How the Reds’ Season Has Actually Gone According to Plan

Out of all the sports, it’s got to be toughest for a baseball fan to endure a rebuild season. During a baseball rebuild season, the suck lasts 162 games. Every fan of every team begins the year with enthusiasm — it’s meaningful baseball again, all the teams are tied, and there’s both fresh faces and the ones you’ve grown to love — but for fans of those rebuilding clubs, the enthusiasm wears off the quickest, and the suck grows exponentially as the season goes on.

The enthusiasm has well worn off for fans of the 2016 Cincinnati Reds. They’re 22-36, better only than the Braves and Twins. Their playoff odds officially flatlined back on April 30. Their best player, Joey Votto, hasn’t even brought much in the way of excitement, and perhaps worse than all that, they’ve played 58 games, and 57 times they’ve had to endure a historically bad bullpen.

Not much to cheer for in Cincinnati this year! Cincinnati fans: I’m sorry I just made you relive all that. But I’ve got good news! In this one way, your team’s season can actually be a success! I’m serious! See, in years like these, with the 162 games of suck and whathaveyou, you’ve got to maintain perspective. This season was never about winning games. It was never about being better than the Braves and the Twins, or having playoff odds, or not having a bullpen that makes your eyes bleed. It was about learning, and it was about acquiring future assets.

The Reds have learned. Oh, the Reds have learned. The Reds have learned that nobody in their current bullpen will be in their next good bullpen. You’d prefer to learn positive things about your team, but there’s value in knowing ahead of time which fat to trim. For a positive thing, the Reds have learned that Adam Duvall might really be a player. There’s value in knowing which pieces might be here to stay.

But beyond just some learning, this Reds’ season has gone to plan in that their two most encouraging comeback stories just so happen to be their two most sensible trade chips.

Here’s something that’s easy enough: 2016 wOBA vs. projected wOBA, to give us a sense of who’s most outperformed their preseason expectations. Zack Cozart‘s wOBA is 73 points higher than his preseason projection, the 10th-largest outperformer of any qualified hitter. Jay Bruce’s wOBA is 64 points higher than his preseason projection, the 15th-largest outperformer of any qualified hitter. The Reds have tried to trade Bruce twice in the last year. Cozart was a logical candidate, long as he stayed healthy. Not only have both stayed healthy, but all they’ve done as the season’s gone on is increase their trade value.

Cozart leads the Reds in WAR. He enters his final year of arbitration next season. He’s always been a gifted defensive shortstop, something every team loves to have, but this year, he’s hitting at career-best levels. He’s showing previously unprecedented power for the second consecutive year; over his last 411 plate appearances, Cozart’s got a .210 ISO. During that same timeframe, Miguel Cabrera has a .206 ISO. He’s become more aggressive at the plate, he’s hitting way more balls in the air than he did early in his career, and he’s hitting them with authority. Cozart, right now, would be an immediate upgrade at shortstop for the White Sox, who completed a trade with the Reds once already this season. Cozart could benefit the Pirates. In less obvious ways, Cozart could perhaps help the Rays, Mets, or Orioles.

Then there’s Bruce. He’d looked broken for two years. Now, he’s got the same wRC+ as Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper, and is in the final guaranteed year of his contract. I profiled Bruce in the offseason after the failed trade to Toronto, in search of what had happened to drop his trade value to such an extent. Of course, the injuries were a big factor, but something had happened to his swing that made it so, even in a healthy 2015, he was a below-average hitter. In that 2015, he was back to getting the ball in the air, the rest of the profile looked similar, but his production to the opposite field had plummeted. Bruce always had the strength and the swing to do damage to all fields; in 2015, he’d become a pull-only threat. Quotes by hitting coach Don Long hinted at how the injury had affected Bruce’s swing, and it coincided with the drop in opposite-field production. That was Bruce’s issue.

This year? This year, his opposite-field wRC+ is 180. He’s doing damage to all fields, and for the first time since 2013, he looks like the Jay Bruce of old at the plate. With his reduced strikeouts, he might look better at the plate now than he’s ever looked before.

There’s a caveat, though, and that’s the defense. Bruce used to be a Gold Glove-caliber defender in right field. Whatever he was able to regain after his knee surgery at the plate, though, he has not been able to regain in the field. Spanning nearly 3,000 innings since 2014, Bruce has graded out as one of the worst defensive right fielders in baseball. This year, things have gotten considerably worse. This complicates his potential landing spots — the Giants could use an outfielder, but an American League team that can DH Bruce probably makes more sense. The Indians could use Bruce, too, but they’re on his limited no-trade list, and they don’t have room at DH between Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana. Maybe the team that makes the most sense for Bruce is the team that also makes the most sense for Cozart: the Chicago White Sox, who have certainly had enough of Avisail Garcia by now.

Regardless of the potential landing spots — things will change, and someone will have a need for these two by the time the trade deadline rolls around — it’s hard to imagine this could’ve gone much better for Cincinnati. With 10-and-5 rights and bloated contacts, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips were likely never going anywhere anyway. The only real trade chips the Reds had left after dealing Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman in the offseason were Bruce and Cozart, who only stuck around because they’d depreciated their value so immensely with injuries and underperformance. Given where they were 58 games ago, their value couldn’t be much higher than it is right now. Despite the lack of Ws in the standings, the Reds have almost won this one. Now it’s time to capitalize by making the moves.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Chuck Hildebrandt
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Chuck Hildebrandt

I disagree that there is not much to cheer for in Cincinnati:

http://www.fccincinnati.com/