The last time the Reds won more than 80 games in a season, they actually won 90 games in a season — and a spot in the 2013 National League Wild Card game. They lost that game 6-2 to the Pirates and then lost another 86, 98, 94, and 94 games in each of the four seasons that followed. In 2018, the Reds are projected to lose 90 games, and the incomparable Joey Votto is projected to produce another 4.4 wins for the club for which he’s recorded a line of .313/.428/.541 over his 6,141 big-league plate appearances.
Votto is 34 this year, and while his skills profile suggests he’s got at least a few good seasons left in him, he won’t be around forever. So what’s the plan in Cincinnati to make best use of the years he has left? It’s really not entirely clear.
For a while there, it seemed as if the plan was to move Brandon Phillips to make room for José Peraza (check), keep Votto at first (check), and ride a perfectly inoffensive offense (753 runs last year, 14th-most league-wide) built around some solid young players — and, of course, Votto — back into contention. In fact, heading in the 2017 season, there was a fair bit of reason to be optimistic about the Reds, as noted recently by Charlie Scrabbles over at Red Reporter:
Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler, Eugenio Suarez, Jose Peraza, Tucker Barnhart, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, Brandon Finnegan, Anthony DeSclafani, Cody Reed, Rookie Davis, Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias (just to name a few) were all in their 20s and under team control for multiple seasons. Also, Joey Votto, although nearing his mid-30s, still capable of straining the English language’s ability to adequately describe his baseball-hitting prowess. The 2015 and 2016 drafts had infused the minor league system with a number of ace prospects, including Tyler Stephenson, Antonio Santillan, Nick Senzel, Taylor Trammell, and Chris Okey. They spent an enormous amount of money (around $30 million) on high-quality international prospects like Vladimir Gutierrez, Alfredo Rodriguez, and Jose Israel Garcia.
The problem, of course, was pitching. The Reds didn’t seem quite confident enough in their ability to compete to actually go out and spend money on anything approximating competent starting pitching, and so instead went out and got something approximating 2016 Scott Feldman — namely, 2017 Scott Feldman. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. Cincinnati’s pitching was dreadful in 2017, and although some of that was due to injuries to some good young pitchers (DeSclafani and Finnegan), a lot of it was due to the players, uh, not being very good.
We’re already past the point where the Reds are going to do anything particularly exciting this offseason. But let’s imagine that another middling season convinces Dick Williams that what he’d really like to do in 2019 is win an awful lot of baseball games. Or at least an awful lot more than his team has been winning lately. This is not, you know, out of the question, because 2019 will be Dick Williams’ fourth year on the job, and that’s a year during which ownership tends to start tapping its fingers on the table ominously before starting to speak during a performance review.
Anyway: 2019. The Reds will likely have three free agents that offseason: Devin Mesoraco, one of their catchers; Cliff Pennington, a backup middle infielder; and Vance Worley, a relief pitcher/old-timey clown. Surveying this group, and depending on how Tucker Barnhart’s 2018 has gone, our fearless hero Dick might choose to re-sign Mesoraco to a two- or three-year deal with a modest annual value, on the premise that he’s both (a) a known quantity to the Reds and their pitchers, and (b) occasionally hits, too (last year aside). Pennington, clearly, can walk and be easily replaced, if so desired, and Worley may or may not be worth re-signing depending on which other relievers the Reds like on the market (we’ll get to that).
As we’ve discussed, the lineup is already mostly adequate. But depending on how Scooter Gennett’s 2018 goes (they can’t all be four-homer games) and how Peraza continues to develop at the plate, the Reds might want some help up the middle — or in the outfield, which produced only about four wins collectively in 2017. A bat, somewhere, is the point, but not for too much money. Maybe it’s Logan Forsythe. Maybe it’s Marwin Gonzalez. Someone solid, unobjectionable, and not too expensive, and someone who’ll make the lineup just that tiny little bit stronger heading into spring training. Someone who’s just enough, if the Reds feel they can swing the money.
They might not feel that way, though. With Mesoraco re-signed or Barnhart in house, the Reds must turn to the pitching, and that’s where things get interesting. And quite expensive. I had the wonderful Dan Szymborski run the numbers on the pitchers who ZiPS thinks would most benefit from pitching in Great American Ballpark for half of their games:
These numbers are for 2018, but unless something about these pitchers’ profiles changes dramatically over the course of the next 12 months, the list will look broadly the same a year from now. And, what do you know, three of these pitchers (highlighted in yellow) are available as free agents next season. Imagine with me, for a moment, if the Reds, next offseason, really honestly and truly took a run at Keuchel, one of McCarthy and Eovaldi, and one or two solid relievers. That’d still leave space for DeSclafani, Finnegan, Luis Castillo, and maybe even Homer Bailey too, if you’d like him — and it’d tremendously improve a team that, with some better pitching, might be pretty darn close to a Wild Card spot.
Is all this even possible? Maybe, actually. Cot’s has Cincinnati’s 2019 obligations at $61.3 million. Throw in an extra $20 million for Mesoraco plus arbitration raises, etc., and you’re looking at something like $81 million necessary to keep the current Red core in place through that season. How much higher could they go? Well, this year they’re projected to enter the year with a $95.4 million payroll, and as recently as 2015 they managed to spend $115.4 million on baseball players. I’m of the opinion that they could stretch a bit farther than that, but that opinion is unsubstantiated and your mileage may vary. Let’s just say they can go that high again, then. That’s $35 million in AAV that the Reds could throw around next offseason, should they so choose.
Will they? Don’t know. Should they? I think so. If the league landscape a year from now looks anything like we think it might, the Reds would only have to add 10 wins to their projected 2018 total to come within shouting distance of the top-10 teams in the league. That’s a tall order, but it’s not totally out of the question, either, if they put money into doing it and land a few carefully chosen targets. I think $35 million a year could buy you Dallas Keuchel and some back-of-the-rotation innings-eater. Surely it can buy something. It’d have been better if they’d done something like this this offseason, sure, but that’s also been true of each of the last three or four years. Joey Votto only has a few more good seasons left. Maybe 2019 will be the year the Reds build him a winner.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.