Cincinnati’s Winter Has Been a Disaster

Even against the backdrop of a slow offseason, watching the NL Central this winter has been an exercise in hot stove drudgery. Until the mini-flurry of activity that saw Adam Wainwright and Joc Pederson join the Cardinals and Cubs, respectively, the division’s top signed free agents, at least by ZiPS’s reckoning, were Daniel Robertson and Jace Peterson. Figuring out which team has been the most disappointing has been like an Agatha Christie novel: Bar the doors, everyone’s a suspect!

St. Louis has largely presented a convincing alibi with the Nolan Arenado trade and bringing Wainwright and Yadier Molina back for one last caper. So, whodunit? Was it the Pirates, a team that has become the baseball equivalent of a farm that is paid not to grow crops? Is it the Cubs, a team burdened by the apparent transformation of Chicago from a large-market megalopolis to a tiny town (or so they would have us believe)? Is it the Brewers, who, with Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain at their core, ought to be in full win-now mode? My pick, though, is the Inspector Cincinnati Reds — the division’s hero in the previous two mysteries — going rogue.

The Reds of the last two winters were among the few teams that made an effort to push forward to a division title, acquiring Sonny Gray, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, and José Iglesias. Not all of these players were good additions, but this initial flurry represented a genuine desire to compete. And when this group wasn’t enough, the organization doubled-down instead of folding, picking up Trevor Bauer from Cleveland and signing Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, Wade Miley, and Shogo Akiyama. The result wasn’t an overwhelming success, but it was enough to get the team over the .500 mark and sneak into the playoffs, both things Cincinnati hadn’t done since 2013.

Last year’s playoff run ended ignominiously, with the Reds failing to score a single run in 22 innings against the Braves. It seemed inevitable that Bauer was headed to another city for an enormous raise (and he did), but free agency left the rest of the team’s core intact. With nobody in the division apparently possessing any burning desire to actually win the division — or so it appeared back in November — surely Cincinnati would find other options than Bauer to fix team holes!

About that…

One challenge was to replace some of Bauer’s 2020 performance in the rotation. While Cincinnati would be hard-pressed to do that, it was also a winter in which few starting pitchers attracted much interest. Charlie Morton, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards, and Drew Smyly took one-year deals, and Mike Minor wasn’t breaking any banks with a two-year, $18 million contract with the Royals. The Reds passed on all those pitchers, as well as possible pillow-contract options like Robbie Ray or Rick Porcello, and haven’t signed a single starting pitcher to a major league contract to date — this in an offseason in which only two pitchers have signed multi-year deals with an AAV of at least $15 million (Bauer and Liam Hendriks).

Cincinnati’s rotation doesn’t project as a major issue, with ZiPS ranking it 12th and our depth chart rankings placing it 10th. The problem is that while the rotation isn’t a drag on the team, it’s also not a source of considerable strength as it was in 2020. The Reds’ starting five ranked third in baseball in WAR last season, trailing only Cleveland and the Yankees. When they “only” ranked eighth, as in 2019, that wasn’t enough to compensate for the team’s holes elsewhere, as shown by the team’s 75–87 final record. Cincinnati new general manager, Nick Krall, shot down the rumors of Gray and Luis Castillo being shopped, but the team’s lack of action largely fueled the idea that it was inching towards a fire sale.

Nor have the Reds made any moves to address the problems of the team’s lackluster offense. Their wRC+ of 88 over 2019 and ’20 ranked 24th in baseball, generally only above teams fighting to get out of last place. No lineup hole appeared wider this winter than the shortstop. Freddy Galvis was hardly a star at the position, but he’s no longer on the roster, leaving the team’s best in-house options as Jose Garcia, Kyle Holder, and, as weird as it still seems, backup catcher Kyle Farmer. Luckily for Cincinnati, there were few better times to sign a shortstop in free agency than this winter. Here are the ZiPS projections for the top available shortstops at the start of the offseason alongside Cincy’s realistic internal options. (Also included are Dee Strange-Gordon, inked to a minor-league deal this week, and Jonathan Villar, now a Met but who was rumored to be close to signing with the Reds. The latter two I’m projecting as shortstops here; neither ought to be considered shortstops at this point, but both represented at least theoretical choices at the position.)

ZiPS Projections – Cincy SS Options
Marcus Semien .268 .341 .497 589 99 158 31 4 32 93 66 120 11 116 2 4.4
Ha-seong Kim .272 .343 .480 606 100 165 34 4 28 104 62 121 17 113 -2 3.6
Didi Gregorius .277 .322 .483 480 74 133 24 3 23 85 30 70 5 107 1 2.6
Andrelton Simmons .275 .321 .384 498 63 137 26 2 8 50 32 55 10 84 12 2.5
Jonathan Villar .246 .314 .385 533 69 131 19 2 17 57 53 159 39 82 -9 0.7
Kyle Holder .234 .285 .352 418 43 98 18 2 9 34 27 88 5 66 0 0.0
Kyle Farmer .241 .292 .364 286 27 69 15 1 6 30 17 65 3 71 -7 -0.5
José Garcia .220 .264 .316 431 42 95 19 2 6 35 16 118 11 51 1 -0.7
Dee Strange-Gordon .273 .306 .345 440 57 120 13 5 3 26 17 68 24 71 -12 -0.8

Semien, Kim, Gregorius and Simmons are all taken (along with most every other competent free agent), leaving little if anything behind. Missing from the options list: Nick Senzel. Despite him being a year removed from shoulder surgery and the conundrum of a crowded outfield, the Reds have shown little inclination to revisit Senzel at the position. Willy Adames is another possible option, but the Rays likely have a large asking price, which is unlikely to get cheaper now that there are fewer shortstops available.

