Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
For most fans, those words hang over the 2017 Reds as an ominous warning of things to come. This announcement quickly became the punchline to many jokes on social media. Much of the fan base responded to this news with despondency that’s more appropriate for the middle of the season, when you’re watching perhaps the worst bullpen in MLB history.
However, as C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer noted: “If Feldman starting Opening Day changes your opinion about the 2017 Reds, you weren’t paying attention.” The front office never planned for the team to be competitive this season. Bob Castellini has publicly stated that 2018 was the target for making the Reds “truly competitive.” Realistically it might take the team at least one more year beyond that.
While Cincinnati isn’t expected to be competitive this season, this will be the first year they have a roster in place from which they’ve already traded basically every asset with any value (Joey Votto isn’t going anywhere). Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips, all contributors on the last successful Reds team, have been traded away. In that regard, the rebuild is complete and Cincinnati has most of the players in their system who will form the core of the roster moving forward.
This is a season in which Reds fans will get their best look at the pieces the team acquired in many of those deals. While the team isn’t expected to have much success on the field, their projected PECOTA win total of 74 would be an improvement over last season. On one level, that’s all most are hoping to see this year. Can the team take another step forward with this new foundation in place? If so, that’s a good sign for the future.
Beyond that, how will this team be remembered? Probably for the following four storylines.
1. A lineup that stole a lot of bases.
What the team has lacked in wins during the past few seasons, it's made up for with players capable of putting on electric individual performances. Billy Hamilton might be the prime example of this. When you turned on a Reds game you knew they were likely to lose, but you also knew there was a chance of Hamilton making a jaw-dropping play in center field or stealing multiple bases.
Hamilton finished last season with 58 steals. That was four behind Jonathan Villar, who led the majors. It’s worth noting that Hamilton played in 37 fewer games than Villar due to an oblique injury. Fans have long wondered just how many bases Hamilton could steal if he was fully healthy for a season and could get on base at a league-average rate (I’m all aboard the “Hamilton has finally changed his approach” train). As Rob Mains noted last season, Hamilton is baseball’s best hope of replicating Vince Coleman-like seasons.
Not only will teams have to worry about Hamilton on the basepaths, Jose Peraza has been tabbed as the starter at second base. Peraza showed the ability to hit for a high average in the minors, and when he got on base he was more than willing to try to steal one. In 2013 and 2014 he tallied 60-plus stolen bases, and last year he swiped 31 between Louisville and Cincinnati.
PECOTA pegs Hamilton for 71 steals, which would be the most in a season since Jose Reyes racked up 78 in 2007. Peraza is projected to steal 31. How would the combined total of 102 stack up against the rest of the league? Last season 102 would have ranked as the 10th-highest steal total of any team in baseball. By themselves they would have stolen more bases than 20 other franchises. Teams might not be that worried about visiting Great American Ballpark, but their pitchers (I’m looking at you, Jon Lester) will have to pay a little extra attention to these two.
2. A bullpen that partied like it’s 1999.
There were numerous games last season in which the Reds would go to the bullpen, and fans would turn off the TV. Cincinnati’s relievers set several records, but not the kinds of records you’d want. They set the mark for the most consecutive games with at least one run allowed. They easily set a new mark for home runs allowed in relief. Perhaps the best encapsulation of Cincinnati’s struggles in the bullpen came on May 17. Steve Delabar was pitching, and he proceeded to walk four straight batters with the bases already loaded. It was fair to argue that the Reds might have been the worst pitching staff of all time in 2016.
To be fair, the bullpen was much better as the season progressed. Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen both returned from injuries to give the team a formidable one-two punch. For 2017 the team added Drew Storen to the mix, and manager Bryan Price hasn’t ruled out putting one of the team’s talented young prospects in the bullpen to gain some experience. What could make Cincinnati’s bullpen use such an anomaly this season? The team has been open about its plans to use the top relievers early and often.
There are still a number of question marks in the starting rotation, and that could necessitate a higher number of innings from pitchers like Iglesias and Lorenzen. Zach Buchanan of the Enquirer notes that those two could each see as many as 100 innings of work (although Iglesias is currently sidelined). Since 2000, only five relievers have racked up 100-plus innings without making any starts. The last reliever to do it was Scott Proctor for the Yankees in 2006. If the Reds gave two relievers that amount of work, it would be a throwback to bullpen usage of a bygone era. The last pair of teammates to work 100-plus innings in relief were Scott Sullivan and Danny Graves … for the Reds in 1999.
There might not be two bigger question marks on any major-league roster than Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco. Cincinnati expected both players to be foundational pieces. However, neither contributed much in 2015 or 2016, and this could be the season that finally answers what they will be moving forward. A healthy season from both (or even one) would be a major boost to the rebuilding efforts.
Bailey is currently the biggest financial issue facing the Reds (despite what you’ve heard on Facebook, it’s not Joey Votto). The team inked Bailey to a six-year, $105 million contract prior to the 2014 season. The intention was for Bailey to become the ace at the top of the rotation. Over the past two seasons Bailey has pitched 34.1 innings, total. In that time he’s had Tommy John surgery, and he recently had another procedure to remove bone spurs from his elbow. The latest procedure will keep him out until at least June, and it’s fair to wonder if he's looking at another lost season. Cincinnati still owes Bailey $63 million.
Mesoraco was one of the most productive catchers in baseball in 2014. He smashed 25 home runs, drove in 80 runs, and looked like the Reds' catcher for the foreseeable future. However, he’s only appeared in 39 games since that breakout season. Mesoraco struggled with a hip injury early in 2015 that ultimately required surgery. He’d have another surgery on that hip, and then need surgery on his non-throwing shoulder the following season. As of now he feels healthy, but his presence in the lineup is far from a sure thing. He’s guaranteed $20 million over the next two seasons.
4. Joey Votto.
At the end of the day, the Reds have one of the best hitters in baseball in the middle of their lineup. If he can put his slow starts behind him, he could put up some truly great numbers over the course of an entire season. He arguably has baseball’s best chance to hit .400 (something he did in the second half last year). Scott Feldman might start for the Reds on Opening Day, but at least Joey Votto will be at first base.