Can we be optimistic about the 2021 Reds?

Short answer: YES

As many of you know, I spend way too much time thinking about and writing about the Cincinnati Reds. This is a somewhat recent phenomenon: it’s only been happening for the last three and a half decades or so.

But it’s not just thinking and writing; this obsession also manifests itself in talking about the Reds too. Last week, I joined Ken Broo on Cincinnati’s 700 WLW to talk about the Reds, and I’ve joined Mo Egger and Lance McAlister on both WLW and ESPN 1530 on a regular basis for the last few years. I also host a weekly Reds podcast — we’re at 364 episodes and counting — that you know about if you scroll down past my weekly column here at The Riverfront. (Go subscribe in your favorite podcast app, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s free, after all.)

For the last couple of years, we’ve been building a community around the podcast at Patreon, where you can toss a couple of bucks into the tip jar in exchange for some goodies. One of those goodies is an extra podcast each month, just for subscribers. (The regular weekly podcast is free, and always will be.)

ANYWAY — (sheesh, this is a long introduction that sounds way too much like an advertisement, right?) — the most recent Patreon-exclusive podcast was entitled “I choose to be optimistic!” I spent an hour detailing all the reasons why Reds fans should feel free to be optimistic about the 2021 version of the club. Then, just a few days later, Egger published a piece at The Athletic that echoed similar themes. In short: why shouldn’t Reds fans have a little hope?

Listen, I know Reds owner Bob Castellini completely failed us. He quit on Reds fans and refused to improve the team this off-season. He’s literally okay with his team entering a season without a single big league shortstop on the roster! If you’re frustrated with this turn of events, I’m with you. It’s embarrassing.

On the other hand, there are a lot of good big league baseball players on the 2021 Reds roster. Even better, they’re pretty much all easy to root for. This team isn’t bad, at least not like the bad Reds teams of the very recent past. Egger points out that we were pretty optimistic before last season, and many of the reasons for that optimism are still valid today:

If your optimism for 2020 revolved around the additions of Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos, it stands to reason that you should be at least somewhat excited for what both players can do in 2021. Moustakas may have only played in 44 games, but his OPS last season (.799) was higher than his career total (.753), and while Castellanos’ batting average (.225) was a career low, he did hit 14 home runs in 60 games. That’s about a 37-homer pace, and his OPS of .784 was only eight points lower than it was at the time of his 2019 trade from the Tigers to the Cubs.

You may have been intrigued about the acquisition of Akiyama from Japan, hoping that he could solve the Reds’ issues with consistently getting men on base while understanding that he would need time to adjust to playing in the United States. Akiyama performed miserably over the season’s first six weeks, but from Sept. 8 through the end of the regular season, he reached base at a .462 clip, which suggests the possibility of the acclimation to big-league ball being behind him.

No one a year ago expected Eugenio Suárez to finish the season with a batting average near the Mendoza Line, but you probably weren’t banking on another 49-dinger season after his record-setting 2019. Suárez’s averages last year did drop, but he still banged 15 homers, and my guess is that over a complete six-month season, his slash line would have ended up closer to his usual totals. …

Tyler Mahle might have been the starting rotation’s biggest unknown, and though no one will confuse him for last season’s staff ace, his 2020 was one of the team’s most encouraging developments. He finished the year with the second-best WHIP on the staff. If the perceived strength of last year’s team was the depth of the starting rotation, that case can still be made with a front three that includes Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Mahle.

Look around the diamond. How many of the Reds who are expected to get the bulk of the playing time are likely to be better than they were in the shortened 2020 season? On the offensive side of the ball, I’d say that Suarez, Castellanos, Moustakas, Akiyama, and Nick Senzel (presuming he can stay healthy) are very likely to be better than they were last year. After all, the back of their baseball cards indicates a certain level of performance that is better than what they reached last year. Plus, the Reds will be adding former first-round pick Tyler Stephenson at catcher; he’s a rookie, so we don’t really know what we’ll get, but he has a great pedigree and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can provide with the bat.

