2016 Cincinnati Reds: Aiming high — in the draft

Charlie Neal

Infielder Charlie Neal went from a World Series winner to the worst team in baseball in just three seasons. Neal was a Dodger for most of his eight-season career, playing in his first World Series in Brooklyn in 1956, becoming a starter at short in ’57 (.270, 12 homers, 53 walks, 11 steals), hitting 22 homers in ’58 and having his best in Los Angeles for the ’59 World Series winner. Neal was a Gold Glove second baseman that year and batted .287 with 19 homers, an NL-best 11 triples, .802 OPS and 17 steals. In the Series, he was even better, hitting .370 and homering twice in Game 2, the second breaking a 2-2 tie. His two-run double helped a six-run fourth inning in the Series-clinching Game 6 win. After Neal fell to .235/.297/.346 in ’61, he was traded to the expansion Mets, and he was their opening-day second baseman in their first game. Neal went 3-for-4 and homered, but the Mets lost, 11-4 (they lost their first nine). Neal batted .260 with 11 homers and 56 walks for the ’62 Mets, but he was 2-10 stealing bases. He was traded to the Reds midway through 1963 and played just 34 games for them (10-for-64 at bat). He was released a week before opening day in 1964, and never played in the majors again. Neal died in 1996 at 65. Career numbers: .259, 87 homers, 858 hits, 391 RBIs, 461 runs, .329 on-base, .394 slugging, .723 OPS, 90 OPS+, three All-Star Games (1959 and 2 in 1960), .323 World Series average eighth in the 1959 MVP vote with 64 points, 10.2 WAR (4.4 in ’59).

On deck: Robert Stephenson has a 3.80 ERA in four minor-league seasons, and is the team’s consensus top prospect. That tells you all you need to know about the state of the Reds these days. That’s not to discredit Stephenson — he throws hard, if not always accurately or effectively, and should fit somewhere in a young rotation with Anthony DeSclafini, John Lamb and Brandon Finnegan, all pitchers with limited experience acquired for more established starters. Stephenson, who’s fanned 488 and walked 202 in 449.2 innings, might be the best of them, which might well be as tepid an endorsement as Ben Carson’s. On the 2016 Reds, that’s good enough.

2015 stats: Joey Votto walked 143 times times in 2015, more than any three other Reds combined (Jay Bruce was second with 58, Todd Frazier third with 44 and Brayan Pena fourth with 29). Votto’s 143 walks were the most ever by a Red, breaking Joe Morgan’s 132 from his MVP season in 1975, and  27th-best all-time.

What he said: Reds GM Dick Williams: “We plan on investing where we can, we’re not saving to create a profit, we’re saving to invest in the future, for sure.” What he meant: “We’d rather pay that high draft pick in June than Todd Frazier to hit home runs for a 90-loss team.”

Outlook: The Reds won 90 games three times in four seasons under Dusty Baker from 2010-13; those are the only winning seasons for the Reds since Jack McKeon won 85 in 2000.

Who ever thought, orthapedic surgeons not included, Baker’s tenure would be remembered as the good old days?

The Reds lost 98 games last year and may do so again this year after trading Aroldis Chapman and Todd Frazier, persisting in trying to trade Jay Bruce and being prevented from trading Brandon Phillips, who reportedly used his 10/5 status to nix a move to Washington.

You have to wonder what Phillips was thinking.

It’s not as difficult to discern what the Reds are thinking, and it’s got a lot in common with the Braves and Brewers: lose now, save money, draft high, spend a little, make a lot, and win at a future time to be named later, before the last eight years of Votto’s $225 million contract is paid out in 2023, when he turns 40.

There’s little point to Votto on the 2016 Reds, like Jonathan Papelbon on the 2015 Phillies. Votto played a full season in 2015 and hit .314 with 29 homers and a 1.000 OPS and led the majors with his 143 walks, 19 more than NL MVP Bryce Harper.  What good is production like that for a team which will measure success by its draft position?

“And yet, Votto has a ton of critics,” wrote CBSsports.com’s Mike Axisa, “many of whom cite his willingness to take a walk and pass the baton to the teammate.”

It’s enough to make you miss Adam Dunn. The Reds play Billy Hamilton, a centerfielder who slugged .289 last year, and has a career .287 on-base percentage, and some fans think the problem with the Reds is Votto doesn’t swing at enough balls in the dirt. They’re going to love 2016.

The problem with the Reds isn’t that Votto walks too often with runners in scoring position; it’s that there’s too rarely runners in scoring position to drive in.  Votto was 19th in the NL with 80 RBIs, but it’s a safe bet he ranked higher in percentage of runners driven in.

A year ago, the Reds were 26th in runs scored with Frazier, and 26th in ERA with Chapman. Don’t expect them to improve in 2016.

The outfield is one of the worst in baseball — they have some catching up to do to be as bad as the Phillies, but if they deal Bruce they might sink that low — and the only issue with the pitching staff is whether the starters or worse than the relievers or vice versa (it says here the relievers are worse, though it’s worth a revisit if Homer Bailey has complications in his recuperation).

Besides Votto, there wasn’t much good about the 2015 Reds but for shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who slugged .446 at age 24 after Zack Cozart was hurt. With Cozart back, the Reds moved Suarez to third, where his 17 walks to 94 strikeouts ratio is more likely to mute his power at a more offensive position.

If Bailey, Cozart (knee) and catcher Devin Mesoraco (hip) all recover from injuries, the Reds might better than last year, even if that’s not very good.

That’s just what the Braves and Brewers are hoping.

Team Song: R.E.M.: Everybody Hurts

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