Cincinnati Reds 2016 Season Preview

The saga of the rebuilding Redlegs


n 1953, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded future Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner to the Chicago Cubs after protracted salary disputes with general manager Branch Rickey, who rebuffed Kiner’s request for a pay raise by letting him know that “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.”

The reasons the Reds let go so many familiar faces over the past couple years weren’t exactly the same, but the philosophy behind the trades is similar; the window of opportunity for the Reds teams that made the playoffs three out of four years from 2010-2013 abruptly closed with an 86-loss 2014 season, followed by a poor start that ended up being a 98-loss season last year.

Amidst such reality, and with several core components like Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake drifting toward free agency, the time came to decide which way the club should head, and the team entered what it described as a “retooling” period. Semantics aside, the recent trades of star players Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman have the Reds square in the middle of a retooling/reloading/rebuilding process the organization hopes will be brief.

Although many hated to see their favorite players move on to other clubs, others believe the Reds might have waited too long to dismantle the roster. A July trade of Jay Bruce to the Mets fell through at the trade deadline, and the Reds never found anyone willing to pay the reportedly “exorbitant” price they were asking for Chapman at the time. Fast forward to December, and another Chapman trade fell through when reports surfaced of an alleged domestic violence incident. Soon, Chapman was on his way to the Yankees in another deal, and Frazier headed north to the Chicago White Sox, both for returns that baseball analysts found less than overwhelming.

The success of trades cannot be judged until several years down the line, however, and the Reds’ minor league system has been consistently ranked around the league’s top third after the recent influx of prospects. And as much as it might pain the average fan, one has to look no further than the division rival Chicago Cubs for a blueprint of a rebuilding team’s best-case scenario. After near-misses in the playoffs during the 2000s, the organization prudently decided to rebuild and stockpile talent. This year they’re widely considered to be a World Series contender, stocked with young stars and shrewdly acquired veterans who went to the playoffs last year, seemingly ahead of their “rebuilding” schedule.

The Houston Astros recently completed a similar turnaround, though it was aided in part by losing 100-plus games three straight seasons from 2011-2013. The organizaeion turned the resulting No. 1 draft picks into budding superstars like Carlos Correa and George Springer, who took the Astros to the playoffs last year for the first time since 2005. The Reds have the No. 2 pick in this June’s amateur draft.

While this year’s Reds squad will include several guys whose names fans might need to look up in the score book, it’s not like the team’s offense is a glorified AAA lineup. The Reds still have former MVP Joey Votto, veterans Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce and the enigmatic Billy Hamilton, along with guys like Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco returning from injury. If young shortstop-turned-third baseman Eugenio Suarez take the next step in his development, fans will witness the fruits of another recent trade, one which sent pitcher Alfredo Simon to the Tigers for Suarez during the 2014 offseason.   

Simon is back on a one-year deal to eat up innings. Veteran starter Homer Bailey should be back in May from elbow surgery that wiped out his 2015 season, and Anthony DeSclafani — who the Reds obtained in the Mat Latos 2014 offseason deal — will look to build on a solid rookie campaign last year. The rest of the rotation will feature Cuban phenom Raisel Iglesias — this year’s Opening Day starter — and any number of young guys getting their first real shot at the Majors, at least until later this year when the organization’s top two pitching prospects — former first-round draft pick Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed, acquired in the Cueto deal last year — could see their first taste of Major League action.

Also waiting in the wings are the team’s best hitting prospects, outfielder Jesse Winker and 21-year-old speedster Jose Peraza (acquired in the Frazier trade). Aside from Peraza, the best of the team’s younger prospects figure to start the season in the minors, both to gain additional experience and to delay the start of their Major League service time to ensure that the team controls the players for the longest time possible. (Waiting even two months into the season to call up a player from the minors can add another full year of team control on the back end of the player’s contract.)

The economic realities of the industry have made these moves — and terminology like “service time” — part of the game. The Reds themselves are hardly pretending this isn’t a transitional year for the team’s makeup, but that doesn’t mean it won’t walk onto the field with a 25-man roster full of players with a unique opportunity to carve out a place for themselves.

Pundits and casual fans alike realize that this year’s Reds squad isn’t built to contend for a World Series title, but Reds brass seemingly went out of its way to acquire both players with high-ceilings and those who could contribute soon, with hope of making the rebuilding effort as painless as possible.

The 2016 Cincinnati Reds should be an interesting mix of the old and new, the latter half of the season potentially a sneak peak of the players who will lead the next great Reds team into the postseason.

At least that’s the plan for now.

The Reds host the Philadelphia Phillies on Opening Day, 4:10 p.m. Monday. The 97th-annual Findlay Market Opening Day Parade starts at noon.