CINCINNATI -- When the Reds and Pirates meet Thursday for Opening Day at Great American Ball Park, both clubs will be looking to establish their legitimacy in the National League Central division race.
It’s the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals who arguably are the favorites for the postseason, but Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, in their own ways, believe they belong in that conversation also.
These two less-favored teams took drastically different approaches during the offseason. The Reds, who hired first-time Major League manager David Bell and a nearly all-new coaching staff, made big moves in the rotation and outfield that got fans excited. Avoiding splashy moves, the Pirates like their chances because they’re sticking with a strong core of talent that they believe will keep improving.
Now that the Hot Stove season and Spring Training are over, it’s finally time to stop speculating about what might happen and watch what does happen.
The 2019 season is here.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is at 4:10 p.m. ET. The Reds' broadcasts are on Fox Sports Ohio and WLW-AM while the Pirates' broadcasts are on AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh and KDKA-FM. The game can also be seen live on MLB.TV.
The starting lineups
Pirates: The Pirates don’t have many proven power threats, but they like the depth of their lineup. It starts at the top with Adam Frazier, who is taking over as the everyday second baseman and presumably as the everyday leadoff man. Corey Dickerson hit .300 last season and believes he’s capable of hitting for more power without sacrificing good contact. Josh Bell’s power declined last season, but the Bucs expect more out of him this year. The wild card is Jung Ho Kang, a potential power hitter who has played only three Major League games since 2016. Melky Cabrera is in right field for Lonnie Chisenhall, who was placed on the injured list with a right index finger fracture.
Reds: The additions of Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a trade from the Dodgers should bring some of the power the lineup missed last season, especially at cozy GABP. Puig will be free of the platoon work he did in Los Angeles and able to man right field daily in Cincinnati. Kemp and Jesse Winker will see the most time in left field. The top portion of the lineup now features the team’s best on-base threat in Joey Votto, who moved up from the third spot. Following a breakthrough season with 34 home runs, Eugenio Suarez has some added protection batting cleanup and pitchers will have to challenge him.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Pirates: Right-hander Taillon will make his first Opening Day start after a breakout season in 2018 -- his first full, healthy campaign in the Majors. Taillon posted a 3.20 ERA with 179 strikeouts in 191 innings over 32 starts last year, and the Pirates went 20-12 in his starts. He finished the season with a streak of 22 straight starts in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer. Taillon is 4-4 with a 4.30 ERA in 12 career starts against the Reds.
Reds: Castillo is also making his first Opening Day start and is the fifth different pitcher to get the honor for Cincinnati in the last five years. Castillo, who got the nod over veteran acquisitions Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, endured an inconsistent 2018 season while going 10-12 with a 4.30 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in 31 starts and 169 2/3 innings. The right-hander did save his best for last, however, as he owned a 2.44 ERA in 11 second-half starts, including a 1.09 ERA over his final five starts. Lifetime vs. Pittsburgh, Castillo is 1-3 with a 4.00 ERA over five starts.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Pirates: If the Bucs have a lead, they know which four relievers they want on the mound. Right-handers Richard Rodríguez and Kyle Crick make up the front line of their setup quartet, with Rodriguez the likely pick to face a group of lefties and Crick better suited to handle right-handed hitters. Then comes Keone Kela, the former Rangers closer and primary setup man for lefty Felipe Vázquez. Pittsburgh’s closer had a dominant spring, allowing one hit while striking out 12 of the 17 batters he faced in Florida.
Reds: Bell and pitching coach Derek Johnson prefer not to assign specific roles to their relievers, including Raisel Iglesias after he successfully closed games the last two seasons. Instead, Cincinnati will use its best relievers in high-leverage situations for outs in any inning, especially after the fifth or sixth. That would mean seeing any combination of Iglesias, Jared Hughes, Michael Lorenzen, David Hernandez and Amir Garrett. Free agent signee Zach Duke should fall in as one of the lefty specialists, but the club also expects him to get right-handers out.
Any injuries of note?
Pirates: Right fielder Gregory Polanco (September left shoulder surgery) is working his way back into game shape and may not return until May. Backup catcher Elias Díaz missed two weeks of Spring Training with an undisclosed virus, so he did not begin a modified spring program until late March. Right-handers Chad Kuhl and Edgar Santana, who held important roles last season, will miss the entire season following Tommy John surgery.
Reds: A big blow came in the final days of camp when All-Star second baseman Scooter Gennett suffered a right groin strain that is expected to keep him sidelined for two to three months. That means moving Peraza from shortstop to second base and defensive wizard Iglesias goes from the bench to shortstop. The Reds will be challenged to replace Gennett’s bat. Left-hander Alex Wood, also acquired from the Dodgers, missed much of camp with a sore lower back, but he is expected to be ready in mid-April.
Who is hot and who is not?
Pirates: Kang led the team with seven home runs in Spring Training, an encouraging sign considering he spent most of the last two years out of baseball. Dickerson also enjoyed an excellent spring, batting .375 with three homers in 12 games before leaving Florida. Frazier hit .342 with a .998 OPS and looked good at second base.
The Bucs are hoping for a big year from Bell, but he didn’t show much in that direction this spring. The switch-hitting first baseman posted a .204/.232/.352 slash line in 50 at-bats. Chisenhall, an offseason acquisition, hit .206 and struck out 13 times in 34 at-bats this spring. Gonzalez earned the starting shortstop job despite batting .214 with a .660 OPS in Grapefruit League play.
Reds: Schebler earned the regular center fielder’s job over top prospect Nick Senzel as he batted .361/.510/.611 with two homers in 16 Cactus League games. Kemp also had a nice spring in Arizona as he batted .292 with three homers.
Votto, who batted .147 with zero homers in 16 games, traditionally has poor spring results before finding his way in the regular season. Last regular season, though, Votto hit below .300 (.284), a rarity for him. Suarez had a slow start before showing some improvement, but he still batted .220 with 20 strikeouts in 50 spring at-bats. Winker had four homers, including two on Saturday, but batted .176 for the spring.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• The 2019 season marks the 150th anniversary season of the Reds becoming baseball’s first professional franchise, and several greats of the club will be involved in pregame activity. Eric Davis will throw out the ceremonial first pitch with Hall of Famer Johnny Bench catching. Another Hall of Famer, Joe Morgan, will serve as honorary captain and former pitcher Bronson Arroyo will deliver the official game ball. Away from the ballpark, Commissioner Rob Manfred will serve as Grand Marshal for the 100th Findlay Market Opening Day Parade.
• The Pirates haven’t had much success against Castillo. Collectively, their current hitters have slashed just .204/.304/.408 in 56 plate appearances against the Reds righty.
• Taillon hasn’t always kept Votto off base, but he has limited the damage done against him. Votto is a career .185 hitter with no extra-base hits in 27 at-bats against Taillon. But Votto has drawn seven walks in 34 plate appearances, giving him a .353 on-base percentage against Taillon.
• Last season, the Bucs’ pitching staff ranked third in the Majors with 16 shutouts, trailing the Cubs (18) and Indians (17). Only one of those shutouts came against the Reds: Taillon’s complete-game one-hit effort on April 8 at PNC Park.
• The Reds are playing the Pirates for the 29th time on Opening Day, but the Bucs are playing the Reds for the 30th time in their Opening Day game. How does that happen? Odd scheduling. In 2001, Cincinnati opened the season with one game vs. Atlanta before a traditional three-game series vs Pittsburgh, which was off the day before.