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The Reds’ Nonconformist Rebuild Is One of Baseball’s Coolest Experiments

In an age when the so-called “smart” teams are thinking about controlling costs years in advance, Cincinnati bucked the system in one quiet and quick offseason. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s bound to be fun.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

For much of their recent history, the Cincinnati Reds have been an afterthought. The club that dominated the National League in the 1970s became a mid-American also-ran whose main purpose has been to give the other four NL Central teams someone to play. The Reds enter 2019 with a streak of four consecutive last-place finishes in the NL Central. Even their run of three playoff appearances in four years from 2010 to 2013 carries some unhappy memories—being no-hit in the 2010 NLDS, blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Giant

s in the 2012 NLDS, and Johnny Cueto’s meltdown in the 2013 wild-card game. Before that, the Reds hadn’t so much as made the playoffs since 1995. Attendance has fallen each of the past five seasons; the Reds drew almost 850,000 fewer fans in 2018 than they did in 2013, and haven’t finished higher than 24th in attendance since 2015.

In short, this is a franchise in dire need of some buzz, and for the first time in five years, the Reds are demanding notice with a roster that not only appears to be good, but fun. The orthodox way to build a contender is to collect young, talented players and supplement them with splashy free-agent acquisitions—anyone who reads prospect lists could see the Cubs or Astros coming a mile away—but the Reds have constructed a competitive roster not only quickly, but quietly.

The first component of the Reds’ impending turnaround is that the 2018 version of the club had a lot of good players for a team that lost 95 games. Third baseman Eugenio Suárez (.283/.366/.526) and second baseman Scooter Gennett (.310/.357/.490) were both four-win players, and even in a down year in which first baseman Joey Votto hit only 12 home runs, the former NL MVP still posted a .417 OBP. Shortstop José Peraza’s defense has been a strength dating back to his days as a prospect, and the 24-year-old had a breakout offensive year in 2018, hitting .288/.326/.416 with 23 stolen bases. That’s a playoff-quality infield by any measure.

The pitching staff wasn’t nearly as solid top-to-bottom, but there are still a few noteworthy holdovers from last year. Closer Raisel Iglesias (30 saves, 177 ERA+, 10.0 K/9) and righty Jared Hughes (216 ERA+) held down the back end of the bullpen, while right-hander Luis Castillo made 31 starts with a 98 ERA+ and flashed stuff that indicates the potential for more and better down the road.

For long stretches in 2018, the Reds played like a good team; they went 45-40 from April 23 through July 29. That’s an 86-win pace, and they kept it up for more than half the season. The problem is that the Reds went 22-55 in their other 77 games, which is an appropriate metaphor for how their roster looked last year: half pretty good, half sub-replacement level.

Now, the sub-replacement-level half of the team has been turned over. The best player the Reds lost this offseason was probably Matt Harvey, who signed a one-year deal with the Angels after posting a 93 ERA+ in 24 starts in Cincinnati following his trade from the Mets. Other notable departures include outfielders Billy Hamilton, whose legendary speed does not make up for his .236/.299/.327 batting line, and Adam Duvall, who was traded to Atlanta in July after hitting just .205/.286/.399, which is suboptimal for a corner outfielder.

The Reds also got rid of Homer Bailey, who returned to steady action last season for the first time in three years and posted a 6.09 ERA in 20 starts. In December, Bailey was traded to the Dodgers, along with two prospects, for Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Kyle Farmer, and Alex Wood. The Reds remade their roster gradually this offseason, but this trade was the most important transaction of the offseason from Cincinnati’s perspective.

The headliner of the trade was Puig, an exceptional defensive right fielder who hit .264/.337/.490 over the past two seasons, and will essentially take Hamilton’s spot in the lineup, with last year’s starter in right field, Scott Schebler (.255/.337/.439), moving over to center.

