The Reds are hoping the heavy lifting of the rebuilding is over and that the team can start winning again after three straight losing seasons. By winning, we’re talking about flirting with .500, not contending in the National League Central with the World Champion Chicago Cubs.
The optimism is based on the way the club played the second half — the Reds were one game under .500 after the All-Star break — and the hope that all the youthful talent will continue to improve.
The Reds did very little before the first of the year as far as adding players, with the notable transaction being the selection of catcher Stuart Turner in the Rule 5 Draft.
However, business picked up after the calendar turned to 2017. Dan Straily was traded to Miami in January for three prospects, and then right before pitchers and catchers reported to Goodyear, Arizona, for spring training, Brandon Phillips was sent to Atlanta for two pitchers. While the first move may have been more of a surprise (especially given the return for a pitcher with a career 4.24 ERA), the latter was primarily done to open a spot for top talent Jose Peraza.
Entering January, four spots in the rotation were seemingly set – Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan and Straily. Straily was traded and then right before the start of spring training, the Reds announced that Bailey had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow to remove bone spurs. Bailey will obviously not be ready to start the season, as he has probably spent more time on the operating table than a major-league mound over the past two seasons. With the two subtractions, Cincinnati needs someone else to step up, but its two top prospects, Robert Stephenson (2–3, 6.08 ERA) and Cody Reed (0–7, 7.36), are coming off disappointing seasons. Lefthander Amir Garrett, a former college basketball player, has supplanted Stephenson and Reed as a top pitching prospect on some lists. Veteran Scott Feldman, who was signed as a free agent, and rookie rightly Tim Adleman will get their chances to claim one of the open spots. The Reds also invited former All-Star Bronson Arroyo to spring training. Arroyo, 40, seems like a long shot as he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 (14 starts for Arizona) because of his own elbow issues. At the front of the rotation, Cincinnati is hoping that Finnegan and DeSclafani can build off what they accomplished last season. Finnegan, a lefthander, proved that he could be a starter by going 10-11 with a 3.98 ERA over 172 innings. DeSclafani missed the first two months with an oblique strain. He was good after returning — 9-5, 3.28 ERA in 20 starts.
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It can’t get much worse than it was in 2016. Reds relievers led the majors in home runs allowed (103), walks (297) and runs allowed (356). The Reds are planning to use righthanders Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias in hybrid, multi-inning roles to try to shore up the back end. Both dealt with injuries last year but were effective when healthy. Lorenzen had a 2.88 ERA in 35 games, and Iglesias had a 2.53 ERA in 37 games. Righthander Blake Wood (6–5, 3.99 ERA) and lefthander Tony Cingrani (4.14 ERA, 17 saves) will claim two of the other spots, and veteran Drew Storen was signed as a free agent. The rest of the bullpen spots will likely be occupied by by young starters who don’t make the rotation. “To me, the candidates for that are virtually every other starter we feel confident in who doesn’t make our rotation,” Reds manager Bryan Price says, citing Reed, Stephenson, Sal Romano, Rookie Davis, Jackson Stephens and Tyler Mahle.
The Phillips trade means Peraza will get the chance to play every day. The 22-year-old hit .324 overall and .355 after the All-Star break and should get plenty of opportunities to use his speed (21 SB in 72 games with the Reds). His double-play partner will be shortstop Zack Cozart, who like Phillips was on the trade market during the offseason and could be one of the next veterans to go. Cozart is always solid with the glove and hit a career-high 16 home runs last season.
It’s hard to say what was more surprising about Joey Votto’s year: The fact that he was hitting .200 through May or that he hit .409 in the second half. Votto remains a major offensive threat, and he says he’s happy to stay in Cincinnati throughout the rebuild. Votto also says he’s disappointed in his defense and vowed to work on it in the offseason. Eugenio Suarez put up solid power numbers at third (21 home runs, 70 RBIs), but he hit only .248. The Reds would like to see him hit for more of an average.
Left fielder Adam Duvall was the most pleasant surprise on the team, hitting 33 home runs and driving in 103 runs. He also played left field well enough to be a Gold Glove finalist. Scott Schebler, obtained from the Dodgers in the three-way Todd Frazier trade, hit .290 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs in 55 games as the right fielder after the Reds traded away Jay Bruce. Billy Hamilton put up good offensive numbers after a slow start. He hit .293 with a .369 on-base percentage after the All-Star break. If he could put up those types of numbers and stay healthy, the Reds would have one of the most dynamic leadoff hitters in the game. Hamilton also was a Gold Glove finalist.
Starter Devin Mesoraco is coming off left shoulder and right hip surgery after having left hip surgery a year ago. The Reds are hoping that he can play the bulk of the games, but there’s no guarantee. Tucker Barnhart had a solid year filling in for Mesoraco. Defense was never a question with Barnhart, but his offensive numbers (.257, seven home runs and 51 RBIs in 377 at-bats) were reassuring. The Reds took Turner from Minnesota in the Rule 5 Draft to add to the catching depth.
The Reds haven’t spent much to supplement the bench, choosing to pick up players off waivers. Dilson Herrera, obtained in the Bruce trade, is all but guaranteed a spot, while former Cub and Oakland utility player Arismendy Alcantara will have another shot at making a major league roster. Outfielders Desmond Jennings and Ryan Raburn also will get their shots in spring training.
Williams takes over as president of baseball operations/GM, and Walt Jocketty moves into a consulting role. Williams hasn’t had much of a chance to put his stamp on the club. The trades to shed salaries and add youth were all done before he took over. Price was given a one-year extension. The Reds probably have to win this year for him to get a fourth year. The pitching improved greatly after Mack Jenkins took over for Mark Riggins as pitching coach last season.
The Reds would be happy to get back over .500. That’s going to depend largely on the bullpen, which was so bad early last year that the team was out of it by May. The hope is Iglesias and Lorenzen, converted starters with top-shelf stuff, can fix the pen. The club goes to spring training with no defined closer, although Iglesias saved six games in eight tries down the stretch. The rotation has some depth if the young pitchers step up. The Reds have added quantity — trading for nine starters since the deadline in 2014. They need some quality to compete this year. The offense was eighth in the National League in runs last year, so with better pitching, the record should improve. Still, there are far too many ifs — if Bailey is healthy (not off to a good start), if Mesoraco is healthy, if Peraza and Hamilton continue to progress as hitters, if Schebler and Duvall continue to play well — to expect the Reds to contend.