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The Reds and the concept of actually trying to improve your team

In 2020, the Reds seem poised to compete in the NL Central. Do they have enough to win it?

Oakland Athletics v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

If nothing else, the Cincinnati Reds will be more competitive than they were in 2019. Hell, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system, they might be the team to beat in the National League Central division. In fact, the PECOTA’s simulations had the Reds winning an average of 86.6 games while taking home the division crown 49.4 percent of the time. Fangraphs, however, projects a little more pessimistic second place, 83-79 finish. The bottom-line? The Reds project to be a very good team in 2020.

That’s quite the flip of the script for a team whose 75-87 finish in 2019 broke a string of four-consecutive 94+ loss seasons. But, in the Reds case, such a reversal of fate is more than merited. For starters, the Reds were basically the only team in the NL Central this offseason that tried to improve. The Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Milwaukee Brewers seemed largely content to stand pat as the baseball world signed free agents at a furious rate. Clearly, a team like the Reds stand to benefit the most from the teams in front of them walking on quicksand of their own creation.

Another reason probably comes from Nick Krall, whose first full season as General Manager happened to be 2019. It was last season that the Reds begun to really shed the scaffolding of their rebuild and return to the realm of competitive baseball. The team made competitive-lite trades for guys like Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood. Some worked out, and some (Puig) were used to land Trevor Bauer at the 2019 trade deadline.

In truth, it might be the remaining guys from all those trades (Gray and Bauer) who have the most ability to lead the Reds where they hope to go. One of the highlights of 2019, Gray returned to mid-2010’s form — posting a 2.98 DRA and some of the highest Swinging-Strike numbers of his career. More importantly, however, might be the fact that he made 31 starts, signifying his first generally healthy campaign in years.

Bauer, on the other hand, seemed to struggle a bit after coming over to Cincinnati. Once he started pitching for the Reds, nothing seemed to sting him more than a nearly 45 percent flyball rate and an 18 percent HR/FB rate. That’s not going to end well in many parks, and those numbers are particularly alarming for a home run haven like Great American Ball Park. I’d imagine those numbers come down a bit, but it’s probably a stretch to say he’s going to return to his 2018 form. More likely is that he pitches like he did for Cleveland in 2017 and/or 2019, which is a decent-to-good three-man.

While these 2019 trades were nice, the Reds still had a lot of room to go. The addition of Gray and Bauer wouldn’t have just magically made the Reds competitive. What signaled the Reds desire to kick open their competitive window was that they went out and (gasp!) spent money in the offseason. A foreign concept to many MLB teams, I know, but the Reds made it clear to the rest of the National League that they were back in the game.

In terms of year-over-year spending, Reds ownership has committed $12 million more in 2020 than 2019 (according to RosterResource). Now, you might be saying to yourself, “well, Shawn, that’s only $12 million. These teams (and their owners) are worth billions!” My response would be that, while you are entirely correct, understand this: the Reds are currently THE ONLY TEAM IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL WHO (according to RosterResource) PLANS TO SPEND MORE MONEY ON PAYROLL IN 2020 THAN 2019.

Now, spending money is great (especially if you’re spending a billionaires’ money), but it’s probably important to understand who the Reds got in return. The Reds seemed to be trying, whether by design or by fallback, to go for bats that could help bolster their lineup. The first was Mike Moustakas, who projects a wRC+ of 113 according to ZiPS. That kind of production is good but looks even better if Moustakas can manage to play better defensively at 2B.

Next was Shogo Akiyama, who will be the first Japanese player the Reds have ever had. You might get lucky and have Akiyama sock 15-20 dingers, but his bread and butter is an uncanny ability to get on-base. Finally, we get to the Reds big splash of the offseason, Nicholas Castellanos. This signing caught some folks by surprise, I think, because the Reds don’t have a DH (thanks, National League), an open third base slot, and a congested outfield. That said, I still like it a lot. Castellanos provides a big right-handed bat on a team full of lefties. Castellanos also provides a more consistent right field option at the plate than Aristides Aquino, who really struggled down the stretch after one of the most impressive August’s for a rookie in MLB history.

Other major signings included Pedro Strop and Wade Miley. Miley slots in as the fifth man in an otherwise solid rotation, and if you’re the Reds you’re hoping for a repeat of his time with the Houston Astros. That would be solid production out of your fifth starter. Strop, on the other hand, is at a crossroads. Can the 34-year old put together a season not quite as touched by injury as 2019? Can he wrangle down his home run and walk rates closer to his career averages?

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the new guys, but what about some of the stalwarts? I’m very happy that, once again, we’ll get to see Joey Votto playing competitive baseball. The clock is certainly ticking on the 36-year-old’s ability to win a World Series ring, and I want to hope that 2020 will be somewhat of a bounce-back year. The projection systems seem to think so, but not quite to the levels we’ve been accustomed to. And, for a future Hall of Famer who spent last season dealing with back injuries, one would have to imagine the Reds would take MLB average production at the plate.

The Reds have gotten four consecutive seasons of 600+ plate appearances from Eugenio Suárez coming into 2020. Even if he is not the best third baseman in the game, he’s certainly one of the more consistent ones. And, of course, not being the better than the likes of Nolan Arenado or Anthony Rendon doesn’t make you bad. Suárez is really freaking good, probably even underratedly so. All the Reds could really hope for is to have Suárez repeat even 85-90 percent of what he was able to do last season. If Suárez is able to put forth anymore production than last season it’s probably safe to drop ‘budding’ from budding superstar.

The battle for leftfield is an interesting one to watch this season, as Phillip Ervin and Jesse Winker both had a great Spring Training. They seem to make a nice platoon combo, and I think a lot of folks have been waiting for Ervin to showcase his power against more than just lefties.

As for the rotation, Luis Castillo and Anthony DeSclafani round out one of the better 1-4 combos in the National League. To me, the further DeSclafani distances himself from 2017 the better production we’re going to see. The talent is still there, so long as he can stay healthy and continue to build going forward. Castillo’s stuff is tremendous and he’s only going to get better as time goes on.

Castillo is becoming better and better at pitching outside the zone and getting whiffs on those pitches, and I think (assuming good health) this could be the year he really establishes himself as an ace. RosterResource has the Reds rotation as Gray-Castillo-Bauer-DeSclafani-Miley, though I’d probably flip Castillo and Gray. Hell, by the end of the year I think there’s a real chance DeSclafani passes Bauer.

The final piece, then, is the bullpen. The Reds could really benefit from Rasiel Iglesias and Amir Garrett taking a step forward. Michael Lorenzen combined with that bunch creates a formidable back-end trio if they’re on, but that is a big if. Cody Reed returning from a knee injury could help bolster this bullpen even further.

All told, the Reds are poised to be an exciting team to follow in 2020. You worry about their defense, for obvious reasons, but it’s not the worst defense in the league. It just didn’t really improve from last season. Maybe you can beat that by socking more dingers than the other team, maybe you can’t. A dejuiced ball probably plays a factor here.

There’s another question surrounding health, but it’s not any different from the ones that most teams are facing. A lot must go right for this team to win the division, but a lot must go right for any team to win the division. I’d peg this team to win anywhere between 80-90 games. It’s a good team, and the fact that they’re the only team in the division that really tried to improve bodes well for how they’ll approach this NL Central race once we get deeper into the season.

Shawn Brody is a graduate student and contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @ShawnBrody, where he likes to yell about New York Mets.