Joey Votto

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Reds

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Reds

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Cincinnati Reds

2018 record: 67-95, 5th in NL Central

Offseason additions: Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Derek Dietrich, Jose Iglesias, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Zach Duke, Kyle Farmer, Odrisamer Despaigne, Matt Bowman, Anthony Bass

Offseason departures: Homer Bailey, Billy Hamilton, Matt Harvey, Shed Long, Tanner Rainey, Robby Scott

X-factor: Sonny Gray

The 29-year-old right-hander looks to be in line for the Reds' Opening Day start, which somehow makes all the sense in the world and zero sense at the same time.

Gray might have the highest upside of any pitcher in the Reds rotation and he's certainly a lot more established than up-and-comer Luis Castillo. And with fellow newcomer Alex Wood expected to start the year on the injured list, it's easy to make the case that Gray would get the ball Opening Day.

On the other hand, he's coming off a season in which he posted a 4.90 ERA and 1.50 WHIP with the New York Yankees and was banished to the bullpen by the end of the year. Gray has had an up-and-down career, evidenced clearly by his season-by-season ERA:

2013: 2.67
2014: 3.08
2015: 2.73
2016: 5.69
2017: 3.55
2018: 4.90

He was an All-Star in 2015 and finished 3rd in AL Cy Young voting that same year, but then was a disaster the next season, posting a -0.3 WAR with the A's. 

He's still in his prime and a nice buy-low pickup for the Reds, who needed pitching any way they could get it. A move to the NL should help Gray in that he gets to face the pitcher's spot a couple times a game (until the league adopts, the DH, that is), but he's moving to an extreme hitter's park in Great American Ballpark and the NL is loaded with talent this year across every lineup in the league. 

If Gray can pitch like a front-of-the-rotation arm, the $38 million he's owed over the next four seasons will look like a hell of a bargain. If he can't, that's a hefty salary to pay for a mid-market franchise.

That being said, Gray doesn't have to pitch all that well to be considered a "front-of-the-rotation starter" by Cincinnati's standards. The Reds finished 24th in baseball in ERA last year and were 25th in rotation ERA (5.02). They ranked 29th in starter's ERA in 2017 and have not finished outside the bottom 10 in rotation ERA since 2014 when Johnny Cueto was still in town and Homer Bailey was actually good.

Projected lineup

1. Jesse Winker - LF
2. Joey Votto - 1B
3. Eugenio Suarez - 3B
4. Scooter Gennett - 2B
5. Yasiel Puig - RF
6. Scott Shebler - CF
7. Jose Peraza - SS
8. Tucker Barnhart - C

Projected rotation

1. Sonny Gray
2. Luis Castillo
3. Tanner Roark
4. Anthony DeSclafani
5. Tyler Mahle

Outlook

This is a much, much improved roster. That's not to say the Reds will win 90 games this year or even challenge for the NL Wild-Card, but they likely won't lose 95 games again, either. Realistically, we're talking about a team that will probably hover around .500 this year, but that would be a very welcome sight for fans given they haven't finished even close to a winning record since 2013.

Cincinnati's front office took on a bunch of salary to acquire Puig and Kemp, but also were able to shed some of Bailey's salary in the process and added some much-needed outfield depth and right-handed pop to the lineup. The rotation also has a complete makeover, with solid upgrades in Gray, Roark and Wood. None of the three are expected to contend for the NL Cy Young this year and Roark and Wood are free agents after 2019, but as we went over above, this rotation needed some serious help.

Even before the addition of Puig and Kemp, this Reds team had no trouble putting up some nice numbers on the scoreboard. Votto is one of the best hitters in the game and led the NL in on-base percentage for the third consecutive season last year. His power took a preciptous dip (down to 12 homers and 67 RBI after going for 36 and 100 in 2017), but he makes outs at a ridiculously low rate and sets the table for an underrated middle of the order.

Suarez and Gennett combined for 57 dingers and 196 RBI a year ago and now Puig and Kemp are joining the fray. Dietrich and Iglesias were nice buy-low additions for depth, as Iglesias is one of the best defenders in the game while Dietrich is a lefty bat that can play all over the diamond. 

