The last two Reds seasons were brutal. It wasn't just that they lost a lot of games, although that part did suck. It was that, for most of us, the most interesting things about the Reds were happening off the field. Games, and their results took a backseat to the latest trade speculation and it felt like we spent more time sorting through other teams' prospects than we did paying attention to how the Reds were playing.
Which, given how poorly the Reds played in 2015 and 2016, might have been a good thing.
This year, as the Opening Day arrives, feels different. The Reds aren't contenders, and as much as I yearn for an opener to be played in an atmosphere of genuine this-is-our year hope, none of us can realistically say when this team will be good again. The 2017 Reds will, like the 2016, 2015, and well, 2014 Reds (damn), will probably lose more games than they win. But unlike the last two seasons specifically, the most interesting things about the Reds don't involve saying goodbye to popular players, and the things that happen on the field are as intriguing as they've been since the rebuild began.
This year's Reds might not be very good, but they should be interesting.
The following are the more interesting questions I have about this team.
Is Billy Hamilton as good a hitter as he'll ever be? If he isn't, how much better can he be?
The most pleasant development of 2016 on the field was Billy's progression as a hitter. He went from being almost inept at times with a bat in his hand to a being a guy who showed a pretty fair level of competence at the plate. He hit .260 - a few points higher than the Major League average - and 34 points higher than in 2015, when he was, at times, almost an automatic out. He reached base at a passable .321 clip, and his BABIP was a (probably hard to sustain) .329. He did strike out more often, which was bad. But he also walked more frequently, which was good. He hit fewer fly balls than at any time in his career, he was very good when leading off innings (OBP: .351), he hit the ball on the ground more often, and in the five weeks before his season was cut short due to an oblique injury in early September, he was hitting at a .284/.376/.330 clip.
More than anything, he just started to look the part of an actual big league hitter. Where he looked overwhelmed and overmatched the previous two seasons, he started to look last season like a guy who knew what he was doing at the plate (Joey Votto's influence, documented here and here, was a big help). Already elite defensively (and possibly robbed of a Gold Glove) and without peer on the basepaths, Billy evolved last season into a more complete baseball player.
And where it felt like a year ago that he had to prove that he belonged in a regular big league lineup, it's now fair to wonder how much a rounded-out Billy Hamilton is going to cost in three years.
This year, I want to know how much more progress he can make as a hitter. If he starts to level off this season and prove that the 2016 version of Billy Hamilton is what we're going to see for the bulk of his prime years, well, he's still valuable. If the hitting can improve just a little - which includes continuing to draw walks more frequently - and if he can stay healthy (legit question) then the Reds will have one of the truly unique and devastating weapons in the sport.
What can a dynamic 1-2 punch of Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza do for Joey Votto's MVP chances?
Had we actually had snow this winter (and thank God we didn't), I would stared out my windown daydreaming of watching Billy and Jose wreak havoc on opposing defenses with Joey Votto being the primary beneficiary of their work.
I've already probably bored you with what Billy did last year. Jose, meanwhile, might actually be the second-best hitter on the team. That's both an indictment against the Reds as a whole and a statement about how good Peraza was in the second of his two stints with the big club a year ago.
After his second callup, he hit. Then he hit some more. And finally, he hit even more. Mostly, overwhelming, singles. But he did hit. He batted .366 after being called up for good on August 20th. In those final 39 games, he had three or more hits seven times. And while he wasn't an efficient base-stealer, he did enough with his legs to make you wonder what kind of damage a Billy/Jose combo at the top of the order could do.
Peraza is probably not going to post the .324 average he had last season, and it'd be great if he'd draw walks at least a little more often. But if he hits the way I think he can and if Billy improves a little more as a hitter, then the Reds will have two insanely fast guys on base on base at a decent enough clip to give Joey Votto more RBI opportunities.
Ah, Joey Votto and RBIs. Even though he ended up with 97 of them last year, they are the "yeah, but" you like to @ me with when I write blogs like this one about how he's going to wind up in Cooperstown. Just imagine Billy and Jose doing Billy and Jose things and what that can mean for Joey's RBI total. What will there be left for people who hate Joey Votto to complain about?
Wait, nevermind. Don't answer that. Please.
Joey's getting some early run as a trendy internet pick for NL MVP, which isn't surprising because the internet loves it some Joey Votto. Part of that might have to do with the fact that some are forecasting a devastating Kris Bryant injury while others have forgotten that Bryce Harper used to be really good and dismiss the notion that he can be again. But I'll guess that a lot of it has to do with a belief that Joey can drive in some more runs this season, satisfying the voters who still watch baseball like it's 1984.
Whether he's MVP could be fun to debate when the season ends. For now, it's more fun to think about what Joey, Billy, and Jose can do together.
How's this whole revolutionary way of using the bullpen thing gonna work?
