I was bouncing off the walls back in mid-February, excited to watch this year’s version of the Cincinnati Reds. After all, this is the seventh season we’ve convened together here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine, and there was every reason to believe that the Reds were actually going to break through this season. By which I mean the club’s first winning record since 2013. What a time to be alive, right?
And then everything fell apart. A global pandemic wiped out sports all across the globe, and society dealt with bigger and more important issues in the meantime. So the off-season review that I had planned to write in March was put on the back burner as we waited to see if and when the season would resume.
Finally, MLB has announced that they’re going to attempt a 60-game season, and I’ll take it. It’s good to be back again; we’ve always had a good time in this space, and I fully expect that to continue. I have no idea whatsoever if the league will actually be able to finish this season—no one knows the answer to that one, unfortunately—but for the purposes of this column, we’re going to assume that baseball is back and it won’t go away again.
Permit me to direct your attention to my final column of the 2019 season, in which I suggested an off-season strategy for the Reds to employ:
Which means it’s time for Reds ownership to spend money as if they were actually serious about being a competitive MLB franchise. Cincinnati opened the wallet a bit last year, but the Reds’ payroll was still below average. In fact, it was only the 10th-highest payroll among the 15 National League clubs (17th in all of baseball). If that doesn’t change over the next six months, you have my permission to ignore the Reds indefinitely. This is their chance to prove to us fans that they’re willing to compete on the same playing field as the best teams in the league.
Well, they actually did it. For the first time in my entire life as a baseball fan—and I’m old enough to have seen Wayne Krenchicki play, live and in person—the Reds made a serious push in the off-season. In fact, there’s a good argument that Cincinnati was more aggressive in free agency than any other team in baseball.
It’s like Bizarro World, right? Is it possible that these are the same Reds that have given us so many headaches in recent years? I mean, look at this glorious list: 2B/3B Mike Moustakas, signed to a four-year, $64 million free agent contract; OF Nick Castellanos, signed to a four-year, $64 million contract (with a bunch of funky opt-out clauses that we’ll discuss more as the off-season approaches); OF Shogo Akiyama, signed to a three-year, $21 million contract; LHP Bizarro Jerry, signed to a 10-day, $5,000 contract; LHP Wade Miley, signed for two years at $15 million total; and RHP Pedro Strop, signed for one year at $1.825 million (with plenty of incentives that could increase the total value over $3 million).
That’s really an impressive group of additions filling a number of holes in the Reds lineup, with one possible exception. If you’ll remember—and I’m sorry for asking you to remember the disappointing 2019 season—Cincinnati’s pitching staff was among the best in baseball, while the offense struggled. Well, the lineup has been overhauled, while the rotation was strengthened further. The result: a team that is ready to compete immediately.
Among the suggestions I made in that final column of 2019 were these: 1) The Reds must sign at least one, and ideally two, impact free agent bats; and 2) upgrade the middle infield and the outfield. The Reds one-upped me by signing three potentially impactful free agent bats. In the process, they unquestionably upgraded both the middle infield and the outfield. It’s almost like they’re reading my columns, right?
Let’s begin with Castellanos, a 29-year-old outfielder who may end up being the best hitter on this team. Last season, he hit .289/.337/.525 with 27 home runs and led the league with 58 doubles. After coming over to the National League in a mid-season trade to Chicago, Castellanos was incredible, hitting .321/.356/.646 with 16 homers in just 51 games.
If you’ve been watching any of the Reds workouts and scrimmages in recent days, you’ve seen Castellanos hit some bombs. Manager David Bell is certainly impressed. As Bell told Reds beat writer Mark Sheldon: “[He is] extremely motivated to really take his game to another level, both personally and he’s really driven to win. I think somewhere along the line, maybe he’s always been like this, I think he’s experienced it enough to where it’s like you can’t get enough of it. He wants to have that experience every year, and it’s rubbing off on our team already. He’s really coming into his own, into the prime of his career.”
Moustakas was the first big signing of the off-season, and it set the stage for great things to come. Moose has actually played mostly third base in his big league career, but he came to Cincinnati with the idea that he’d be the second baseman, filling a huge hole in the Reds lineup. (You may have noticed that the Reds already have a pretty good third baseman named Eugenio Suarez.)
A three-time All-Star, Moustakas hit 35 home runs for the Brewers last year, and he’ll be expected to provide similar production for this year’s Reds. More from David Bell: “Obviously, offensively, he adds a lot to our lineup. We saw last year, he’s maturing; he continues to mature as a hitter. He’s always had the power, but he continues to be a more patient hitter, have better at-bats…. And we love him in our lineup, in this ballpark and on this team.”
To me, the most interesting off-season acquisition was Akiyama, the 33-year-old outfielder who became the first Japanese player ever to sign with the Reds. He was an on-base machine in Japan; his lowest on-base percentage in the last five seasons was .385. He was a legit star in his home country, a five-time Pacific League All-Star who won six Golden Glove awards for his center field defense. He’ll play all around the outfield for this year’s Reds, but if Akiyama can be a close approximation of the player he has been in Japan, watch out.
This is fun, right? And I haven’t even mentioned Wade Miley, a former All-Star who had his best season under the tutelage of current Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson, or Pedro Strop, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball for nearly his entire career. Plus, Strop wears his cap at a jaunty angle, a practice of which I heartily approve. Those guys will complement an already strong pitching staff.
And who did the Reds lose in the off-season? Jose Iglesias, who was competent but mostly overrated by Reds fans, as well as Jose Peraza (now with Boston), Kevin Gausman (San Francisco), and Alex Wood (Los Angeles). I wanted to see Wood return, but it’s hard to argue that the Reds didn’t make the right choice in each of these cases.
Oh, and did I mention that Nick Senzel is fully healthy and ready for a breakout season? OK, this is just a plug for my profile story about Senzel that was in Cincinnati Magazine on newsstands when Opening Day was originally scheduled, but every word in it still stands: Senzel is an All-Star waiting to happen.
In that final column of 2019, I wrote this:
But let’s be clear: The rebuild must end now. It’s time for the Cincinnati Reds to go all-in. This aggrieved fan base should settle for nothing less. I know I won’t.
You know what? The Reds did what we asked of them. You have permission to get very, very excited about this club.
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.