The sum of Cincinnati’s inaction has eroded its position since the end of the 2020 season. Arenado brings a ton of upside to St. Louis, and the Brewers and Cubs, while not blowing away the market, have at least made some incremental improvements. The Reds have fallen farther behind in a footrace where everyone is mostly jogging. Below are the ZiPS-projected NL Central standings at two points: after non-tenders, and as of this morning.

ZiPS Projections – NL Central (Start of Offseason)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff%
St. Louis Cardinals 82 80 .506 29.9% 2.9% 32.8%
Milwaukee Brewers 81 81 1 .500 24.5% 2.8% 27.3%
Cincinnati Reds 80 82 2 .494 22.1% 2.4% 24.6%
Chicago Cubs 80 82 2 .494 21.3% 2.5% 23.9%
Pittsburgh Pirates 72 90 10 .444 2.2% 0.3% 2.5%


ZiPS Projections – NL Central (2/9)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff%
St. Louis Cardinals 85 77 .525 46.3% 5.0% 51.3%
Chicago Cubs 82 80 3 .506 24.3% 4.9% 29.2%
Milwaukee Brewers 81 81 4 .500 20.3% 4.3% 24.7%
Cincinnati Reds 78 84 7 .481 8.9% 2.2% 11.1%
Pittsburgh Pirates 68 94 17 .420 0.1% 0.0% 0.2%

By the team’s inaction, more than half of the playoff scenarios projected three months ago have evaporated into the aether. The Cardinals are the main beneficiary, and the Cubs and Brewers have done enough to hold serve. Pittsburgh’s decline is more severe than Cincinnati’s, but the Pirates at least have a long-term direction.

That’s the larger problem for the Reds: This is as good as it gets. They’re not waiting for a bevy of exciting young prospects to storm the NL Central barricades; the team’s offense looks even worse when we look to the future. Just for a very rough idea, I instructed ZiPS to construct depth charts for MLB based on 2023 projections using only players who are under team control. Obviously, this isn’t actually a projection in a traditional sense, but it does give us a look at each team’s strengths down the road.

Grotesquely Early ZiPS Projections – 2023
St. Louis Cardinals 87 75 .537 62.5% 3.6% 66.1%
Milwaukee Brewers 82 80 5 .506 27.4% 5.1% 32.4%
Chicago Cubs 78 84 9 .481 8.5% 2.0% 10.6%
Pittsburgh Pirates 71 91 16 .438 1.1% 0.2% 1.2%
Cincinnati Reds 70 92 17 .432 0.6% 0.1% 0.7%

In other words: Yep, this is as good as it gets. This future is extremely speculative, not even written in pencil at this point. But the trajectory the Reds are following is a negative one, and there’s a real risk that without the front office being smart and aggressive, this team has already hit its high-water mark.

Cincinnati dipped its toes carefully into rebuilding, getting a slow start, as I wrote in 2018.

The organization’s reluctance to trade older players is likely rooted in laudable intentions — namely, to retain a recognizable core who have a history with the team and who resonate with fans. Nevertheless, that reluctance has come back to bite the team over and over. And I’m not even talking about Joey Votto, a hitter who has actually earned his contract but has been publicly insistent that he’s not leaving Cincy, with the no-trade clause to back up that desire.

I’m also not even talking about older moves, like the sell-low trades of Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman. This pattern continued in 2018. Matt Harvey, picked up to flip at the deadline, turned out to never be flipped at all, reportedly because of ownership’s desire to retain him. Adam Duvall was traded after his collapse season rather than before, and the team made few significant inquiries into trading Billy Hamilton. Raisel Iglesias stayed put because there’s nothing more valuable for a last place team than a closer or something.

Cincinnati’s rebuild hasn’t been a disaster or anything, and there are plenty of big names to come. But you have to wonder if the organization has enough of that hard-hearted side that’s frequently necessary for a successful team. George Orwell once wrote that journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed and everything else is public relations. Putting together a great baseball team and good PR don’t always go hand-in-hand. Too often, the team chooses the PR side over the baseball one.

The team quickly shifted gears into more of a win-now mode, but this path came with risks. Once you start the train, you can’t really stop it. But that’s precisely what the Reds are trying to do right now. Yes, the financial losses resulting from COVID-19 are real, but those revenue struggles don’t change the basic contours of the roster. They still need to take advantage of Eugenio Suárez, Moustakas, Gray, and Castillo while they have them. Refusing to throw good money after good makes all of it bad.

The saying “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a warning, originally attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. Unfortunately for the Reds, they appear to be adopting it as their 2021 motto.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

For a sec I was like whoa what did the Cubs do to pick up a couple wins since the winter began. Then I remembered the article’s premise and I laughed… and then cried

1 year ago
Reply to  mrdog61

I appreciate the humor, but I still don’t get what ZiPS sees there. Cubs lost Darvish, man. Brewers haven’t lost anyone near that important, added Wong, and tossed in a few strategic fliers (e.g. Robertson, Lopez, Hardy). ZiPS must adore Joc Peterson or something.

Anyhoo, not the point of the article I know. Just jumped out at me … as it clearly did you.