As a Clevelander, it was so much fun in 2016 to see the teams each take their turn in the quest for championships. For six months, Cleveland was the spot, with Stipe Miocic, the Lake Erie Monsters, Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Indians all winning a championship or coming very close. Building off of that kind of buzz is a lot of fun for a city and its fans.
How did the Cincinnati Reds follow up the Bengals’ 2021 success? By shedding salary and trading top players. The Reds did pick up a few late free agents, including Tommy Pham and Colin Moran, but the damage was already done. This is a team that now appears to be floating around in limbo – not awful enough to rebuild, but not good enough to compete. I feel bad for my friends down I-71.
The magnitude of the fire sale left people wondering when Cincinnati would trade Luis Castillo or Joey Votto – it truly felt like they were close. They went 83-79 last season and it seemed like a little targeted spending would go a long way. Instead, the Reds went in the opposite direction and basically threw away everything that they had built.
Teams that are clear losers of the offseason get penalized in the win total and futures markets, which can sometimes lead to some value. Is that the case for the Reds this season?
Cincinnati finished sixth in wOBA last season, but the park adjustment for playing in a band box made the Reds the only team in the top eight to finish with a below average wRC + at 98. The team’s top hitters were Jesse Winker – unfortunately limited to 110 games because of injury – with a 148 wRC + and Nick Castellanos with a 140 wRC + . Castellanos is now with the Phillies and Winker is in Seattle, as part of Cincinnati’s roster purge.
Castellanos was an impending free agent, but he was a strong fit in Cincinnati if ownership was willing to pony up the money. Winker was just starting to get expensive as he approached arbitration, but he was also starting to stand out as one of the game’s top young hitters. Instead, they’ll look to produce elsewhere. The Reds also sent Eugenio Suarez and his 31 homers to Seattle. For a team that plays in a small park and needs to hit for power, losing 89 homers across those three players feels like a major misstep.
Votto has reached some new levels of DGAF. He traded some of his legendary plate discipline for aggressive swings and fly balls, leading to 36 home runs, just one off of his career-high. The change actually worked wonders for Votto, as he made a ton of violent contact with far and away his highest Hard Hit% and Barrel% (his 17.2% Barrel% in 2021 ranked ninth, trailing names like Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper and Aaron Judge).
The 38-year-old only has two more guaranteed years on his contract and then a club option for 2024. It would be wildly unpopular to trade Votto, but it is not at all out of the question. He talked during spring training about the decision to swing more aggressively and look to hit dingers – and he sounds like a guy pretty fed up with ownership. Given that he has 47 career postseason plate appearances and only has a few years left, who can blame him? With a new crop of voters more interested in some of the new-age metrics, he may be a Hall of Famer. If he can replicate last season, he has a shot at 400 homers, which should probably seal the deal for him.
Votto is one of the last – if not the only – remaining studs in this lineup. Jonathan India finally stayed healthy and had a big year with a 122 wRC + and a .363 wOBA. He’s a really nice player to build around, though it would have been easier with Winker still in the mix. Beyond India and Votto, the Reds may get above-average production from Tyler Stephenson and Tyler Naquin, but that might be about it.
Pham was a league-average bat last season for the Padres and Moran was a tick below league average with the Pirates. Teams in rebuilding situations sign those guys and call it contending, but really they’re just buying prospects from other teams in trade. The hope would be that Pham rekindles some of his 2015-19 form and Moran finds some power with a better park factor.
The Reds would welcome Nick Senzel’s production with open arms if he could find what made him so good in the low minors, but that’s a tall ask with a player that has an 80 wRC + over a full season’s worth of MLB plate appearances. Aristides Aquino may get more plate appearances with the DH, but this offense is just a pedestrian group beyond Votto and India. The Reds would be happy to see Mike Moustakas return to his better years to increase his trade value.
Underwhelming lineups in good hitting environments really irritate me. Teams are supposed to play to the strengths provided by their home parks. The dimensions of baseball parks uniquely position teams to have advantages, since most basketball arenas and football fields are the same. The ball carries so well in Cincinnati that the entire philosophy for the Reds should be to play guerrilla ball and try to hit everything 500 feet.
The problem with not having a good offense is that it leaves your pitching staff very exposed. Sonny Gray was traded to Minnesota and Luis Castillo’s start to the season will be delayed. Newcomers Mike Minor and Justin Dunn are also dealing with shoulder discomfort. Tejay Antone had Tommy John surgery. Depth is in short supply for Cincinnati, especially when you consider what appears to be happening with the rotation.
