The Cincinnati Reds are considered to be one of the biggest winners of the 2015 MLB trade deadline, which is only worth a grandfatherly pat on the back considering the level of talent the Reds supposedly placed on the trading block. Seemingly, everyone in the Reds lineup—other than Todd Frazier, Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton—were up for sale at the right price. When all was said and done, the Reds dealt Johnny Cueto to Kansas City and Mike Leake to San Francisco. In doing so, they transformed a sub-par minor league pitching system into one of the best in baseball with the acquisitions of Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, Cody Reed, and Kelly Mella. They also received a powerful, but already aging, minor league infielder in Adam Duvall, who has 26 home runs at Triple-A this season and turns 27 years old on Sept. 4. Yet for some, it’s puzzling that the Reds didn’t make more moves before the deadline. While at least one deal for Jay Bruce with the New York Mets seemed to fall through, it never felt, to me anyway, as if Reds general manager Walt Jocketty was shopping the right fielder or closer Aroldis Chapman as aggressively as he could have. Or perhaps the appropriate prospects just weren’t on the market, and holding on to them was a result of wanting merely proper return value.
Either way, it leaves the Reds “rebooting” effort with a general feeling of half-heartedness. In keeping Bruce, Chapman, and even Frazier, the members Reds front office seem to be the only people with the notion that they could be quasi-competitive in 2016, despite the massive gap between themselves and St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Chicago in terms of big-league ready talent. But for the sake of entertaining the thought, here are a few end-of-the-season questions to start thinking about now, if the Reds have any chance of relevance next season.
SHOULD THE REDS HAVE SHOPPED FRAZIER ANYWAY?
There was a small but loud contingent of Reds fans who wanted to see Frazier dealt for a large return before the trade deadline. And their points were all valid. Frazier is about to turn 30 years old. His value would never be higher than it was at the All-Star break (Home Run Derby!!), when he was on pace to hit 50 doubles and 48 home runs this season. And his team-friendly contract ($4.5 million in 2015, $7.5 million in 2016, arbitration eligible for 2017) could’ve led to even more in return from the right team. While trading Frazier would’ve been going against the thought process of somehow being competitive next season, his current state might just have Jocketty and the front office worried that they didn’t try to make a move. In the 17 games since the All-Star break, Frazier is batting .169, with just two homers to go along with 15 K’s and an on-base percentage of .236. I’m not trying to over-react to a very poor three-week stretch, but throughout the entire first-half of the season, I found myself constantly asking “Is Todd Frazier actually this good?” If the beginning of the second half is any kind of indication as to how we’ll be answering that question at the end of the season, the Reds will rue the decision not to move Frazier for pieces that could’ve helped this club next season and beyond.
WHICH HOMER BAILEY IS COMING BACK, AND WHICH DEVIN MESORACO WILL CATCH HIM?
Barring any injuries, we know two things about the how the Cincinnati Reds starting rotation will look on opening day next season. First, we know that some configuration of Anthony DeScalfani, Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, Robert Stephenson, Keyvius Sampson, and Jon Moscott (sorry, David Holmberg) will make up the two-through-five spots after what will be one of the most followed/over-analyzed spring trainings in Reds history (from a pitching perspective). And, second, we know that Homer Bailey will be the ace for the first time in his up-and-down career. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 11 years since the Reds took Bailey with the 7th overall pick of the 2004 draft, and it’s even harder to believe that he’s pitched a full starter’s season (more than 25 starts) only twice in that time (2012 and 2013). While Bailey has always had the arm of an ace—he has two no-hitters to his name—he’s rarely had the combination of consistency and durability to hold down a top spot in the Reds rotation. The fact remains that his best ever season was a 3.49 ERA, 209-inning, 199-strikeout performance in 2013 (all career bests). That’s not necessarily a world-beater, and if the Reds are going to do anything next season, Bailey will have to earn the massive contract (6 years, $105 million) that says he is.
Somewhat lost in the progression of the season and the yearly mess of the trade deadline is the recovery (hopefully) of Devin Mesoraco, who hit 25 home runs and 80 RBI in just 114 games as an All-Star in 2014. Averaged out to a full season, that’s 36 homers and 114 RBI. To say that Mesoraco’s absence (hip surgery after just 51 plate appearances this season) has been detrimental to the Reds success would be an understatement two times over. In a combined 100 starts at various positions this season, Cincinnati catchers Tucker Barnhart and Brayan Pena have combined for three homeruns and 19 RBI. Mesoraco’s WAR in 2014 was 4.8—Pena and Barnhart both currently sit at 0.1 for 2015. An offensive catcher is such a rare weapon in major league baseball, because catchers are so rarely a weapon at all. It’s certainly worth noting that the Cardinals and Giants, with Yadier Molina and Buster Posey behind their respective plates, have won four of the last five World Series.
In Mesoraco’s case, the future couldn’t be less clear. Who’s to say that 2014 wasn’t just a flash in the pan? Even if it wasn’t, his injury is one that baseball players and trainers say can linger with negative impact for years.
WILL THE REAL JAY BRUCE AND JOEY VOTTO PLEASE STAND UP?
Every season, like clockwork, Jay Bruce has one or two months, rarely consecutively, where he looks like one of the top players in baseball. A remarkable drop off most often follows those months. The end result is generally that of an above-average to good hitter, but the journey there is rarely as reliable. He hit .300 even for the month of June in 2014, despite not hitting above .220 for any other single month of the season. In 2011, he managed to squeeze a .342, 12 home run, 33 RBI, 1.140 OPS month of May between a .237 performance in April and a .217 June. That’s Jay Bruce—he’s one of the streakiest athletes I’ve ever seen in any sport. The issue most people have is that in 2014, when he came back too soon from a knee injury, the streak just stayed negative, and it carried all the way into the first two months of this season. Beginning on April 22, and not ending for exactly one month, Bruce’s average dipped below .200 for 24 consecutive games. But in the 61 games since May 22, Bruce is batting .297 with 26 doubles and 42 RBI, which is an uncharacteristically long stretch of consistent batting for a career streaker. While Bruce’s power has dipped somewhat, he is on pace to hit 42 doubles and 26 home runs this season. Perhaps more promising in the long term is that Bruce is on pace for 140 K’s, which would be a massive improvement over any other season in which he’s played in at least 150 games. Obviously, this could be another Bruce mirage in the sand, but I think it’s time for many who had written Bruce off, myself admittedly included, to step back and observe Bruce’s performance in the latter half of this season and the first half of next. Jockety might’ve made the right call in hanging onto Bruce.
Joey Votto didn’t make the All-Star team this year—with 15 home runs and a modest .277 average, he didn’t really deserve to. He is, however, the MVP of the second half of the season so far, with batting average (.482) and OBP (.628) numbers that look more like Andy Dalton’s game-to-game completion percentages than actual baseball stats. He’s reached base in 48 of his last 78 plate appearances (27 hits, 21 BBs), while striking out just nine times. There’s still the complaint that Votto is too patient (if that’s a thing), and too hesitant to swing at pitches he’s good enough to hit. He did attempt to bunt the other day, which, just, NO. But there are times when he simply has the best plate presence in baseball. If Votto can put that together for a full season again, and Bruce can play somewhere around his current clip, and Frazier stops bottoming out, and Mesoraco comes back in semi-2014 form…well, that’s a pretty promising run-on sentence for the middle of the order.
Coming in Part 2: What the hell to do with Billy Hamilton? How should the starter or reliever decisions shake out? What happens to the middle infield when Zack Cozart returns?
Joshua A. Miller is a Nuxhall Way and Cincinnati Magazine contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @_J_A_Miller.