With their fans allowed back inside Great American Ball Park and a National League Central race that appears to be wide open, the Reds approach Thursday’s Opening Day enthusiastically.
“You get that feeling in your gut, the excitement,” Reds manager David Bell said. “We’re getting closer and we can’t wait to get back to Cincinnati. It’s going to be amazing having our fans in the stands. There’s so much to look forward to and we really like where we are as a team. Each day it gets closer, you get more and more excited about it.”
Cincinnati finished the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season with 31-29 record and went to the postseason for the first time since 2013. The club was eliminated in a two-game sweep from the Wild Card round by Atlanta without scoring a run.
The Reds look to improve on that effort over a full 162-game season as life both inside and outside of baseball appears closer to returning to normal. It all starts vs. the Cardinals at 4:10 p.m. ET Thursday.
What needs to go right?
The offense needs to match or exceed its track record again following a dismal showing in 2020. Cincinnati batted a Major League worst .212 as a team but still reached the playoffs. That was a credit to its starting pitching and some key hitting down the stretch, but a 162-game schedule would expose any offensive shortcomings.
Several hitters have looked good during spring games -- especially Nick Castellanos, but also Eugenio Suárez, Nick Senzel and prospect Jonathan India. Joey Votto was off to a nice start before a COVID-19 diagnosis forced him out of camp.
Great unknown: What will India do as a debuting rookie?
India, ranked by MLB Pipeline as Cincinnati’s No. 5 prospect, opened this spring in the organization’s early Minor League camp, but impressed so much -- offensively and defensively -- that he not only got promoted to big league camp, but put himself into position to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.
India’s success at the plate and at second base, along with Suárez’s improved fitness, enabled the Reds to rework their infield plans. Now Suárez will be the shortstop while Mike Moustakas takes third base and India mans second base. The move will give the Reds a chance at having more offense. India would be skipping Triple-A after there was no 2020 season and he will be tasked to learn the league and make adjustments like any rookie.
Team MVP will be: Nick Castellanos
Castellanos has swung the hottest bat at Reds camp all spring. He appears poised to rebound from a subpar 2020, when he batted .225/.298/.486 with 14 homers and a 99 OPS+ in the first year of a four-year, $64 million contract with Cincinnati.
The Statcast data indicates Castellanos might have been a victim of bad luck last season. His 16 percent barrel rate was ranked ninth in the Major Leagues. His exit velocity average of 91 mph was a career high, but his .257 batting average on balls in play was a career low. If he can put it all together over 162 games, Castellanos could easily be the hitter the Reds hoped for when they signed him.
Team Cy Young will be: Luis Castillo
The Reds’ Opening Day starter for the second time in his career, Castillo was 4-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 12 starts last season. That included an often-dominant September when he was 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in his final five starts.
Castillo came to camp late because of travel issues, but has looked in great form throughout his Cactus League games. The right-hander has one of the best changeups in the game to go with a plus fastball and a still developing, but effective changeup. With Trevor Bauer departed, Castillo and Sonny Gray will again form the 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.
Bold prediction: Eugenio Suárez will hit a club-record 55 home runs
Suárez has dropped 15 pounds and will move to shortstop, his natural position. That, having a full season again and being able to see his family during the season under more normal conditions, will have the veteran slugger happy and more relaxed. And that will yield the similar good vibes he had when he crushed 49 homers in 2019. Suárez found 2020 to be mostly a struggle until his power resurfaced down the stretch.
The Reds' single-season record for homers is 52 by George Foster in 1977. Suárez is tied for second with Ted Kluszewski, but he very well could be standing alone with the record by the time 2021 is complete.