With preseason expectations to be the worst team in baseball, the Cincinnati Reds have to be at least somewhat happy with at least not being that. Unless, of course, they really wanted that No. 1 draft pick.
There isn’t much to get excited about with a 62-84 season (although they’ve already won enough to avoid a 100-loss season, a real possibility at the start of the year), but the Reds really did pick things up in the second half compared to the first. After starting out 32-57, Cincinnati went 30-27 in the next 57 games, including three straight losses to Pittsburgh that led to their official elimination in the NL Wild Card race. While the Cubs had the NL Central locked up extremely early on this season, that didn’t keep the Reds from plugging away.
Preseason Prediction: Reality should be somewhere between the extremes, but don’t forget that the Reds will play 57 games against the Pirates, Cubs, and Cardinals this year. While 19 against the Brewers could help, it won’t be enough to boost Cincinnati significantly. I expect the Reds to finish with between 65 and 68 wins. This is what a team in full rebuild mode looks like. (Joseph Coblitz, March 17)
What Went Right: Joey Votto started the season off slow, but came back as one of the best hitters in baseball, hitting .318/.432/.527 with his usual 100 walks. He is still signed through 2023, under team control far beyond anyone else on the current roster. Votto’s deal is essentially unmoveable, so the longer he lasts at this level, the better the Reds will be.
Adam Duvall also had an exciting season with an appearance in the All-Star Home Run Derby, while hitting out 31 homers during regular season play. It was also a great season for Billy Hamilton, who remains one of the top defensive outfielders in baseball and the top base stealer with 58 stolen bases this season.
There was less to be excited about on the pitching side. But Anthony DeSclafini joined the team late and was terrific, winning his first six decisions and posting an ERA of 2.93. Meanwhile, Raisel Iglesias moved from the rotation to the bullpen — which was the worst in all of baseball at the time and is now the third-worst — and had a great turn around. Dan Straily and Brandon Finnegan both deserve credit for eating up innings without being a primary cause of the Reds’ troubles.
What Went Wrong: A dominant bullpen isn’t particularly important for a team that rarely has a lead. But at some point in time, a poor bullpen becomes ridiculous. To this point in the season, Reds relievers hold a collective 5.00 ERA blowing (23) almost as many save chances as they have converted (25). There is plenty of blame to spread around and plenty of pitchers to point to as Bryan Price used 23 different relievers this year, including outfielder Tyler Holt. Safely removed from this conversation are Iglesias, Blake Wood and Michael Lorenzen, who combined for a 2.75 ERA through 154 innings.
Removing those three, the other 20 men (and, to be fair, we should remove Holt and Abel De Los Santos, who each pitched just one scoreless inning) allowed a 5.93 ERA in 375.1 innings. You can blame J.J. Hoover if you want, as he had been an extremely consistent reliever over the last four years and was so bad this year (13.50 ERA in 18.2 innings) that he cleared waivers during a season when teams are giving up top prospects for a little relief help. The veteran Ross Ohlendorf was helpful in a way as he ate up 60 innings out of the pen, but his 4.80 ERA made him a frightening option for the Redlegs.
Most Surprising Player: The Reds’ rotation was no less to blame than the bullpen, but the problem was in finding enough quality men to fill out the group. They used 11 pitchers to make 72 starts, while just three others combined for 74. Of those three, both DeSclafini and Straily were not only huge assets, but complete surprises.
DeSclafini was a fairly well-considered prospect at one point, traded from Toronto to Miami in the Mark Buehrle deal, then to Cincinnati in the trade for Mat Latos. But he had pitched poorly in his first three seasons. He really brought it to the next level this year, dropping his ERA from 4.05 in his first full season to 2.93 in 17 starts this year. Of course, his walk rate, K-rate and home rate have stayed fairly even over the last three years and his career FIP of 3.73 is actually lower than his FIP in 2016 of 3.81, so maybe we should have expected this.
Straily is the biggest surprise as he hadn’t pitched more than 52 innings in a season since 2013 with Oakland, throwing just 16.2 last year. He also had a career ERA of 4.60, but has lowered that this season down to 3.81, the lowest in his career. He’s also set career bests in innings (172.2) and strikeouts (145) while having a career low BB/9 rate of 3.4. Given the injury problems the Reds dealt with early this season and the inconsistencies from those other 11 starters, Straily has been invaluable to Cincinnati. In addition, he’s not even arbitration-eligible until 2018, so if the Reds have similar problems in 2017, they will at least have Straily.
Most Disappointing Player: A bullpen can only be so disappointing, so we’ll focus here on the veteran Brandon Phillips. The Reds knew they were going to be no match for the top of the division this year and tried to pawn off Phillips during the winter, most notably to the Washington Nationals. Cincinnati even had a deal worked out before Phillips used his no-trade clause to stay home. The Nationals got the better of this non-deal, moving on to sign free agent Daniel Murphy, who has been one of the most productive players in baseball, worth a 5.6 fWAR.
At the same time, Phillips has barely been a replacement level player, with all his value coming defensively. He batted .290 and that may hide the fact that he simply isn’t the player he once was. The Reds may try to deal him again this offseason as he is a free agent after 2017, but his value is only going down and there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t reject any other trade. It’s not that he’s a terrible player, but he was worth a lot more to the Reds in prospects than in production this season.
The Future: The Reds used 17 rookie pitchers this year and nine rookie hitters as they have a 100 percent focus on the future. Along these lines, they did a nice job by moving their one prime free agent going into the offseason, Jay Bruce, to the Mets. Only Ohlendorf and Alfredo Simon are free agents otherwise and they wouldn’t be worth much in the trade market and shouldn’t make any Reds fans cry if they leave.
It isn’t all bad for the Reds as they are handling this rebuild the right way. The contracts of Joey Votto, Homer Bailey and Brandon Phillips could make it difficult to build from the outside, but their plan seems to keep working within the system. The fact that Cincinnati has multiple arms who have now been tested and found worthy to keep around for next season is a huge positive and they have more coming, like top pitching prospect Amir Garrett, who ended this season in AAA. The Reds aren’t likely to win in 2017 either, but at least they have a chance beyond that.