Wood, a 28-year-old left-hander, took a step back in 2018 from his previous All-Star performance, but his 105 ERA+ would have led all starters on last year’s Reds team and his 151 2/3 innings pitched would have been second on the staff behind Castillo. If Wood pitches like he did in 2018, he’ll provide much-needed help in the rotation, but if he returns to anything like his 2017 form, he’ll quickly reach folk-hero status in Cincinnati.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds-Report Day
Yasiel Puig
The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODA

At age 34, Kemp is no longer the MVP-caliber outfielder he was in his youth, but he’s still useful as an offense-first corner outfielder, which is the role he filled on the pennant-winning Dodgers last year. In Cincinnati in 2019, the right-handed Kemp has an obvious platoon partner in 25-year-old Jesse Winker, who posted a .405 OBP in 334 plate appearances last year. In his two-year career, Winker has hit .321/.421/.503 against right-handed pitching, but just .183/.302/.293 against lefties. Last year, Kemp posted an .818 OPS with a fairly even platoon split. If Winker posts about a .900 OPS against righties and Kemp posts an .800 OPS against lefties, the Reds will have essentially cobbled together Khris Davis’s production in left field.

The Reds also picked up former Marlins utilityman Derek Dietrich on a minor league deal. Dietrich, like Kemp and Winker, is a bad defender, but he has experience at every corner position, plus second base. He can also hit, slashing .262/.344/.428 in 1,716 plate appearances over the past four seasons. Dietrich is also the National League’s active leader in having beach muscles.

The 2019 Reds lineup figures to feature five players who posted at least a 120 OPS+ last year: Votto, Suárez, Gennett, Puig, and whichever of Kemp or Winker starts on a given day. Schebler is a consistently league-average hitter, and Peraza is just fine at shortstop as long as his bat doesn’t regress too much. The only weak spot in Cincinnati’s lineup is catcher, where Tucker Barnhart (86 career OPS+) and Curt Casali (93 career OPS+) will share the load. But the Reds can live with meager offensive production at catcher not only because the rest of the lineup is so strong, but because there are only about a dozen catchers across the majors who can hit worth a damn right now anyway.

The best way to express how deep the Reds lineup has become is that their top prospect, Nick Senzel, is ready for the big leagues, but there’s no obvious spot for him. Senzel, the no. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, played third base at the University of Tennessee. Suárez has third base locked up for the foreseeable future, so for the past 12 months the Reds have bounced Senzel around from shortstop to second base and most recently to center field. Barring a trade or an injury that opens up a position elsewhere on the diamond, Senzel’s best path to playing time appears to run through displacing Schebler in center, assuming he can handle the position defensively. Regardless, he figures to contribute at the big league level somewhere this year, even if it’s in a part-time or superutility role.

On the other side of the ball, the Reds acquired a pair of veteran right-handed starters in addition to Wood: Sonny Gray from the Yankees and Tanner Roark from the Nationals. Gray struggled in 2018 but was an above-average pitcher the year before, while after earning a Cy Young vote in 2016, Roark has been about average the past two years. But even if Roark and Gray are merely league average, they represent a gigantic improvement over the likes of the departed Bailey. Even Gray, who posted an 89 ERA+ in 130 1/3 innings last year, had a better ERA+ than any Reds starter except Castillo and Harvey, and threw more innings than any Reds starter except Castillo and Sal Romano. Between Castillo, Roark, Gray, and Wood, the Reds now have four competent big league starters, all of whom have shown a much higher ceiling in the recent past. The fifth-starter job is still up for grabs, but having one question mark in the rotation isn’t a big deal if the other four spots are in relatively safe hands.

Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 6
Eugenio Suarez
Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Now that the Reds figure to be good enough to be relevant, casual fans tuning in will be rewarded with a number of compelling season-long subplots. The headliner, as always, is Puig, who’s putting on a charm offensive like he’s planning on running for governor of Ohio someday. This trade also reignites Puig’s bromance with hitting coach Turner Ward, whom Cincinnati plucked from the Dodgers last November. After spending his entire career as one star among many in Los Angeles, Puig will be a big fish in a small pond in Cincinnati. The maturation of Castillo and Senzel will be fascinating to watch. Pitcher Michael Lorenzen, a two-way player at Cal State Fullerton, is trying to access his inner Shohei Ohtani and play some center field. Votto, now 35 years old and on the back end of a Hall of Fame–caliber career, must either reverse last year’s power outage or adapt his game to fit it. And if the Reds are drawing new eyeballs because of Puig, or because they’re competing for a playoff spot, it will bring new attention to currently underrated players like Suárez and Iglesias, who remain relatively anonymous nationwide despite years of All-Star-level production.