The Reds put significant investment into their developmental staff. Kyle Boddy’s services were not retained, but the Driveline Baseball owner and creator put a lot of pitching plans in motion for the minor leagues that led to big upticks in strikeout rate. Some of those guys are now graduating to the majors and we’ll see how they fare. The Reds are going to let 22-year-old Hunter Greene learn on the job, which I love. Greene threw 106.1 innings last season after missing all of 2019 and 2020. He throws remarkably hard with a triple-digit fastball and misses a lot of bats. He’s also likely to fatigue quickly, much like he did in September during his Triple-A stint last season. At least he creates a buzz and something to follow, though there will be growing pains.
Reiver Sanmartin has made the rotation as well. He had a 1.54 ERA in two starts last season after a successful campaign in Triple-A. He has incredible command and control as a ground ball specialist. In 427.2 minor league innings, he has only walked 87 batters and allowed just 24 home runs.
The Reds may also opt to take the training wheels off of Nick Lodolo and let the 24-year-old give it a go. He, too, has monster strikeout numbers in the minor leagues, but has only thrown 69 pro innings with 108 punchouts. That’s the glass half-full philosophy and one that may come to fruition because of all the pitching injuries for the Reds.
That same sentiment applies to Vladimir Gutierrez, who made 22 starts last season with a 4.74 ERA and a 5.22 FIP. Gutierrez had bad strikeout and walk numbers, but did do a pretty decent job of avoiding hard contact. The Reds really are in a position to let these guys learn on the job at the MLB level, much like they did with Tyler Mahle, who goes into his age-27 season with nearly 500 innings of experience.
Mahle made 33 starts over 180 innings and posted a solid 3.75 ERA with a 3.80 FIP. He used to be a guy with really ugly platoon splits and not enough strikeouts to overcome his mediocre command, but that changed in 2020 and he followed it up with a solid 2021 season. He even did a much better job limiting hard contact, cutting his Hard Hit% down from 39.7% to 33.9%. He’d be a quality No. 2 starter on most teams, but he’s been thrust into the de facto ace role here.
When Castillo is healthy, he’s got ace-level potential as well. He fits the mold of pitchers I love with a high K% and a high GB%. Castillo owns a 3.72 ERA with a 3.76 FIP in 707.1 career innings, but his numbers should be better based on the quality of his stuff. He has been a little inconsistent at times.
A big reason why the Reds fell short of expectations last season is because the bullpen posted a 4.99 ERA (only the Diamondbacks, Nationals and Orioles were worse). Amir Garrett led the team in appearances, but after a 6.04 ERA last season, he was shipped out. Lucas Sims was second in appearances, but he’s already hurt. Sean Doolittle and Heath Hembree are also gone. This is a completely rebuilt bullpen. Given how bad the pen was last season, that can’t be a bad thing, but this feels like a low-upside relief corps.
Cincinnati is lacking depth and may not be done making moves with the pitching staff. Castillo and Mahle are both Arb-3 next year, which means they’ll be free agents after the season. Given how the Reds are trying to remove all financial commitments, they may not be interested in signing either guy. These are things you need to consider for season-long wagers.
Player to Watch
SP Hunter Greene: The Reds will probably do what the Tigers did last season and put some innings caps on their young arms, but it makes sense when you have a special talent like Greene. He struck out 139 batters across two levels last season in 106.1 innings of work. He had a lot more success at Double-A than Triple-A, which makes sense to me. Triple-A is full of ex-MLB players and dudes that have had a cup of coffee or two. To me, Triple-A hitters have more of a plan and won’t be overwhelmed by velocity to the same degree. It was important for Greene to go there and have some issues.
The big number was 11 home runs in 65.1 innings, but it is also important to note that he allowed four in his first Triple-A start and three in his August 17 start, so they were grouped together and not necessarily as bad as it seemed. The projection systems suggest Greene will be a below-average starter this season and I can’t argue with that, as he missed two years of development. Teams that struggle with velocity will struggle with him, though, and he’ll at least give us a reason to watch the Reds.
I’m not sure that Cincinnati’s season win total has been adjusted down enough. Like I wrote about the Nationals, though, I think looking for an adjusted second half win total at the All-Star Break is a better course of action. This is still a really mediocre division. I’m not sure the Cardinals will be all that good. The Brewers will be. I’m much higher on the Cubs than the market. The Pirates are awful. The Reds will be able to hold up more often than not against division foes.
I wouldn’t take an over with this team, but it’s hard to take an under as well. A lot of their internal development on the pitching side can be on display now and some people may be surprised at how much they’ve elevated their minor league arms. On the other hand, it could all come crashing down and more trades could take place. It’s just a shame to see another ownership group not want to compete financially with a team that could’ve really challenged the Brewers with a little bump in payroll.
Win Total Lean: Under 74.5