AnalysisNL Central

2021 Cincinnati Reds Season Preview

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Noah Gayhart takes a look at the Cincinnati Reds!

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 31-29, Tied for 2nd Place in the NL Central

Team MVP: Trevor Bauer

Team Cy Young: Trevor Bauer

Despite getting off to a slow start, the Cincinnati Reds were able to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The pitching was outstanding with a rotation led by Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and eventual NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, and Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims emerging as legitimate late-inning arms out of the pen. Unfortunately, though, the team really struggled on offense. After adding Nicholas Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama, many expected the Reds offense to be good. Most of the Reds’ starting lineup got off to a slow start, causing them to struggle out of the gate and find themselves 6.5 games back in the division only 19 games into the season.

One of the biggest reasons for the Reds offensive struggles was an MLB low BABIP of .245, 21 points less than the next lowest team. Some of the low BABIP can be explained by an over reliance on home runs, but the 2020 Reds were simply unlucky. It wasn’t until the offense started to come together that the Reds made a late season push to get into the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Reds postseason was over in the blink of an eye, dropping two straight to the Atlanta Braves without scoring a run.

Obviously, the season didn’t end the way the Reds wanted, but there are some good takeaways from this season. Tejay Antone and Lucas Sims made huge strides which helped in softening the blow of losing both Bauer and Raisel Iglesias. Eugenio Suarez and Nick Castellanos both had “down years,” but were top 10% of MLB in Barrel%, meaning a lot of their struggles boil down to bad luck. Joey Votto put things together in the back half of the season, hitting .258/.385/.557 (.941 OPS) over his last 29 games. These are all good indicators that the Reds offense will be better in 2021.

Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020: Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, Archie Bradley, Raisel Iglesias, Freddy Galvis

Notable Free Agent Additions: 🙁

Notable Trades: *deep sigh*

Coming into the 2020-2021 offseason the Cincinnati Reds had one goal: acquire a shortstop. Freddy Galvis’ contract was up, and it was clear that Jose Garcia needed more developmental time in the minors, leaving Kyle Farmer as the only “big-league shortstop” on the roster. Despite not being filled with the big names of next year’s free agent class, there were plenty of good options for the Reds to pursue. Any of Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, and Marcus Semien would’ve been big upgrades over the current options. The Reds were “in the running” for all three of them at one point or another, but as you can deduce from the notable free agent additions list at the top of this paragraph, the Reds whiffed on all three.

Two moves, within a week of each other set the tone for the Reds offseason. First, the Reds chose to non-tender Archie Bradley, saving $6M in the process. Then, five days later, the Reds traded Raisel Iglesias and cash to the Angels in exchange for Noe Ramirez and Leonardo Rivas, a clear salary dump move. At the time, the Reds tried to spin these moves as freeing up money so that it could be spent elsewhere on the team, most likely shortstop. As I write this, the Reds have only signed two players to Major League contracts for the 2021 season, relievers Sean Doolittle and Edgar Garcia.

Now, I do want to take a quick second to say Nick Krall is not the person to blame for this. It is clear that Bob Castellini and the rest of the ownership group have given Krall a strict budget to adhere to, leaving Krall to have to get creative. So, if you have complaints about the effort put forth by the Reds to field starting caliber players at all nine positions, and you should, direct them towards Bob Castellini.

The Reds did bring in two candidates for the shortstop position. They acquired via trade Kyle Holder, a 26-year-old Rule 5 pick by the Phillies who was DFA’d to make room for Didi Gregorius and has never played above Double A. The second player they acquired was Dee Strange-Gordon. In 2019, Strange-Gordon was bottom 6% of the league in wOBA (.282), bottom 4% in BB% (4.3%), bottom 2% in average exit velocity and xSLG (84.3 mph, .313), and was bottom 1% in xWOBA and Hard Hit% (.265, 19%). Also, he’s only played 113.1 innings of shortstop since the beginning of the 2017 season.

