For some reason, I like the Cincinnati Redlegs. They have a cool name, a classic logo, I like the uniforms, I don’t know. But I couldn’t shove them any higher up this list than 19th. For as much as I love the hype of a full-throttle rebuild, I’m just not sure the fruits are coming to bear as quickly as one might have hoped for when the losing began some years ago. But there’s plenty of potential on both sides of the ball. Let’s take a look at where that potential is, and what we need to see to believe these Reds may be finally turning the corner.
The lineup kind of begins and ends with Mr. Red himself, Joey Votto. There is not much we can say here about Joey Votto that most fans don’t already know. With more than 50 career WAR, the hall-of-fame watch is on for the 34 year old career first-baseman. Some analysts have been expecting a decline in Votto’s production for a few years now due to his age, and even due to his slumps as he has done to open this 2018 campaign. But the elder statesman, probably the smartest, most analytical hitter in the game, always makes his adjustments. When he does, he tears up every pitcher in his path. I’m one fan of many, who is hoping to see Votto do this for as long as possible. But will Votto ever have enough around him to lead a charge to the postseason?
The rest of the lineup seemed to take steps forward last year, with surprising contributions from Scooter Gennett, Adam Duvall, and Scott Schebler. I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but beyond the glitzy slash lines those three put up last year, the road ahead for some of these players might not be quite so glamorous. For one, all three are defensive liabilities. For two, they are all in their late 20’s due to being late-bloomers. For three, they strike out a good amount and don’t draw many walks. In fact, each player averaged only about 1.5 – 2.5 fWAR each in their big seasons last year. Last year they were slightly above average everyday players with every reason to expect their skill-sets to decline to replacement level over the next few years. Ouch.
I’m not particularly happy with the way others in this lineup have been developed. Billy Hamilton and his game-changing speed and center field defense give him a solid floor, but the impending free agent, also inching towards 30 years of age, continues to show that he is one of the worst hitters in baseball, struggling to OPS anywhere near .700. Meanwhile, Jose Peraza was supposed to be the more complete version of Hamilton when he was obtained from the Dodgers in the 3-way Todd Frazier deal two years ago, with plus speed, and a good defensive profile, but a much better hit tool. Unfortunately, since arriving in Cincy, the hit tool has backed up significantly, and one has to wonder whether Peraza will ever sniff his once substantial potential.
Oh, jeez, I didn’t even get to the nightmarish pitching situation on the MLB level yet. No wonder the Reds have started out 2-13. Interestingly, I see more potential upside in the arms that have arrived in Cincy over the last 12 months than the previously mentioned bats. Meanwhile, there are some impact bats on the way in the minors. So it isn’t all that bad.
But to the arms, there seems to be a nice collection of young, controllable depth back-end starter types: Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, Brandon Finnegan, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, Cody Reed, and even Anthony Desclafani if he can get healthy. This list is both a good and a bad thing. Many names on this list have been hyped up over the last few years, especially Stephenson, Garrett, and Reed, who as little as 12 months ago were borderline top 50 prospects nationwide. While Garrett has regained some mid 90’s velocity out of the bullpen this year, Reed continues to struggle with his command, Finnegan’s health and stuff has backed up, and Stephenson continues to be unable to harness his top-echelon stuff as well. There is a troubling motif here in talented arms with big bodies (6’5 220 lb right-hander is the mold here) that have not been able to develop into good big league pitchers. Better to have this cost-controlled talent than not, and it is still too early to write off any of these names a solid big leaguers, but the lack of ability to extract close to peak value out of any of these arms is somewhat disconcerting when assessing the long-term path of this franchise. If the entire system produces, a couple of decent #4/#5 guys, a few nice relievers, and a bunch flame out, is that good enough?
Meanwhile, Luis Castillo has been a hot item since his debut last year. While you can argue that he is the one pitcher that the Reds did turn into a front-line starter, he has struggled to open his 2018 campaign, and some doubt still exists whether he has the necessary third pitch to turn over a lineup three times consistently. Still, there is plenty of reason to believe that Castillo can at least be a good #3, with potential for more.
Not to ignore the nice comeback Homer Bailey is making early on here, or the solid closer Raisel Iglesias has become, but the future of the Reds is down in the minor leagues, where two names of note could be on their way towards stardom.
Minor League Talent
One of these budding stars is Nick Senzel, natural third baseman out of the University of Tennessee. The former 2nd overall pick in the 2016 draft has rocketed through the minor leagues on the back of his plus contact skills, plus feel for the game, solid-average power (which will play up at Great American Park), solid-average base running, and solid-average defense at third. Whether the power plays up to 55 or 60 will determine how high of ceiling Senzel carries, but there are no holes in his all-around game. He should be an easy 3 WAR infielder relatively soon, and he is knocking on the door of the Bigs.
With potentially more upside, is the Reds other 2nd overall pick, this time in 2017 out of high school in California, Hunter Greene. Greene possesses great athleticism for a high school right-handed pitcher, as he also was a viable draft candidate as a plus hitting shortstop. But the Reds have already told Greene that they see him as a pitcher, as they cannot ignore his ace potential. Greene’s fastball is sitting 96-98 MPH, tops out at 100 MPH, and he backs it up with an impressive slider that the industry already has projected to a 60. With all of his youth and athleticism and arm action, the industry also has no problem projecting the change-up to an above average MLB pitch as well. Greene is a teen aged pitcher, so it’s important not to start punching his ticket to the hall-of-fame just yet, but he sure looks to be on the fast-track to being a top 3 pitcher in all of the minor leagues by year’s end.
With a touch less upside than Greene, and less safety in the profile than Senzel, former prep OF Taylor Trammell has made himself into a top prospect in his own right. A Reds 2016 comp pick, Trammell’s biggest tool is his 70-grade speed, but he will also bring good pop and play CF. He is still strikeout prone but honed his bat to ball skills in a big way last year and is probably one of the more underrated prospects in the game right now.
The rest of the Reds system is deep in talent. On the hitting side, Shed Long offers good pop for a second base prospect, Jesse Winker is getting his big opportunity to show MLB average power to go with his plus hit tool and solid plate approach, and Jose Siri is a 2012 international signee that started putting his impressive tools together last season. The Reds have made significant investments in Cuba, as they gave both Vladimir Gutierrez, a flame-throwing right-hander, and Jose Israel Garcia a 19 year old middle-infield prospect significant signing bonuses in the last couple of years. If this system is deep in one thing as well, it’s big-time velocity. Tanner Rainey, Jimmy Herget, Tony Santillan, and Keury Mella all throw very hard, though only Santillan has a chance to start.
The Reds system is deep in talent, but there seems to be a gap in the development process whereby the high-end talent, which remains in copious amounts really everywhere throughout this organization, reaches it’s full potential. And really, whether looking at bats like Peraza and Hamilton, or arms like Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson, the issue appears to be on both sides of the ball. For that reason, the Cincinnati Reds rank 19th out of 30 MLB teams, when looking at overall franchise health for the near and medium term.