On to Cincinnati
One of the best parts of Major League Baseball’s Hotstove is watching organizations separate into the two categories of “rebuilding” and “in contention.” Most of the time, those of us outside MLB teams have a pretty solid idea of which team fits where. On the opposite side, very rarely do we see a team that is sure to be in one category, switch to the other. Well, allow me to introduce to you the 2019 Cincinnati Reds.
Having spent most of the last decade cellar-dwelling, they are running out of time to make the most of having one of the five best hitters in baseball — Joey Votto. Even Votto hasn’t been able to save them from inescapable bottom-of-the-division finishes. Yet after a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, there’s a small probability that we may get to see that change this season. The big names of the trade, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Alex Wood, all make their way to the Queen City, while Homer Bailey and change head back Los Angeles’ way with Bailey expected to be released within the coming weeks. You’d think with three All-Star names such as the aforementioned going to Cincinnati, people would be paying more attention to the Reds. However, with the Dodgers being one of the top-4 players in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, it seems like the public wants to spend its time clamoring over the assumed inevitability of Harper going to LA following the Dodgers clearing of two outfield spots and a ton of dough. As much as I’d love to speculate on uncertainty, the Reds are doing things that should certainly incite excitement.
Luckily, I’m here to give Cincy the attention it deserves after the first three months of the offseason. While this latest move was quite the splash, the Reds were actually having a quietly solid offseason. Having won an unimposing 67 games in 2018, it appeared as if they had their sights set on the future with a solid farm-system, and a decent, yet unimpressive offense mixed with a severe lack of pitching on the big league club. The organization was being left behind by other teams who had modernized their player development and moved in an analytical and technological direction. Desperate for change, they hired former San Francisco Giants’ VP of Player Development, David Bell, to be their new manager. Having little managerial experience, aside from a minor league stint, Bell worked as the St. Louis Cardinals bench coach from 2015–2017. In 2017, he took the job in the Giants organization in an attempt to modernize their player development department (Byrne, par. 3). He wanted to utilize the vast amount of data and information available that other teams had already begun taking advantage of. In Bell, the Reds are joining the data and analytics movement that is providing baseball with so much growth and progress. Bell brought on previous Dodgers hitting coach, Turner Ward, to fill the same position with the Reds. Ward was instrumental in the development of one of the most lethal offenses in the bigs as well as the back-to-back National League Champions, and while not relevant until the Reds made their move for Puig, Ward is often known as “the Puig Whisperer” — something that will come in handy throughout 2019. Without having made a major on-field personnel move, the Reds were already brightening up their future trajectory.
At the conclusion of the 2018 season, it was pretty hard to just pick one hole for the Reds to fix. But their first significant player personnel move was made in order to make sure their bullpen didn’t get any worse in the future. Raisel Iglesias was extended for 3-years, $35 million, which was crucial considering the Reds had the 7th worst combined relief pitcher WAR and 9th worst xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching). Iglesias himself also had a down year, but he has a career 2.97 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and 10 K/9. All are extremely good numbers, and given the state of the rest of their bullpen, he was too valuable to let walk next season. At 28 years old, his 3-year contract is extremely team friendly. The bullpen is still a glaring weakness, and should their 2019 look similar to 2018, he becomes a great trade chip for a team looking to get a top relief pitcher on a reasonable contract. There is a good probability that Iglesias regresses back to his good career averages, but he alone can’t fix the overall state of the pen. Guys like Jared Hughes and David Hernandez are solid, if unspectacular, pieces, but at ages 32 and 33, they will most likely not be included in the organization’s future plans. If the Reds were smart, they would invest more in the incredibly deep free agent pool of relievers.
Next, Cincinnati aimed to find one starter who could shore up their bottom-5 pitching staff. The Reds starting pitchers combined to finish 2018 with the 6th worst ERA, 4th worst FIP, and 5th worst WAR (they were worth a combined 4.5 wins…), all while finishing bottom half of the league in K/9. Safe to say there was room for improvement. They aimed to revamp the rotation by trading for Tanner Roark from the Washington Nationals. While not flashy based on first glance at his numbers, this move was incredibly underrated. If one were to look at Roark’s season long numbers, his 4.34 ERA/4.27 FIP/4.42 xFIP line definitely underwhelms and fails to impress. However, his second half line of 3.43 ERA/3.85 FIP/4.23 xFIP tells a different story and falls in line with his career averages. By no means a Major League ace, Roark has spent multiple years as a part of a winning club in the regular season and has done so at a productive level. Taking advantage of his poor first half allowed Cincinnati to get a slight discount on a solid starting pitcher that is a clear upgrade for their staff. Luis Castillo has shown flashes of ace-like stuff, and with another year of development we may get to see him put it all together in year three. Cincinnati still has former top prospect Robert Stephenson who, if healthy, will provide them with another plus-stuff arm for the rotation.
The addition of Wood, Puig, and Kemp was the big flashy offseason move for the Reds. Wood can be a high-level starter or be a valuable addition to the bullpen, depending on what management decides to do with him. If they should decide to put him in the rotation, a 1–2–3–4 of Castillo-Wood-Roark-Stephenson suddenly becomes a sneaky good (and young) combination — Castillo and Stephenson are under team control for several more years. Should Wood be put in a high leverage bullpen role in tandem with Iglesias, Cincinnati would have a 1–2 punch at the back end of their bullpen that they haven’t had in some time.
