This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 27: the Cincinnati Reds.
2015 Record and Finish:
64–98 (.395), fifth place in National League Central (29th overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
68–94 (.420), fifth place in NL Central
The Case For
It's hard to be too optimistic about a team that lost 98 games and traded away its second-best position player, its ace and its closer and lost another key starter to free agency, but here goes. To start, the Reds still have first baseman Joey Votto, who finished third in the NL MVP voting and posted an even 1.000 OPS while leading the league in walks last season. He alone should be worth the price of admission at Great American Ballpark. And Cincinnati saw subtle, if notable, improvement from speedster Billy Hamilton, whose stolen base percentage jumped from 70.9% in 2014 to 87.7% last year, even though he only stole one more base (57, second-best in the Senior Circuit). Hamilton also led NL centerfielders in assists for the second straight year, giving him a potent combination of arm strength and range that could make him a Gold Glove candidate.
The pitching staff boasts a wealth of young, if unproven, arms (more on which below), but if even a couple of those guys turn into above-average starters, the Reds will have the foundation of a quality starting staff. Otherwise, the best sign of a successful season will be seeing how their efforts to rebuild the farm system progress; what kind of success they have in the draft (they hold the No. 2 pick); and, perhaps, whether or not they can play spoiler for the rivals in their loaded division. Last year, the NL Central sent three teams—the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates—to the playoffs. Cincinnati faces those teams, plus the equally woebegone Brewers, in its final 23 games of the season. If the Reds can't go to the postseason, perhaps they can ensure that one or more of their rivals don't get there either.
The Case Against
Last year the Reds ended the longest streak among the four major North American team sports by finishing in last place for the first time in 32 years. It won't take that long for them to finish there again. Off-season trades that sent All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier to the White Sox and All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees not only depleted the talent on the major league club but also didn't do as much as might have been expected to replenish the farm system. Of the seven players who came to Cincinnati in those deals, only one—infielder Jose Peraza, who had been with the Dodgers, the third team involved in the Frazier deal—was considered a top-10 prospect with his former ballclub.
Those deals came on the heels of a mid-summer trade that saw ace Johnny Cueto moved to Kansas City. The Reds almost shipped out another star over the winter, but second baseman Brandon Phillips reportedly used his rights as a 10-and-5 player to block a couple of trades, one that would have sent him to Washington and another that had him ticketed for Arizona. Cincinnati would be wise to try dealing Phillips again during the season, and to do the same with outfielder Jay Bruce. That would make an already bad team even worse, but those players aren't going to be a part of whatever future success there will be in Cincinnati.
The bullpen is also a mess in the wake of Chapman's departure. Righty J.J. Hoover is expected to take over Chapman's role as closer, but he possesses neither his predecessor's fearsome fastball nor his track record of success. Hoover has just five saves in his first four major league seasons, and he saw a decline in his strikeout-to-walk ratio and his strikeouts per nine that indicate he won't be able to rely, as Chapman did, on pure stuff to lock down games.
X-Factor: Homer Bailey
Hard as it is to believe, Bailey is still just 29 years old. A one-time top-10 draft pick by the Reds back in 2004, he didn't make 30 starts in a season at the major league level until four years ago. At his best, he was good enough to throw two no-hitters, rank seventh in the NL in strikeouts in 2013 and for the Reds to sign him to a six-year, $105 million contract before the '14 season. Since then, however, he's made only 25 starts, just two of which came last year before he was shut down and underwent Tommy John surgery.
Bailey should be back in the rotation before the All-Star break, by which time it's likely the Reds will be long buried in the standings, but his return will be more about seeing what the team can expect from him in the back half of that contract. If he's good, he could provide the rotation anchor Cincinnati so desperately needs; if he's very good, he might even become a possible trade option, if not in 2016 then perhaps sometime in the next year or so. Barring an unexpected turnaround in the Reds' fortunes, they would surely love to get out from under the $63 million he's owed in guaranteed money from 2017 to '19.
Number To Know: 64
That's how many consecutive starts were made by rookie pitchers for Cincinnati to end last season, a major league record. Overall, the Reds gave the ball to a first-year pitcher in 110 games, the second-highest number in major league history. With Mike Leake traded to the Giants at last year’s deadline and the aforementioned Bailey still recovering from Tommy John surgery, Cincinnati will again be forced to call upon those same pitchers to carry its rotation.
Anthony DeSclafani, a righthander who turns 26 in mid-April, had the best season of the bunch and should be in line for an improvement over his 9–13 record and 4.05 ERA. It's harder to know what to expect from Raisel Iglesias (3–7, 4.15 ERA) and Michael Lorenzen (4–9, 5.40). The most intriguing option might be Brandon Finnegan, who made a name for himself as a key bullpen option for the Royals during their run to the 2014 World Series just a few months after he'd pitched in the College World Series for TCU. Traded to Cincinnati in the Cueto deal last July, Finnegan got the first four starts of his major league career, and though he still fared far better coming out of the bullpen (2.67 ERA, .597 OPS against) than as a starter (4.71, .847), he has a versatile enough offering of pitches (particularly a developing changeup) that the team sees him as an option. The Reds will certainly have the luxury of being patient with all of their young arms, and they can afford to figure out exactly which roles work best for which players as they begin building for their next run at contention.
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Most Overrated: Joey Votto, 1B
"I hate to throw Joey Votto under the bus, he just is what he is, but I wish he would drive in more runs—or lead them off. There’s your on base guy."
Most Underrated: Michael Lorenzen, SP
"He’s got a great arm and he’s a great athlete. I think he’s going to be a good starting pitcher."