CINCINNATI -- The Reds and their fans want the rebuilding phase to end and the contending to begin. But there is still some growing and maturing that needs to happen before the team gets there.
With only two players over age 30, Cincinnati has one of the youngest rosters in the Majors. But much of the starting lineup is intact from last year after it had five players with at least 25 home runs. And several of the young players have solid big league exposure, including starting pitchers Luis Castillo, Sal Romano, Tyler Mahle and Robert Stephenson. That leaves the team feeling more confident going into 2018.
"This year, we'll be in an even better position to have some stability and show some improvement. I'm optimistic," Reds general manager Dick Williams said.
As the new year dawns, here are five of the biggest questions the Reds face as another baseball season approaches:
1. What will the rotation look like?
Besides Castillo, Romano, Mahle and Stephenson, the Reds also have three veterans in Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan coming back from injuries. Michael Lorenzen, who was a setup reliever last year, will get a shot at the rotation again. Then there are the young pitchers who struggled as rookies looking for spots such as Amir Garrett and Cody Reed. Cincinnati used 16 different starters in 2017 and had a 5.55 rotation ERA, both highest in the National League. It's essential to get more consistency from this group.
2. Is the time now for Senzel, and where will he play?
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 Draft and the Reds' top prospect, according to MLBPipeline.com, third baseman Nick Senzel will be at his first big league camp in February. With Eugenio Suarez established at third base for Cincinnati, Senzel was told he would get looks this spring at shortstop, second base and both corner-outfield spots, and the 22-year-old has already started preparing.
Senzel batted .321/.391/.514 with 14 home runs and 65 RBIs in 119 games combined last season at Class A Advanced Daytona and Double-A Pensacola. Even if he begins 2018 at Triple-A Louisville, it could be a brief stopover. Then the Reds would have to find a way to get his bat into their lineup.
3. Too many outfielders?
Corner outfielder Jesse Winker proved he belonged in the big leagues in the second half last season, and the Reds want to get him into their lineup. But they also want to use Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler after both hit 30 homers in 2017. Then there is center fielder Billy Hamilton, who often struggled to get on base in the leadoff role. Unless Hamilton, Duvall or Schebler is traded, manager Bryan Price might have to rotate to get all four outfielders enough at-bats.
4. Can Peraza fill Cozart's shoes?
Zack Cozart signed with the Angels on the free-agent market, leaving Jose Peraza as the heir apparent to replace him at shortstop. Peraza got the chance to play every day last season at second base, following the trade of Brandon Phillips. But Peraza struggled to get traction at the plate and was on the bench in favor of Scooter Gennett by July. In 143 games, Peraza batted .259/.297/.324 with five home runs and 37 RBIs, but some optimism could be found down the stretch when he filled in for an injured Cozart. Over his final 48 games from July 27, Peraza batted .293 with a .361 on-base percentage as he became more selective and walked more.
5. Is this the year Hamilton's offense reaches its potential?
The Reds hoped Hamilton would blossom at the plate in 2017, but he batted.247 with a .299 on-base percentage and 85 runs over 139 games. He also spent another large chunk of September on the disabled list that again robbed him of the stolen-base crown, despite swiping 59 (Dee Gordon had 60). Hamilton's defense has long been highly valued, and it has kept him in the lineup. But after four full big league seasons, the Reds need Hamilton to get on base more and use his speed to create opportunity offensively.