The one place the Reds front office deserves credit this offseason is in acquiring intriguing arms to compete for bullpen spots in 2021. The Spincinnati movement is in full effect. Kyle Boddy and Derek Johnson will have their work cut out for them while they try to turn guys such as Sean Doolittle, Jeff Hoffman, Hector Perez, Cionel Perez, Edgar Garcia, and others into positive contributing members on this team.

It appears as if the Reds went into the offseason hoping that none of the other teams in the NL Central would get better, leaving the door open for them to compete in 2021. Unfortunately for the Reds, the Cardinals had other ideas and were gifted Nolan Arenado from the Rockies. There is still an opportunity for the Reds to compete, as the NL Central is the worst division in baseball, but it is going to be a long, difficult task without an actual shortstop.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Projected Lineup:

1) Jesse Winker – LF

2) Joey Votto – 1B

3) Nick Castellanos – RF

4) Eugenio Suarez – 3B

5) Mike Moustakas – 2B

6) Nick Senzel – CF

7) Kyle Farmer – SS

8) Tucker Barnhart – C

9) Pitcher Spot

Projected Bench: Shogo Akiyama, Tyler Stephenson, Kyle Holder, Aristides Aquino, Dee Strange-Gordon

Projected Rotation: Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, Wade Miley, Jose De Leon

Projected Bullpen: Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, Sean Doolittle, Tejay Antone, Jeff Hoffman, Noe Ramirez, Cam Bedrosian

This lineup, if they perform to expectations, should be really good in spots 1-6. After that, the lineup becomes a black hole. Kyle Farmer and Tucker Barnhart have career wRC+’s of 74 and 83, and team’s rarely see any production from the pitcher’s spot. One of the biggest problems the Reds faced last year was run production from the bottom of the lineup. A great example of this comes from the 2020 playoffs. In game 1 of the Wild Card Series, the top six in the order combined for 10 hits and three walks, while the bottom three in the order only produced one hit. As I’m sure you painfully remember, the Reds were unable to score a run and lost 1-0 in 13 innings. This offense will be better than last year, assuming they don’t generate another historically bad BABIP, but how much better they will be is capped by the bottom third of the lineup.

Many of the Reds hitters are taking “revamped approaches” at the plate. It will be hard to tell right away if the new approaches are working, but it is promising to hear given the team’s performance last season. Joey Votto is looking to hit for more power, and as evidenced by his .557 SLG in the back half of 2020 it is already taking effect. Eugenio Suarez is this year’s “best shape of his life” player for the Reds. Suarez has slimmed down a ton and is looking to increase production at the plate, even saying in an interview that he is shooting for 50 HRs this year. Kyle Farmer and Tucker Barnhart are taking new approaches as well, which will hopefully help the bottom of the order.

The bench, to me, is the biggest weak spot on this team. The biggest bright spots will be Akiyama and Stephenson. Akiyama really began to get a good feel at the plate towards the end of the season in 2020. From the first half to the second half, Akiyama was able to cut his K% from 24% to 14.8% and increased his OBP from .307 to .393. Stephenson will likely split time with Barnhart behind the plate but will provide a strong pinch-hit bat on his off days. Aquino will be a serviceable fifth outfielder, but I still have concerns about his offensive prowess. Outside of August 2019, Aquino has struggled at the plate, but his ability to play all three outfield positions and run into a HR from time to time will keep him on the roster. After Aquino there is a steep decline in value.

Kyle Holder is a Rule 5 pick, meaning he must make the team out of camp, or he will be returned to the Yankees, so I predict he will make the club. The last spot is definitely up for grabs. I’m guessing Strange-Gordon, but it could be any number of guys. Jose Garcia, Alex Blandino, Jonathan India, Max Schrock, Cheslor Cuthbert, Mark Payton, and Scott Heineman are all in the running.

Even though the Reds lost both Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani to free agency, the rotation still projects to be the strongest part of the team. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are both All-Star caliber pitchers with Cy Young potential at the top of the rotation. After them, things begin to get more interesting.

Tyler Mahle projects to be the third starter after making big strides last year, mostly due to adjustments to his pitch arsenal. Mahle began throwing a slider again in 2020, throwing it 32.4% of the time. The slider replaced his curveball, which he only threw eight times this year after 23.2% usage in 2019. Mahle also got a 41.5% Whiff% on his slider, a big reason for his almost 7% jump in K% from 2019 to 2020.