Where can the Reds expect to be worse offensively? Perhaps Jesse Winker won’t duplicate his dazzling 2020 performance…but maybe he will? He’s only 27 after all, and he’s been a hitter for his entire professional career.

Joey Votto? Who knows? But we do know he wants to get back to being dangerous, in his words.

So if we’re trying to be optimistic, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that the Reds offense will be better than we saw in a sixty-game stretch in 2020. Frankly, I think we all know that it has to be better if the Reds want to compete.

What about the pitching? Cincinnati’s pitching staff was incredible last year, anchored by the 2020 Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, along with Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. Bauer is gone after signing a big money deal with the Dodgers, after the Reds refused even to pretend that they were going to try to bring back the club’s only Cy Young winner in history. That’s a big loss, no question.

But what remains is a rotation that should be among the better ones that we’ve seen in the last three decades. Seriously! Castillo and Gray are legit aces; how many teams have a one-two punch like that? Mahle will be the #3 after a breakout year last season. I’ve been singing Mahle’s praises for years, since he was a minor league pitcher doing his best Greg Maddux impression by throwing strikes and getting hitters out without overwhelming them with his stuff. I’m here to tell you that Mahle is the real deal, and at the age of 26, he has room to improve.

There are some unknowns at the back end of the rotation, but for the first time in a while, the Reds have a lot of depth to fill those slots. Wade Miley (don’t discount him just because he had four bad starts in his first year in Cincinnati), Tejay Antone (who just keeps getting better and better), Michael Lorenzen, Jose DeLeon, Nick Lodolo…heck, even uber-prospect Hunter Greene could see some time in Cincinnati this year. This is a group that should give you some hope as a Reds fan. There is real talent here, and it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say that about Reds pitchers.

I will concede that there are real questions about the Reds bullpen, especially since Castellini forced cost-cutting measures that required Cincinnati’s front office to give away two above-average relievers (Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley) essentially for free. But there are reasons for optimism here as well, as I’ll detail in a future edition of The Riverfront.

Listen, perhaps it’s possible that I’m squinting too hard to try and see a Reds team that can compete. But most computer projection systems see this team as a roughly .500 club. It doesn’t take much to go right for a .500 team to bump up to an 85 to 88 win club. And considering the fact that the National League Central might be the worst division in baseball this year…well, I’m saying that there’s a chance. This team should really be competitive in 2021, which is more than we have been able to say in most recent seasons.

Hope springs eternal, they say. Well, this spring, I choose to hope that these Reds can out-perform expectations. It could happen!

(I just wish they had a shortstop…)

What I’m Reading

Mo Egger: Many Reds fans are tepid about the 2021 squad, but should they be?

Brandon Kraeling: The decision to put Michael Lorenzen in the rotation has nothing to do with Michael Lorenzen

Paul Dehner: Why the Cincinnati Bengals haven’t done restructures (and still won’t) ($)

Justin Williams: Cincinnati basketball finishes regular season on high note. How long can Bearcats keep it there? ($)

Grant Freking: FC Cincinnati looks for a fresh start

Joshua Hammer: The Epic Hunt for One of the World’s Most Wanted Men

What Chad’s Watching

Rewatches of some of my favorites this week: “The Godfather: Part II,” “Taxi Driver,” and one that I might overrate — but it’s just so much fun! — “Baby Driver.”

“Shanghai Express” was my introduction to director Josef von Sternberg, and it stars the incomparable Marlene Dietrich. Certainly worth a watch.

Then there’s the recent release “Coming 2 America,” the sequel to the 1988 film of a similar name starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. I enjoyed the original, and I stand behind no one in my love for Murphy, but this one was just embarrassingly bad. Avoid it at all costs.

The World’s Most Dangerous Reds Podcast

RNR #364: Actual reasons for optimism!

Doug Gray and I discuss all the news of the week — and for the first time in a while, we have actual news to talk about! Reds spring training is under way, and there is real reason for optimism, at least where Reds pitchers are concerned.

We talk about the Cincinnati Reds — for better or for worse — every single week on RNR. Join us for free by subscribing everywhere you find dangerous podcasts. Or any other podcast, really. And you can support the podcast here.

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