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Welcome to the first year of the big rebuild. The Reds are not expecting to contend in 2016. Flirting with .500 would be about as lofty a goal as you could put on the season. The Reds, after all, lost 98 games in 2015 and then traded their second-best hitter and one of the game’s elite closers.
It’s hard to say when the Reds expect to return to contention. But from the moves they made, it seems like they are geared toward 2018. Rebuilding is not an easy process. “This was very difficult to do,” Reds president of baseball operations Walt Jocketty said after the Todd Frazier trade. “It was a difficult phone call to make, but as we move forward, what we set out to do here is to try and get this team back into contention as quickly as we can. We felt this was part of the process to get to that point.”
The club went into full rebuild mode at the trade deadline in 2015. That continued in the offseason, although one of the big trades the team tried to pull off didn’t happen as Brandon Phillips rejected a deal to Washington as a 5/10 player. They did, however, manage to unload reliever Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees in a late-December trade that netted the Reds four prospects.
The Reds are going young. They’ll build around Jose Peraza, obtained in the Frazier deal, and Eugenio Suarez, acquired last year in the Alfredo Simon deal. And they’ll hope that young pitchers, thrown into the mix in 2015, take the next step in 2016.
But they’ll continue to rebuild in the meantime.
“I think our approach is to do whatever we can to help the club long-term,” Jocketty says. “We’re in an extremely tough division. We had the three best records in the league, including the winner that won 100 games. It’s more realistic that we’ll be competitive in 2017 and ’18. We met with major league staff and the pro scouts and put together a strategy for that.”
The Reds are hoping the lumps they took in 2015 pay off in ’16. They traded away Mat Latos and Simon in the offseason, then traded away Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake at the deadline. The result was an all-rookie rotation from July 28 on. The rookies — nine of them in all made at least one start — showed promise. The stuff was there, but the results weren’t. None of the nine had a winning record or an ERA under 4.00. Righthanders Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias pitched well enough to guarantee spots in the 2016 rotation. Veteran Homer Bailey will join them when he’s fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, probably early to mid-May. There are plenty of candidates for the other two spots. Michael Lorenzen is probably the favorite for one of them. It will be interesting to see what the Reds do with Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed. They are the two top prospects in the system with the highest ceilings. They’ll probably start in the minors but could be up early if the others struggle.
The competition for spots should be wide open. The Reds finished 12th in the National League in bullpen ERA in 2015, and more than half the pitchers who ended the year in the pen are gone. The Reds chose not to add any veteran free agents in December. J.J. Hoover is the leading candidate to close with Chapman gone. Hoover was very good most of the season, although he struggled late. The setup jobs will not be set going into spring. Righthander Jumbo Diaz is probably assured of a spot. Other than that, it’s open tryouts in the spring. The Reds may have to turn to young arms they’ve accumulated through trades to fix the bullpen.
The club is relying on shortstop Zack Cozart to return and be healthy after a major knee injury ended his 2015 season in June. Cozart was confident he’d be ready for spring after resuming full baseball activities in early December. After an attempt to trade him failed, Phillips returns at second base. That circumvents the plan to play Jose Peraza at second. Peraza was the No. 1 prospect for the Atlanta Braves before being traded to the Dodgers at midseason. Phillips had a solid year in 2015. He’s under contract for 2016 and ’17.
First base is the Reds’ one rock-solid spot as Joey Votto returned to form in 2015 after an injury-riddled 2014. He finished third in the MVP vote. Votto was able to return to his normal offseason routine following the ’15 season after spending the previous offseason rehabbing his knee. He was the best hitter in baseball after the All-Star break. With Frazier gone at third, the Reds will try Eugenio Suarez there. Suarez hit very well in shortstop Cozart’s stead after the injury, but he struggled sometimes on defense and has played only three games in the majors at third.
Billy Hamilton will be the center fielder. Hamilton struggled at the plate in 2015 and missed most of the last two months with a right (throwing) shoulder injury that eventually needed surgery. That curtailed Hamilton’s offseason plans. But the Reds have nothing to lose in giving him another shot in center. He’s one of the best defenders in baseball, and his speed on the bases can change the game. He stole 57 bases last season while being caught only eight times. In 2014, Hamilton stole 56 bases but was thrown out 23 times. Jay Bruce returns in right. He has struggled at the plate for the last two years after winning the Silver Slugger in 2012 and ’13. The Reds tried to trade him at deadline, but his name didn’t come up much early in the offseason. Left field is wide open. Adam Duvall, obtained in the Leake trade, and Scott Schebler, obtained in the Frazier trade, could platoon there. The Reds also could look at young players Jesse Winker and Yorman Rodriguez.
Devin Mesoraco, an All-Star in 2014 when he hit 25 home runs, is coming off surgery to correct impingement in his left hip. Mesoraco’s bat and leadership are paramount for the Reds to have a chance at success in 2016. Mesoraco did not catch after April 11 last year as the injury kept him from being able to squat. He is expecting to be fully healthy in time for spring training.
Ivan DeJesus Jr. emerged as a solid utility man last season and played well at third, second and left. The Reds allowed catcher Brayan Pena to leave via free agency. Tucker Barnhart, a solid defender, will be the backup. Rodriguez, who is out of options, could be an extra outfielder. Jake Cave, a Rule 5 pickup, has a chance to make the club as well.
Bryan Price returns as the manager. He’s in the final year of his contract. The Reds shook up the coaching staff, as pitching coach Jeff Pico and bench coach Jay Bell were not brought back. Mark Riggins takes over as pitching coach. First base coach Billy Hatcher moves to third. Freddie Benavides, the infield coach, will coach first base. Third base coach Jim Riggleman moves to bench coach. Riggleman is a strong candidate to take over the managing duties if Price is fired during the season. Dick Williams’ ascension to the general manager’s job shows that the Reds are moving to become more of an analytics-driven team. That became clear early in the offseason when the club posted two jobs for statistical analysts. Jocketty remains the head of the baseball operations, but he’ll move to a consulting role after 2016.
The Reds definitely will not deal with lofty expectations. On paper, the team looks like it has the potential to break the franchise record for losses (101, in 1982). To compete, it will have to get healthy seasons from Cozart and Mesoraco and have the young pitching take a major step forward.
Prediction: 4th in NL Central
CF Billy Hamilton (S)
3B Eugenio Suarez (R)
1B Joey Votto (L)
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
RF Jay Bruce (L)
C Devin Mesoraco (R)
LF Adam Duvall (R)
SS Zack Cozart (R)
C Tucker Barnhart (S)
UTL Ivan DeJesus Jr. (R)
OF Yorman Rodriguez (R)
OF Scott Schebler (L)
INF Jose Peraza (R)
RHP Homer Bailey
RHP Anthony DeSclafani
RHP Raisel Iglesias
RHP Michael Lorenzen
LHP John Lamb
RHP J.J. Hoover (Closer)
LHP Tony Cingrani
LHP Brandon Finnegan
RHP Jumbo Diaz
RHP Keyvius Sampson
RHP Jon Moscot
RHP Carlos Contreras