Wade Miley slots in as the number four starter. Many Reds fans are down on Miley after a poor 2020. He was injured for most of the season and ineffective when he did take the mound. Prior to 2020, Miley had put together two really strong seasons. Miley has a career GB% of 50.6% and is really good at missing barrels. In 2019, Miley was in the 92nd percentile in Barrel% and was 95th percentile in 2018. If Miley can return to form in 2021, he has a good chance at being one of the best number four starters in the league.

The fifth spot in the rotation is likely going to come down to Spring Training performance. Jose De Leon, Michael Lorenzen, and Tejay Antone are the three favorites to take the spot. David Bell has been quoted saying that his “gut” tells him Antone will be in the pen because of his performance there last year. That would leave De Leon and Lorenzen as the two most likely candidates. After the season De Leon had in the Puerto Rican Winter League, I think he will edge out Lorenzen for the last spot.

De Leon is reportedly feeling as confident as ever since receiving Tommy John surgery in 2018. Over the winter he was throwing 96-97 mph and has reworked his slider. According to Reds’ assistant pitching coach Eric Jagers, De Leon has added 9 ½ inches of horizontal break and 400 rpms to his slider. He’s already seeing results: in the Puerto Rican Winter League he threw 29 innings with a 1.86 ERA, giving up only 13 hits, 11 walks, and striking out 53 batters.

So, if De Leon gets the fifth rotation spot, that means Lorenzen will be back in the bullpen. Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, and Lucas Sims will all be fighting for the closer role. I believe that it will end up being a mixture of all three. Lorenzen, Sims, and Tejay Antone are all guys that can go multiple innings and will likely be used that way. Sean Doolittle is fully healthy and has a chance to be an above average pitcher again. One of the things that will help him is not having to be the “guy” in the pen. Doolittle, Noe Ramirez, Cam Bedrosian, and Jeff Hoffman will all likely be lower leverage guys to start the year, but it would not be surprising for one or two of them to pitch their way into higher leverage roles.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 79-83, 3rd place in NL Central

PECOTA Projected Record: 79-83, 4th place in NL Central

Personal Projection: 81-81, 3rd place in NL Central

For 2021, I am predicting that the Reds finish at an even .500 record of 81-81. I think FanGraphs and PECOTA both have reasonable projections as well at 79-83. They lost NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, a solid rotation arm in Anthony DeSclafani, and the only big-league ready shortstop they had, Freddy Galvis. Then they traded away Raisel Iglesias and non-tendered Archie Bradley. If all of that isn’t bad enough, they sat on their hands all offseason and didn’t do anything to get better. So why do I think they are still a .500 team?

For starters, outside of the Cardinals, the rest of the NL Central hasn’t done much to get better. Having a weak division will allow them to stay competitive while only being roughly .500. Offensively, they almost have to be better. It’s extremely unlikely that they have such a low BABIP again. If everyone can just play to their expectations, then the offense will be much improved. Losing a Cy Young winner hurts, but it hurts a little less when you still have Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray at the top of the rotation. I expect Tyler Mahle to pick up where he left off last year and for Wade Miley to bounce back as well. The only thing that I think will hold this team back from finishing around .500 is the lack of depth. As I mentioned when talking about the bench, there is a huge decline in the talent level once you get past the first few guys. A few injuries to key players could spell a disaster of a season. At the end of the day, the Reds are a middle of the pack team that could find themselves in contention in a very mediocre division.

Final Thoughts

This offseason was nothing short of a disaster. Cincinnati lost the only Cy Young winner in team history and failed on the one goal they had: to acquire a shortstop. Yet, a glimmer of hope remains for the Reds. A weak division, strong rotation, and a lineup primed for a rebound all mean the Reds still have a chance to sneak into the playoffs, and once you’re in, anything can happen.

Noah Gayhart

Senior at the University of Kentucky. Cincinnati Reds Writer. Intern for Prep Baseball Report Kentucky. You can follow me on Twitter: @noah_gayhart

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