What If?

Just over the halfway point of the 2017 season, the Cincinnati Reds sit in last place in the National League Central. At 9.5 games out of first place, it is almost certain that they won’t be participating in the postseason.

However, a look at the standings leaves a bit of room for optimism. The Brewers lead the division by 5.5 games. Aside from them, the remaining four teams are within four games of each other. No one expected the Brewers to be contending in 2017, much less leading the division of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs at the All Star break.

One extended losing streak by the Brewers and one winning streak by a division rival would shake up the standings in the NL Central. Why not the Reds? The obvious answer to that question is a lack of starting pitching, an extreme lack of it. Reds starting pitchers rank worst in the majors in ERA. They are also last in number of innings pitched.

The Reds currently rank second in the NL Central in runs scored this season. As for OPS, the team ranks first in the Central and fifth in the majors (behind the Astros, Nationals, Yankees, and Dodgers, all teams that are leading their divisions). The Reds’ bullpen is ranked third in the Central and tenth in the majors in ERA. Defense has not been a problem for Cincinnati this season either. They lead the NL Central and are sixth in baseball in fielding percentage.

These stats demonstrate how awful the Reds starting pitching has performed this season. All other facets of the team are producing. If the starting pitching can deliver at even a league average rate in the second half, the Reds could begin moving up in the standings. The rotation after the break will consist of (in no particular order): Feldman, Castillo, Romano, Adleman, and Bailey. Bailey has demonstrated a strong improvement over his last two starts. Feldman has taken the role as anchor of the staff this season. Castillo has pitched well in his few starts since being promoted from Louisville. Romano pitched well enough in his spot start that the Reds are planning to leave him in the rotation. Adleman continues to be a serviceable fifth starter, at least until DeSclafani is ready to return sometime in August.

Will the Reds have a couple hot streaks and end up winning the NL Central this season? It’s extremely unlikely, especially if they end up trading away players such as Zack Cozart, Drew Storen, or even Raisel Iglesias. However, hope is still there for the time being. The Reds just completed a 4-3 road trip against the Rockies and Diamondbacks, the two teams that are leading the NL Wild Card race. The future of the Reds, both in 2017 and beyond, depends on their starting pitching.

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Scooter Gennett: Solid Reds Waiver Claim

Dick Williams only recently took the reins as the new general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, but already has made a couple shrewd moves. Trading starting pitcher Dan Straily to the Miami Marlins for a trio of prospects headlined by pitcher Luis Castillo was one. That January move came after the Reds had claimed Straily off the waiver wire just days before the 2016 season began. Straily wound up throwing 191.1 innings for the team that season with a 3.76 ERA, while giving up 31 home runs (tied for seventh-most in baseball). He posted a FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 4.88. While Straily still had four years of team control left, the Reds chose to trade him while they felt his value was at its peak.

The second noteworthy move made by Williams came two and a half months later. In the final week of Spring Training, the Reds claimed Scooter Gennett off waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers. The now 27-year-old left-handed batter had played primarily second base for parts of the last four seasons. Over that time, he compiled a .279/.318/.420 slash line with a .738 OPS and a 99 OPS+. As a second baseman, Gennett has been below average defensively, committing 14 errors in 2016 (tied for worst in the NL in that category with former Red Brandon Phillips and second in MLB to the Rangers’ Rougned Odor). Gennett provides the Reds something they’ve been lacking in recent seasons: a bench player who has power in his bat and the versatility to play multiple positions.

Through the Cincinnati Reds’ first 37 games of 2017, Gennett has appeared in 30 of them. This includes 16 starts. He has played four defensive positions this season: second base, third base, left field, and right field. Over this period, Gennett has yet to commit an error. His slash line currently sits at .296/.324/.535, with four doubles, two triples, and three home runs in 71 at-bats. Gennett’s OPS+ for 2017 is at 120.

Perhaps most impressive is Gennett’s WAR, which is at 0.5. If he continues to produce offensively and defensively at his current level of play, he will finish 2017 with a WAR value greater than 2. To put that into perspective, the Reds only had four batters compile a WAR equal or greater than 2 in 2016: Joey Votto (4.0), Adam Duvall (3.2), Billy Hamilton (2.8), and Zack Cozart (2.0). Starting second baseman Phillips only contributed 0.8 WAR. Even more noteworthy is that all of these players were everyday starters. For bench players, the highest WAR in the 2016 season came from Hernan Iribarren, who in 45 plate appearances after his September call-up delivered a WAR of 0.2.

