Forever Young

 

 

Since we’re all good friends here, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Actually, there are two secrets, and they’re related to each other:

1. The Cincinnati Reds will make the playoffs again.

2. It’s not going to happen in 2016.

If you’ve paid even a little bit of attention to the various baseball season previews that crop up each spring like clockwork, you know that the Redlegs are expected to be one of the worst teams in the major leagues. USA Today says that they will lose 101 games, a mark that would match the franchise record, set by the forgettable 1982 Reds. The number crunchers are more optimistic (if you can call this optimism): FanGraphs projects a fourth-place finish at 73-89, while Baseball Prospectus sees 74-88 and last place in Cincinnati’s future.

After losing 98 games last year—and off-loading Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, and Aroldis Chapman—I’m sure you didn’t need any statistical analysis or projection to tell you that the Reds aren’t going to be in the pennant race this year. But that doesn’t mean that the club isn’t worth watching. There will be another competitive Reds team at some point—Walt Jocketty, Cincinnati’s President of Baseball Operations, puts the ETA of that team around 2017 or 2018—and some of the players on the current roster stand a chance at being contributors on the next good Reds team.* Who are those players, and what role could they conceivably play on the next club that captures the heart of the Queen City?

*For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to ignore the very legitimate questions about the rebuilding process that is currently underway. The Reds tell us they have a blueprint that will lead to success as soon as next year. Let’s choose to believe them. For now.

As Joel Luckhaupt has noted, the Reds only have 10 players on their Opening Day roster who were on the roster at the beginning of 2015, and the average age of the club has dropped from 30 to 28 years old. Among the veterans on the club, very few can be expected to be contributors on the next good team. Joey Votto has eight years left on his contract, and since he’s still the greatest hitter on planet earth*, he should be able to mash baseballs for a few more seasons. Homer Bailey will be around for four more years; if he is able to recover successfully from Tommy John surgery, it’s not difficult to envision Homer as the veteran #3 or #4 starter on the next pennant contender.

*I hope Mike Trout’s mother and Bryce Harper’s girlfriend don’t read this.

Who else? We’ll know by the end of the season whether Devin Mesoraco is going to be a long-term solution at catcher. His 2014 season was brilliant, obviously, but last year was an injury-riddled mess, and Mesoraco will be 28 in a couple of months. If he is forced to move away from catcher to another position, it’s hard to see how he fits in. Unless, of course, he repeats his batting line from a couple of years ago (.273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs and 80 RBI, a 4.8 bWAR), in which case the Reds will find a place for him.

The only other “veteran” with a chance to be around long enough to play important games in Cincinnati is 25-year-old Billy Hamilton. (I’m not smart enough to project whether he’s eventually going to hit well enough to stick around.) That leaves a couple of big names on the outside: Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. Don’t be surprised if either of those guys are wearing a different uniform by the end of the season (though BP has to consent to a trade). Neither are signed past next year, and it’s difficult to envision either player sticking around Cincinnati long enough to celebrate another championship.

That brings me to the “new” young guys, and the reason that I think the Reds actually have a chance to execute their vision of competing in 2017 or 2018. Take a look at all the young pitchers in this organization; if most of them pan out, the Reds could have one of the better starting rotations in the league within a couple of years.

In fact, the Reds already have two guys who are above average right now: Raisel Iglesias and Anthony DeSclafani. Iglesias, in particular, has the chops to be a #1 or #2 starter. In addition, the Reds have two other youngsters with top-of-the-rotation potential. Robert Stephenson is the Reds top pitching prospect, and he’ll make his major league debut this week before being sent back to Louisville for a while. Cody Reed nearly made the Opening Day roster, and his ceiling is as high as Stephenson’s.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, a future in which Iglesias, DeSclafani, Stephenson, and Reed continue to develop, all of them coming close to realizing their potential. Then throw Homer Bailey into that mix, and you have a gorgeous starting rotation.

But what if all those guys don’t develop as projected? Well, the Reds also have Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, Michael Lorenzen, and Jon Moscot waiting in the wings for their shot at being a member of the next good Reds rotation. All of these guys don’t have to pan out (and all of them likely won’t) for the Reds to be in good shape, pitching-wise.

Pitching is only one-half of the conversation, of course, and while the Reds aren’t set up quite as nicely on the position-player side, there are several kids to whom you should be paying attention. You already know about Eugenio Suarez. He’ll move over to third base this year, and it remains to be seen how he reacts to that switch, but he’s just 24 years old and a decent bet to be playing somewhere on the next good Reds club.

In addition, three of Cincinnati’s top prospects are on the cusp of the big leagues. Jose Peraza, only 21 years of age, didn’t make the Opening Day roster, but the Reds think he’ll be the starter at one of the middle infield positions very soon. The other starter in the middle infield may be Alex Blandino, Cincinnati’s first-round pick back in 2014, who will probably start the season at AA Pensacola, but will be ready for the show very soon.

The outfield is a little murkier, but we’ve all been waiting for Jesse Winker to emerge as the long-term solution in left field. That day could be coming soon and, believe me, you’re going to love this guy. Winker can flat-out hit the baseball, and has a great command of the strike zone. Call him Votto Lite (very lite, but still…). Winker may be in the middle of the Reds lineup by the end of this season, and hopefully, for many seasons to come.

As a matter of fact, that brings to mind what may be the most exciting thing about the next few months. Go back and look at the names of all those prospects I mentioned above. Every single one of those guys has a chance of wearing a big league uniform at some point in 2016. A Cincinnati Reds uniform, in fact.

Yes, this is going to be a difficult season in terms of wins and losses. But the future is nearly here. We’ll know very soon whether that future includes a competitive Reds team in the near-term, or whether we’re in for a long rebuild. There is at least reason to hope it will be the former.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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