Last offseason, the Reds were aggressive in making improvement to their major-league roster, ready to stop the rebuild and get back to contention. Alas, a series of things conspired against them early in the season -- including their own shortcomings, to be clear -- and outside of a huge late rally, the Reds will finish with a losing record for the sixth straight season.
There have been some positives and it's possible the Reds can get back over .500 and maybe contend for a playoff spot next season, so let's take a look with a glass-half-full approach. Here are four reasons for hope in Cincinnati.
1. Offensive nucleus
The Reds rank poorly in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs, among other things. They've been a poor offense most of the season, but there are reasons to feel some level of optimism heading toward next season.
Eugenio Suarez is right square in the middle of his prime and continues to mash more and more each year. He's shattered his career high in homers and is by now a well-established offensive centerpiece. We have no way of knowing how real the success of Aristides Aquino is with such a small sample under his belt in the bigs, but for now he looks like great protection for Suarez as the cleanup man. Joey Votto is well past his prime, but he still gets on base at an above-average clip and works deep counts, so he's fine in the two-hole.
Nick Senzel has been a top-10 prospect every year since being drafted second overall out of Tennessee and should eventually fit well into the leadoff spot. Last year in Triple-A, for example, he hit .310 with a .378 on-base percentage and he has 14 stolen bases this season in the majors. He's been a below-average hitter in the majors, but sometimes players need a first go-round before adjusting at the big-league level. He's got a breakout season in him and it very well could be 2020.
They need things to break right, but that's a top four that would be very potent if they did.
If not Senzel, Jesse Winker could work at the top. He has a career .379 on-base percentage. Past that, the Josh VanMeter/Phil Ervin platoon in left field has been pretty good offensively, notably Ervin.
I'm not sure Jose Peraza has the offensive chops to ever be well above average, but he had a 98 OPS+ with 31 doubles, 14 homers and 23 steals in 2018. He's 25 years old, so a return to that form could be in the cards.
I've just named seven hitters good enough to post above-average OPS along with one who should fall around league average. Of course, five of them are outfielders and none are second basemen (with Jose Iglesias being a free agent, we're kicking Peraza to short) or catchers, but this is a good starting point. Top infield prospect Jonathan India hit .270/.414/.378 in 34 games in Double-A this season after a promotion, so maybe he'll hit overdrive in his development, but we likely don't see him until 2021.
My hunch is they'll likely not be in on any big free agents, so they'll need internal improvement or to move one of the outfielders for a second baseman. With arbitration raises and everything, baseball-reference.com estimates the Reds' 2020 payroll at $112.4 million. This season it's at $103.1 million. So the best guess is any free agent signing would be an attempt to win from the bargain bin like with Jose Iglesias and the first two months of Derek Dietrich.
The main keys to the Reds becoming an above-average offense are the development of Senzel and Aquino's hot start turning out to be real. It's possible.
With the way Sonny Gray adjusted to the National League, the Reds have a pair of frontline pitchers in Gray and Luis Castillo, though Castillo could sure stand to put together a great full season (4.95 ERA after the All-Star break this year). Trevor Bauer has been absolutely brutal for the Reds, but he posted a 2.21 ERA in 175 1/3 innings in 2018 for the Indians. It's plausible to suggest that he pitches like an All-Star next year to give the Reds a three-headed monster of an ace.
For the back-end, Anthony DeSclafani is having a quality season, especially if he's considered the number four starter. And then there's Kevin Gausman, who was an utter disaster for the Braves but has been effective in rotations in the past. Heading into the season with him as the five could make for a very good 1-5 rotation. If not Gausman, Tyler Mahle is a viable option.
The Reds have found decent success on the mound under pitching coach Derek Johnson. It's reasonable to believe he helps this rotation be among the better ones in the National League next year.
3. Back-end of the bullpen
Closer Raisel Iglesias is having a bumpy season, but he was a stud in his past three seasons, so we'll just mark this as a down year and say he'll return to form next year. Lefty Amir Garrett is very good, especially at missing bats. Righties Michael Lorenzen and Robert Stephenson have mostly been quality setup men.
Those are really the key parts. You can fill out a bullpen, as arms that throw 97 seem to come off an assembly line these days.
4. Outside organization help?
As noted, I really wouldn't expect the Reds to make a splash in free agency. Their payroll is already set to rise. If they do dip into either free agency or trade, middle infield would be the likeliest place to add. Some free agent second basemen who could work on the cheap: Brian Dozier, Brock Holt, Howie Kendrick, Jonathan Schoop or maybe reunite with Scooter Gennett on a one-year, incentive-laden deal? The shortstop class doesn't really fit with the Reds.
If the Reds decided to trade, it might be worth asking the Cubs about Ian Happ, whose power would play way up in Great American Ball Park. Billy Beane is never shy about trades, so maybe inquire about Jurickson Profar after his down season. He'd be moving from the AL to the NL and a pitcher's park to hitter's park. I could see Beane being interested in someone like Winker.
Let's do a Winker for Profar challenge trade. Here's a quick snapshot at the Reds' possible team:
- Senzel, CF
- Votto, 1B
- Suarez, 3B
- Aquino, RF
- Profar, 2B
- Ervin/VanMeter, LF
- Peraza, SS
- Tucker Barnhart/Curt Casali, C
SP: Gray, Castillo, Bauer, DeSclafani, Gausman
Back-end of bullpen: Iglesias, Garrett, Lorenzen, Stephenson
We could plug any of those second baseman names in the five-hole and it still works. That's a quality cadre of talent with upside.
I don't expect the Pirates to contend and the Brewers might be on a downswing. If you glance at the above players and believe the Reds get the best versions out of most of those players, you can reasonably believe this team will post a winning record and push for a playoff spot next year. The keys to me would be Senzel, Aquino, Castillo (in terms of season-long consistency), Bauer, Gausman and Iglesias. Get positive answers to those questions and the Reds contend.