The 2015 season has certainly not gone as planned. As we head into the last two months of the season, we have enough of a sample to begin evaluating where the Reds are and where they need to upgrade this offseason. Of course, the Reds could also completely blow up the roster this summer, but that is a conversation for another time.

We can tell just by watching what the general problem areas are, but it helps to look into the numbers to understand the extent of those problems.Some (including a high profile broadcaster) have suggested that the core position players are part of the problem. While the Reds certainly have roster issues, the healthy part of their core has been extremely effective this season.

Coming in to the 2015 season, the optimists suggested that a lineup core of Joey Votto, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, and Devin Mesoraco coupled with a rotation top three of Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake could push the Reds into contention. The biggest caveat was that all those guys needed to stay healthy for the majority of the season. Unfortunately, the Reds faced major injuries before they even got off the ground. Early on, the Reds found out that Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco would not contribute significantly this season because of injury. These injuries left gaping holes in the Reds lineup and rotation that they’ve struggled to overcome.

Instead of Mesoraco (4.5 WAR in 2014), the Reds have employed Brayan Pena as their main catcher. Pena is a fine backup but a lousy starter, producing -0.1 WAR this point. Tucker Barnhardt, the Reds other backstop, has contributed 0.4 WAR. Regardless of who has played catcher, the Reds have experienced a significant downgrade in the position from 2014 to 2015.

I can still dream of what a 2-5 of Votto, Frazier, Bruce, and Mesoraco would have looked like. While the addition of Mesoraco wouldn’t have solved all the Reds problems, he would have significantly improved both the lineup and defense as Pena’s defense has rated poorly this season.

The Reds could very well have those four players intact next season and if so, that core matches up well with just about anybody. Here’s why.

Unsurprisingly, Votto, Frazier, and Bruce have produced the most position player WAR on the Reds team. Currently, there are seven teams in the National League with winning records. If we take the three top players by WAR from each winning team and stack them up against the Reds top three, we get the following results:

  1. Giants (Buster Posey, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford): 12.2 WAR
  2. Reds (Joey Votto, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce): 10.8 WAR
  3. Nationals (Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Michael Taylor): 9.9 WAR
  4. Dodgers (Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal): 9.8 WAR
  5. Cubs (Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Chris Coughlin): 9.4 WAR
  6. Cardinals (Jason Heyward, Matt Carpenter, Randal Grichuk): 8.6 WAR
  7. Pirates (Andrew McCutchen, Jung-ho Kang, Starling Marte): 8.4 WAR
  8. Mets (Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores): 7.0 WAR

The Reds top three position players have played better the top position players from six of the seven teams that currently have winning records in the National League. Among the teams with losing records, only the Diamondbacks have a top three that trumps the Reds big three. This season, the trio of Votto, Frazier, and Bruce have stacked up well against the rest of the league. Add a healthy Mesoraco to that core, and it likely would look even better.

So if the Reds core has played on par or better than their counterparts, where on the roster do the Reds need to improve the most? First, let’s examine the rest of the starting lineup:

  • Billy Hamilton: 2.1 WAR
  • Zack Cozart/Eugenio Suarez: 2.4 WAR
  • Brandon Phillips: 1.4 WAR
  • Marlon Byrd: 0.7 WAR
  • Brayan Pena: -0.1 WAR

Outside of Pena, this group has been solid. Hamilton essentially obtains all of his fWAR from his elite baserunning and defensive skills. If you are skeptical that the defensive metrics are 100% accurate (they aren’t but likely close), then he may not be providing quite this much value. His defense certainly came up big against the Cardinals on Tuesday.

The Reds three middle infielders have played solidly this season. Only Brandon Phillips has hit below average (89 wRC+), but he continues to add value with his defense and baserunning skills.

The two weakest links on this list are catcher and leftfield. For 2016, the catcher position will likely get a major upgrade with a healthy Mesoraco. But once again, the Reds will need to address leftfield. Byrd continues to have a good offensive season. He is also one of the worst leftfielders in the game. Even so, Byrd hasn’t been a disaster.

The starters may be solid if unspectacular outside of the top three, but the Reds bench has just played awful. With 384 combined plate appearances, Jason Bourgeois, Skip Schumaker, Kris Negron, Chris Dominguez, and Brennan Boesch have produced -2.7 WAR, which includes their defensive and baserunning contributions. Ivan DeJesus has produced at Ruthian levels compared to his bench peers with 0.6 WAR since being called up.

Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece earlier this year about the value in not having bad players. The worse your players are on the back end of the roster, the better your good players have to be in order to make up the difference. The Reds had little margin for error coming into the season, and the benches shortcomings put more pressure on the Reds best players to carry the load.

While the bench is bad, the biggest issue with our beloved Redlegs is the pitching staff. Reds starters rank 10th in ERA (4.06) in the National League. ERA can be deceiving sometimes, and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is a better predictor of current ability and future performance. Unfortunately, the Reds starters have an xFIP of 4.14, meaning they have pitch slightly worse than their ERA.

Just like the bench, the rotation’s problems are related to a lack of depth. Cueto and Leake both pitched well this season while the rest of the rotation has largely faltered, even though some of the youngsters show promise.

The rotation that was once a team strength during the Reds recent playoff runs has become a glaring weakness. The young kids will spend the rest of this season competing for rotation spots in 2016. The experience those pitchers get in the majors this year is invaluable in their development.

The starters haven’t pitched well, but the bullpen has pitched just as poorly. The team’s struggles began early as the Reds gave high-leverage innings to the nefarious Kevin Gregg. The Reds best relievers have dominated, but outside of JJ Hoover and Aroldis Chapman, the other Reds relievers haven’t inspired much confidence. Reds relievers rank 14th in ERA (4.18) in the National League. By xFIP, they are the worst bullpen in the NL (4.10). Once again, the Reds have good talent at the top in this area and then there is a big drop off.

What should we take from this? The Reds have a number of really good players, but the back half of the roster matters as well, and those players have really hurt the Reds this year. The Reds have to find better bench and bullpen pieces. Those are the easiest players to acquire, and they can’t continue to employ these types of players. If those two units aren’t considerably better in 2016, the Reds really have no excuse.

The Reds core problem isn’t their core players. In fact, while many teams, even contenders, struggle to find middle of the order bats in a league where pitching rules, the Reds have four legitimate power bats in the middle of the lineup when healthy. The Reds core problem is a lack of depth throughout the roster.

As we watch the Reds rookie pitchers fight for a spot in next year’s rotation, we must hope the Reds find a way to upgrade the back of the roster this offseason. If they can’t, 2016 will likely look eerily similar to 2015. If you are going to war with a strong core, make sure you have the secondary pieces to take advantage.