2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Reds went 68-94, finishing ahead of only the Phillies and Giants in the National League last season. The club lost infielder Zack Cozart to free agency and only added a couple of relievers via the open market and didn’t do anything notable in the way of trades. And yet the Reds may improve by close to 10 games, maybe even more if things break right.

One can’t begin a preview of the Reds without talking about first baseman and perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto. The future Hall of Famer had another Vottoesque season last year, batting .320/.454/.578 with 36 home runs, 100 RBI, and 106 runs scored in 707 plate appearances. Playing in all 162 games, Votto led the majors with 134 walks and in on-base percentage, and led the National League in OPS (1.032), which resulted in a runner-up finish in NL MVP balloting. Votto is 34 years old, so one wonders when he’ll begin to slow down. He has averaged over 6.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs, over the last three seasons. It would be foolish not to expect similar production going forward until he shows he’s actually slowing down.

Scooter Gennett will start every day to the right of Votto at second base. Gennett broke out last season, not just with a four-homer game, but by overall batting .295/.342/.531 with 27 homers and 97 RBI across 497 PA. The one drawback with Gennett is that he has a severe platoon split. He posted a .930 OPS against right-handed pitchers last year compared to just .691 against fellow southpaws. The trend is true across his entire career, owning an .809/.559 split. It may be a flaw the Reds are content to live with. It may also be something that may prompt the Reds to give Gennett a platoon partner during the season – perhaps Dilson Herrera, assuming he rebounds from last year’s shoulder surgery.

With Cozart out of the picture, Jose Peraza has the starting job at shortstop. Peraza struggled as a utility player last year, compiling a .622 OPS in 518 plate appearances. He has never had much in the way of power but does have speed and makes for a double-threat in that regard with Billy Hamilton. Any offense the Reds get out of Peraza this year will be considered gravy.

Eugenio Suarez returns to the hot corner after enjoying a career year in 2017. He hit .260/.367/.461, setting career-highs with 26 home runs, 82 RBI, and 87 runs scored in 632 PA. The 26-year-old has quickly become a mainstay in the Reds’ offense and should be expected to do more of the same in 2018.

Tucker Barnhart rounds out the infield handling things behind the plate. He put up solid offensive numbers, including a .750 OPS, while managing a young pitching staff and shutting down the running game. He threw out 44 percent of attempted base-stealers last season, leading the National League and helping him win a Gold Glove Award. Devin Mesoraco will back up Barnhart, though the distribution of playing time could change if he has a bounce-back year. Mesoraco has battled injuries over the last three seasons, but he’s completely healthy right now.

Slugger Adam Duvall, riding back-to-back 30-homer seasons, will handle left field. Unfortunately for the Reds, power is the majority of what Duvall provides on offense as his adjusted OPS – OPS adjusted for league and park quality – was just barely over the league average in 2016 and exactly at the league average last year. That’s because Duvall doesn’t draw many walks and doesn’t hit for a high average. Still, a two-win player is a two-win player.

Center field features speedster Billy Hamilton. He’s never done much with his bat, but he’s one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball and an elite base-stealing threat. Baseball Reference valued him at nine defensive runs above average last year while he swiped a career-high 59 bases. If Hamilton can approach league average production offensively, he’ll be an All-Star. Sadly, he has a meager .632 OPS across parts of five years in the majors.

Scott Schebler will round out the outfield in right field. Like Duvall, Schebler’s 30-homer season was great, but held down a bit by his inability to draw walks or hit for average, leaving him just a few points above the league average going by adjusted OPS. He’s only 27 years old, however, and has plenty of time to make improvements.

Jesse Winker will also find his way into the outfield mix. He has performed well this spring after doing the same in 47 games last year. Across 137 PA, Winker hit .298/.375/.529 with seven home runs and 15 RBI. The Reds will want to get Winker consistent at-bats, which may prompt the club to trade Duvall or Hamilton at some point. As John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported last month, manager Bryan Price sees his outfield as “rotational unless performance dictates otherwise.”

The Reds’ starting rotation could be a source of unexpected value or a source of great frustration. So far this spring, it’s leaning towards frustration as both Anthony DeSclafani (oblique) and Brandon Finnegan (biceps) are dealing with injuries. It seems unlikely DeSclafani will be ready to begin the regular season, so the rotation currently features Homer Bailey and Luis Castillo followed by a handful of pitchers battling it out for the other two or three spots.

Bailey has spent most of the last three seasons battling injuries. Following his season debut in June last year, the right-hander struggled to a 6.43 ERA across 18 starts through the end of the season. Bailey is anything but a sure thing in 2018.

Castillo, meanwhile, impressed with a 3.12 ERA and a 98/32 K/BB ratio in 89 1/3 innings in 15 starts last season. He always had good numbers coming up through the minors and has the highest upside of anyone on the Reds’ pitching staff.

Finnegan made only four starts last year due to injuries to both of his shoulders. Behind him, Sal Romano, Robert Stephenson, Tyler Mahle, and Amir Garrett are competing for rotation spots. Cody Reed could also be thrown back into the mix if the Reds are hurting for depth.

Raisel Iglesias will once again close things out in the ninth inning. The right-hander impressed with 28 saves, a 2.49 ERA, and a 92/27 K/BB ratio in 76 innings last year, quietly ranking among the game’s better closers. It would be no surprise at all if Iglesias were to repeat the performance or, even, perform better.

The Reds will try to bridge the gap to the ninth inning with free agent signings David Hernandez and Jared Hughes as well as Michael Lorenzen, Wandy Peralta and a revolving door of others including Reed, Austin Brice, Kevin Shackelford, and those mentioned above who don’t win a rotation spot.

Overall, this is still a last-place team, but it’s one that can make a lot of positive gains this season and has the potential to improve more quickly than expected.

Prediction: 73-89, 5th place in NL Central