Significant Off-Season Ahead for Reds

The Cincinnati Reds just completed a disastrous season, in which they fell from just 1.5 games back at the All-Star Break to 14 games back by the end of the season. They have experienced more than their fair share of injuries, but even without all the injuries, this probably is not a playoff team. The Reds’ offense has multiple holes it will need to fill in order to contend in the competitive NL Central. Defensively, the Reds excelled, ranking as the best defensive team in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Offensively, however, they were among the worst teams in baseball, ranking 30th in wRC+. That means when removing context from events, the Reds were the worst offensive team this season. Even when considering all the injuries they suffered, this is not a good offensive team. They also have a pitching staff that ranks 27th in baseball in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), meaning their pitchers are near the bottom of the league in what they can control. Recently extended General Manager, Walt Jocketty, will need a very effective off-season to return the Reds to contention, but he’ll need to do it without much financial flexibility.

In 2013, the Reds’ posted a wRC+ of 97, which was slightly below average, but still 13 points higher than the figure they posted in 2014. It is easy to attribute most of this difference to the injuries suffered by Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, however, neither of them were having particularly strong seasons offensively. Votto slashed .255/.390/.409 (avg/obp/slg), which is partly due to his injuries, but even prior to his first DL stint, Votto’s numbers were down. While I certainly expect Votto to return to his prototypical form in 2015, there are no guarantees that his knee injuries will be behind him, as he also had knee issues in 2011. Brandon Phillips on the other hand has provided little offensive value for the last two seasons. While his defense is still among the best at 2nd base, Phillips’s offense has been declining for a few years and I do not believe his struggles are due to his thumb injury. His OBP and SLG% have declined in each of the last 3 seasons. The Reds also have significant offensive holes in Leftfield, Centerfield and Shortstop. Leftfield will be their biggest area of need this offseason, as they ranked 29th in WAR from their Leftfielders. Billy Hamilton will again be their centerfielder in 2015, but he will need to make substantial improvements on offense, where he often looked overmatched. Their shortstop position seems to be set, as well, with Zach Cozart providing enough defensive value to overcome his shortcomings on offense. Cozart posted the worst wRC+ of any qualified hitter this season, but rated as one of the best defenders in the game, so he will likely remain entrenched at short for the Reds. Their offense has three glaring holes, and that is assuming that Jay Bruce returns to his normal form, after an abysmal 2014. They will likely be able to find an upgrade in Leftfield, but will likely receive little offensive production from the Centerfield and Shortstop positions.

The Reds experienced some more injuries on the pitching side, as Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman all landed on the DL. However, even with each pitcher healthy, their staff is not all that imposing. They ranked 16th in ERA, but 27th in FIP, which is more evidence as to how good their defense is, but also a result of a good amount of luck. The pitching staff ranked 26th in BB/9, but also posted the 3rd lowest BABIP, which will be difficult to repeat, even with their strong defense. If they are going to improve their offense this off-season, it will likely happen by trading away one of the starters, which will further weaken their rotation. While their rotation is considered one of their strengths, it is not deep enough to sustain trading away one of its top members. Assuming everyone is healthy they have 5 quality starters that appear ready for the rotation in 2015, with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Alfredo Simon under control for next year. However, Bailey just had surgery on his forearm and this is Simon’s first season as a starter and he has far outperformed his peripherals. If one of these starters is dealt, the Reds do not have many internal candidates to fill the void. Tony Cingrani struggled in his sophomore season, David Holmberg has been hit hard in his debut season and top prospect Robert Stephenson struggled mightily in Double-A this season. There is plenty of uncertainty in their rotation and their bullpen was a complete disaster this season, ranking 24th in ERA and FIP.

