart is expected to play a lot early on in the season as Mesoraco finds his footing, but expect Mesoraco to be the full-time starter by June.
First base is held down by perennial all-star candidate and fan-favorite, Joey Votto. In typical Votto fashion, #19 had another fantastic campaign in 2016. He ripped 29 dingers and drove in 97 runs with a slash line of .326/.434/.550. Votto’s best attribute is his ability to get on base. He draws an insane amount of walks and really tires out pitchers by working the count. He also brings gold glove caliber defense to lineup. MLB.com projects Votto to hit .315, with 28 home runs and 90 RBIs. Look for Joey to put up his usually MVP-worthy numbers.
As a result of the Brandon Phillips trade, José Peraza is being handed the starting second base job. Peraza finally got an extended trial at the major league level in 2016. In 241 at-bats, he hit an impressive .324 with three home runs and 25 RBIs. He also added another base stealing threat to the lineup by stealing 24 bases. The 22-year-old is projected to hit for a .301 average with four home runs and 48 RBIs, while also torching opposing teams on the basepaths with 39 projected steals.
My pick to be the breakout player of the year, Eugenio Suarez will be manning the hot corner this season. In his 3rd big-league season, the right-handed slugger hit 21 home runs and batted in 70 total runs, while hitting .248 in 2016. The 25-year-old brings the rare combo of power and speed to 3rd base as he was one of only three 3rd basemen to hit 20 home runs and steal 10 bases in 2016. MLB.com expects him to hit about .250 with 19 home runs and 72 RBIs. I think this is on the low side. I think he could easily rake .270 and hit 25 home runs, forming a three-man power trip with Joey Votto and left fielder Adam Duvall. Suarez looks ready to hit full stride in the big-leagues and I expect him to break out in 2017.
The Reds will head into the 2017 season with Zack Cozart as their starting shortstop. That should be taken with a grain of salt because his name has been circulating in trade rumors all offseason. It would make sense for the Reds to unload him as he is a veteran player who is making over 5 million dollars in base salary this year. It would also allow José Peraza to slide over to shortstop, so that 23-year-old Dilson Herrera could be inserted into the lineup as the full-time second baseman. According to Mark Sheldon, the market for quality shortstops is pretty much dead, but there could be high demand for Cozart as the July 31st trade deadline approaches. Cozart did hit .252 in 2016 and set a new career high with 16 home runs. In 2017, He is expected to have a .255 batting average with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs.
2016 all-star Adam Duvall returns as the starting left fielder. Duvall has unbridled power and exploded for 33 home runs last season. He drove in over 100 runs, but only hit for a .241 average. MLB.com thinks he’ll have a similar season in 2017, and they project him to hit .237 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs. Similar to Suarez, I think they are being a little too harsh with Duvall. Last year was his first year as a full-time starter in the Major Leagues and he was able to put up great numbers. He should be even more comfortable and used to the harsh level of competition this year, so I expect him to have about the same power output as last season while also raising his batting average by 10-20 points. The average is the only thing that worries me with Duvall. If he can hit for a better average this year, I think he’ll definitely have another all-star caliber campaign.
Cincinnati’s resident speedster and fan-favorite Billy Hamilton will once again be shagging balls out in center field. Billy showed all-around improvement in 2016 as he set new career highs in batting average (.260), on-base percentage (.321), and stolen bases (58). Only 26-years-old, Billy is just now in the beginning stages of his prime. MLB.com projects that he could make a run at 70 stolen bases this year. Speed has never been his issue though. The concerns with Hamilton have always been about his on-base percentage and his limited power. Billy only has 13 career home runs. Don’t expect that to change though as he is only projected to hit three this year. His on-base percentage started to improve last season and he is projected to get on base at a .319 clip this year. On-base percentage is the key to Hamilton becoming the best player he can be, as the more he gets on base, the more he can use his speed to steal and score runs.
After Jay Bruce was traded at the trade deadline last season, Scott Schebler received the opportunity to take his spot in right field. Schebler did enough to earn the right field job to start the 2017 season by hitting .265 with 9 home runs and 40 RBIs in his first extended playing action. He did struggle before Bruce’s trade and was sent down to the minors, but produced very well after being recalled. He hit 8 of his nine homers after August 2nd. Many experts think that the 26-year-old will build upon his strong finish to 2016, by hitting .270 with 15 dingers and 56 ribbies. Schebler needs to have a productive 2017 to hold off minor-league prospects, like Jesse Winkler, from becoming the starting right fielder in the near future.