The Reds also have some nice up-and-comers to be excited about in that lineup, between 24-year-old Jose Peraza and 25-year-old Jesse Winker, plus top prospect Nick Senzel who could force his way to the big leagues very soon. Winker is slated for the leadoff role with his .397 OBP in 471 career MLB plate appearances. Peraza hit .288 with some surprising pop (14 homers, 31 doubles) a year after disappointing with a .259 average and only 18 extra-base hits. Senzel, 23, is a consensus Top 10 prospect who has a career .314/.378/.509 slash line in the minors.

The most underrated area of this Reds roster, however, is the bullpen.

Raisel Iglesias is an elite closer who has blown just 6 saves in 64 chances the last two seasons. Jared Hughes is their top setup guy and Cubs fans should be very familiar with him, since he's pitched his entire 8-year MLB career in the NL Central (first with the Pirates from 2011-16 and then with the Brewers in 2017 before joining the Reds last year). He had a 1.94 ERA last year and sports a 2.69 mark for his career. Veterans David Hernandez and Duke are solid and former top prospect Amir Garrett could be ascending. Even failed starters Michael Lorenzen and Matt Wisler are OK options for first-year manager David Bell.

The Cubs play the Reds 19 times this year and went just 11-8 against their divisional rival last year when they were a 95-loss team. It will be a tougher road for the Cubs to turn in even the same 11-8 record this year and don't be surprised if the Reds finish with better team-wide offensive numbers than the Cubs, even with a healthy Kris Bryant.

Ultimately, the Reds probably don't have enough good starting pitching or overall depth to be legit contenders in the division, but crazier things have happened in this game. From a Cubs' perspective, the Reds potentially flirting with a .500 record is just more fuel to the fire that Joe Maddon's squad has their work cut out for them in a year of reckoning.

Prediction: 5th in NL Central

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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The Reds are putting the NL Central on notice

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The Reds are putting the NL Central on notice

We're less than a month before spring training begins and as it stands right now, the National League Central is the only division in baseball where every team is truly "going for it."

Everybody knows the Cubs and Brewers are aiming to contend after playoff appearances last year and the Cardinals clearly are hoping to end their three-year October drought after acquiring Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. The Pirates have been quiet this winter (as they are every offseason), but remember, they traded for Chris Archer and Keone Kela last July.

But the Reds? The Reds have low-key had the best offseason of any team in the division.

That's not to say Cincinnati will be contending for the division crown in 2019, but they've certainly addressed their biggest two weaknesses this winter — starting pitching and overall depth.

The Reds acquired Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to bolster their lineup and outfield, but the work they've done to the rotation could be a real game-changer. 

Cincinnati acquired a trio of starting pitchers this winter in trades — Sonny Gray, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. All three guys have varying levels of concerns based on past performance or health, but it's very clear they're all improvements over what the Reds had to work with as starters in 2018. Only five teams had a rotation with a worse ERA than the Reds last season (5.02).

Here's Cincinnati's 2018 Opening Day rotation:

Anthony DeSclafani
Homer Bailey
Brandon Finnegan
Luis Castillo
Sal Romano

Here's the 2019 projected rotation:

Sonny Gray
Alex Wood
Luis Castillo
Tanner Roark
Anthony DeSclafani

You don't have to be a baseball expert to know the latter rotation is a more desirable 1-through-5 and has the potential to be significantly better. 

Castillo has flashed top-of-the-rotation potential but has struggled with consistency. DeSclafani went 18-18 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.30 WHIP from 2015-16 before missing all of 2017 with an elbow injury and working his way back in only 21 starts last year.

Wood has barely topped 150 innings the last two seasons with the Dodgers, but he went 25-10 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.5 K/9. Gray — the latest acquisition — has been an ace at various points in his career (2.88 ERA, 1.13 WHIP from 2013-15) despite a tough 2018. Roark was the most overlooked guy in the Nationals rotation the last few years and while he's certainly not a No. 1, he's 59-50 with a 3.61 ERA and 1.21 WHIP as a starting pitcher.

Who knows how the three new guys will perform in a hitter's environment like Great American Ballpark and in front of a new defense, but the improvement in talent and potential is undeniable. Plus, only Roark is over 30 and only he and Wood are free agents after 2019.

