Last winter, after five straight losing seasons -- the most recent four with at least 94 losses apiece -- the Reds decided to try to do something about it.
Cincinnati traded prospects to the Dodgers for Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Kyle Farmer. The Reds traded for veteran starters Tanner Roark (from the Nationals) and Sonny Gray (from the Yankees), and they signed veteran reliever Zach Duke as a free agent. They later added Derek Dietrich and José Iglesias on Minor League deals, then traded for Trevor Bauer and Freddy Galvis during the season.
It was admirable, really. It was a team that was sick of losing and tried to get better quickly, something we don't see a lot of in today's game. Other than perhaps the Phillies, there probably wasn't a club that came out of the 2018-19 offseason with more positive vibes than the Reds.
The problem is, it wasn't going to work, and it didn't.
Even despite the moves, it was clear headed into the season that the Reds were still only the fourth-best team in a crowded National League Central, and that's exactly where they finished, though their 75-87 record was their best since 2014. The trades cost them well-regarded prospects outfielder Taylor Trammell, shortstop Jeter Downs, right-hander Josiah Gray, righty Tanner Rainey and second baseman Shed Long, weakening a middle-of-the-pack farm system without a ton to show for it.
So now it's 2020. Now what? There's only way way to go: Forward. With more uncertainty in the NL Central than there has been in years, with right-now stars in the rotation and with Eugenio Suárez, and with the moves they made last year, the Reds simply have to keep going.
To their credit, they said they would, and they already have, with the reported signing of Mike Moustakas to a four-year, $64 million deal. It's a good start. But how much more do they need to do? As we did recently with the Angels, let's help the Reds find the extra wins they didn't have last season.
How many more wins?
Before you can figure out where you're going, you need to figure out where you are.
The Reds won 75 games in 2019, but that win total isn't always the team you have going forward. For example, they were only outscored by 10 runs, which aligns more to an 80-82 record. Looking at the far-too-early 2020 projections, which includes the roster as it stood before adding Moustakas (which isn't finalized yet), the Reds are an 80-win team. Moustakas is projected to give the team a boost of a win or so over their current second basemen. Let's call it .500 -- as constructed, this is an 81-81 team.
Last year, the Cardinals won the division with 91 wins, and the Wild Card teams had 93 wins (Nationals) and 89 (Brewers). The year before, the Brewers won the Central with 96 wins, and the Wild Card clubs had 95 (Cubs) and 91 (Rockies). So let's use 90 wins as a reasonable goal.
We don't know for sure how much the Reds can spend, but we can estimate. Last year, they had an estimated payroll of $132 million; in 2020, including arbitration estimates, they're looking at $120 million. If we assume they'll surpass last year's payroll, let's call it $25 additional million. That said, they just gave $16 million to a good-not-elite contributor in Moustakas. It might be a huge chunk of what they had to spend.
Can what's left buy another nine wins? And where do those wins need to be?
What didn't work last year?
What's interesting here isn't that the Reds failed to contend in 2019, because that was somewhat expected. It's that the way they fell short felt somewhat backwards. It was reasonable to think that the Reds would have a solid offense but likely poor pitching. It ended up being the exact opposite -- despite their hitter-friendly home park, the Reds scored the sixth-fewest runs in baseball while allowing the seventh fewest.
“I think the offense was probably … it was a shortcoming,” GM Dick Williams said in November.
No kidding. While Suárez bashed 49 homers, he was the only Red who had at least 400 plate appearances and average-or-better production, tied with Detroit for baseball's fewest. Kemp received only 62 poor plate appearances before he was cut loose in May and Puig got off to a dreadful start, heated up a little and was traded to Cleveland for Bauer. Scooter Gennett, a 2018 All-Star who'd hit 50 homers in 2017-18, injured his groin in Spring Training, missed three months, didn't hit at all when he returned and was traded in July.
What did work last year?
The pitching, obviously. As we detailed in May, the Reds underwent something of a historic pitching turnaround, thanks in part to importing pitching coach Derek Johnson from Milwaukee as well as several data-friendly analysts. (They've continued that this winter by hiring Kyle Boddy from Driveline Baseball as director of pitching initiatives.) They helped turn Gray into an NL Cy Young Award contender, and in a world where every home run record was shattered, Cincinnati allowed 14 fewer than it did in 2018.
Suárez was fantastic, obviously, and of course, Aristides Aquino burst onto the scene by mashing 19 homers in just 56 late-season games, with a line of .259/.316/.576 -- though just .196/.236/.382 in September.
So there's a solid base to build from, and now Moustakas joins it. What's next?
The road to 9 more wins
1. Trade for center fielder Starling Marte (+2 wins)
With Moustakas at second, the outfield is something like Jesse Winker (left field), Nick Senzel (center field) and Aquino (right field), with Travis Jankowski and Phillip Ervin as backups. The starting three are all young and talented. They're also all very unproven. Getting at least one more reliable outfielder seems like a must, and while that could be more of a supporting piece like Corey Dickerson, we're going to propose Marte, who has made it clear he would be thrilled to play for a contender.
With the exception of a poor 2017, marred by a suspension, Marte has consistently been 10% to 20% above average as a hitter for years, stealing at least 20 bases in each of the last seven seasons and hitting 43 homers over the last two. Defensively, he's ranged from average (+0 Outs Above Average in 2016) to excellent (+10 in 2018), settling in at +2 in 2019. If the Reds don't get him, the Mets or Cubs or someone else might, and Marte is consistently a three-win player. Get him, put him in center, push Senzel to a corner and playing time will work itself out between Aquino, Winker and Senzel.