Cincy pitching struggled mightily in 2016. The pitchers for the Redlegs combined to have a 4.91 team earned run average. According to ESPN, that puts them ranked 28th in team ERA. To be blunt, that’s horrific. There were some bright spots though as starting pitchers like Anthony DeSclafani, and Brandon Finnegan, and relievers like Rasiel Iglesias, and Michael Lorenzen, showed plenty of promise. These four pitchers will be relied on to anchor this pitching staff.
Notable starting pitchers will include DeSclafani, Finnegan, and offseason acquisition Scott Feldman. DeSclafani established himself as the top starter with a 9-5 record and 3.28 ERA in 20 starts. It looks like he will be the Opening Day starter. He is projected to win 10 games and have a 3.84 ERA. Brandon Finnegan will go into the 2017 season as the second starter in the rotation after winning 10 games and posting a sub-4.00 ERA in 2016. He is expected to win 10 games with an ERA that hovers around 4.25. I think the 23-year-old lefty will post an ERA around 3.50 as he continues to mature into a front-end of the rotation starter. It looks like Scott Feldman will be given a chance to begin the season as a member of the starting rotation. The 34-year-old journeyman has been used as both a starter and reliever in his career, including 5 starts and 35 relief appearances last season. He has never been a particularly special player, as he has a career 4.39 ERA, but is a reliable pitcher who offers the versatility of being able to start or come in out of the bullpen. He is projected to win 7 games and have an ERA just over 4.00. The last two spots in the rotation are up for grabs due to an injury to Homer Bailey. Arguably the best starter on the team, Bailey will start the season on the 60-day disabled list and isn’t expected back until June at the earliest. The top two candidates to win the remaining slots in the starting rotation are Tim Adleman and Robert Stephenson. Adleman had four wins for the ballclub last year and Stephenson has long been viewed as one of the top prospects in the Reds’ farm system. One player to watch is Bronson Arroyo, who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2014. He has been a starter for the majority of his career, including with Cincinnati from 2006-2013. If he makes the team out of spring training, it’ll be interesting to see if he is used as a starter or reliever. The rumor going around is that he will be a reliever, but he has proven himself to be a durable starter in the past, and his pitching repertoire doesn’t really mirror that of typical relievers. Mark Sheldon said, “I think it’s starter or nothing for Arroyo, regardless of what they’re saying. His type of stuff doesn’t really play out of the bullpen.” This will be a story to follow and will affect the status of Adleman and/or Stephenson, if Arroyo does make the starting rotation.
The bullpen is a toss-up for a lot of the roster spots. However, four pitchers are virtually guaranteed locks: Raisel Iglesias, Tony Cingrani, Michael Lorenzen, and Drew Storen. These four guys are expected to be used in high-pressure or late-inning situations. Basically, Bryan Price is going to employ a four-man closer-by-committee. The only man on that list without closing experience is Michael Lorenzen, but he was lights out last season out of the ‘pen. In 35 appearances, he had an impressive 2.88 ERA. Iglesias and Cingrani carried much of the closer load down the stretch last year, as they had six and 17 saves, respectively. The Reds picked up Drew Storen this offseason, signing him to a one-year, $3 million contract in free agency. Having saved 98 games in his career, he has plenty of experience, which is one area the bullpen is lacking in.
Bryan Price is entering his fourth year as the Reds’ manager. The Reds announced in September that he would return for at least the 2017 season, with a team option for 2018. Mark Sheldon told me that “a strong start for the club will be key for Price to have his option picked up. I don’t believe the front office will wait until season’s end to make that decision.” This is another interesting storyline to follow throughout the 2017 season, with the team’s potential improvement being a deciding factor for Price’s option.
It’s early in spring training, but some players have already begun to stand out. Zach Buchanan said, “the one person I’ve heard Bryan Price heap praise upon is left-handed reliever Wandy Peralta.” Mark Sheldon told me that, while it’s still very early in the process, Cody Reed and Luis Castillo are two pitchers that have stood out thus far. It will also be interesting to see whether or not non-roster invitees, Desmond Jennings and Ryan Raburn, will be able to play their ways onto the Opening Day roster. Both are veteran outfielders, who can provide some pop off the bench.
Even though nothing much is expected from the Reds this year, I think they could surprise some people. The lineup is very solid. As long as the pitching staff shows improvement, Cincinnati could have a deceptively good season.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Billy Hamilton, CF
Zack Cozart, SS
Joey Votto, 1B
Adam Duvall, LF
Eugenio Suarez, 3B
Scott Schebler, RF
Devin Mesoraco, C
José Peraza, 2B
Projected Starting Rotation:
*Homer Bailey will be added to the rotation upon his return from injury
Projected Win-Loss Record:
-Mark Sheldon: “I think 74-77 wins is realistic, but many are predicting the club to struggle again and perhaps have a win total in the high 60s.
-Zach Buchanan: 71-91
-My Prediction: 76-86