Following the 2018 season, the Reds’ offseason mission was #GetThePitching. And boy, did they accomplish that objective. The story of 2019 has been the improvement of the pitching staff, which has gone from one of the worst in baseball to one of the best. The acquisition of Trevor Bauer, who is only under team control through next season, further strengthened the rotation and signaled the Reds are ready to go for it in 2020.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the Reds still have a lot of work to do before they’re ready to compete. At the top of the offseason to-do list must be one priority above all others: #GetTheHitting.
How bad has the Reds’ offense been?
Time and time again this season, the offense has fallen asleep at the wheel while the pitching staff spun gems. It started early in the season when the team lost 1-0 to the Brewers on April 3 despite Luis Castillo’s one-hitter through seven innings. The offense was later no-hit by Mike Fiers, who had a 6.81 ERA at the time and has been a mediocre to below-average pitcher this season, on May 7. One of Tyler Mahle’s strongest starts of the year (6 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 8 K) went for naught that night in Oakland.
Then there was Anthony DeSclafani’s one-run, 11-strikeout performance in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis on July 21. Disco was on the short end of the stick again in Saturday night’s history-making loss; the Reds lost 1-0 despite allowing one baserunner all game.
Every team will have isolated examples like this throughout the season, but this has been a recurring theme for the Reds in 2019. They have 18 losses in games where the pitching staff allowed three or fewer runs, second most in baseball behind the Marlins. The team ranks among the National League’s worst in a variety of hitting metrics:
- Runs: 12th
- AVG: 12th
- OBP: 12th
- SLG: 11th
- ISO: 10th
- BB%: 11th
- wRC+: 12th
- wOBA: 11th
- Chase Rate: 8th
- Swing%: 5th
- xwOBA: 12th
- Avg. Exit Velocity: 14th
- Hard Hit%: 15th
These aren’t cherry-picked stats — the numbers are brutal across the board. The power, Eugenio Suarez and Aristides Aquino aside, is lacking in a game where home runs are being hit at a record pace. The team collectively isn’t hitting the ball hard. The plate discipline took a huge step back from 2018.
How did the Reds get to this point? Wasn’t the offensive fairly formidable just last year? A little bad luck and some regression can go a long way.
Joey Votto, now 36, continued to regress. Scooter Gennett got hurt in spring training and was ineffective when he returned; he’s now a free agent. Matt Kemp was a predictable failed experiment. Scott Schebler had a horrendous April and never returned to the majors. Yasiel Puig was undisciplined at the plate and performed at a below-average level. Jesse Winker bashed right-handers after getting off to a slow start, but then he injured his back. Jose Peraza returned to his 2017 form and has been one of the worst hitters in baseball. Tucker Barnhart, who has never been a strong hitter, has had his worst offensive season since 2015. Nick Senzel hit the rookie wall and finished as a below-average hitter.
Among the position players with at least 300 plate appearances this season, only three are above-average hitters per wRC+ (Suarez, Winker, and Votto). Only one (Suarez) will finish with more than 2.0 fWAR. The last time that happened was 2003 when Jose Guillen was the only Red to eclipse that mark.
Two stats that best illustrate overall offensive performance are wRC+ and wOBA. League average wRC+ is 100, and league average wOBA is .320. With that in mind, here’s how the Reds have fared in 2019:
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What do the Reds have moving forward?
Suarez is in the middle of his prime and will be the centerpiece of the offense, but there isn’t a ton of firepower around him. Votto, while he isn’t an MVP candidate anymore, can still contribute. Winker should start every day against right-handed pitchers; Phillip Ervin could form a solid platoon if he continues to mash lefties. Senzel has a starting spot locked up and should improve in his second year, although his torn labrum throws a potential wrench in his development — shoulder injuries can seriously affect a player’s hitting and throwing. Assuming Senzel is healthy next season, though, a breakout would hardly come as a surprise.
Beyond that: a lot of question marks.
The Reds could use upgrades at middle infield and catcher. While Aquino’s historical start provided a reason to watch the Reds in August, the jury’s still out on whether he’s a long-term solution in right field. Center field could become a need if Senzel has to move back to the infield due to his shoulder injury — and no, rolling with Michael Lorenzen as the everyday center fielder shouldn’t and probably won’t be an option, as fun as that possibility sounds. Frankly, the Reds shouldn’t hesitate to target any proven outfielder as no position is set in stone and Winker and Ervin can move to either corner.
Several young players beyond Senzel, Aquino, and Ervin have received their first significant chances in the big leagues this season, including Josh VanMeter and Brian O’Grady. Alex Blandino should remain in the middle-infield mix as well — he brings more to the table than Peraza and has similar versatility. However, Aquino seems like the only player with a chance to be an everyday impact bat moving forward, and that’s still very iffy. VanMeter has shown flashes but likely projects more as a utility player moving forward.
The Reds don’t exactly have the cavalry coming from the minor leagues, either. Taylor Trammell is gone. Jonathan India could make his way to the big leagues in 2020 if he forces the issue, but his ETA is likely 2021. Tyler Stephenson is in a similar boat. Jose Siri still has highly concerning plate discipline issues and really struggled in Triple-A.
The front office needs to make multiple moves to take the offense from a liability to a strength the way they did with the starting rotation. Unless Dick Williams and Nick Krall want to further deplete the farm system via more trades, which could conceivably send the Reds right back to rebuilding in a few years, they may have to do something the organization has traditionally not done: be aggressive in free agency.
For many years, the Reds’ strategy has been to develop and later offer contract extensions to homegrown talent. There’s plenty of merit to that approach, but it’s not one that will work for the current situation.
The last time the team made more than a minor free-agent signing was in 2014 when they signed Raisel Iglesias to a seven-year, $27 million contract. Even when they were competing between 2010 and 2013, the acquisitions were flops (Fred Lewis, Edgar Renteria) and plops (Orlando Cabrera, Ryan Ludwick, Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton) rather than big splashes. The biggest move during that stretch — the acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo — was a trade.
Approximately $63 million will come off the books next season, cutting the 2019 payroll nearly in half. The Reds will have some money to spend if Bob Castellini is willing to do so. Some names that would fill positions of need:
- Marcell Ozuna, LF
- Yasmani Grandal, C
- Didi Gregorius, SS
- Yasiel Puig, RF
- Nicholas Castellanos, LF
- Corey Dickerson, LF
- Mike Moustakas, 2B
- Starling Marte, CF
- Adam Eaton, CF
It remains to be seen how Williams and Krall will tackle free agency. They’ve been in rebuild mode since taking over the front office. If the Reds are going to compete in 2020, however, they must take a different approach than their predecessors.
[Photo by Ian D’Andrea]