Recovering after finishing 28½ games behind the Brewers in arguably the toughest division in baseball is the challenge that faces the Cincinnati Reds front office.
They are showing admirable optimism in acquiring big-name talent and attaching their name to trade speculation around some of the highest-profile targets on the market.
Perhaps they will swipe J.T Realmuto from the grasp of the bigger teams. Perhaps they will land a bonafide pitching ace like Corey Kluber or Noah Syndergaard. Or perhaps they will have to settle for upgrading their roster with other team’s cast-offs.
Whatever happens between now and Opening Day, they know there will be no easy games in the NL Central. The Pirates showed their ambition by going for it at the trade deadline and acquiring Chris Archer. The Cubs may have failed to convert their 2016 World Series championship into a dynasty, but they have one of the most complete rosters in the game. The Cardinals pulled off a potentially season-changing deal by trading for elite first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. And the Brewers are buoyant having won more games than any other NL team last season.
The Reds kicked off their offseason makeover by swapping Tanners with the Nationals. Veteran starter Tanner Roark brings his career 3.59 ERA to Cincinnati with relief pitcher Tanner Rainey travelling in the opposite direction.
Cincinnati’s biggest trade was the blockbuster salary dump deal with the Dodgers, which brought Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and cash to Great American Ball Park for Homer Bailey and a couple of prospects.
President Dick Williams is not finished and has no time for half-hearted efforts:
“We’re not done yet. Payroll will be up to levels we haven’t had before. We still have money to spend.”
In Joey Votto, the Reds have one of the greatest players in the modern era. Over the last ten years, only three qualified hitters have an OBP above .400 – Miguel Cabrera (0.404 OBP), Mike Trout (0.416 OBP) and then way ahead is Votto with .434 OBP.
His penchant to take a walk belies his power. His 0.532 SLG is ninth-best, and .312 AVG is third best. I am happy to argue that he is the second best player we’ve seen over the last ten years.
Votto’s 2018 was a disappointment, partly caused by bad-luck, partly by injury and partly by age-related decline, but don’t count the 35-year-old past it just yet.
At the hot corner, the Reds have an underrated superstar. As part of a career-best 34 home run/104 RBI season, Eugenio Suarez tied the franchise record with home runs in five straight games. Under team control until 2024, the Venezuelan is one of the key elements around which the Reds are building.
Missing from centre field in 2019 will be the speed-machine Billy Hamilton who was non-tendered, partly as a result of a career sub-0.300 OBP. His 70 wRC+ suggests he is 30% below average. For all of his failings, the Reds will miss Hamilton’s sensational defensive prowess. The 28-year-old was snapped up by the free-running Royals, so expect him to swipe his 300th stolen base this year.
By agreeing to a new three-year contract with Raisel Iglesias, the Reds have locked up a solid reliever for the foreseeable future. With a career 2.42 ERA from the bullpen, Iglesias offers the flexibility of taking the ball for more than one solitary inning; something that he did 16 times in 2018.
One of the Reds highlights of last season was when relief pitcher Michael Lorenzen (3.11 ERA over 81 innings) took advantage of a botched call by the umpires and drove the next pitch over the wall. It was his 4th home run of the season, which probably makes him the best two-way player behind Shohei Ohtani. The plan is for Lorenzen to play the outfield in Spring Training in an attempt to further capitalise on his versatility.
Another pitcher who likes to swing the bat is Anthony DeSclafani. He became the first Reds’ pitcher since the 50s to hit a Grand Slam when he went deep against the Cubs. He also picked up the win in the game after 6⅓ strong innings.
As an example of the unpredictability of the game, in March 2017 and despite a Minor League option remaining, the Brewers ditched infielder Scooter Gennett. Considering their void at second base, it’s easy to imagine Milwaukee’s GM David Stearns regretting that decision.
The Reds claimed him off waivers, and Ryan (to give him his proper name instead of the Muppets-inspired nickname) has hit .300 AVG with 50 home runs to accumulate 6.7 WAR over the last two seasons. He was the Reds best player by a clear margin last year.
The recent acquisition of Sonny Gray, albeit for a high cost considering the Yankees desire to move him, further solidifies the rotation, especially as the Reds were able to agree a contract extension with the right-hander.
If Luis Castillo can perform more like the 3.12 ERA pitcher of 2017 and less like the 4.30 ERA pitcher of 2018, then maybe baseball’s first professional team will be contenders in MLB’s toughest division.