Everybody knows the Reds can swing it and Puig and Kemp are solid factors to supplement a lineup that already features one of the best hitters in the game (Joey Votto), two of the more underrated stars in baseball (Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett) and an up-and-coming speedster (Jose Peraza). Plus, young outfielder Jesse Winker is proving more and more that he's making the most of his time learning from Votto, as the 25-year-old has a .299 average and .397 on-base percentage in 136 games over his big-league career.

The Reds also feature an underrated bullpen that is returning every major piece that contributed to a No. 16 ranking in MLB in reliever ERA last year. 

Oh yeah, and the Reds have the sixth-best farm system according to FanGraphs, so they have some impressive young talent coming up through the system that can either help augment the big-league club or be dangled as trade headliners.

Also consider this — from May 8-July 31 in 2018, here's how each team in the NL Central fared:

CHC: 44-29
MIL: 43-32
CIN: 40-32
PIT: 37-36
STL: 34-40

This was a stretch in time after the Reds made a managerial change and before the trade deadline. Sure, it's cherry-picking a point in the schedule, but this is nearly half a season's worth of recent data that shows the Reds can hang with the top of the division.

And they've very clearly improved this winter. That doesn't always translate to on-field wins, but the Reds can't win any games in December or January. All they can do is try to improve their roster and increase depth and they've certainly done that.

If nothing else, the Reds could loom as a serious spoiler down the stretch. They play the Cubs and Cardinals 7 times each from August to September and face off against the Brewers three times in the final two months.

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Kris Bryant has gotten so good, he may actually be underrated now

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Kris Bryant has gotten so good, he may actually be underrated now

Kris Bryant's trophy case already features a World Series ring, the 2016 NL MVP Award and the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year honor.

And yet he played in just his third Opening Day game last month.

Bryant has already solidified himself as one of the very best players in Major League Baseball (racking up 19.7 WAR over the last three seasons), yet somehow, he's still getting better.

It's easy to look at the Cubs' Jekyll and Hyde offense and Bryant's low homer total (2) and think he's off to a slow start in 2018, but he's actually red-hot and showcasing his remarkable strides as a hitter.

In fact, Bryant has gotten so good, he may actually be underrated now.

The 2018 season is only a couple weeks old, so small sample size warning and all that, but Bryant currently leads the league in on-base percentage and has more walks (10) than strikeouts (8).

After pacing the NL with 199 strikeouts in 2015, Bryant has since reduced his whiffs each season while also increasing his walks. He's currently on pace for 116 walks to only 93 strikeouts over a full season.

That walk-to-strikeout ratio helps give credence to his .352 average and .493 on-base percentage.

But can he hit .300 over a full season? We've seen Bryant hit as high as .295, as he's also increased his batting average and on-base percentage each year in the league.

"He's been so good," Joe Maddon said. "They just look at the final numbers — what's he hitting? How many home runs does he have? He's worked a lot in spring training to not chase. And the less he chases, the greater those numbers are gonna be.

"If you really wanna hit .300, if that's a goal — which in this day and age of this not being that important, I think it is to a player, just like wins to a pitcher is important — you're not gonna hit that number unless you accept your walks. You're gonna have too many at-bats as a regular player. 

"It's gonna require too many hits if you're just putting everything in play. So if you accept your walks when this pitcher really does not want to pitch to you, that's gonna require less hits to hit .300. And I think these guys, once they do it, they understand how to do it and they're gonna do it more often."

Maddon also pointed to how Bryant is using the entire field well right now. He's actually pulling the ball more than ever (again, small sample size), but he's hitting more line drives all over the field. 

Bryant is hitting a line drive 39.1 percent of the time right now, up from his career-high of 23.7 percent during his 2016 MVP campaign. 

In all of baseball, only Pittsburgh's Corey Dickerson has a higher line drive rate (43.5 percent) than Bryant.

The power is what most casual fans think about when they see Kris Bryant play, but he's grown and evolved so much as a hitter that he's far, far more than just a slugger and instead is looking more and more each day like a young, right-handed hitting Joey Votto.