Also interesting is the comparison of Gennett’s 2017 performance with that of everyday second baseman Jose Peraza. Though Peraza (147) has had twice the number of plate appearances as Gennett (74), Gennett has outperformed him. Peraza currently has a WAR of 0.0, the worst number of any everyday player on the team. He is slashing .243/.279/.300, with a total of six extra-base hits and no home runs. His OPS+ is sitting at an atrocious 52.

It will be interesting to see how Gennett and Peraza play throughout the remainder of the still-young 2017 season. If Gennett continues to produce anywhere close to his current level, it will be hard to see the Reds choosing not to retain him for the next two seasons. He is arbitration-eligible two more times, meaning that Gennett’s $2.525 million salary will continue to rise each of those seasons. The Reds could also potentially sign the 27-year-old  to an extension before he hits arbitration this December to buy out his two seasons of arbitration-eligibility.

Success Now or Top Draft Pick Later?

2016 is a rebuilding year for the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are not looking to contend, and as the media so often points out, “it’s not about 2016”. Rather, it is a year in which the team is letting its young talent develop in the minors. Ideally, some of that talent will eventually join the major league roster during this season and get major league playing time. It is safe to bet that the Reds are going to continue to rebuild their major league roster and stockpile young prospects at the July trade deadline and this coming winter. Players such as Zack Cozart, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips (if he approves such a deal) could head to new clubs if they remain healthy and reasonably productive at the plate.

If you go by what many broadcasters and sportswriters say, the Reds will not be contenders again until 2018 at the earliest. Personally, I find it difficult to believe the Reds’ front office will not attempt to contend heading into the 2017 season. With a starting rotation of Stephenson, Reed, Bailey, Iglesias, and DeSclafani, and a lineup including Barnhart/Mesoraco, Votto, Phillips, Suarez, Peraza, Duvall, Hamilton, and Winker, the Reds could easily have a winning record. That rotation would instantly improve the black hole that the 2016 bullpen has been. Bullpen candidates could include Lamb, Moscot, Straily, Lorenzen, Adleman, Finnegan, and Cingrani. This is assuming both that all members of the rotation are healthy and that the front office doesn’t trade any of these pitchers for a bat.

What’s even more intriguing is that even after the promotion of the aforementioned four prospects, the Reds will have another group to follow shortly thereafter. This next round could include LHP Amir Garrett (AA), RHP Keury Mella (A-Adv), 2B Alex Blandino (AA), RHP Nick Travieso (AA), OF Phil Ervin (AA), and RHP Rookie Davis (AA).

Regardless of the front office’s approach to 2017 and beyond, the Reds are not attempting to win this season. That became obvious when Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman were traded in December. It became even more obvious when the Reds delayed promoting their top prospects to avoid future Super Two status. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to be a Reds fan in 2016. If the Reds are not contending, should I still root for the team to win every game it can? Or should I be okay with them losing often, as it will ultimately result in a higher draft pick in 2017? Though the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins are off to an early “lead” for the top two spots, the Milwaukee Brewers and Reds could battle for spot three or four.

This leads to a conundrum for Reds fans this year. Do I want to see the Reds be mildly competitive and end up with a pick between five and ten? Or do I want to see them tank and get the second or third draft pick?

Relief for Reds Bullpen on the way?

To say the Cincinnati Reds bullpen is weak is an understatement. Through the first 13 games of the 2016 season, the Reds’ bullpen has pitched a whopping 49.1 innings, second-most in all of baseball only to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Reds’ relievers have given up 31 earned runs this season, which results in a combined bullpen ERA of 5.66. The Texas Rangers and the Colorado Rockies are the only teams with worse bullpens.

The following screenshot from ESPN illustrates the extent of the bullpen’s woes. The only reliever to not yet give up an earned run this season is Caleb Cotham (who was one of the four players acquired by the Reds in the Aroldis Chapman trade). Along with Cotham, only Blake Wood, Dan Straily, and Tony Cingrani have ERAs under 5.00. With today’s roster move to call up Robert Stephenson to pitch tonight for the injured Alfredo Simon in the rotation, the Reds sent Jumbo Diaz to Louisville. That move came after the Reds sent down Keyvius Sampson last week.

