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Cincinnati Reds appear poised to be decidedly average

The darlings of the 2019-20 offseason appear set to either stagnate or take a step back in 2021. But either direction doesn’t entirely rule them out of the NL Central.

MLB: Game One-Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Reds appeared to be a team on the rise entering 2020. They had acquired Trevor Bauer in 2019, signed Nicholas Castellanos and Mike Moustakas in free agency, and had a slew of decent arms to supplement a potentially potent offense. They were widely considered to be what the folks call “Offseason Champs.” Ultimately, though, the team finished at a 31-29 record, thanks to a strong finish, and were bounced in the first round of the expanded playoff by Atlanta.

In what has became an all too familiar scenario, the result of the team not performing up to expectations, despite the buzz, led to management looking to unload some money off of their books over this past winter. Like many of their counterparts in the National League Central, there were rumors about moving some of their premium talent. They let Trevor Bauer walk in free agency, with rumors floating around that they were also listening on the likes of Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. While those moves obviously didn’t come to fruition, it led the Reds to largely stand pat for the majority of the offseason, with only minimal additions made to the roster.

As such, Cincinnati heads into the 2021 season in an interesting position. Their roster is a solid one on paper. There wasn’t a ton of turnover for their lineup that still features Castellanos, Moustakas, Jesse Winker, and Eugenio Suárez. The rotation, while top heavy, could do worse than Wade Miley, Tyler Mahle, and (maybe?) Michael Lorenzen to supplement Castillo and Gray. The bullpen has still Amir Garrett, whose presence alone has to for, like, two or three relievers combined, right?

One element of the offense worth focusing on is Nick Senzel. The former no.2 overall pick was once the top prospect in the system, but has had a number of obstacles working against him early on, primarily related to his health (with a pinch of service time manipulation). An ankle injury slowed him in early 2019, before dealing with a shoulder injury late in the year, with a number of smaller issues in between. He endured two separate stints in the Injured List in 2020 as well, most notably due to exposure to Covid-19. With all that in mind, it’s been difficult for him to realize his prospect potential thus far.

When healthy, Senzel profiles as a high contact guy with the potential to develop more power. His athleticism will also likely to allow him to get a few swipes on the stat sheet, with a potential for a 20/20 season lurking in there somewhere. One of the things to watch with Senzel is where he sticks long-term. Despite the prior health issues, the Reds are determined to roll him out as their starter in centerfield. But the natural infielder could find his way back to a dirt surface at some point, especially given the lack of depth on the infield against their current surplus of it in the outfield.

Another is the shortstop situation. There was a lot of talk about the Reds making a move for an established player to put at the six: Francisco Lindor, Willy Adames, Trevor Story, Didi Gregorious, Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons. Lindor obviously landed in Queens, neither of Adames or Story were moved, and the three free agents found homes elsewhere, likely due to Cincinnati’s apprehension to spend money. So who do the Reds drop in at short?

There’s been some talk of sliding Suárez over from third. David Bell has yet to provide any optimism on that front, despite his history and current physical shape. Former Florida Gator Jonathan India could finally crack the big league roster at some point, but he likely doesn’t have the chops to hack it at short. FanGraphs has a heavy dose of Kyle Farmer at the position, while Baseball Prospectus favors José García on their respective depth charts. Farmer is more of a super utility type at this point, garnering far more value from his versatility than his skill set, while García hadn’t played about high-A prior to getting 68 plate appearances in 2020.

The Reds will use the spring to sort it out, but I’d expect this to be a point of contention for Bell all season. Perhaps their feelings over payroll will change and they can go after one of the premium shortstops available on the free agent market. Until then, it appears to be Farmer or holding out hope that García makes a rather big leap heading into 2021.

Aside from the bigger wild cards in the lineup, there’s plenty that’s known about this group. Joey Votto will provide the on-base side with his keen eye at the plate, even if much of his power has been sapped at this point (average of .168 ISO the last three seasons). Suárez and Castellanos will bring additional power, while Winker brings a sizeable combination of both. They’ll score runs—even if they don’t have the on-base skills throughout their lineup (bottom seven in the league with a .312 team OBP) to for the power to always compensate.

Up on the bump is where the Reds could have a turnstile of names appear. Castillo and Gray will headline the rotation. It’s a formidable top two. The former is likely one of the most underappreciated pitchers in all of baseball. He built on a strong 2019 season to improve in virtually every area, with a 3.21 ERA, 2.65 FIP, a K/9 over 11, a BB/9 just barely over three, and a groundball rate of 58.4%. His hard contact rate against dropped down to 30.9%, which was almost seven percent less than his 2019 mark. No matter your definition of an ace, Castillo is one.

Beyond those two, it gets a little murky. Having that pair at the top makes the Reds pretty top heavy with not a ton of certainty underneath. Wade Miley, he of a 4.24 career ERA and 4.12 career FIP, is kind of just a guy. He’ll eat some innings. Tyler Mahle brings more upside as a potential no. 3 or 4 starter. He’s able to avoid hard contact and generates whiffs (13.8% swinging strike rate; 11.33 K/9). One potential issue is his lack of groundball contact. Opposing hitters put the ball in the air 70.7% of the time, with 50% being flyball contact. Not exactly what you want in a park such as Cincinnati, and something that leaves him as less of a sure thing in the rotation moving forward.

One name to keep an eye on in the rotation mix is Michael Lorenzen, who is in competition with Tejay Antone, Jeff Hoffman, and José De León for the fifth spot. Lorenzen and his legendary biceps have been deployed in virtually every manner possible. He’s taken some swings, seen some time in the outfield, and has gotten the odd start for Cincinnati. That high-90s fastball could be interesting, along with a slider that almost doubled in usage (17.4%) in 2020. He probably has the best “stuff” of any of the candidates, but his ability to be the Swiss Army Knife could make the Reds less inclined to shoehorn him into a set spot in the rotation.

The bullpen is an exercise in throwing it against a wall and seeing what sticks. Garrett and newly-acquired Sean Doolittle, two players who are about as universally (and deservedly) well-liked as any in the game, will make up the majority of the late-game situations. Lucas Sims will likely join them in that role. Beyond that, you’ve got Noé Ramirez and whoever misses out on that rotation spot as the only potential locks. Who else? Sal Romano? Ryan Hendrix? Brandon Finnegan? This is the element of the team that probably features the most uncertainty, but who prepares for certainty with a relief corps anyway?

Despite their potentially massive shortcomings on the mound, it’s at least worth noting that two of the more exciting Cincinnati prospects this side of José García exist in that raised arena. Could we see Nick Lodolo or Hunter Greene at some point in 2021? While not a fireballer, Lodolo is 6’6” and has good command of three pitches. Greene was pumping 100+ MPH in his spring debut, but the Reds likely want to see him in more minor league competition before giving him the call. In any case, it’s entirely possible we’ll see one or both of these arms in Cincinnati at some point. It’ll be at least May by then because...reasons, but assuming it does happen at any point, it would help to make this pitching staff a much more dynamic group.

The Cincinnati Reds aren’t a remotely bad team. They’re just an average one. There’s a collection of quality bats, a couple of good starters, and at least two or three solid relievers. But it’s important to clarify that even being an average team doesn’t rule you out of the NL Central race this year. The defending division champion Cubs did very little to add, despite a last-minute budget increase. Even with the addition of Nolan Arenado, St. Louis is far from a runaway given some of their other flaws. Milwaukee is kind of a mixed bag all over the place. At worst, the Reds finish in fourth. At best, they contend for the division. There likely won’t be too many games in between that ultimately decide which outcome is realized.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.