While Wood is a significant piece and will add value to a struggling pitching staff (Woods 2018 WAR of 2.6 was more than half of the entire Reds’ starting pitchers combined), Puig will most likely make the biggest difference. In 2018, the Reds had five players with 175 or more plate appearances in their lineup with a wOBA of .335 or higher — Votto (1B), Scooter Gennett (2B), Eugenio Suarez (3B), Scott Schebler (RF/CF) and Jesse Winker (LF). The Reds will most likely be replacing defensive-minded and offensively inept Billy Hamilton (career wOBA of .279) with Puig. By doing so, Cincinnati downgrades a bit on defense — Hamilton’s 2018 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) was a rock solid 5.9 — but the upgrade on offense makes it well worth it. Last season, Cincinnati trotted out Adam Duvall in LF for 89 games before trading him mid-season. His production was well below average. Following his departure, Phillip Ervin played the most innings in LF, splitting time with Winker, who also spent time in RF. While better than Duvall, Ervin’s production was quite average. Inserting Puig into the lineup in place of Hamilton and affording Winker a full time role in place of Duvall/Ervin is going to take the Reds’ offense to a new level. With seven hitters (not including top prospect Nick Senzel who could hit the ground running in his first full season) who can realistically produce 20 more runs above the replacement level player, the Reds have a decent chance of being a top 5–7 offense in baseball. We could very well be looking at the 2019 version of last seasons’ Colorado Rockies.
A look at this graph shows just how much of an improvement Puig and Kemp will be. Hamilton’s WAR was 1.3. The Duvall/Ervin combo was 1.1. Both Kemp and Puig contributed more wins above replacement in significantly less at-bats. Not to mention, both of them have spent their careers (majority for Kemp) hitting in the pitchers’ park that is Dodgers Stadium. In 2018, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati was the 4th best hitters’ ballpark according to ESPN’s Park Factor statistic. For reference, Dodger Stadium was the 26th ranked hitters’ ballpark (5th worst). With an extended amount of plate appearances in a ballpark that provides a higher probability of run production, Puig is set up for really awesome numbers. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that Puig will continue to work with his hitting coach from the past three seasons. Over a full season, he will attribute much more value than either Hamilton or Duvall did over the past 3–4 seasons. According to Fangraphs’ Steamer projection model, we can expect Puig to have a wOBA of .352 and a wRC+ of 125.
As for Kemp, Steamer projections have him falling back down to Earth a bit and for good reason. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was uncharacteristically high during the first half of 2018, resulting in a jump in numbers. Once his BABIP regressed down to his career averages, his numbers dwindled as the season went on. Steamer has Kemp set up for a .348 wOBA and 106 wRC+ in a part time role. Kemp hits left handed pitching really well, but is a liability on defense. While not as impactful as Puig, Kemp will still bring value to an offense that has lacked big bats and proven run producers. Keeping him off the field against righties will enhance the team’s defense and allow him to be a valuable contributor on offense when in the lineup.
And we haven’t even discussed what Jesse Winker can do over the course of a full season. The former top prospect had a great 2018, albeit in a less-than-full-time position. With an increase in plate appearances in 2019, Winker should be a catalyst for the team’s offense, especially with veteran All-Stars like Puig, Kemp, Votto, and Gennett providing ample support. Since debuting in 2017, Winker actually has a higher wRC+ then both Puig and Kemp. In fact, of all Reds with 400+ PA’s over that timespan, Winker sits 3rd behind only Votto and Zack Cozart (no longer with the team). Now keep in mind it’s a significantly smaller sample size than Votto and Cozart, but his trajectory through the minors and his first 470 big league PA’s tell us it is reasonable to expect this trend to continue. Steamer sees Winker as having eerily similar production as Puig with a wOBA of .354 and a wRC+ of 120. In comparison, Hamilton and Duvall — the two main hitters that will be replaced by the Puig/Kemp/Winker combo — are projected to continue their trend of being poor offensive values. Hamilton’s Steamer projections have him at a .284 wOBA and 75 wRC+ for 2019, while Duvall, now in Atlanta, projects as a .302 wOBA, 86 wRC+ hitter. Better run production means more runs. More runs means more wins. Steamer sees a combination of Puig, Kemp, and a full-time Winker as accounting for 5.1 wins above replacement. A Duvall, Hamilton, Ervin combo would project to provide 2.2 WAR.
Cincinnati was not a good team last season. Their management was not good. Their pitchers were not good. There offense showed promise, but ultimately…was not good. The good news is, the Front Office has done some really good things in putting the right players and coaches in the right places. With young guys like Castillo, Winker, Stephenson, Senzel, Hunter Greene, and Taylor Trammell either up or on their way, and a solid core of big leaguers in Votto, Gennett, Suarez, Puig, Wood, Kemp, and Roark, there is a lot of room for this team to grow. Just by acquiring Roark, Puig, Wood, and Kemp they’ve added a 3-win upgrade on offense and 3-win upgrade on the mount. They haven’t arrived yet, and unless they figure out a way to add one more rotation arm and bolster their bullpen I don’t see them becoming a playoff team. Yet they certainly have my attention and I’m excited to see if they can shock the baseball world. Pay attention to the rest of the offseason because come late-August, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cincinnati be in contention. A finish of 80-85 wins by the end of 2019 is very much in the realm of possibilities.