Cincinnati Reds baseball is back! We’re going to get a full season, some fans will be in the stands, the Reds are coming off an appearance in the National League playoffs, and the club has a new All-Star shortstop. Time to get excited, right?
Well, kinda. This is the eighth season I’ve written about the Redlegs here at Cincinnati Magazine, and for a long time now I’ve been looking forward to writing one of these season previews after a playoff run the previous year. We endured the rebuilding years and faithfully stuck with this club through bad times in the hope that someday we’d be repaid with a team that actually had a chance of competing.
This is not what I envisioned. The Reds did make the playoffs in 2020, but it was a watered-down version of the postseason that allowed half of the league to participate. And though Cincinnati technically participated in the opening round series against the Braves, they were summarily dismissed after two games without scoring even a single run.
It left a bad taste in our mouths, without question. On the other hand, Reds fans had reason for optimism, even after the playoff disaster. The club had a strong core, endured some bad luck in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and it would only take a little work from the front office to strengthen the team over the winter. Here’s what I wrote last October, as I summed up 2020 and tried to look forward to the off-season:
There is reason to hope that some of this year’s players will improve upon their 2020 performance. Eugenio Suarez, for example, probably isn’t going to hit .202/.312/.470 again. Shogo Akiyama may have finally adjusted to baseball in the U.S., and maybe we can expect his numbers to rise next year. Perhaps Nick Senzel will finally have a healthy season and demonstrate the promise everyone has been anticipating.
But hope is not a strategy. Cincinnati management can’t simply sit on their hands and hope that they don’t have “bad luck” next year. How exactly they will go about improving this club is less clear.
I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news first: Cincinnati management sat on their hands this off-season. Even worse, they gave away two quality back-of-the-bullpen relief pitchers (Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley) essentially for free. And then the front office decided to enter Spring Training without signing a major league shortstop. Literally, a major league baseball team thought they could forget to fill one of their starting positions and hope the fans wouldn’t notice. If I hadn’t seen it happen, I wouldn’t have believed it.
It’s not the front office’s fault; blame it on the owner, Bob Castellini, and his penny-pinching ways. But that’s a conversation for a different day—and, believe me, we’ll continue this conversation at some point in the future, right here in the magazine’s digital pages. I want to focus on the good news today.
Take a look at the Reds roster as we approach Opening Day: There are a lot of good big league baseball players. Seriously, the core (Suarez, Nick Castellanos, Jesse Winker, Mike Moustakas, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and more) is solid. When you look at the regulars, both the lineup and the pitching staff, this team isn’t bad. And when you think of the bad Reds teams of the very recent past, that’s progress!
Let’s talk about the lineup first. Think about the players who can reasonably be expected to improve upon last season’s numbers. If healthy, Suarez, Castellanos, Moustakas, Akiyama, and Senzel seem like good bets to be better than they were last year. Sure, they weren’t great in that small-sample-size season of 2020 but, as I’ve said before, the back of their baseball cards indicates a certain level of performance that’s better than what they reached last year.
As we approached the off-season, I was concerned about two positions: catcher and shortstop. The Reds didn’t spend any money to upgrade catcher, but they did clear the way for former first-round pick Tyler Stephenson to join the big league club. Sure, he’ll be a rookie in his first full season, but Stephenson is the real deal. It may take him time to adjust, but his bat will eventually play in the majors. I’m excited to watch him alongside Gold Glover Tucker Barnhart; they could make one of the better catching tandems in the National League.
As for shortstop, the situation is murkier. The Reds will take the field on Opening Day without an established MLB shortstop on the roster. This seems like a problem, no? Well, ownership’s refusal to let GM Nick Krall acquire a shortstop forced manager David Bell to get creative, and he responded by shifting Suarez one spot over to his left.
Suarez debuted in the big leagues as a shortstop, of course, but it’s clear that he’s better suited to be a third baseman. He’s an All-Star third baseman, in fact. Can he be an All-Star shortstop? That’s less clear, but maybe? Suarez’s ability to handle the position defensively is the single biggest question about the 2021 Reds. It’s a gamble, but if it works out, it could pay huge dividends for this club.
The gamble isn’t all about Suarez, however. Moving him to short allows the Reds to shift Moustakas back to his natural position at the hot corner. And that opens up second base for Jonathan India, the former top-five draft pick who has put up an uneven performance since joining the Reds organization. Team insiders say that India was the breakout performer at the pandemic-induced “alternate site” that took the place of the minor leagues last year, and he has certainly impressed during this year’s Spring Training.
If India can live up to the promise he demonstrated as a big-time college hitter, the Reds offense could be markedly better. And that offense was the only reason last year’s Reds were so difficult to watch most of the time. I’m optimistic.
The other side of the coin, of course, is the pitching staff. Trevor Bauer, the first Cy Young Award winner in Reds franchise history, departed for more lucrative climes—turns out that Dodgers ownership was willing to pay for talent, unlike Castellini. Still, I’m more bullish on the Reds rotation than I’ve been in many years. Castillo and Gray are both legitimate aces; few teams have a 1-2 duo atop their rotation that can compete with those guys.
But there is depth, too. I’ve been singing the praises of Tyler Mahle for years, and there is every reason to believe he’ll be one of the best No. 3 starters in the league this year. He’s only 26 years old and took a big step forward last year. This will be the Summer of Mahle. Bank on it.
There are some health questions with the hurlers right now, but the Reds have a bunch of pitchers with upside who are in the mix to start games this year. I’m talking Michael Lorenzen, Wade Miley, Tejay Antone, Jose DeLeon, and Jeff Hoffman primarily. Can the Reds fill two rotation spots with that mix? I think so. I’ve always loved Lorenzen’s potential, Antone and DeLeon may have more upside than any other pitchers on Cincinnati’s 40-man roster, and Miley, well, Miley has had more success at the big league level than anyone on this club other than Castillo and Gray. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a fine fifth starter.
I’ll have more to say about the pitching staff in the coming weeks, but the starting rotation should be good in 2021. There’s a lot of upside in the bullpen as well, despite Castellini ordering the front office to jettison Iglesias and Bradley because they cost too much money.
Are the Reds a World Series contender? I’m not willing to go that far, but Cincinnati does have one more thing going for them: The NL Central will likely be the worst division in baseball this season. Most of the nerdy computer projection systems show the Reds bunched up with the Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals near the top of the Central. The good guys will have a real chance to win the division, and if you can qualify for the playoffs you have a shot at winning the crown.
Unless, of course, you don’t score any runs in the playoffs. But that can’t happen in two consecutive years, right? Right?
Let’s be optimistic. Baseball is back, and the Reds should be in the mix for a playoff spot. I’ve been waiting for this feeling for a long time.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.