Baseball is back.

Over the years, I’ve been known to wax eloquent during the spring about the return of baseball. Some of those years, there was real excitement over a possible pennant race for the ol’ Redlegs. Other years…well, we have to dig a little deeper to find reasons to look forward to the baseball season.

If you know me away from the digital pages of Redleg Nation, you probably know that I’m not exactly an eternal optimist. My sports teams have a nasty habit of breaking my heart, so I can be pretty cynical about things. Case in point: the basketball team from my alma mater — the University of Virginia — led by 15 points with 9:30 left in an Elite Eight game last weekend. Yep, less than ten minutes away from the Final Four. You probably know what happened. I watched in horror from Section 103 in Chicago’s United Center as UVa teased me again, only to let me down in the end.

Most of you are fans of the Reds and Bengals — and if you want to keep talking about college hoops, UC and Xavier fans know about having your hopes dashed — so you well understand what it’s like to have a team on the brink of success before they break your heart. Cincinnati sports teams have a habit of doing things like that.

The good (?) news: that’s probably not going to happen to Reds fans this season. Cincinnati is projected to be one of the worst teams in the major leagues, and there’s a good reason for that. Johnny Cueto/Mike Leake/Aroldis Chapman/Todd Frazier…all plying their trade in other fine cities (plus St. Louis) around the country. The Reds’ rebuild or reboot or whatever they’re calling it this week is in full swing, and the best we can do is look forward to the next good Reds team. Let’s hope we aren’t waiting too long for that. (The Reds say we’ll need to wait until 2017 or 2018, for what it’s worth.)

But there are reasons to watch the Reds in 2016. A bunch of reasons, in fact. Let’s explore some of them, shall we?VottoOBPSDAA

1. Joey Votto
There isn’t much more that I can say about Votto, except this: each of us should make an effort to enjoy every single one of Votto’s at-bats this year. He is a special player in Reds history, maybe the best you’ll see in your lifetime.

In terms of career WAR, Votto is already in the franchise top ten; presuming good health, Votto will likely pass Tony Perez and Vada Pinson to move up to 7th on that list by the end of 2016. By the end of 2017, Votto has an outside chance to catch Joe Morgan and move into the top five, behind Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, and Frank Robinson. These are Cincinnati legends we’re talking about here, and Votto is in their midst.

Another reason not to miss a single Votto at-bat:

“I think the thing that makes him as good as he is, is that he doesn’t ever give away an at-bat,” Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco said. “I catch myself at times where I try to have a good two-strike approach and really grind through an at-bat, and then I just do something really stupid and get out swinging at a dumb pitch or was too aggressive.

“For him, he’s always grinding out every single at-bat. It doesn’t matter if we’re down 10 runs. It doesn’t matter if the game is on the line. And that’s just a very hard thing to do from a mental standpoint, to be that invested in every single at-bat. Man, that’s hard to do and he does it better than anybody.”

Plus, there’s this:

We love you, Joey Votto. Don’t ever change.

2. Devin Mesoraco
The Reds sorta bungled Mesoraco’s rehab from a hip impingement last year, before finally getting around to sending him for the surgery he needed, but Mes is back now. We can only hope he’s better than ever, but it may be a bit much to ask Mesoraco to top the incredible season he posted in 2014.

You remember 2014: .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs and 80 RBI, a 4.8 bWAR. Only two catchers in Reds history have ever had a better season than that one, and both of those catchers are in the Hall of Fame: Ernie Lombardi in 1938, and Johnny Lee Bench in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, and 1979.*

*Note: Johnny Bench was good.

Is Devin Mesoraco a Hall of Famer waiting to happen? No, probably not. But the return of a healthy Mesoraco is certainly a reason to watch the 2016 Reds with interest.

