“If” defines the most important events in all of our lives. If you hadn’t looked up from the bar just as your future spouse walked in, you would never have met. If you submitted your job application an hour later, they would’ve hired somebody else. If you had closed the front door all the way, the wind wouldn’t have blown it open and your cat wouldn’t have run off.
However, “if” is unreliable. Too many “ifs” will almost guarantee failure. If your car doesn’t need a new transmission, if you don’t get sick and miss work, and if you eat ramen for dinner five times per week, then you can pay your rent on time. That’s no way to live.
There are several big “ifs” that apply to every baseball team, such as if Mike Trout stays healthy and if Justin Verlander doesn’t lose velocity. There’s no reason to expect either of these problems, but the unexpected does happen to every team over the course of a season. That’s why predicting baseball is so difficult.
The Cincinnati Reds believe they can win the NL Central in 2019. They’re right! They absolutely can win the division this year. However, they’re relying on a whole lot of “ifs.” We’ll examine some of those “ifs” starting with the safest and progressing toward the least likely, including an “If” rating from 1-10 with one being completely safe and ten nearly impossible.
If they score enough runs...
This one should be a piece of cake. The Reds finished eighth in the NL in runs scored last season, and improved their offense significantly.
Joey Votto remains a stalwart in the lineup, even though his power dissipated. Earlier this week, I explored what his decline looks like and you know what? He’s still a three-win player, even without power. That’s excellent!
With a 135 wRC+ last year, Eugenio Suarez may have surpassed Votto as the team’s best hitter. Scooter Gennett has quietly become one of the league’s best second basemen. His 4.5 fWAR in 2018 was second in the NL at the keystone behind only Javier Baez.
The offense should also improve due to some key changes made this offseason. Gone are Billy Hamilton (69 wRC+) and Adam Duvall (81 wRC+, traded last July). They’ve been replaced with Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, as well as a full season from Jesse Winker.
Offense “If” Rating: 2
If the rotation improves...
Perhaps this should be “If the rotation improves enough...” Improvement is almost certain, given how awful the pitching staff was last season. They finished last in the NL in FIP (4.68) and runs allowed (819).
Luis Castillo led the starters with a 4.30 ERA and 4.32 FIP. Most of the others were considerably worse. Homer Bailey’s disastrous contract is gone. Sal Romano, who threw the second most innings on the team despite a 5.31 ERA and 4.95 FIP, might not make the team.
However, if the goal is winning the division, the rotation still probably doesn’t make the grade. The new additions are Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood. Gray has been a Cy Young candidate at his best, but hasn’t been anywhere near that level recently. With a change in approach, the Reds hope he can rebound. Roark is durable, but his 8.4 percent swinging strike rate last year was sixth lowest in baseball among all qualified starters. Wood is perfectly fine, but he’s already hurt.
There’s still no ace in the bunch, and arguably no one that would make the Cubs rotation at all (the Cubs are projected to finish last by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA). It’s a better rotation than last year’s Reds, but that’s not a high bar.
Rotation “If” Rating: 5
If the defense up-the-middle isn’t awful...
Remember the part where Billy Hamilton isn’t there anymore? If we’re just talking offense, that’s great! They’ll miss him an awful lot on defense though. Scott Schebler is the most experienced remaining center fielder, and he’s sort of average-ish? There’s a lot of questionable hits allowed on his Statcast catch difficulty chart.
Moving to the infield, we return to Scooter Gennett. Again, the offense is fantastic. However, he brings a -3.9 UZR/150 at second base. Jose Peraza’s -3.3 UZR/150 at shortstop isn’t a lot better.
Super prospect Nick Senzel fits into the conversation... somewhere. Roster Resource lists him as the top minor league second baseman, but that’s not really accurate. Senzel is a natural third baseman, which is a problem because of the whole Eugenio Suarez-is-awesome thing. It would be convenient if he could play center field, but that’s a stretch.
Up-the-Middle “If” Rating: 7
If the other NL Central teams collapse...
The factors already listed are all (somewhat) within the Reds’ control. However, winning the division requires the other four teams to win fewer games than they do. FanGraphs projects all five NL Central teams to finish within nine games of each other, with none worse than 79-83.
All four non-Reds NL Central teams finished above .500 last year. Even if they improve 20 wins from last year’s 67-95, odds are at least one other rival is still better. They’re probably not a last place team anymore, but it’s tough to envision the Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates all backsliding in the standings.
NL Central “If” Rating: 9
...then the Reds will win the division.
Not going to happen. Sorry, Reds fans. However, given that they’ve landed in last place every year since 2015, success might have to be measured more incrementally. Reaching .500 would be a nice start, and that’s a realistic goal.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983