Cincinnati Reds 2019 season preview: Expect a ton of offense, but the rotation is the key to breakout or bust

The Reds won just 67 games last season, good for their fourth-straight last place finish. To be fair, though, the NL Central has been unbelievably strong here for an extended stretch. In 2015, there were three teams with at least 97 wins. It carried the two best records in the NL last year while having four teams over .500.

Also of note, the Reds were brutal to start the season. They were 3-18 at one point, then 8-27 after 35 games. After that 8-27 stretch, they were 59-68, which still isn't good but would be a 162-game pace of 75 wins, which isn't horrible.

Talking about last year's Reds from that perspective -- a 75-win true talent base -- gives room for hope of a breakout, and many are leaning in that direction. The Reds upgraded their rotation by adding Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray. The offense added Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, and there were already reasons to believe in internal improvement. 

  • 2018 record: 67-95 (negative-123 run differential)
  • 2019 depth chart: Click here 
  • 2019 schedule: Click here 

Probable lineup

  1. Jesse Winker, LF
  2. Joey Votto, 1B
  3. Eugenio Suarez, 3B
  4. Scooter Gennett, 2B
  5. Yasiel Puig, RF
  6. Scott Schebler, CF
  7. Jose Peraza, SS
  8. Tucker Barnhart, C

Bench: Curt Casali, C; Jose Iglesias, IF; Derek Dietrich, UT; Matt Kemp, OF

Surely Kemp will get his fair share of starts early -- Winker and Schebler are both left-handed while Kemp is a righty -- but the name to keep an eye on isn't listed here. We'll get to him. 

Probable rotation

  1. Sonny Gray, RHP
  2. Luis Castillo, RHP
  3. Alex Wood, LHP
  4. Tanner Roark, RHP
  5. Anthony DeSclafani, RHP

We could see starts from the likes of Tyler Mahle and Sal Romano, too, though part of the reason the Reds were aggressive in adding starters this past offseason was that those guys just weren't working out. Take note that Wood is on track to start the season on the injured list due to a back injury. 

Probable bullpen

Closer: Raisel Iglesias, RHP
Setup: Jared Hughes, RHP; David Hernandez, RHP
Middle: Amir Garrett, LHP; Zach Duke, LHP; Wandy Peralta, LHP
Long: Matt Wisler, RHP
Fun Hybrid: Michael Lorenzen, RHP/Masher/OF

We'll discuss Lorenzen more in a bit. Iglesias is locked into the closer role at this point and considered one of the safer options for saves in Fantasy.

Introducing Nick Senzel

The Reds drafted Senzel second overall in the 2016 draft out of the University of Tennessee and he's been a fixture in the top 10 of top prospects lists the last few years. He's played mostly third base, some second base and dabbled at short, but this spring the Reds are using him in center field. Injury shortened last season to just 44 games for Triple-A Louisville, but he hit .310/.378/.509 with 12 doubles, two triples, six homers, 25 RBI, 23 runs and eight steals. He's hit for average and power at every stop with the ability to steal bases. 

Expect Senzel to start the season with Louisville again but a promotion in April is a decent bet. There's a chance he takes center field from Schebler early and never looks back. The good news for Senzel is, while there will be hype for sure, he won't be under a ton of pressure to carry the offense, because ... 

Offensive potential is huge

The Reds ranked fourth in the NL last season in both average and on-base percentage. They were only ninth in slugging and homers and eighth in runs, though. But if you remove 556 plate appearances of Billy Hamilton, and add the likes of Puig and Kemp to the mix, we're talking about a much higher ceiling in those statistical categories.

Kemp hit 11 homers with a .508 slugging in 183 at-bats against lefties last year. Puig could explode in Great American Ball Park. Votto only slugged .419 with 12 homers, and I'd bet on sizable upticks in both stats this season.

How about Winker? He only played in 89 games last year, but his track record at the big-league level now shows 471 plate appearances with a .299 average and .387 on-base percentage. Last year, he walked more than he struck out. With him at the top of the lineup as a fixture getting on base 40 percent of the time in front of Votto, Suarez, Gennett and Puig, he has a realistic shot to lead the NL in runs scored. 

It's possible Peraza takes another step forward after improving by 120 points of OPS last season, too. He's still only 25. 

If things break right -- and his includes Senzel making an immediate impact -- this will be one of the NL's best offenses. Look at it from an optimistic point of view and a top seven of Winker, Votto, Suarez, Gennett, Puig, Senzel, Peraza with Kemp off the bench is amazing. 