Reds Bullpen ERAs 4.19.2016

As of right now, Cincinnati’s bullpen is comprised of one lefty (Cingrani) and four right-handers (Cotham, Wood, Ohlendorf, Hoover). It appears safe to assume that with Dan Straily’s effective start last night against the Rockies that he will continue to occupy the rotation spot vacated by righty Tim Melville. This would likely place Melville as the sixth reliever for the time being, though his results as a starter were cause for his demotion from the rotation (2 starts, 7.0 total innings, 7 ER, 2.571 WHIP).

Reinforcements for the Reds’ bullpen should be arriving within the next month. Injured starting pitchers John Lamb, Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, and Michael Lorenzen are all expected to begin minor league rehab assignments soon. When they return by mid-May, the Reds’ front office will have some difficult decisions to make. This is in addition to top pitching prospects Stephenson and Cody Reed (who was placed on the DL today in AAA for a finger injury).

The rotation currently consists of Raisel Iglesias, Brandon Finnegan, Jon Moscot, Dan Straily, and Alfredo Simon (although Stephenson is being called up today to make a start for him due to injury). If Iglesias and Finnegan continue pitching effectively, it is hard to see the Reds removing them from their rotation. Bailey and DeSclafani are locks for the rotation when they return. That takes up four spots out of the five. The fifth spot will likely go to Stephenson, once service time considerations are no longer a concern in 2016.

With a rotation of Iglesias-Finnegan-Bailey-DeSclafani-Stephenson, that results in a whole handful of potential new faces for the bullpen. Lamb, Lorenzen, Moscot, Straily, and Simon could all potentially end up in that role. If Cody Reed makes his major league debut this season, yet another member of the rotation could be bumped to the bullpen. Within the next month, one of the worst bullpens in MLB could become one of the strongest. Of course, all of this assumes that the pitchers remain healthy or return to health and that the current starters continue pitching effectively in their roles. Yet even with a setback or two along the way, the Reds’ bullpen should soon receive a major facelift.

 

Reaction to the Reds’ rebuild

Todd Frazier was dealt away by the Cincinnati Reds yesterday, the first Red to be shipped to a new team this winter. He won’t be the last. Reports coming from Ken Rosenthal on Twitter tonight are saying that the Reds and Nationals have a trade agreement in place to send second baseman Brandon Phillips east. Brandon Phillips himself posted a tweet at 9:09 P.M. that said the following:

513 to 202 ✈️

202 is the area code for Washington DC. Phillips has a no-trade clause due to his ten-five rights, so he would have to accept a trade. However, it’s hard to imagine him not going to the Nationals, given that they are expected to be a contender in 2016 and the Reds’ roster is in reconstruction. Even more tempting for Phillips is the ability to play once again for newly-hired Nationals manager Dusty Baker. Brandon Phillips may be comfortable in Cincinnati, but the 34-year-old has yet to appear in a World Series. Given his age, one would imagine that Phillips would like the chance to win a ring before the end of his playing career.

The fan reaction on social media after the Todd Frazier trade yesterday and these Brandon Phillips rumors tonight has been largely negative. Yes, trades are disappointing, especially when they involve players who have become fan-favorites. There were no players on the Reds’ 2015 team more fan-friendly than those two. However, the Reds must continue to look forward toward the future.

2017 or 2018 is the earliest the Reds are likely to have a chance to contend in the NL Central again. Frazier and Phillips will both be free agents in their thirties after the 2017 season. If Frazier continues to play like he did in 2014 and the first half of 2015, his next contract will likely be over $75 million. Paying him that kind of money beginning at age 32 would be like repeating the Brandon Phillips 2012 contract extension all over again. While the Phillips contract is not unreasonable, the Reds are a mid-market team financially and also have Joey Votto and Homer Bailey under contract for substantial salaries. There is only so much money to go around.

Baseball is a business. Rebuilding is a part of that business, especially for small and mid-market teams. The Atlanta Braves are going through the exact same thing the Reds are going through right now. I’m sure their fans weren’t happy to see players like Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton, or Jason Heyward traded away the last two seasons.

Keeping a player such as Brandon Phillips on the roster for the next two seasons will only block playing time for the young, future players of the franchise. Jose Peraza will be able to play regularly at second base at the major league level in 2016 to prepare for future seasons. Eugenio Suarez will likely move over to third base.

