On deck: The Reds traded big-league starters Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon and minor-league prospect Ben Lively and seem ready for a 2016 without Johnny Cueto. Top prospect Robert Stephenson, 22, had better be better than the 4.75 ERA he put up at Class AA in 2014. Stephenson’s is a curious case: he’s walked 132 in 315.2 minor-league innings, but more than half — 74, or 56%– came last year, in just 43% of the innings. He’s pitched as if the strike zone shrunk in AA, having walked 87 in 153 AA innings. In 2013, he walked just two in 20.2 innings in high Class A, then 13 in 16.2 innings after a promotion to AA. Even if his control suffered from jet lag, his fastball, reportedly clocked at as much as 99 mph, hasn’t diminished. He fanned 140 in 136.1 innings last year, and 348 in 315.2 career innings.
Trivia: Three players have had OPSes of .900 or better in their time with the Reds. Name them. Answer below.
What he said: Reds manager Bryan Price on second baseman Brandon Phillips: “I have not lost one bit of confidence or expectation that he’s going to have a big year.” What he meant: “He’ll be better than Skip Schumaker.”
Outlook: Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips has nearly a million followers on Twitter under his alter ego DatDude BP. His commentary must be sharper than his offense, because it certainly isn’t for the .266 average and eight homers he hit last year.
It’s too bad the Reds can’t create an alias for DatTeam because last year’s team wasn’t very good. They won just 76 games and deservedly so: they were 28th in runs scored, one of only three teams which couldn’t even score 600, and 16th in team ERA, although just ninth in the NL.
That’s in contrast to three 90-win seasons, two division titles and a wild-card berth in the previous four years, but very much in line with the nine losing seasons that preceded them. Harp on Dusty Baker all you want, but the last Reds manager before Baker to go to the playoffs was Davey Johnson, and that was 20 years ago (there were five full-season Reds managers between Johnson and Baker, and some interesting names among them: Ray Knight, Jack McKeon, Bob Boone, Dave Miley and Jerry Narron. Pete Mackanin got a half season after Narron in 2007, and went 41-39 after Narron steered a 31-51 start).
The Reds were 14 games worse in 2014 than 2013, on top of the seven they dropped from 2012 — you have to go back 36 years to the Big Red Machine’s 102 wins in 1976 to find a Reds team that won as many as it did in 2012. Unfortunately, that didn’t include the playoffs, where they lost three straight at home to the Giants after winning the first two.
The 2014 Reds had a convenient excuse: injuries. Joey Votto missed 100 games, Phillips missed 41 and Jay Bruce missed 25, but had career-lows in average (.217), home runs (18) and walks (44). Bruce was atypically awful — -1.7 WAR defensively, -1.1 WAR overall and bad enough to make even the most sabermetrically hostile fan yearn for Adam Dunn.
The front office then spent the offseason shedding pitching as if it was rebuilding, and adding an outfielder as if it were contending.
The Reds might be able to do the latter if they were in a weaker division. But Votto is 31 and Phillips 34 — there’s only so far they’ll come back — and new acquisition Marlon Byrd is listed as 245 pounds, which doesn’t sound like the American Health Institute’s recommended playing weight for someone 6-feet tall or 37 years old. Byrd’s physique sounds like a hamstring ready to tear, though he’s played 147 and 154 games his last two seasons.
The Reds are also depending on starters Tony Cingrani — 2-8 with a 4.55 ERA in 11 starts — to be healthy and better, and Anthony DeSclafini — 6.27 ERA in 33 innings with the Marlins at age 24 — to be better. Otherwise, it’s Dylan Axelrod and David Holmberg, who would be maintstays in the rotation of a 65-win team, or Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias. The bullpen, which is ordinary in front of closer Aroldis Chapman, will be busy.
The Reds still can’t be sure what to make of Bill Hamilton, whose defense and 56 steals helped, but whose .292 on-base percentage, 117 strikeouts and 23 caught stealings hurt more. And they’ll defer a decision on Johnny Cueto, who has been the NL’s best regular-season pitcher when healthy not named Clayton Kershaw over the last four years. But $25 million per over the next seven doesn’t seem like the Reds’ style. If it was, Latos wouldn’t be a Marlin.
The Reds did get Eugenio Suarez back for Simon, and Reds fans may appreciate him as the shortstop who interrupted Zack Cozart’s daily six-month procession of 0-for-4s. Cozart’s defense was worth 2.8 of WAR last year, but his offense — a .568 OPS, 300 career strikeouts to 82 walks — is worth a lot of frustration.
The Reds will need good health, comeback from injuries, consolidation from Devin Mesoraco (25 homers, .893 OPS in ’14) and Todd Frazier (29 homers, 52 walks, 20 steals), a starting pitcher or two to develop and Suarez to usurp Cozart. That’s a lot to ask for in multiple seasons, let alone one.
Trivia answer: The Three players to have OPSes of .900 or better with the Reds are Joey Votto (.950 from 2007-2014), Frank Robinson (.943 from 1956-65) and Adam Dunn (.900 from 2001-08). Joe Morgan (.885) and Eric Davis (.877) round out the top five.
Team song: Jan Garbarek: Esoteric Circle