3. Raisel Iglesias
If a bunch of math doesn’t make your eyes gloss over, go read this. Here’s the kicker:

All of nine 2015 NL ERA qualifiers posted a better “tru” ERA- figure than Iglesias’ 80. Their names were Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Madison Bumgarner, Tyson Ross and Jon Lester. He’s in the immediate next tier, in a virtual dead heat with Gerrit Cole, Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Martinez and Shelby Miller. Pretty good company. Plus, a bunch of those guys owe their 2015 rankings to BIP authority allowed, which fluctuates more than Ks and BBs, more so than Iglesias. He’s a young, developing hurler, and plenty could go wrong as his workload is extended over a full 162+ inning season, but Raisel Iglesias’ upside is substantial, enough so to potentially pay off his contract many times over.

Iglesias is the most exciting young Reds starter since the days that I was deluding myself about the Reds putting Aroldis Chapman in the rotation. When you combine his upside with guys like Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and some guys I’m going to mention below, you begin to see the makings of one of the best starting rotations in the league over the next few years. This could be fun.Raisel Iglesias 2

4. Dick Williams
This is a transition year, as Dick Williams has taken over as Reds general manager, with Walt Jocketty stepping back into the shadows. You shouldn’t expect everything to change suddenly about the way the Reds approach baseball operations/scouting/development…and you shouldn’t want everything to change. The Reds have done a good job drafting and developing players over the last ten years, and for whatever criticism Jocketty deserves, you must concede that he’s gotten good value for the Reds in trades.

Here’s why the ascension of Dick Williams could potentially be exciting for Reds fans: he’s actively bolstering the Cincinnati analytics department and, unlike past GMs, he isn’t hostile to the stat geeks. No, Williams isn’t a Baseball Prospectus-alum*, but he seems to understand that a team needs a good analytics department. I’m excited to see how (whether?) this manifests itself on the field. It’s something worth watching.

*Williams is a fellow alum of the University of Virginia, however, for whatever that’s worth.

5. Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed
I can’t do any better than this…FanGraphs on Stephenson:

Stephenson has slowly but surely improved every step up the Reds minor league system. His command has abandoned him for stretches during his last two seasons, but his stuff is frontline starter material, and he has shown improvements in consistency as the competition he faces gets more advanced. Though he may still be a couple years away from really turning the corner, Stephenson has much of what you look for in a young power thrower learning how to pitch….

The upside here is huge, and Stephenson has the athleticism to reasonably project command gains as he develops in the following years. I think he may take a year or two to show it, but I’m confident in him finding a way to make his elite stuff work. If he only mildly improves, he still projects as a number three or four starter or high-leverage reliever with his power arsenal.

I’m hedging his overall grades a bit until he demonstrates the ability to own his pitch location, but I do think he has the ceiling of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Look for improving command numbers as an indicator of how quickly he can fulfill his promise.

and Reed:

He has reached the mid to high-90s with his fastball, though he gets better movement and command in the 91-94 range. Reed pairs his heater with an improved slider and developing changeup. His slider has taken a step forward in the past year, showing good depth and better location than it previously had. His changeup gets good marks for its movement and improved viability as a third pitch, but he slows his arm and body down a good amount. Throwing it with consistent arm speed will be required for it to be an above-average offering.

Previously, Reed looked like a better fit for the bullpen, but his current trajectory puts him solidly in the middle of a big league rotation, with the ceiling of a number two or three starter. His command will need to continue advancing to get there, but his fastball and slider are strong enough to cause problems for hitters on both sides of the plate. If his changeup effectiveness jumps again, he’s a possible number one starter. I want to see him prove his gains are real in 2016 before grading him that high, but either way Reed was an excellent acquisition as an upper-level rotation prospect.

Stephenson and Reed are both 23 years old, and both will likely be wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform sometime in 2016. If that’s not a reason to watch the Reds this year, what is?

6. Jose Peraza and Jesse Winker
Let’s do this again…Baseball Prospectus 2016 on Peraza:

Peraza has been remarkably consistent during his career, hitting for a high average, refusing to walk, stealing bases and playing great defense at every stop. He more than held his own in Triple-A as a 21-year-old last season, eventually getting a cup of coffee in LA after being sent west in the Alex Wood/Hector Olivera trade. He came partway back east in this winter’s Todd Frazier deal, and his path to a job in the majors is clearer in an organization that he doesn’t share with Corey Seager and whatever baubles $300 million buys. Sure, Peraza’s one of those twice-traded prospects now, but when it’s the frenetic Braves and Dodgers sending him packing, you apply a discount factor. He’s more like a 1.4-times-traded prospect.