And so after going 67-95 last year, the Reds are currently projected to finish 81-81 in 2019, according to PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’s projection system. PECOTA projections aren’t a crystal ball into the future, but they’re as good a starting place as any to evaluate a team’s offseason and set a baseline for expectations. For perspective, PECOTA projects that the Padres, who went 66-96 last year, will go 79-83 after signing the best free agent on the market (Manny Machado) and adding three global top-20 prospects (Fernando Tatis Jr., Luis Urias, and Francisco Mejía) to their lineup. The Reds are projected to make similar improvements despite promoting just one comparable prospect, Senzel, and signing only one major league free agent: reliever Zach Duke, who will make just $2 million this year.

What the Reds did instead is identify and exploit a wrinkle in contemporary baseball economics. Clubs at the top of the standings, and the league’s economic pyramid, are all of a sudden petrified of paying the competitive balance tax. What was once a small leg up for small-market teams is now being treated like a hard salary cap, so teams with big payrolls—like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Nationals—were looking to offload league-average players making more than the league minimum. It’s not quite the model the Brewers have used over the past two offseasons; Milwaukee has targeted stars like Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, and Yasmani Grandal through trade and free agency. But the principle of paying market price for good players while the rest of the league rummages in the clearance bin is similar.

The Reds didn’t even have to take on any so-called “bad contracts.” Gray is under team control through 2023, and if the Reds pick up his option for that year, his current contract will average $10 million a year. Roark, Kemp, Puig, and Wood are all free agents after this season, and Kemp is the only one who will make more than $10 million in 2019. Dietrich’s former employer, the Marlins, are as disinterested in paying players as they are in winning, so he was cut despite being an above-average hitter because he made $2.9 million last year and was due a raise in arbitration.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds
Raisel Iglesias
Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The Dodgers, Yankees, Nationals, and Marlins were all willing to become slightly worse in order to get slightly cheaper. (Even Gray, who lost his spot in the Yankees rotation after the James Paxton trade, could have provided useful depth for a club that had nine different pitchers start five or more games last year.) Because the Reds were willing to become slightly more expensive in order to get slightly better, they were able to make numerous incremental improvements without giving up much of anything in the way of prospects. Or salary, for that matter—because they offloaded Bailey’s deal in the Kemp-Puig-Wood trade, the Reds are running a 2019 payroll of $116 million, up just $16 million from last year, and ranking 16th in MLB.

The cumulative effect of these deals is evidently comparable to signing Machado and promoting multiple top prospects, at least according to PECOTA in 2019. And even then, it might not be enough to get the Reds back to the postseason. Cincinnati is, after all, in a division with the Brewers and Cubs, who had the two best records in the NL last year, as well as the Cardinals, who won 88 games, added Paul Goldschmidt, and will probably get more than the 122 2/3 combined innings they got from Alex Reyes and Carlos Martínez in 2018. Even the Pirates figure to be close to a .500 team this year. And this Reds team, while formidable, is far from perfect—they still lack a true no. 1 starter, and their defense is going to be problematic in spots.

But even if they fall short of the playoffs, the Reds are more relevant and interesting now than they’ve been in five years. In an age when the so-called “smart” teams are thinking about controlling costs years in advance, the Reds bucked the system and made a series of savvy short-term investments to return to relevance in the course of one offseason. What the Reds did this winter represents an almost cheekily nonconformist approach to team construction in this day and age, and whatever happens to them in 2019, it’ll be fascinating to see how this experiment plays out.