Depending on the return for Phillips and whether or not Jay Bruce gets traded this winter, the 2016 lineup may look something like this:

  1. Peraza (2B)
  2. Suarez (3B)
  3. Votto (1B)
  4. Mesoraco (C)
  5. Bruce (RF)
  6. Duvall ??? (LF)
  7. Cozart (SS)
  8. Pitcher
  9. Hamilton (CF)

The lineup may not look exciting, but if everyone remains healthy and Mesoraco and Cozart hit like they have demonstrated they are able to, the Reds might score some runs this year. Yes, the Reds may struggle with lower attendance at Great American Ball Park next year. When the Reds begin winning again though, the fans will be back. Just ask the Astros.

Todd Frazier: A Red no longer

The trade of Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox was not exactly unexpected for many Reds fans. It has been reported throughout this offseason that the Reds are open to trading anybody on their roster for the right return. After a disastrous 2015 season during which the team lost 98 games and finished in last place in the National League Central division, 36 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals, it was evident that changes needed to be made.

After the Aroldis Chapman to the Dodgers trade fell through early last week at the Winter Meetings due to the uncovering of domestic violence allegations against the closer, the Reds needed to look elsewhere to improve their team for future seasons. Two-time All-Star and 2015 Home Run Derby champion Todd Frazier was the other top trade chip at the Reds’ disposal. The third baseman is under contract through 2016 for $7.5 million and arbitration-eligible for a final time in 2017 before becoming a free agent prior to his age-32 season.

Prior to the 2015 All-Star break, Frazier compiled a slash line of .284/.337/.585, with 25 home runs. His post All-Star break/Home Run Derby numbers were much less inspiring: .220/.274/.390 and only ten additional homers. The right-handed batter’s career numbers are .257/.321/.463 with 108 home runs over 633 games. Over his five years in the majors, Frazier has been a 15.3 Wins Above Replacement player, with 14.5 of those coming since 2012 and 9.3 since 2014.

Among third basemen, Todd Frazier tied for ninth place in terms of WAR in 2015 with 4.0. The leader was American League MVP Josh Donaldson with 8.8. Frazier was tied for fourth (with Matt Carpenter and Jung Ho Kang) in the National League, behind Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, and Matt Duffy. In 2014, Frazier was tied for fourth among major league third basemen with Josh Harrison, each earning 5.3 WAR.

Todd Frazier was the only non-rookie/non-prospect player involved in the seven-player, three-team deal. The White Sox were the recipients of Frazier and shipped prospects Frankie Montas (pitcher), Micah Johnson (second baseman), and Trayce Thompson (outfielder) to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers then sent the Reds the following trio of prospects: Jose Peraza (second baseman), Brandon Dixon (second/third baseman) , and Scott Schebler (outfielder).

The reaction among baseball writers and fans today largely seems to label the Reds as being on the “losing” end of the trade. Lance McAlister of Cincinnati radio station WLW compiled some of these reactions.

While I will not write much here about the prospects acquired today by the Reds, Jose Peraza is the name being mentioned most frequently as the headliner of the Reds’ return. Peraza is just 21 years of age and has now been traded twice this year, the first time being in July from the Braves to the Dodgers in the blockbuster deal with the Marlins. The Venezuelan right-handed batter slashed a combined .293/.316/.378 with his two AAA teams in 2015. Peraza stole 33 bases, but hit just four home runs. His overall career minor league numbers include a line of .302/.342/.387, with 210 stolen bases and nine home runs over five seasons. An MLB.com article by Andrew Simon has the following words from Reds president of baseball operations Walt Jocketty about Peraza:

“Peraza was a guy that we had focused on and identified as a guy we thought could be a second baseman or a shortstop for us for a number of years…He’s young, he’s had a lot of success at a young age, hits, an above-average runner, and a solid defensive guy. He does a lot of things well, and we’ve had guys watch him quite a bit, both with the Dodgers last year and with the Braves last year and years before, and they had excellent reports on him.”

