2015 Preview: Cincinnati Reds

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Cincinnati Reds.

The Big Question: Is the fun over in Cincy?

The Reds won a 36-year-high 97 games in 2012 and they finished with 90 wins in 2013, but a combination of key injuries and poor individual performances led the club to a disappointing 76-86 record and fourth-place finish in the National League Central in 2014.

And there isn’t a ton of reason for optimism in 2015.

Joey Votto is fully recovered from his distal quad strain, Jay Bruce is capable of a bounceback, and young speedster Billy Hamilton should take a step forward offensively after batting just .250/.292/.355 in 611 plate appearances as a rookie, but the Reds don’t appear to have the kind of well-rounded major league roster that will allow them to seriously compete in a division that suddenly looks like the deepest in all of baseball.

The rotation is in pretty rough waters, for the upcoming season and especially long term. Homer Bailey had an underwhelming 3.71 ERA (97 ERA+) over 145 2/3 innings last year — the first year of a six-year, $105 million contract — and he will open the 2015 campaign on a minor league rehab assignment following September surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow. Taking his place will be 36-year-old righty Jason Marquis, who didn’t make an appearance at the major league level in 2014. Mat Latos was shipped off to the Marlins in December because he had one year left on his contract and the Reds knew they weren’t going to be able to lock him up to a long-term deal. Extension talks don’t seem to be trending in a positive direction with Johnny Cueto, who is among the best starters in baseball but could very well be leaving Cincinnati for good next offseason. Tony Cingrani was shifted to the bullpen in a curious spring training decision so that Raisel Iglesias — an unproven Cuban right-hander — can slide into the starting corps. Iglesias pitched almost exclusively in relief in Serie Nacional. He gave up six runs to the Brewers in his latest Cactus League start.

Mike Leake is solid, and Anthony DeSclafani — part of the return package for Latos — carries some upside at age 24. But there are a whole lot of question marks surrounding this group and that’s an ominous situation for a team that plays 81 games per year in one of the least pitcher-friendly stadiums in Major League Baseball.

Cincinnati’s bullpen doesn’t offer anything inspiring beyond its flame-throwing closer and 22-year-old top pitching prospect Robert Stephenson probably won’t be ready for his MLB debut until the second half. Maybe the Reds can slug their way into contention, but here’s guessing that won’t work in the NL Central in 2015.

What else is going on?

  • The lineup does have a nice mix of dynamic offensive contributors. Todd Frazier finished in a tie with Josh Donaldson for the most home runs by a third baseman (29) last season and he led all major league third basemen in stolen bases with 20. Young catcher Devin Mesoraco was one of Major League Baseball’s breakout stars in 2014, producing an .893 OPS (149 OPS+) with 25 home runs and 80 RBI in 114 games. Offseason addition Marlon Byrd collected 25 home runs and 85 RBI in 154 games with the Phillies last summer. Votto, Bruce, and Hamilton — as mentioned above — should all be very good.
  • Aroldis Chapman has been a steal so far for Cincinnati, boasting a 2.32 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 430 strikeouts in 252 2/3 innings over the first five years of the six-year, $30 million deal that he signed after defecting from his native Cuba in 2010. But he opted into arbitration this winter and settled with the Reds at $8.05 million. He gets one more year of arbitration in 2016 and can then become a free agent. Will the Reds consider trading him after they get done hosting the 2015 All-Star Game festivities?
  • Brandon Phillips has registered a weak .714 OPS (95 OPS+) in 419 games since signing a six-year, $72.5 million contract extension with the Reds at the beginning of the 2012 season. He was praised for his clutch hitting ability after tallying 103 RBI in 2013, but analytical baseball people knew that lofty total was more the product of Votto and former Reds leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo. Phillips finished with just 51 RBI in 2014 and he slugged just eight home runs — an 11-year low. Yet the veteran second baseman is still being penciled in as the Reds’ No. 3 hitter behind Hamilton and Votto by manager Bryan Price.

Prediction: A potent offense but messy pitching leaves the Reds with 81 wins and a last-place finish in a loaded National League Central. Go ahead and pencil them in for a last-place finish in 2016 as well.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.