CINCINNATI – The Reds had momentum going into the postseason. They had the starting pitching. That, combined with enough offensive weapons, should have made them a nightmare for playoff opponents, as Joey Votto said.
Clearly, that dream scenario did not come true. Cincinnati was eliminated from the National League Wild Card Series in a two-game sweep by Atlanta without scoring a run in 22 innings. Thus, the first postseason appearance in seven years was over much faster than many expected.
Former president of baseball operations Dick Williams and general manager Nick Krall led aggressive moves by the baseball operations department the past two offseasons. On Oct. 7, Williams resigned and Krall is now the head of baseball operations for the club while retaining his GM title.
With many of the important pieces already under contract for 2021 and beyond, the Reds should have what it takes to contend again. There is still plenty of room for improvement, however.
As we take an early look ahead to the Hot Stove season, here are five key questions facing the Reds in the coming months:
1. Can Trevor Bauer be re-signed?
Perhaps if there ever was an offseason for the small-market Reds to have a real chance at re-signing Bauer, a first-time free agent, this would be it. The economy is uncertain amid the pandemic and a truncated season without fans in attendance. Bauer has stated a preference for one-year contracts and his desire to play for a team that can win. It could be a short-term solution for both sides.
On Sept. 26, Bauer did not close the door to his return.
“Looking out into the future, if you’re talking about the 'I-want-to-win qualification,' I feel like this is a team that I can win with, for sure,” Bauer said that day.
On Oct. 19, upon taking over, Krall also noted he would like to have Bauer in the Reds’ rotation again.
“He was great for our ballclub. He really was,” Krall said. “It was great to see his thought process on how he wanted to get better and where he could maximize his skills. It was also great to see how he gelled with our coaching staff and our players in our clubhouse, as well to progress and help other people progress.
“Do you want to have Trevor Bauer back? Of course you do. He’s a top, front-end of the rotation [pitcher] that, in my opinion, should win the Cy Young Award this year. I think you’d love to try to get him back if there’s any way possible.”
Bauer liked playing for manager David Bell and pitching coach Derek Johnson. One of his friends and mentors, Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball, is part of the organization. And after an epic performance in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series that resulted in a no-decision and 1-0 loss in 13 innings, there is the feeling of unfinished business.
Then again, Bauer is a leading candidate for the National League Cy Young Award, and his market value and leverage may never be higher. He also recently stated he’d listen to multi-year offers, and there will be no shortage of suitors.
2. If the Reds don’t re-sign Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani, who fills those two spots?
There are internal options that the club is pleased about. Reliever Michael Lorenzen posted a 2.79 ERA in two starts and found a niche in long relief up to four innings. Lorenzen has maintained his desire to start. Following a rough 2019 season, Tyler Mahle made significant progress while going 2-2 with a 3.59 ERA in 10 games – including nine starts. Rookie Tejay Antone was a nice surprise this season as both a starter and reliever -- with a 2.80 ERA in 13 games (four starts) -- while displaying strong power pitches and mettle in tough situations.
“From a pitching standpoint, our pitching coaches have done a great job in helping guys move forward. I think that whoever we put in, I think our guys can do a good job and maximize their skillset,” Krall said.
Don’t rule out José De León and the organization’s top two prospects -- Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene -- both of whom worked out at the alternate training site at Prasco Park this year. The club could explore the trade and free-agent scenarios also. But a rotation with Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo at the top, plus Wade Miley, is a decent place to begin.
3. What can be done to improve the offense?
This is the most perplexing question Krall and Bell will have before them heading into 2021. Amid the free-agent spending spree of $166 million last winter, the Reds signed Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama. Together, they joined a lineup with Eugenio Suárez, Joey Votto, Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel. The offense finished 2020 with a Major League-worst .212 average. This was a group that essentially lived and died by the home run, with 61.1 percent of their runs coming via the long ball -- a record high for MLB.
Much of the mantra this season was that analytical metrics showed hitters to be extremely unlucky, because their .245 BABIP came despite frequent hard contact. Opponents’ defensive positioning was also viewed as a cause. While going 11-3 over their final 14 games, the Reds started to turn things around, but the two postseason games vs. Atlanta were glaring, as they were 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position. Home runs are nice, but diversification would be better.
“You can look at the defensive positioning, you can look at hard-hit balls that didn't go for hits. But it's something we have to take a closer look at, because all teams are really good at defensive positioning and can hit into bad luck at times,” Bell said. “Why did that happen for us? We just have to really take a close look at it. We did all year. We absolutely do believe in our guys, we made adjustments as much as we possibly could. But we have to find a way to get better.”
Votto believed the underlying numbers should provide the hitters some confidence for 2021.
“Certainly. Yeah. We’re going to play better,” Votto said. “I think I can speak for a lot of the offense. I think they believe they will play better also, hit better. I think so. I think so for sure.”
4. Will the Reds go with youth at catcher and shortstop?
Behind the plate, Cincinnati already has Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali under control for 2021. But confidence is high in rookie Tyler Stephenson, who showed some right-handed power with two homers in his debut big league season and handled himself well behind the plate after continuing his growth at the alternate site.
At shortstop, José Garcia demonstrated defensive smoothness during his first big league exposure but was challenged while hitting for the first time above the Class A Advanced level. If the Reds make offensive upgrades, or the current players meet the levels of their track records, Garcia’s pressure to produce offensively would lessen.
“I think there’s areas in both their games that can get better and will get better, but those guys belong on a big league field,” Williams said after the season. “They would be at home on a big league field.”
If not Garcia, there was a pleasant surprise in utility player Kyle Farmer showing what he could do at shortstop. Farmer started Game 1 vs. the Braves, so they’re not afraid to use him.
5. Will Castellanos opt out of his contract?
When Castellanos signed his four-year, $64 million contract in January, it included opt-out clauses after the 2020 and ’21 seasons. The current economic climate, plus his .225 average, .794 OPS and 14 homers this season, indicate it might not be the right time for Castellanos to test free agency again so soon.
“I think he feels like there’s unfinished business,” Williams said. “My impression was that he intends to come back. But I didn’t ask him, and he didn’t offer that specific -- just the way our conversations went.”
Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook.