The Reds Transformed Their Pitching Staff. Now How About Their Lineup?

From 2015-18, the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff was an unmitigated disaster. Their rotation posted the lowest WAR in baseball over that span, and so did their bullpen. Following the 2018 season, there were signs that relievers were coming along, but the rotation was still a tire fire. Luis Castillo, far and away the best arm on the team, was suddenly having trouble keeping the ball in the yard. The second-most valuable pitcher on the staff was Matt Harvey, who was about to leave in free agency with seemingly little fight from the front office. The organization entered yet another winter with the rotation seemingly a gaping hole and with no quick fix in sight.

And yet quickly fix it they did. The team traded for three starting pitchers in the offseason, and even more importantly, they hired Derek Johnson away from Milwaukee to take over as pitching coach. In one season, they went from 27th in the majors in pitching WAR to ninth, and they did so without the benefit of a prospect bursting onto the scene and excelling. It was nothing short of a stunning turnaround, one that should have launched the team into contention. If only the lineup had hit. Unfortunately for the Reds, an offense that had hovered around the middle of the pack the previous two years dropped to 25th in baseball in wRC+ in 2019. Like the pitching staff a year ago, the lineup is riddled with holes. Is the organization capable of another quick turnaround?

In 2019, the Reds ranked in the bottom third of baseball in walk rate, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in 2019. Statcast paints an even worse picture — no team in the majors had a lower average exit velocity, and only the Mariners had a worse hard-hit rate. Cincinnati was fifth-worst in baseball in expected slugging and seventh-worst in expected wOBA. The Reds’ offense was largely punchless throughout the season, and without a couple of hitters going on power tears late in the year, it could have looked much worse.

2019 Cincinnati Reds Hitters (Min. 100 PA)
Eugenio Suarez 662 .358 .572 49 133 4.5
Aristides Aquino 225 .316 .576 19 119 1.0
Jesse Winker 384 .357 .473 16 113 1.0
Phillip Ervin 260 .331 .466 7 102 0.6
Derek Dietrich 306 .328 .462 19 102 1.1
Joey Votto 608 .357 .411 15 101 0.7
Yasiel Puig 404 .302 .475 22 95 0.6
Josh VanMeter 260 .327 .408 8 92 0.2
Curt Casali 236 .331 .411 8 90 1.0
Nick Senzel 414 .315 .427 12 90 0.7
Jose Iglesias 530 .318 .407 11 84 1.6
Tucker Barnhart 364 .328 .380 11 81 0.7
Freddy Galvis 116 .284 .411 5 76 0.0
Kyle Farmer 197 .279 .410 9 73 -0.1
Jose Peraza 403 .285 .346 6 62 -0.6

Eugenio Suarez was unbelievable in the second half of the season, hitting 33 homers over his last 79 games and slashing .299/.390/.690. Aristides Aquino, meanwhile, shocked much of baseball by going on the greatest career-opening power surge in history, hitting 11 homers in the first 16 games of his rookie season (he also made one plate appearance in 2018). But behind them, little about this offense says it’s ready for contention. Of the hitters who were something resembling average or above this season:

  • Jesse Winker’s walk rate dropped five points, and his overall offensive production dipped for the third year in a row. He’s also one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, and has missed time with injuries to his wrist, hip flexor, shoulder, and neck throughout his career.
  • Phillip Ervin had some of the most dramatic platoon splits in baseball, finishing with a 164 wRC+ against lefties and a 67 wRC+ against righties.
  • Derek Dietrich followed a three-homer game against Pittsburgh on May 28 by hitting .128/.297/.233 with two homers over the entire rest of the season. He was cut from the 40-man roster last week.
  • Joey Votto showed almost no power for the second year in a row, despite getting to swing at a juiced ball and play home games in one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in the majors. Even more troublesome is that he posted a career-high strikeout rate and his lowest walk rate in 11 years.
  • Yasiel Puig isn’t on the team anymore.

If that’s your supporting cast, you’re in trouble, especially since Reds position players don’t play well enough in other areas to make up for it when the bats slump. They were the third-worst team in the majors this season by baserunning runs and the ninth-worst by defensive runs above average; Cincinnati’s 75-87 record reflected these shortcomings well.

