When asked about his expectations for the upcoming season, Reds’ first baseman, Joey Votto, was clear with his expectations. “I think we’re starting to get to the point where people are getting tired of this stretch of ball. I think something needs to start changing and start going in a different direction,” Votto stated matter-of-factly to Cincinnati.com.
Votto’s mindset should be a breath of fresh air to Reds fans who have endured talks of “rebuilding” and “collecting assets” for the past three-to-four years. While the Reds have toiled in mediocrity with promises of a brighter future, Votto has seen the majority of his prime wasted away in meaningless seasons that have been effectively over by the All-Star Break. It only makes sense that a player of his caliber is fed up with losing and ready to contend a World Series title as soon as possible.
Most people seem to have forgotten, but through their first 59 games last season, the Reds were 29-30 and, inexplicably, only two games out of first place in the NL Central. While the Reds were certainly not expected to contend for the divisional crown against the likes of the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers, their unexpected surge to relevancy was a welcome sight to Reds fans everywhere.
Then, as they have become accustomed to doing, the Reds peeled into a nine-game losing skid and never recovered. After going 39-64 over their final 103 games — a horrendous 37.8 winning percentage — they again solidified themselves as last place in the NL Central and secured the fifth-worst record in the league.
All that being said, there were, in fact, signs of progress for the Reds in 2017. Although Cincinnati’s pitching once again reached near-historic levels of inadequacy — a topic I will cover next week — their offense and fielding actually combined to post the ninth-highest combined WAR (wins-above-replacement) in the Major Leagues. Additionally, unlike the previous season, the majority of the Reds’ starters are returning in a familiar role. In fact, of the eight position players who were deemed starters last season, seven are returning — with Zack Cozart being the lone exception. This brings us to our key players who should play a major role in 2018.
Any conversation about the Reds’ offense must begin and end with Joey Votto. Votto has proven himself to be a transcendent talent and the sky is truly the limit for his performance this season. Outside of Votto, though, the Reds actually have quite a few bona fide starters — including some potential All-Stars who should provide stability for the team.
In 2017, Eugenio Suarez proved himself to be an above average, starting-quality third baseman last season and figures to be a key cog in the Reds’ lineup. Additionally, Scooter Gennett emerged as one of the top offensive second baseman in the National League and, although his career numbers indicate last season may have been a fluke, the Reds are excited to see what he can do with a full-time starting role. Defensive whiz Tucker Barnhart will also return this season with a contract extension and an expanded role, as he expects to see the majority of the innings behind the plate.
The major question marks on the Reds offense will reside in the outfield, though. Billy Hamilton has started at center field for the past four seasons and, while he has provided world class base-stealing and Gold Glove worthy defense, he has not shown a consistent ability to get on base.
Additionally, corner outfielders Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler can certainly mash a baseball, but in an era driven by analytics, the pair’s .300 level on-base percentages and large volume of strikeouts leave a lot to be desired. Newcomer Jesse Winker, who has been a top prospect in the Reds’ system longer than I have been in college, will likely make a strong push for one of Schebler or Duvall’s starting roles. The combination of his youth and proven track record of hitting for both contact and power likely gives Winker an advantage in this situation.
Finally, that brings us to the shortstop position. Zack Cozart’s exit left a gaping hole in both the top of the Reds’ lineup and the middle of their infield. Jose Peraza has been given the first opportunity to win the job in Spring Training, but it appears the Reds may have other plans in the works. Peraza, who was a key player in the deal that sent Todd Frazier to the White Sox, showed great promise in 2016, but struggled mightily in the first half of last season. Although he showed signs of a turnaround in the second half, it appears the Reds have already began working on a contingency plan in case Peraza does not pan out.
Nick Senzel, a consensus top-10 prospect in Major League Baseball, recently began training with Hall of Famer Barry Larkin in preparation for becoming the Reds’ next starting shortstop. Senzel, only two years removed from college ball, has played third base in both years of his minor league career, but all signs indicate that Senzel has excelled at his new position, just as he has excelled at every other task the Reds have thrown his way in the minor leagues. Most likely, Senzel will start the season in the Minors, but if he continues to produce at his current rate — and Peraza continues to struggle — he could realistically be starting at shortstop for the Reds by the All-Star break.
Other fun prospects to keep an eye on include:
- Outfielder Taylor Trammell, an uber-athletic center fielder who can pepper the ball all over the field and boasts elite speed.
- Catcher Tyler Stephenson, a former first-round pick who had a healthy and productive season behind the plate last year in Dayton.
- Outfielder Jose Siri, a speedster that broke the Midwest League consecutive hitting streak record in 2017 and also stole an eye-popping 46 bases.
- Shortstop Jeter Downs and outfielder Stuart Fairchild, two of the Reds’ top draft picks last year who bring a great deal of potential to Single-A Dayton.
- First baseman Brandon Dixon who may have a near-impossible road to the Major Leagues as a first baseman behind Joey Votto, but has hit very well in Spring Training so far.
All in all, the Reds’ offense figures to be their strong suit in 2018. If Votto can continue to produce at his otherworldly rate and a few other players — such as Suarez, Duvall, Gennett or, ideally, Billy Hamilton — produce at an All-Star level, the Reds could potentially employ one of the more potent lineups in the National League.
Stay tuned for the pitching preview next week!
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