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

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.