Wait 'Til Next Year: Despite Votto's return to form, Reds underwhelm
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series. Next up: the Cincinnati Reds.
Current Record: 61–83 (.424, fifth in the NL Central)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 11
What went right in 2015: Limited to just 62 games and an uncharacteristic .255/.390/.409 line in 2014 due to strains in both quads, Joey Votto has rebounded in grand fashion, batting .311/.459/.549 with 27 homers, a league-high 131 walks and the league's second-best OPS+ (175) and fifth-best WAR (7.1, a career high). Driving those numbers is a second half for the ages (.371/.557/.663 in 255 PA), featuring the seventh-highest on-base percentage since 1914 (200 PA minimum)—not that anything he does is ever enough to quiet his most off-base critics.
Beyond that? Todd Frazier walloped 25 homers in the first half, then won the Home Run Derby at Great American Ball Park. His career-high total of 34 homers ranks fourth in the league, and while he's cooled off significantly in the second half, his 121 OPS+ and 4.3 WAR both rank second on the team. Brandon Phillips's 97 OPS+ and 3.4 WAR (thanks to still-excellent defense) have made for his best season since 2012. The mellifluously-named Eugenio Suarez—acquired from the Tigers when general manager Walt Jocketty sold high on 2014 All-Star and pending free agent Alfredo Simon—has stepped in for the injured Zack Cozart and hit .284/.322/.458 with 11 homers, though the defensive dropoff from the incumbent to the fill-in has been noticeable. Still, the team as a whole ranks third in defensive efficiency (.697) and sixth in Defensive Runs Saved (11).
On the pitching side, Aroldis Chapman has whiffed 16.1 per nine, maintained his triple-digit heat and saved 30 games. Rookie Anthony DeSclafani, acquired from the Marlins in exchange for Mat Latos back in December, has pitched to a 3.67 ERA and 1.9 WAR in 169 innings, far better than his opposite number at a fraction of the cost. Fellow rookie Raisel Iglesias has struck out 9.8 per nine in 16 starts and two relief appearances totaling 95 1/3 innings, even if his ERA is lagging about half a run behind his FIP (4.15 and 3.57, respectively).
Of the departed players, Johnny Cueto (2.62 ERA, 152 ERA+ in 130 2/3 innings) pitched well enough to net a three-prospect haul from the Royals when he was traded on July 26, which beats the compensatory draft pick they would have gotten via his departure this winter. Mike Leake, meanwhile, matched his career-best 112 ERA+ before he was traded to the Giants on July 30 in exchange for live arm Keury Mella and infielder Adam Duvall.
What went wrong in 2015: The Reds are en route to their second straight losing season under manager Bryan Price, and the second-half slide (22–36) borne of their denuded rotation (5.34 ERA since Aug. 1) puts them in danger of challenging their 96-loss 2001 team for the worst Cincinnati squad of the millennium. Price has proven to be far over his head on both a tactical level (the team's .292 OBP from the leadoff spot harkens back to the heyday of Dusty Baker) and in dealing with the media. There's strong speculation that he could be fired at season's end, which almost surely would benefit the Reds. Jocketty, though under contract through 2016, could be at risk as well.
On the field, the Reds have underwhelmed on both sides of the ball. The offense's 4.08 runs per game ranks 11th in the league, and they've received above-average performances from only the aforementioned Votto, Frazier and their shortstops. A year after his big breakout, Devin Mesoraco—the question of whose availability triggered Price's rant for the ages—was limited to 23 games and 51 PA by a torn labrum in his left hip; he underwent season-ending surgery on June 29. Jay Bruce (.232/.303/.435 for a 99 OPS+) and the since-traded Marlon Byrd (.237/.286/.448 for a 97 OPS+) were both subpar in the corners, and Billy Hamilton was downright awful aside from his league-high 56 steals in 64 attempts, which Price couldn't resist deploying out of the leadoff spot 45 times. Hamilton has hit .226/.274/.289 for a 55 OPS+, the league's lowest among qualifiers, and even with strong defense (+7 DRS), he's been worth only 0.8 WAR. The outfield as a whole has compiled a league-worst 0.7 WAR.
On the other side of the ball, the team's 4.48 runs per game allowed is 10th in the league, the same ranking as both their rotation and bullpen ERAs (4.41 and 3.78, respectively). Homer Bailey was limited to two starts before being lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery. Tony Cingrani continued to move backwards from his excellent 2013 rookie season, battling shoulder woes and managing just one start and 28 innings with 6.8 walks per nine. Those two outages, as well as the aforementioned trades of last year's core four starters (Cueto, Leake, Simon and Latos), have sorely tested the team's pitching depth; of the nine pitchers besides Cueto and Leake who made at least three starts, six have ERAs of 5.35 or higher, with three in the Boeing-class 7.00s. The undead Jason Marquis—last around league average in 2009—somehow made nine starts and was rocked for a 6.46 ERA; on the bullpen side, the similarly expired Kevin Gregg made 11 appearances with a 10.13 ERA.
Overall Outlook: The Reds certainly didn't get much for their franchise-record $115.4 million payroll, and they now look far removed from the Baker-led squad that won two division titles (and made a Wild-Card Game appearance) from 2010 to '13. They've begun the rebuilding process, and the Cueto trade fortified what was already their system's strength. Still, the team is short on position-playing prospects beyond outfielder Jesse Winker, and the Reds have a top-heavy payroll to boot: Of their $82 million committed to next year, $43 million is going to Bailey, Bruce and Phillips, none of whom are likely to bring back much in trade at the moment. That increases the likelihood of another stars-and-scrubs offense, a major problem in recent years. Cincinnati is certainly in need of a new manager, and it's fair to wonder whether Jocketty's tenure (which began in April 2008) has run its course as well. In a division that's sending three teams to the playoffs, it could be awhile before the Reds are contenders again.