Reds as playoff contenders in 2020? Maybe it's time to believe

Sporting News

Over the past two years, soft-tossing lefty Wade Miley has compiled a 3.52 ERA in 49 starts for the Brewers and Astros. Miley, as you’ve probably heard, reportedly signed as a free agent with the Reds on Monday, a two-year, $15 million deal.

As a point of comparison, here are the 2018-19 ERAs for a couple of other well-known starters who recently signed free-agent deals:

— Stephen Strasburg, 3.48 ERA, eight-year, $245 million deal with the Nationals
— Zack Wheeler, 3.65 ERA, five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies
— Madison Bumgarner, 3.66 ERA, five-year, $85 million deal with the Diamondbacks

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The point, of course, isn’t to say that Wade Miley is Stephen Strasburg’s equal, no matter what the ERA (a fine, but flawed stat) tells us. He’s not Wheeler or Bumgarner, either. ERA is like Wikipedia: It’s a fine place to start, but you gotta dig a bit deeper if you want to get to the real truth.

If you’re a team that fancies itself a playoff contender and Wade Miley is your No. 2 starter, you’re probably not really a playoff contender. But Miley isn’t the No. 2 starter for the Reds. He’s not the No. 3 guy, either. The top three spots belong to Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray, and that’s a darn fine top three.

But throw Miley at the back of the rotation with Anthony DeSclafani — the right-hander who had a 3.91 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings for Cincinnati in 2019 — and, folks, that’s a rotation for a team that should definitely fancy itself a playoff contender.

So, here’s the question: Is it OK to believe in the Reds as legitimate playoff contenders?

First, a quick recap of the team's long, playoff-less winter. The Reds parted ways with manager Dusty Baker when the team struggled in October, after reaching the postseason three times in four years with 90-plus win squads. That was 2013, and the Reds didn’t even sniff the playoffs in five years under Bryan Price, with win totals of 76, 64, 68, 68 and 67.

Last year, David Bell’s first as skipper, the Reds won 75 games. They surprised most in baseball by dealing for Cleveland starer Trevor Bauer before the trade deadline, and they were only 4.5 out of a wild-card spot in mid-August. They sputtered down the stretch, though, and spent September out of contention but looking forward to 2020.

“There's a ton of positive momentum for good reason, I think,” Bell told reporters at the Winter Meetings in San Diego last week. “Living in the city, living every day at the park and seeing all the work and the commitment we have to winning, to build really on what I believe to be a great foundation. It didn't produce the results that we know are going to be there last year, but a lot of progress behind the scenes.”

Because we started with Miley, let’s begin our believe-or-not study with the rotation. Castillo harnessed his immense potential and made the All-Star team in 2019, posting a 3.20 ERA, a 10.7 K/9 and allowing six fewer homers than in 2018, despite pitching 21 more innings — no small feat in a season that saw record numbers of home runs. He’s a legit No. 1.

Gray was great in his first season in Cincinnati; he posted a 2.87 ERA in 31 starts and recorded a career-best 10.5 K/9 ratio. Bauer struggled in his 10 Cincy starts (6.39 ERA), but the Reds expect he’ll produce more like his 2018 numbers — 2.21 ERA/2.44 FIP for Cleveland — than the struggles of 2019.

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In the bullpen, Raisel Iglesias has three seasons as a closer under his belt, and even though his ERA jumped in 2019, his K/9 was a career best, his BB/9 was a career low (as a reliever) and his FIP was better than 2018. His BABIP in 2019 was .318, a major jump from .234 the previous season. His bad luck can’t continue into 2020, right? With Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen and Robert Stephenson in the big-outs mix, that’s a solid crew.

And with apologies to Miley, the biggest addition the Reds have made so far this offseason was the four-year, $64 million contract they gave to Mike Moustakas. The career third baseman will slide over to second base — he played there a bit in Milwaukee — and gives the Reds a boatload of power from that position. He’s averaged 34 homers, 89 RBIs and a .817 OPS the past three seasons.

“To add a guy like Moose to a group of guys that I got to know really well last year, our believing how close we are to winning and knowing that we're like a step away from making that happen, add him and his personality and his expectations and his drive to win into that mix, I mean, it's hard not to think about it every day and think about the dynamics of how all that is going to come together,” Bell said in San Diego.

Moustakas will play second base because the hot corner is occupied by Eugenio Suarez, the slugger who popped 49 homers in 2019, after 34 and an All-Star nod in 2018. He takes over for Jose Peraza, who was non-tendered after three years as a defense-first infield mainstay. Freddie Galvis upgrades the power at shortstop, replacing Jose Iglesias, who had a .631 OPS in his one year with the Reds. Galvis hit 23 homers last year between Toronto and Cincinnati, with a .734 OPS.

And then there’s Joey Votto. A lot of what you believe about the Reds’ postseason prospects probably depends on whether you think Votto, a future Hall of Famer, has just gone through a temporary (two year) slump, or whether his time as an All-Star is done. He’s hit just 27 home runs the past two years — one fewer than Baltimore’s Chris Davis — and his .357 on-base percentage in 2019 was 70 points below his career average coming into the season.

“I believe in this guy in every way you can imagine,” Bell said. “I mean, he's human. I mean, by most people's standards, he still had a solid year last year. I believe he's going to continue to improve upon that. Like I said, I believe in him in every way possible — the work ethic, the commitment, the drive. He's going to be better.”

The outfield is young and talented, but still unproven.

Aristides Aquino burst onto the scene last year, popping 11 home runs in his first 16 games, and he finished with 19 homers and 47 RBIs — with a 122 OPS+ — in 56 games. Navigating a second run through the majors can be a challenge, though. Nick Senzel, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2016 MLB Draft, had ups and downs in his rookie year; he finished with a .742 OPS and 0.6 bWAR in 104 games.

Jesse Winkler’s entering his fourth year in the bigs; in 249 career games, he has an .845 OPS and 30 home runs. Winkler and Aquino are entering their Age 26 seasons, while Senzel doesn’t turn 25 until June 29. A lot of talent, but not a lot of certainty. The offseason, though, is still young.

But, yeah. You can see why people are starting to believe in the Reds. And not just the people being paid by the Reds.

“It's really exciting to be a part of,” Bell said. “So, of course, it's nice to hear that from people on the outside, but it doesn't surprise me because I know I'm living it, and I'm grateful to be in this position to be able to contribute.”

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