Unfortunately, the Reds do not have much financial flexibility in order to add top talent through Free Agency. Their 2014 payroll of $112 Million was the highest in franchise highest and does not appear to be a very sustainable figure, considering their payroll increased by $25 Million from 2012 to 2013. Their payroll for 2015 will likely be in a similar range to this past year, which does not leave them much room for outside personnel. They already have $71 Million committed to their 2015 roster, and that covers only 10 players. This leaves them with around $45 Million left to sign their arbitration eligible players, as well as their $10 Million club option on Johnny Cueto. With at least $20 Million going to arbitration eligible players, the Reds will only have around $15 million to allocate to free agents. With such little flexibility, the Reds are certainly out of the running for the top free agents, which means they will likely fill smaller holes through free agency and trade one of their starters to improve one of the more significant weaknesses, such as Leftfield. While the Reds would love to trade Brandon Phillips and his remaining $39 Million over the next 3 years, not many teams will be interested, unless the Reds eat a chunk of his salary. The most likely player to be dealt is Johnny Cueto, as his value has reached it peak, following a Cy Young-type season. If Cueto is the starter to go, the Reds will need someone like Latos to step up as the Ace, but Cueto will bring back a significant haul.

While the Reds can argue that they would have been able to compete without so many injuries, injuries happen to every team, and this team was not all that good even with a healthy roster. They have far too many holes on offense and a pitching staff that far outperformed their peripherals. With such little financial flexibility, the Reds will need to find improvements from within their organization that can add around 15 wins. Otherwise, the Reds will need to trade one of their top starters in order to bring in an offensive upgrade at an affordable price. With so much money allocated to such few players, the Reds need to improve this roster, while those players are still performing up to their contracts. That makes this offseason that much more important, as their window to contend with this core will not be open much longer.

Anthony Cacchione

Making the Case for Matt Carpenter

After Mike Matheny named Matt Carpenter “the best second basemen in the league,” many pundits questioned Matheny’s assertion. Carpenter is a former fringe prospect, who opened some eyes in Spring Training 2011, but did not make an impact at the MLB level until 2012. In 2012, Carpenter served as a super-utility player with games in at 2b and all four corner positions – 1b, 3b, LF, RF. While his defense was sub-par, Carpenter’s offense was very impressive with a .294/.365/.463 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line with 6 home runs in just 296 ABs. In an effort to increase production at 2b and give Carpenter more playing time, the Cardinals experimented with Carpenter at 2b in a full-time role during Spring Training 2013. During the spring, Carpenter proved he was ready for a more expansive role at 2b.
Now that the season is more than 40% complete, it is time to accept that Carpenter is among the top second basemen in the league. Carpenter leads all MLB second basemen in WAR, Runs, OBP and OPS. Despite being a horrible defender as a utility infielder in 2012, Carpenter leads all MLB 2nd basemen in Fielding Runs Above-Average based on UZR.
In order to demonstrate how far Carpenter has climbed, we will compare Matt Carpenter with Brandon Phillips, who has long been regarded as the best 2nd basemen in the National League. When comparing the two 2nd basemen, it is important to remember that both batters hit in different spots in the order. Carpenter has been the lead-off hitter for the Cardinals for the majority of the season, and Phillips has been the cleanup hitter for the Reds for the entire season. Prior to the season, Phillips made it clear that the only thing he cared about when batting cleanup was driving in runs, and he has been successful in that regard with 56 RBI and 10 HRs so far this season. However, driving in runs is one of the few areas where Phillips has outperformed Carpenter. As mentioned above, Carpenter has fulfilled his obligation as a lead-off hitter by leading all MLB 2nd basemen in runs scored and OBP, which is .071 points higher than Phillips‘s OBP. Although Carpenter’s Home Run and RBI production do not equal Phillips’s production, Carpenter has out-slugged Phillips by .019, which has helped Carpenter accumulate a 145 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) compared to Phillips’s 107 wRC+. Even when comparing the defensive success of both 2nd basemen, Carpenter grades out as a superior defender to Brandon Phillips, who is a very highly regarded defender.
There is no reason to believe that Carpenter’s offensive production will begin to slide either. His incredible plate discipline has helped him have the best BB/K ratio in the NL at .82 and his walk rates are right where they were last year, so this is nothing new to him. While many people may warn that Carpenter’s Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is unsustainable at .356, he carried a .346 BABIP through all of last season. This season’s BABIP looks just as sustainable as his Line Drive% is up 4% to 27.8%, which is good for 2nd in the MLB. Also, based on his previous production, only his defensive statistics look unsustainable, but the sudden defensive success can also be attributed to playing the same position on a consistent basis. Even if his defense does not last, it seems clear his offensive production at a largely defense-first position has made him one of the top 2nd basemen in the league.