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The 2018 Cincinnati Reds: the next out-of-nowhere contender

The team may look bleak now, but the Cincinnati Reds are poised to surprise in 2018.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs
The Cincinnati Reds will have even more to high five about in 2018.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Would you rather be a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers or a fan of the Cincinnati Reds? Seems obvious, right? Both teams play in the NL Central, but the Brewers currently sit just a game and a half out of first while the Reds sit… much further back. The Brewers have a plus-17 run differential while the Reds are a little further behind at…minus-101. And while it may be nice that the Reds have a solid farm system, currently ranked ninth by MLB Pipeline, the Brewers still beat them out there, coming in at fifth.

Better now, better set up for the future. For our mythical fan who for some reason is trying to decide between supporting the Brewers or the Reds and only those two teams, the Brewers are the obvious pick.

But I’m here to tell you it wouldn’t matter. The Brewers or the Reds? It’s a trick question, because next season the 2018 Reds will be the 2017 Brewers, the team projected to finish well below .500 who rises up to playoff contention.

The first point to remember is that no one predicted the Brewers would be this good this soon. Fangraphs preseason projections pegged the Brewers to go 70-92, only slightly better than the Reds’ preseason projection of 67-95.

We can look back now and see how the Brewers managed to overachieve by such a large margin. The lineup had potential and uncertainty in equal measure, but the gains made by Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, and Orlando Arcia, combined with a positive transition season from Eric Thames and another strong campaign from Ryan Braun, has been enough to keep the offense afloat.

It’s the pitching staff, however, that has been the true surprise. The staff, projected to be one of the worst in baseball, has a 93 ERA-, good for tenth in the league. Out-of-nowhere improvements from Jimmy Nelson (3.74 ERA in 2017, 4.62 in 2016) and Chase Anderson (2.89 ERA in 2017, 4.39 in 2016) have bolstered the rotation, and the emergence of arms like Corey Knebel and Jacob Barnes helped stabilize a bullpen that was relying on Neftali Feliz to get outs in April.

Of course, the Brewers’ formula of getting a bunch of improvements from young players to supplement their foundational star isn’t exactly foolproof; one need only look at the preseason projection to see that. But if there is a team that can ape in 2018 what the Brewers accomplished in 2017, it’s the Reds. Here’s why:

The lineup is already pretty good

Remember those run differentials from earlier? Well, the difference between the Reds and Brewers has been entirely on the run prevention part of the equation, as both teams have scored 565 runs this season.

In terms of projecting the 2018 Reds to imitate the 2017 Brewers, they already more or less have the offensive part of the formula accounted for. Here’s what the Cincinnati lineup may look like next season:

1. Billy Hamilton, CF, 65 OPS+ in 2017

2. Eugenio Suarez, 3B, 118

3. Joey Votto, 1B, 168

4. Adam Duvall, LF, 113

5. Scooter Gennett, 2B, 122

6. Scott Schebler/Jesse Winker, RF, 98/102

7. Jose Peraza, SS, 64

8. Tucker Barnhart, C, 86

The Reds have already done the heavily lifting of reshaping their offense into one that can compete for a playoff birth. They have a foundational star in Votto. They’ve managed to turn guys once viewed as spare parts (Duvall, Suarez, Schebler, Gennett) into solid regulars. Add in a potential boost from top prospect Nick Senzel, as well as a potential outside addition, and the Reds offense looks ready for a Brewers-style run in 2018.

The potential for a decent bullpen

Bullpens are incredibly variable from year to year, but at least the Reds have a couple ingredients to start making a good one. Raisel Iglesias has fully transformed into a shutdown reliever, and Wandy Peralta has the potential to be a quality late inning reliever from the left side.

Beyond those two there’s not a whole lot else right now, but it’s not as if the Brewers were flush with quality bullpen options entering the season. In Iglesias and Peralta, the Reds have answers to a couple bullpen questions, and it’s not too difficult to see them finding other answers, just as the Brewers have this season.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs
Luis Castillo is a nice start, but the Reds will need more rotation help to surprise people next season.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The starting rotation

If the 2018 Reds fail to match the success of the 2017 Brewers, this will be the reason why. Thank goodness for Luis Castillo, otherwise the Reds would be totally bereft of any interesting rotation pieces for next season.

Even worse, they really don’t have anyone who jumps out as a candidate for a Nelson or Anderson-type jump in performance. Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan have shown flashes, but they’re both dealing with substantial injuries. Sal Romano is healthy, but he looks more like a bullpen option. Ditto for Michael Lorenzen and Robert Stephenson. Remember Cody Reed? Yeah, I don’t really either.

Yet, while there doesn’t appear to be much hope for a big jump in performance from the rotation, no one thought the Brewers’ staff would be as good as its been. Perhaps the Reds can trade from their hitting depth to add a rotation piece, find a bargain in free agency, or get healthy seasons from DeSclafani and Finnegan. Also, the consolation prize for having your pitching prospects fail as starters is having them as potential bullpen options. It may not be ideal, but if Romano, Lorenzen, Stephenson, and Reed can’t cut it in the rotation, maybe a couple of them can successfully transition to relief work, thus lessening the burden on what will likely be a below-average rotation.

Is it likely the Reds coalesce into a contender next season? Probably not. But there was nothing likely about the Brewers contending this season either. The truth is that we won’t see the next out-of-nowhere contender coming until they’re throwing exceeded expectations right back in our faces. But the Reds are as good a bet as any bottom-feeder to make the leap in 2018.

All stats current as of August 16, 2017.

Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.