Marte will make $11.5 million in 2020 and $12.5 million in '21, each reasonable numbers for his talent. We won't predict a specific trade, but there might be something to be built around Pittsburgh retaining some salary and maybe sending a reliever to get to Jonathan India, Cincinnati's first-round pick in 2018, who now looks to be blocked at third and second for some time.
2. Get a better version of Bauer (+3 wins)
In 2018, Bauer had a sixth-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting, thanks to his 2.21 ERA. That went back up to 3.79 for Cleveland in 2019 -- almost exactly his 3.89 Indians career average -- before exploding to an ugly 6.39 mark in 10 starts with the Reds. The good news is that the underlying metrics weren't so bad, as his strikeout rate held steady, his walk rate actually dropped, and the runs appeared to due to some poor sequencing and a few extra homers.
We can't and won't project the 2018 six-win version of Bauer again, because it increasingly looks like an outlier. But Bauer is projected to be a four-win pitcher, which seems reasonable, and he'll have the founder of Driveline -- the facility where he refined his repertoire -- literally working for the team. Cincinnati already have a good rotation. It is going to need a great one.
3. Get more from those young outfielders, too (+2 wins)
Last year, Winker, Aquino and Senzel combined to hit .261/.331/.477, slightly better than league average. None played a full season, so they were worth 2.8 Wins Above Replacement. There's just so much we don't know here. We don't know if Winker can stay healthy, as he's dealt with hip, shoulder and neck issues over the last two years. We don't know if Aquino is closer to his red-hot August or ice-cold September. We don't know if Senzel can stay healthy, keep moving positions or perform better than his just-OK rookie year.
The safe bet is that at least one of them won't find a more satisfactory answer in 2020. But if the Reds are going to improve, at least one of them has to step up. If they do, it's not unreasonable to expect 5 WAR from the three of them -- more, obviously, if many things go right -- and that's a nice boost to the offense right there.
4. Roll with Freddy Galvis at shortstop (+0 wins)
It's become popular to assume that Didi Gregorius will return to Cincinnati, but there's a lot of risk in that. It's fair to assume that part of his poor 2019 season (.238/.276/.441, negative defensive metrics) might have been caused by the Tommy John surgery that cost him half his year. But someone is going to give Gregorius multiple years to find out -- perhaps the Phillies or Brewers -- and with Moustakas and Marte and moves to come, we don't have the hypothetical budget to be the one to gamble.
Besides, Moustakas at second base all year is somewhat of an iffy proposition, defensively. Galvis, already under contract for 2020, is a better fielder on a team that needs it, and while he's a below-average hitter, four straight seasons of double-digit homers show that he's not a total zero with the bat. Play this one safe.
5. Trade for catcher Omar Narváez (+1 win)
There was perhaps no better fit in baseball for Yasmani Grandal than back with the Reds, since neither Curt Casali nor Tucker Barnhart showed much with the bat. Unfortunately, he ultimately signed with the another team that needed him just as badly, the White Sox. Since then, free-agent catchers have been flying off the board -- Tyler Flowers, Yan Gomes, Dustin Garneau, Steven Vogt and Travis d'Arnaud have all found new homes or returned to their old ones. Robinson Chirinos and Jason Castro may be the best ones left. Prospect Tyler Stephenson probably needs another year or two in the Minors.
They're fine, but they're not as interesting as Narváez, who is reportedly available via trade. He's a below-average defender, especially in framing, and that's not what teams want these days, but a Cincinnati team desperate for offense may have to live with that in exchange for offense. Narváez had a 119 OPS+ for the White Sox in 2018, then hit 22 homers with a strong .278/.353/.460 (120 OPS+) for Seattle in 2019. He's estimated to earn about $3 million in arbitration, which is reasonable, and the Mariners may prefer Tom Murphy and Austin Nola anyway.
6. Sign pitcher Michael Pineda (+1 win)
A rotation of Luis Castillo, Gray, Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani and Tyler Mahle is potentially very good, but Mahle had a 5.14 ERA last year and the depth is ... well, there is no depth. Maybe you want to see Lucas Sims or José De León in the rotation, but you probably don't. Another solid starter would be a strong fit here.
Sure, Zack Wheeler would be nice, but he's likely going to get more than $100 million, which only works here if the Reds are spending a whole lot more than we expect. This isn't going to be where Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg go. We've already used up almost all of our budget, so we're thinking smaller. This could be anyone, really; maybe you like Roark or Wade Miley or someone. We're going with Pineda, who was strong in 2015-16 for the Yankees, missed much of 2017-18 due to elbow surgery, and was off to a very good start for the Twins in '19 before he was suspended.
That suspension will cost Pineda the first 39 games of the 2020 season, but maybe that's not so bad. It gives you time to use the quintet you have, and then have Pineda available to step in when someone inevitably isn't healthy or performing. Given his status as a suspended player, he's unlikely to command a large multiyear deal -- perhaps one with an option. He'll fit into the budget. There's your ninth win.
Obviously, there's more to this. Votto needs to at least hold steady, not take another step back. We haven't done much to add depth to the bullpen, which could use it. But there's a path here. Cincinnati, as constructed today, is not a playoff team. But the Reds are not all that far from it, either, and the Cubs and Brewers are each weaker than they've looked in several seasons -- and the Cardinals aren't unbeatable, either.
Cincinnati took the admirable step of trying to improve last season. This year's Reds need to do one better. They need to win. Moustakas is the beginning, not the end. It doesn't sound like he'll be the end of Cincinnati's shopping. He can't be. He won't be.