Opening Day is July 24. That’s a week from this coming Friday. The Reds have 10-11 more days to make decisions on the club’s active roster. In 2020, teams start with a 30-player max. That drops to 28 in two weeks and to 26 two weeks later.
The small, atypical samples offered by the intrasquad scrimmages don’t supply much information on how players will perform. But they do offer a glimpse into what David Bell might be thinking regarding playing time. We’ll know volumes more 10 days from now, but for kicks, let’s look at how the Reds could approach their first roster as of today.
I’m going with 14 position players and 16 pitchers. I’ll explain that division as we go along.
Catcher – Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali are locks. A platoon with Barnhart playing against RHP makes sense.
Infield – Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, Freddy Galvis and Eugenio Suarez will start against most pitchers. Moustakas might get occasional rest against a tough LHP, Votto too.
Outfield – Nick Senzel, Nick Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama and Jesse Winker are sure things. Phil Ervin has shown a big bat vs. LHP which is needed given Winker and Senzel’s platoon splits, so he’s close to a lock.
That’s 11 players. With the universal DH, the role of pinch hitters changes. Instead of needing one or two every game to bat for the pitcher, this year their primary use will be taking advantage of handedness. Platoon split stats become even more important in choosing the last position players spots.
Here are pros and cons for the backups.
Kyle Farmer – Farmer will make the team. He plays across the infield, including shortstop and is the third catcher. His emergence as a reliable SS in David Bell’s eyes means the Reds are unlikely to carry a player whose main role is to back up Galvis.
Farmer makes 12 players. We’re looking for two more.
Josh VanMeter – Position flexibility (IF and OF) helps VanMeter. He only hits RHP though.
Matt Davidson – Davidson a big bat against LHP and decent one vs. RHP, about 100 points of OPS better against lefties. He could spell Votto at 1B and should DH against lefties. Unlike Farmer and VanMeter, Davidson is not on the 40-man roster. The Reds will release Scott Schebler, who is out of options, and Davidson could take that spot.
Aristides Aquino – Wild card. If he’s Aquino The Punisher from last August, pencil him in the starting lineup almost every day, certainly against LHP. But if he’s Aquino The Punished from September, he shouldn’t make the team. If he’s in-between, he could fill the role of Davidson on the bench except Aquino would play OF and Castellanos could spell Votto at 1B.
Alex Blandino – Solid glove across the infield. His bat is below average on both platoon sides.
Mark Payton – Payton is one guy for whom the next 10 days are important. Depending on how his proven minor league skills translate to the majors, he could be an excellent bat off the bench vs. RHP and play a bit of OF. He’s a Rule 5 guy, which means if the Reds don’t put him on the active roster, they’ll lose him. He hit pretty well in March before the shutdown, fwiw.
Christian Colon – Colon has a wRC+ of 90 against lefties, which, as you’ll see, would help on the bench. But he’s not on the 40-man roster and a liability in the field.
VanMeter would be a good counterpoint to Farmer on the other side of the plate. It’s possible the Reds might like Payton’s bat vs. RHP better than VanMeter’s, but if I’m making a decision right now, I’m going with JVM the backup infielder, and not Payton . For the 14th and final position player, I’m choosing Davidson over Aquino for now because he’s more reliable.
Roster Platoon Splits
Using career wRC+ (weighted runs created on a 100-point scale) to measure, here are platoon splits for those position players. Three quick methods notes: (1) Joey Votto’s numbers are from the 2018-2019 seasons only, (2) Shogo Akiyama’s number is OPS, not wRC+, and (3) we don’t know how Tucker Barnhart will hit vs. LHP now that he’s given up switch-hitting.
- The case for the catcher platoon is compelling. Barnhart’s career wRC+ against LHP as a switch hitter was 54.
- To give an idea of how great Joey Votto was just three years ago (2017), his wRC+ that season was 167 vs. LHP and 154 vs. RHP. Sigh.
- It’s hard to imagine Nick Senzel hitting that poorly against RHP again. Expect his number in that column to be higher. The rest of the roster are veteran and pretty much who they are. Although there’s a decent chance Ervin won’t repeat his excellent split vs. LHP.
- The bench vs. LHP is skimpy other than Farmer.
- Aristides Aquino’s wRC+ was 185 in August and 52 in September. Yikes.
- Travis Jankowski is a light hitter but has a significant platoon split (91/29). So you might carry him to face RHP only.
Loading the Roster with Position Players?
Yesterday, David Bell said he’s considering loading up the roster with position players. His theory? Because of the new rule requiring relief pitchers to face three batters, he could exploit more matchups. Right-handed reliever, put a lefty up to bat. Other team uses a LOOGY, respond with a right-handed pinch hitter.
With a 14-man position player roster, Bell will have five pinch hitters available each night and won’t need to save any for the pitcher because of the DH. It’s far from clear that he needs more than five for the role en envisions. Five of the nine starters you wouldn’t pinch hit for: Votto, Suarez, Galvis, Castellanos and Senzel (if he gets his RHP split up).
On nights the other team starts a RHP and the Reds play Jesse Winker, depending how early in the game it is and how many lefties the other team has in the bullpen, you pinch hit for Winker when the opponent brings in a LHP. If Bell starts Josh VanMeter, you’d certainly pinch hit for him against a lefty, but VanMeter isn’t a starter. There just aren’t that many strategic opportunities.
Beyond that, there are diminishing returns as you add more (lesser) position players to the active roster. The gap between their good-side splits and options already on the roster drops.
The final reason I’m underwhelmed by this strategy is it plays out in a few weeks when rosters get cut from 30 to 28 to 26.
With 16 pitchers on the active roster, the Reds can use the larger roster to transition the starting pitchers to regular season stamina after the abbreviated training camp. The Reds 60-man roster is well positioned to do this.
As active rosters shrink from 30 to 26 by rule over the first month and starters get stretched out, under this plan the Reds would gravitate back to a traditional bullpen. At 26 players, you’re looking at 13 position players and 13 pitchers, so they’ll demote three pitchers and one position player. Attrition due to injury will also be an unpredictable but certain factor.
Starters – We know the rotation is Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Wade Miley and Anthony DeSclafani.
The Reds could prepare a shadow rotation to back up the starting five and plan to use it for 2-3 innings or more each night. This would let Gray and Co. ease into the starting role, pitching 4-5 innings at most the first couple times. This plan would also allow the coaching staff to limit the number of times the starters would face the opposing lineup a third time, at least for the first month.
Shadow Starters – Tyler Mahle, Jose De Leon, Michael Lorenzen, Tejay Antone
These pitchers have all thrown three innings the past few days. Maybe there’s a purpose behind that. Maybe it’s just how Bell covers two teams in a daily intrasquad scrimmage. I could see Robert Stephenson filling this role, given his history of starting. Same with Lucas Sims. Cody Reed could do it, but wouldn’t be a good choice because he’s likely to be one of only two lefties in the bullpen.
Short Relief – Sure things are Raisel Iglesias, Stephenson, Sims, Reed, Amir Garrett and Pedro Strop. Given the size of the roster, Matt Bowman is safe, too.
That’s 16. A few other pitchers deserve mention:
Nate Jones and Tyler Thornberg are veteran RH relievers, neither of whom is on the 40-man roster. Justin Shafer has major league experience and is on the 40-man, so that gives him an edge. Joel Kuhnel might beat out Bowman, or he might be a 17th pitcher if the club tried to get by with only 13 position players.
That’s my 30-man roster, as of today. And I’m not changing my mind until tomorrow.