Manager: Bryan Price Projected Record: 77-85
It’s a little bit unfair to call the Reds a fifth place team. A 77 win projection would not have been the worst in any division in baseball in 2014 and is right in the neighborhood of a .500 team, save for a few breaks here and there. What swings the Reds into the projected cellar is that the rest of the division is either markedly better or has fewer question marks than the Reds. In years past, the Reds looked solid from top to bottom. That’s changed this year, as we could be in store for a rebuild in Cincy.
After trading Mat Latos to Miami, this rotation looks to have a hole that hasn’t been filled. Former Cubs Paul Maholm and Jason Marquis are having strong camps with the Reds, and both could break as Bryan Price has already announced that Homer Bailey would open the season on the DL. Another name to watch is Anthony DeSclafani, who was acquired in the Latos trade and has been good early in Spring Training. Between Cueto, a Cy Young candidate if not for some guy named Kershaw out in LA, and Bailey, the 1-2 punch at the top is quite good. Mike Leake is also a solid starter in the middle of the rotation. This could be the year that top prospect Robert Stephenson breaks in to the majors, too. The rotation isn’t a problem as long as players stay healthy, but with Bailey missing the start of the season, that’s already off to a tough start. If things go south early in the season, Johnny Cueto, a free agent to be, could be the top name on the July non-waiver trade deadline market, which would help speed up any thoughts of rebuilding. One would have to believe that the return for a Cueto rental would still be quite considerable.
What was once the strength of this team is now loaded with question marks…after Chapman. That guy is still money at the back end. As far as the others go, this was a true projection based on some past success and how spring is going to this point. That is to say, very subject to change. Sean Marshall is on the mend from shoulder surgery last season and may miss the start of the year, which may open the door for someone like Kevin Gregg to break camp with the Reds. At this point, there are a number of options on the table for the bullpen in Cincinnati that need to sort themselves out. Unfortunately, a team who is trying to piece together a pen in the middle of March probably has more problems than solutions. This is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
The projection for the Reds last year included some comments on Devin Mesoraco being replacement level and being the weakness of the club. Those were… premature. He became a 4.4 fWAR player last year, very solid both offensively and defensively. His .273/.359/.534 set the new high water mark for his career, and being only 26, there is no reason to think he can’t repeat a season similar to that in 2015. Take this as an apology for doubting you, Devin…and a tip of the cap.
Todd Frazier stepped out in a big way in 2014. His 4.7 fWAR was a new career best. Unlike Mesoraco, Frazier had been a good player before he became an all-star caliber player last season. The Reds needed him, too. Zack Cozart offers very little in the way of offense. Brandon Phillips is getting older. Joey Votto is becoming more fragile. If Brandon Phillips has a strong year for his age, and Joey Votto stays healthy, this is a really good infield. The difference lies with Votto’s health. When he was healthy in 2014, he was classic Joey Votto, with a lower than normal K rate for a power hitter and walking at an insane 17.3% clip. He only played 62 games. If he’s healthy, he can cover up a lot of what ails the Reds. If not, they’re not the same team, and it will hurt them.
Marlon Byrd is a temporary fixture in left field for the Reds, after coming over from the Phillies. While it remains to be seen if he can duplicate his last two seasons, between the Mets, Pirates, and Phillies, he should be a stable fixture, if not a productive one. The more interesting question in the outfield is if Billy Hamilton is going to take the next step forward in his development. His speed may be the best in baseball, but a .292 OBP is not going to cut it for a lead-off hitter on a team with any notion to contend. He appears to have added some muscle to his frame, which is likely natural filling out for a young player. If he is stronger and can hit a few more home runs or at least drive the ball with more authority, his speed becomes an even greater weapon. As was the case last year, Hamilton can be an X-factor, but he needs to get on base to maximize his ability. To say Jay Bruce had a down year would be a massive understatement, as he had a negative fWAR of 1.1. His power was down, his walks were down, his strike outs were up, and he played in fewer games than he had in past seasons. He’ll be 28 when the season starts, so this may be correctable, but if Bruce doesn’t provide security for Votto in the line-up, that makes the Reds a lot less difficult to deal with.
There is a reason the Reds only won 76 games last season. They had some injury issues. They had some poor performance. And they had some guys regress. There is nothing that appears to have changed to the point of solving those problems. Unless Joey Votto becomes an MVP candidate again and Johnny Cueto pitches like a Cy Young candidate again, the Reds are probably going to be more of the same of what they were last season. If that’s the case, this could be the year Walt Jocketty makes the move to start from scratch. That could make 77 wins a bit aspirational, as the Reds could drive into protected pick territory. They could also recapture some of their past form and outplay the 77 win projection. In any event, there are a lot of questions surrounding the Reds this spring. Teams with as many questions as the Reds have don’t often compete in divisions as tough as the NL Central figures to be.