This is a trade that will likely take at least the next five years to fully analyze and determine the “winner” of. While Frazier’s contributions to the White Sox will be complete by the end 2017, the other six players in the deal are controlled through at least the 2021 season. While trading a hometown favorite player such as Frazier is painful for Cincinnati fans, even more painful is the inability of the Reds to contend in the N.L. Central and reach the playoffs. The trade return for the Reds may seem questionably light for two years of Todd Frazier, but Walt Jocketty has demonstrated in the past his ability to make trades that work out well for the Reds. Recently these have included trading Johnny Cueto for three left-handed pitching prospects, Mat Latos for Anthony DeSclafani and a prospect, Alfredo Simon for Eugenio Suarez and a prospect, and two pitching prospects for Jonathan Broxton. While Peraza certainly lacks power and does not take many walks, he does hit for average and is a major threat on the basepaths. It will be interesting to see where he slots into the lineup and how he performs at the major league level in 2016. Part of that will hinge on whether or not the Reds trade current second baseman Brandon Phillips.

Todd Frazier may now be a member of the Chicago White Sox, but Reds fans will always have this memory.

 

 

A Case for Trading Brandon Phillips

The Cincinnati Reds were a losing baseball team in 2014. Things went downhill even further in 2015, to the point where they ended up with the 29th worst record in all of baseball. The team is currently in what it is referring to as a reboot or rebuilding phase. Three National League Central teams finished 2015 having won 97 or more games and all ended up in the playoffs. The Milwaukee Brewers and the Reds finished 32 and 36 games out of first place, respectively.

The Reds’ chances of contending in 2016 are about as likely as that of the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper sitting next to teammate Jonathan Papelbon on a team flight next season. Even if Homer Bailey, Zack Cozart, and Devin Mesoraco all return healthy and productive (and the rest of the team stays healthy), it is difficult to see Cincinnati Reds going from being a 64-win team to one that wins over 90 games.

Going into the 2015 offseason, it was obvious that the Reds needed to make trades to bring in younger talent. Closer Aroldis Chapman appeared to be one of their most significant trade chips, as well as the most urgent, given the fact that he only has one year of team control left prior to entering free agency. Trading him prior to Opening Day 2016 would allow an acquiring team to not only receive a full year of control, but also give them the ability to make a qualifying offer to Chapman following the season. Given the fact that MLB is now investigating the domestic violence claims against him, he is not getting traded any time soon. The Reds’ other significant trade chip, third baseman Todd Frazier, is still available and being discussed by multiple teams.

Jay Bruce is perhaps the next most likely candidate to be traded, but the 28-year-old right fielder is coming off a pair of seasons in which he put together a .222/.288/.406 slash line, with 44 home runs and 294 strikeouts. By comparison, over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he hit .257/.328/.495, with 64 home runs and 340 strikeouts. Bruce is owed $12.5 million next year and has a $13 million team option for 2017. Unless the Reds receive an overwhelming trade offer for Bruce, it may be in their best interest to retain him until at least the trade deadline in July in an effort to improve his trade value.

That leaves Brandon Phillips. The 34-year-old second baseman is under contract for the next two seasons, for a total of $27 million dollars. The four-time Gold Glove winner compiled his best overall season in 2015 since 2011, albeit without the power. Slashing .294/.328/.395, with 12 home runs and 23 stolen bases, Phillips showed his versatility by hitting anywhere in the lineup. Fangraphs ranks Brandon Phillips as tied for the fifth best defensive second baseman for 2015 based on Defensive Runs Saved. His five runs saved were only second in the National League to the Marlins’ Dee Gordon, who saved thirteen runs. Since 2011, Phillips ranks third, behind Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia.

So why trade a player like Brandon Phillips after he just had such a productive season? First, he is not likely to be around the next time the Reds are in contention for a playoff spot. His next contract will begin with his age-36 season. The fact that Phillips posted the quality numbers he did in 2015 is likely largely due to the fact that he remained healthy the entire season. He suffered a thumb injury in 2014 and reported after the 2013 season that he was seeing a hand specialist. In other words, Brandon Phillips’ value is likely to only decline from this point. A trade is made even more difficult due to Phillips having ten-five rights. Because he has ten years of major league service time that includes five years with the same team, Phillips has to approve any trade he is involved in.

It was reported earlier this month that the Reds and the Arizona Diamondbacks had discussed a trade that would swap Phillips for second baseman Aaron Hill. While nothing has developed with that rumor, a new report was released tonight that linked Phillips to the Washington Nationals. On paper, a trade to the Nationals would seem to make more sense than one to the Diamondbacks, given Washington’s hiring of former Reds’ manager Dusty Baker. If the Reds can work out a trade and persuade Brandon Phillips to agree to it, I am all for it.