And yet, partially because of the strength of the pitching staff, and the organization’s willingness last winter to buck the broader trend across baseball of hoarding finances and/or prospect capital at the expense of actual wins, the Reds are already popping up as Cinderella-like picks to win the NL Central next season. It isn’t an outrageous thought — some of the other division favorites don’t seem quite as caught up in winning, and the Reds’ pythagorean record this season was just one game short of that of the 89-win Brewers — but as we can see with the offense, they have a lot of work to do if they want to make that an even more realistic pursuit.

How do they do it? Well, they’ve already set things in motion with a coaching overhaul. After being hired last winter, Johnson, as The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans and Eno Sarris wrote in August, oversaw major strides made by pitchers such as Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani in 2019. With the hiring of new hitting coach Alan Zinter and the promotion of Donnie Ecker — who received a great deal of credit for Aquino’s transformation — the Reds hope to get the same organizational shift on the offensive end.

But even if a few existing hitters break out under new leadership, it likely won’t be enough, necessitating that the club look outward. According to our own RosterResource, the Reds finished the 2019 season with an estimated $132 million payroll; entering 2020, it’s estimated to be about $120 million. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bobby Nightengale, the Reds front office said they plan to increase payroll going into 2020. Given the current financial picture, there’s no reason to suspect the team couldn’t add $30 million- $40 million in salary this winter.

That means an aggressive approach to free agency should be in the team’s plans, and early rumors seem to indicate that it is. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman has reported that Cincinnati has already communicated interest in shortstop Didi Gregorius, outfielder Marcell Ozuna, and catcher Yasmani Grandal, while The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal linked them to infielder Howie Kendrick. Those first three players all make sense, as they play positions that currently represent the Reds’ three biggest holes, while Kendrick is coming off a career season at age 36. Given the club’s financial freedom, even a deal with one of the three biggest free agents shouldn’t preclude them from making multiple signings.

Free agency is a necessary avenue for the Reds to explore when adding talent, but it isn’t the only option. Over the last year, Cincinnati has built its pitching staff by trading for players who were entering contract years. That was true of Sonny Gray before the team signed him to a reasonable extension as part of the trade, it was true of Tanner Roark, and it was true of Alex Wood. It was also true of Puig and Matt Kemp, and after playing out the string on 2019, it’s now true of Trevor Bauer. The Reds have been able to improve the big league roster with trades that didn’t require overwhelming prospect hauls because the players they landed didn’t come with three or four seasons of team control attached to them. It’s just another way the team has run counter to the approach other front offices have taken in recent seasons.

Are there options available for the team to deploy a similar tactic in the coming months? Certainly. Shortstops Jonathan Villar and Andrelton Simmons are entering contract years, and could be worthy trade targets. As for outfield bats, Mookie Betts has notably been made available by Boston, while the Cubs are reportedly open to shopping, well, everybody. Cincinnati has lived and died by the trade market for the better part of the last decade, and if should-be contenders are willing to abandon ship for the sake of cutting costs, it just might play into the Reds’ favor.

A lot of possibilities have been listed here, and for good reason. The fact is, if the Reds are really going to compete for a division title and beyond in 2020, it is going to take several of these options becoming reality. According to our Depth Charts, the Reds are projected to have starters at catcher, second base, shortstop, and right field who finish with less than 1 WAR. That’s an abysmal expectation for what amounts to half the lineup, and yet, thanks to the pitching staff, the team is still projected to finish 19th in total WAR. Using the resources at their disposal to add even eight wins this offseason would make them essentially equal to the Cubs, Twins, and A’s, according to projections.

It’s a daunting task, but the team also doesn’t really have a choice. Trades and prospect graduations have depleted the farm system significantly in the past year, with only Bauer and Kyle Farmer still in the organization to show for them. At the end of 2020, Bauer could be gone too. In a weird way, even though the Reds are entering their seventh year of rebuilding, they’ve actually shortened their window of contention. The time for this team to win is now, and the next few months must reflect that.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

Adding eight projected wins in an offseason is a pretty lofty goal, especially for a team in a market like Cincinnatti.