“He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.” – Josh Billings
The Cincinnati Reds used an unusual strategy during the 2018-2019 offseason: trying. OK, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but while last winter’s actual weather was mild, we saw a veritable blizzard of excuses in baseball. As top free agents remained unsigned going into spring training, we heard all sorts of reasoning from teams about why they couldn’t sign this guy or couldn’t afford that guy or why that player over there in the corner was impossible for them to acquire. No, the Reds didn’t pursue Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but they did make aggressive moves to turn the team into a winner in the short-term, seeing an opportunity in an NL Central where every team had serious flaws. It didn’t quite work out, but many of the reasons they looked like a promising team in 2019 apply to the club in 2020 as well.
I appreciated Cincinnati’s ambition last winter, even if I didn’t like every move they made. To be fair, the Reds didn’t go into the offseason intending to please one particularly sarcastic, overweight, middle-aged baseball analyst. But as noted above, there moves were a refreshing departure from baseball’s version of Rasputitsa.
Cincinnati went 67-95 in 2018, and adding 25 wins in one offseason was always going to be difficult. To start with, they needed all of their returning players to be the best versions of themselves. That meant Joey Votto needed to hold off serious decline for another year. Scooter Gennett had to play like an All-Star again. Ideally, Nick Senzel and Jesse Winker would have both been healthy and All-Star candidates themselves. Second-half Luis Castillo would have to become both-halves Luis Castillo.
Even if all that came to pass, they’d have been well short of contention. The rotation for the 2018 Reds combined for a 5.02 ERA and 5.6 WAR (the latter was 26th in baseball). Given the team’s goals, swapping a hard-throwing erratic relief Tanner (Rainey) for a middle-of-the-road starting Tanner (Roark) made a great deal of sense. The team accumulated a lot of young arms during the rebuild years (Brandon Finnegan, Anthony DeSclafani, Cody Reed, Tyler Mahle, etc.), but every one of those pitchers had serious question marks entering 2019. Even Castillo, one of the best pickups in franchise history, was no sure thing.
Roark gave the Reds the plug-and-play mid-rotation starter they sorely needed. Picking up Sonny Gray provided the team with additional upside and a promising reclamation project for pitching coach Derek Johnson to work with. Pitchers who received Cy Young votes in recent memory rarely come as cheaply as Shed Long and a competitive balance pick.
The trade that netted Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer, and Matt Kemp looked riskier. Wood was a reasonable pickup as another pitcher with upside, but I was less excited about clearing a corner outfield opening for Puig or any spot on the 25-man roster for Kemp. As I saw it, the Reds were missing a center fielder, and with no three-WAR seasons since 2014, Puig was more sizzle than steak. Scott Schebler had played more adequately in center field than I ever expected, but a possible Winker-Schebler-Puig outfield looked like a defensive nightmare.
ZiPS wasn’t entirely sold on the Reds coming into the season, projecting an 80-82 record. A 13-win improvement is nothing to scoff at, but that only represented half of what they needed to add to put the fear of prime Votto into the hearts of their NL Central rivals. If anything, that projection oversold Cincy’s expectations on Opening Day. By that point Gennett was down with a groin injury, Kemp was in the lineup, and Senzel was off the roster, first because of service time shenanigans, then due to injury.
An 11.5% chance of making the playoffs didn’t make October baseball entirely implausible, but it did appear that the Reds were a third-tier wild card contender. The computer projected Cincinnati to finish fourth in the Central.
You can’t win a husband or bride on the first date, but you can certainly lose one. The 2019 Reds made a horrible first impression, finishing the first week of April 1-8. That put them 6.5 games out of first, a distressingly large margin for early April.
For once, the pitchers weren’t the problem. There were 158 nine-game runs in 2019 during which a team went 1-8 or 0-9. The average runs allowed per game for teams over those spans was 6.8. The Reds only allowed 3.8 runs per game in their stretch, and in the overlapping streak that started the next game, that dropped to 3.4 runs allowed per game.
|Team||Start Date||W||L||Runs Scored||Runs Allowed||RA/G|
Still, the damage was done. ZiPS gave the Reds only a 2.7% chance at postseason baseball, normally the point at which teams start to seriously think about next season.
To the team’s credit, they reacted relatively quickly. Kemp broke a rib in late April and was released before he returned. Schebler’s .475 OPS pushed him from entrenched starter to Triple-A outfielder in just a month. With the service clock properly aligned to give the Reds an extra year of Senzel, Cincinnati dropped the façade that he was in Triple-A to master center field and called him up after just eight games in the minors.
For the most part, the Reds used the rest of the season creatively, and avoided making any panic moves. The team gave a lot of looks to Josh VanMeter, Phillip Ervin, and Aristides Aquino, all of whom looked like potential contributors. Aquino in particular acquitted himself well, hitting 47 homers (majors and minors) while playing acceptable defense in a corner.
Through the offensive turmoil, the pitching staff performed like a playoff-quality bunch. Castillo’s ERA climbed in the second half, but his 3.72 FIP was nearly identical to his first-half mark of 3.68. Gray more than earned the three-year, $30.5 million contract extension (with a $12 million club option) the Reds gave him to approve a trade to Cincinnati, and I’d wager he’ll accrue some Cy Young votes this year. The rotation finished ninth in baseball in WAR, and most of the contributors are already under contract for 2020.
Included in this group is Trevor Bauer. With the outfield looking more stable, the Reds sent unproven prospect Taylor Trammell and the out-of-contract Puig to San Diego and Cleveland, respectively, to add Bauer for 2020. Bauer’s 2018 season should never have been considered a baseline performance — his probability of only allowing nine homers again was microscopic — but the 2016/2017/2019 Bauer is more than enough to push the Reds closer to the playoffs in 2020.
It’s hard to get excited about winning 75 games when you hoped to make a playoff run, but already the Reds are poised to enter 2020 in a pretty strong position. And they hopefully learned some important lessons about which veterans are worth picking up.
What Comes Next?
I was a critic of the Reds during the rebuild for their tendency to hold onto veterans for too long. There’s a certain oddity in dealing Alfredo Simon for a cornerstone like Eugenio Suarez while the players you pick up for Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman amount to very little. Additionally, Raisel Iglesias’s peak appears to have been before the Reds were contenders.
But the past doesn’t matter. However they’ve arrived here, the Reds have a core that can contend for the playoffs. Based on current rosters and assumptions, ZiPS projects the Reds to be in the 82-85 win territory. Roster Resource has the Reds, as currently constituted, with a payroll slightly under $130 million for 2020. This number already includes the $15 million or so in benefits that you don’t normally see in reported payroll figures. The Reds are a team that ought to be either in the mix for one of the first-tier free agents or multiple second-tier signings. Ambition comes with a cost.
The Absitively, Posilutely, Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projection – Sonny Gray
One can make a convincing argument that if the Reds had signed Gray for a one-year, $30 million contract, his 4.4 WAR in 2019 in 30 starts would be a perfectly fair return on investment. In other words, Gray’s already nearly been worth both his 2019 salary and the extension that doesn’t even start until next April.
ZiPS doesn’t quite see Gray repeating his 2019 season, thinking he’s more of a good No. 2 starter with durability concerns. Great American Ballpark isn’t the easiest home for pitchers, but ZiPS is as confident about Gray keeping his home run totals down as it is about any other pitcher in baseball.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com 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.