Rotation question marks

The Reds' revamped rotation now features three pitchers who were considered frontline starters at one point, but all were varying degrees in the past. The two holdovers have been fickle as well. Let's take a look: 

Gray was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2015. In 2017, he was pretty good. Last season, he had a 4.90 ERA and 1.50 WHIP with the Yankees. He was also terrible in 2016. Which version will the Reds get? 

Castillo was excellent in 2017 and looked ready to be the Reds' ace, but he pitched to a 4.30 ERA and 1.22 WHIP last season. He was brutal early, mediocre for a bit and then settled in. After the All-Star break, he had a 2.52 ERA and 1.11 WHIP with just about a strikeout per inning. If he can carry that over, he's a frontline starter, but the first two months of last season have to provide some level of concern. 

Wood has been inconsistent pretty much throughout his career. His ERA+ figures the last three seasons, respectively: 108, 152, 105. He's also dealing with the aforementioned back injury right now. Also, Great American Ball Park was tied for fourth last season in Park Factor (in terms of being hitter-friendly) while Dodger Stadium was 26th. 

Roark finished 10th in Cy Young voting in 2016 in what was a very crowded field. In the past two seasons combined, he's gone 22-26 with a 4.50 ERA (97 ERA+) and a 1.31 WHIP and has allowed 23 and 24 home runs, respectively, in each season. Now heading to his age-32 season, the Reds are betting on a change-of-scenery bump. 

DeSclafani has shown flashes of being good with the Reds, but he's also dealt with injuries and had a 4.93 ERA and 1.29 WHIP last season. It was, however, his first year back after missing all of 2017 with an elbow injury. It's possible his second year back is when things click. 

That's an awful lot of risk. Is there upside? I think Castillo is a good bet. If we were getting aggressive, Gray benefits from the league switch and smaller market and gets right while Wood and DeSclafani have quality seasons. I can't see anything better than average from Roark, though. Still, an optimistic read with this group teamed with that stellar offense gets the Reds into contention. 

New pitching coach

The Reds poached pitching coach Derek Johnson from the Brewers and, boy, did he do a great job with his staff in Milwaukee. Maybe he's a big help for the starters mentioned above. The back-end trio in the bullpen of Iglesias, Hughes and Hernandez were all very good last season, but Johnson's help is needed with the rest of the group. 

The Reds overall finished 14th in ERA in the NL last season. In order to contend, they probably need to get to the middle of the pack. It's up to Johnson to aid the holdovers and new faces in the rotation to hit their upside. 

Two-way fun

Reliever Michael Lorenzen is good on the mound. He had a 3.11 ERA (135 ERA+) with 1.3 WAR in 81 innings last season. He can also rake. In 34 plate appearances -- yes, an incredibly small sample -- he hit .290/.333/.710(!) with four homers. More emboldened by Shohei Ohtani's brief two-way performance last season, more teams are going the two-way route.

The Reds could get pretty fun with Lorenzen this season. Let's say Roark gets shelled early and the Reds need to get some length and save the bench/bullpen in hopes of a comeback? Put Lorenzen in the game, let him get length and two at-bats. Problem solved. He could also pinch hit for a pitcher and then just stay in the game, saving a bench bat like Kemp for the later innings when there's more chance of impact.

Further, Lorenzen is getting time this spring in the outfield. He could be all kinds of fun this season. Keep an eye on the situation. 

Breakout potential, but tough division

We don't have a shortage of potential landmines here, do we? Especially looking at the starting rotation, there are some things Reds' naysayers could grab onto. The optimistic point of view has lots of room, too. SportsLine has the Reds finishing last again with 67 wins, but Fangraphs and PECOTA have the Reds at 81-81. 

A mitigating factor to the Reds being much improved has to be the strength of the division. Put this team in place of the Indians in the AL Central and I'd be predicting them to win the division. Instead, the Reds reside in one of baseball's toughest divisions. The Pirates were 82-79 last season and finished in fourth. The Cardinals won 88 games and added Paul Goldschmidt -- not to mention they were much better once Mike Matheny was replaced with Mike Shildt as manager. The Cubs had so many things go terribly wrong last season and still won 95 games. The Brewers were in the NLCS and the roster is mostly the same. 

This is why it's possible the Reds are a much better baseball team despite it not really showing up in the W-L category. 

Top to bottom, this is the best division in baseball and that more than anything else might be what conspires against a Reds breakout into contention.  

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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