…and FanGraphs on Jesse Winker:

Bestowed with a great swing and one of the most advanced approaches in the minor leagues, Winker is ready to bring his impact offense to the Reds as soon as opening day. He likely starts the 2016 season in Triple-A, though a strong showing could propel him into the Reds outfield by July. He won’t offer much on the base-running or defensive sides, but his bat will make him an immensely valuable asset regardless.

Winker’s power numbers have lagged a bit as he has climbed the system ladder, but he is exactly the type of hitter you can expect to grow into greater power than he’s shown in the minors. He has a great swing path capable of lifting pitches to all fields, though it can get a bit level at times. His lower half and hands are very well sequenced, ensuring he’s able to hit balls hard without using a lot of effort in any one part of his swing….

Winker has already proven he can hit, and his ability to get on base bumps his grades up to account for his approach continuing to be successful in the big leagues. I see power development in his future, but even if he doesn’t reach his ceiling as a slugger, his hit tool will easily justify giving him a spot in the top half of the lineup.

I have quoted what others are saying about Winker, Peraza, Reed, and Stephenson to show you that this isn’t just me wearing Rose-colored glasses. These guys are legitimate prospects — four of the top five prospects in the organization, by most accounts (LHP Amir Garrett and SS Alex Blandino are in that mix too) — and they’re all likely to make their Cincinnati debuts in 2016.

Suarez.SG7. Eugenio Suarez
After hitting .280/.315/.446 with 13 home runs last year, Suarez will take over 3B this season from the departed Todd Frazier. Eugenio impressed as he filled in for Zack Cozart at SS, but with Cozart back, the Reds needed to find a spot for Suarez’s bat in the lineup.

He’s only 24, so there is still plenty of room for growth. I know the Reds have Cozart (if he doesn’t falter in his return from injury) and Brandon Phillips (if he continues to refuse to be traded) at SS/2B, and those guys are veterans who are going to be in the lineup on most days. Oh, but how I would love to see Suarez and Peraza manning those two positions, however. Those two stand a chance of being the middle infield on the next good Reds team (with the possibility of Blandino adding himself to that mix, too). Now’s a good time to see what they can do.

8. The return of Homer Bailey

Homer Bailey and his sexy splitter are expected to return from Tommy John surgery around May 1. It’s an aggressive timeline for his return, and time will tell whether he’s back to the Bailey we all knew and loved.

Let’s hope so, because Homer has four years remaining on his contract. He could be the veteran presence in the rotation of the next competitive Reds teams. A lot of questions about him will be answered this year. It’s worth monitoring.

9. Because, as our friend James Rapien has noted: if everything goes right, the Reds could be competitive.

I’m not ready to be that optimistic, but stranger things have happened, right?

10. It’s Reds baseball. This is what we do.
In the end, we’re going to watch because these are our Cincinnati Reds. Yes, they frustrate us sometimes, but we’re suckers. We’ll still be tuning in and going out to the ol’ ballyard. We’ll be listening to Marty, or watching Jim Day doing an awkward interview in the stands. Win or lose, this club is a part of your life. Why else would you be spending your time reading about the Reds here at RN every day? This is our twelfth season writing about the Reds at Redleg Nation — wow, 12! Can that be true? — and most of those seasons have been difficult ones. But here we are, and here you are: the Nation, collectively. We aren’t going anywhere, are we?

Baseball is supposed to be a pleasant diversion from the stresses of day-to-day life. No, the Reds may not win a pennant in 2016, but there are plenty of reasons to be interested in how this season plays out. Don’t get caught up in the wins and losses. The Reds are engaged in a fight to return to prominence. Enjoy the process.

Or try to, anyway. We’ll be suffering with you.