Opening Day is tomorrow afternoon. While there will not be an Opening Day parade on the streets of Cincinnati tomorrow, there will be 12,000 or so fans at Great American Ballpark to cheer on the Cincinnati Reds for the first time since September of 2019. The Reds will be looking to make the playoffs again this season after reaching them in 2020 for the first time in more than half of a decade.
Over the weekend we asked some of our writers and contributors here at Redleg Nation to predict the final record for the Reds this season, and share what they believe is the key to the season.
Key to Season: Starting Rotation
The 2021 Reds team is unsettled up the middle of the field. The catching is making a generational transition. The shortstop and second baseman are both new and lack experience with each other. The center fielder has yet to clearly establish he can stay healthy and be a solid everyday player at the MLB level.
Additionally the bullpen has been revamped.
The team must have a solid foundation of stability to allow the middle field bullpen situations to settle in and find their way. This can only be provided by the starting rotation.
As much as I want to be optimistic for this team’s chance to be in the playoffs again, I just don’t see it.
The 2021 Reds don’t have any player who, in my opinion, can put the team on his shoulders like a superstar can. Trevor Bauer was close last year, and he is of course not back. I don’t have faith that any of the starting position players are going to break through to this level of performance. Last year’s dismal offensive stats may be clouding my outlook, and I very much hope I am wrong.
Nick Krall was handcuffed this offseason with no budget to work with. He worked around that limitation by finding former top-pick pitchers who he hopes the team’s unique pitching development staff can elevate. Potentially this could be a breakthrough strategy. If the team can bring one or two of José De León, Brandon Finnegan, Carson Fulmer and Jeff Hoffman back from has-been to dominant at the major league level, that would be amazing. It would be a low-cost initiative that would be copied around baseball.
Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray should continue to be a top one-two punch in the rotation. I hope Tejay Antone gets slotted in at three when he recovers from injury. Beyond that, spots four and five will be in flux for at least the early part of the year. Michael Lorenzen has to prove it before he gets anointed as a starter, in my opinion.
In a weak division, I think the Reds could hang close enough to the top to keep us hopeful for much of the season. It’s my guess the Reds will be very close to .500 again, perhaps 79-83. That could change if ownership decides to give Krall the resources to get some help prior to the trade deadline, but I don’t anticipate that happening.
If I had to pick one key to the season besides the roster staying relatively healthy it would be Eugenio Suárez playing enough defense at shortstop to remain there. His ability to play shortstop is huge. If he can remain there and not just be a total fish out of water defensively, the lineup is so much stronger for it. It creates a spot for Jonathan India, who has always been able to get on base, and in the last year has shown that when he’s healthy he can hit for some power (though we don’t exactly have a ton of stats to back that up given that he started showing that at the alternate site last year, and continued it this spring).
With all of that said, the defense is still a big question mark for the Reds. With more strikeouts than ever, and better information to better position your defenders than ever, defense is a little bit less important than ever before. But it still does matter and it’s clearly the biggest weakness of the three aspects of the game (offense, defense, pitching).
The error bars on the Reds record seem pretty big to me. The team has some talent on offense and the pitching staff. With Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray at the top of the rotation the team can match up with anyone. Offensively they aren’t going to be confused with the Dodgers, but you don’t have to squint too hard to see an offense that could be above-average. And there’s a wild card pitcher in Tejay Antone, who I honestly believe you can argue has the raw stuff to match up with a Castillo or Gray. Obviously he’s not on their level yet because the track record isn’t there, and right now he’s starting in the bullpen, but if he winds up in the rotation and his stuff carries over that could be a game changer.
Still, there are some things that need to go right for Cincinnati to push their win total into the upper 80’s. And there’s plenty that could go wrong in a believable scenario that pushes their win total into the mid-to-upper 70’s, too. Big error bars. But in a division where no one truly sticks out, they should be competitive all year, and I believe there’s some upside.
I think the Reds will win 85ish games this year. Why? Because that’s what I expected last year. Something everyone forgets is that this team SHOULD have hit better and we didn’t expect them to pitch quite so well. So, the pitching comes back to the pack a bit, the hitters do what they should and we get about 85 wins. That’s the whole key. Everyone does what we should expect them to do and the Reds are at least in contention for the most mediocre division in baseball.
You can’t talk about predictions without talking about injuries. So, let’s put that aside as a given.
Never forgetting it’s a team game, I’m going to focus on two players: La Piedra and Nick Senzel. Luis Castillo is more than capable of delivering back-to-back Cy Young awards to baseball’s oldest franchise, a feat that would be remarkable considering the award had never worn a Reds’ uniform before 2020. Should he continue to develop into an elite starter, it will close the pitching gap that widened when Trevor Bauer left for bluer pastures. If another pitch in his arsenal elevates to go along with the devastating change-up, the Reds will be almost guaranteed one win every week.
It’s officially go-time for Nick Senzel. He’s the beginning of the payoff for all that rebuild losing, and while Jonathan India is the shiny, new dime, I say the Tennessee Volunteer is the anchor of the next everyday eight.
If Nick and Luis make the jump to lightspeed, they can carry the Reds on both sides of the ball. That, and a little bit of health.
The biggest key for the Reds is pretty simple: health. The Reds don’t have great depth this year. The good news is that most of the NL Central also has the same problem. The two players that I believe will be the biggest keys are Nick Senzel and Tyler Mahle. I feel pretty confident in most of the lineup and the rotation (even Lorenzen) with what level of production they will give, but both Senzel and Mahle have a high degree of variance in what their production could look like. If you look at the final numbers for those two players, you might have a good sense of how this season went for the Reds.