Like you and I, Bryan Price watched last year's playoffs saw the way the Indians, Cubs, and Dodgers used their relievers. Andrew Miller once entered a game in the fifth inning. Aroldis Chapman appeared in the seventh inning of another. As someone who's long bitched about the antiquated way in which managers use their best relief pitchers, I found it refreshing to watch managers have the balls to use their best guys in important situations regardless of what inning it was.
Price doesn't have an Andrew Miller or an Aroldis Chapman, but he does have a couple of guys in Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen who were pretty capable in relief last year, and the composition of the bullpen, without the Ross Ohlendorfs and Kevin Greggs of the past two seasons, seems as good as its been since in a while.
The Reds' Manager talked a lot this offseason during spring training about using guys differently, allowing relieves to throw multiple innings, not having one designated closer, allowing game situations to dictate who pitches when, and being unafraid of using one guy to pitch the ninth one night, then someone else to close the game the following night. He started doing this a little last year with Iglesias and Lorenzen, who combined for 29 relief appearances of two innings or more in 2016.
Now, with both holding down seemingly permanent spots in the 'pen, and with the addition of Drew Storen to go along with a relief core that should be better than last year's (to be fair, we could get guys who throw in my Wednesday night softball league to make up a better bullpen than last year's), hopefully Price has the flexibility to use his relievers differently.
But these things are easy to talk about in December, and sometimes harder to execute in April. And you do wonder how long they'll stick with the plan if it doesn't yield good short-term results. I love what I hear about the way Bryan Price is going to manage his bullpen. I hope what I see matches up with what I've heard.
Can Devin catch? When will he catch? How much can he catch? If he can't catch, what else can he do?
We're supposed to be in the middle of the Devin-Mesoraco-is-the-best-catcher-in-baseball and Devin-Mesoraco-is-the-face-of-the-Reds eras. Instead, unfortunately, we're smack dab in the middle of the "Oh yeah, Devin Mesoraco. He used to be pretty good." era.
Which is a shame, because three years ago he had the profile of a guy worth building around, a player capable of turning into arguably the best catcher in the sport, and yes, the face of the franchise.
Two lost seasons, zero home runs and 478 surgeries later, Devin is clearly not worth writing off, but you can't help but wonder how effective he can still be behind the plate, how much the Reds will have to back off of using him (it helps that Tucker Barnhart has proven to be more than capable), and if the team ever gets to a point where it decides that Devin can't catch as much as he used to, how else they can use him.
I'm a big Mesoraco fan, even more so after talking to him at RedFest and seeing how much it pained him to talk about not being able to help the team the past two seasons. If the Devin we see in 2017 looks anything like the guy who was an All-Star in 2014, then he's young enough to still realize the things we thought we'd be taking for granted by now.
If not, then, well, I don't know.
What's the starting rotation going to look like in July?
To start the season, the Reds have Scott Feldman and Bronson Arroyo in the rotation, which is fine. There's a place for a reliable veteran that can eat innings on a team that's rebuilding, and I'm too big of a Bronson fan to be skeptical about why he's in the rotation. But for a team that's where the Reds are - trying to figure out which starting pitchers are worth eventually building a contention-worthy rotation with, there are a lot of possibilities that involve a lot older pitchers holding down spots on the starting staff.
Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey will both return at some point. At least I hope both Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey return at some point. When they do, what becomes of Feldman and Arroyo (more on Bronson in a second)? And what if Robert Stephenson succeeds as a reliever? Will they shake up the bullpen to give him starts? How will Cody Reed fit in? What happens if both Rookie Davis and Amir Garrett (who I'm really excited to see) both bomb? When will we see Sal Romano? Luis Castillo?
My head is starting to hurt.
What does Bronson have left?
It's fair to wonder if at his age and without having pitched in a real big league game since 2014, Bronson Arroyo has done enough this spring to fully earn a spot in the starting rotation.
And it is very fair to wonder if, when he starts in a game that counts, he won't get his brains beaten in.
But man, I'm rooting for the guy. Bronson Arroyo is my favorite post-Larkin Red, and I'd love to see him go out on his terms, with a few vintage-Bronson outings to make people remember how good he was and how much fun he was to watch. There's benefit to having him around as a resource for the young guys, and even something as unsentimental as a baseball team being rebuilt has room for both nostalgia and a feel-good story.
The fact that Bronson Arroyo is slated to pitch in a Major League Baseball game soon is pretty remarkable. The fact that he's doing it as a Red is even better. If he can be effective, even for a just a while, that'd be a season highlight.
There's more questions, including how long it will take for me to get used to a new ten-day disabled list, whether Bryan Price survives another losing season, when we'll see Jesse Winker and Dilson Herrera, what the trade market is for Zack Cozart, and how many fans Scooter Gennett will win over the first time he scores from first base after sliding headfirst to home plate. But I've droned on long enough. The Reds are interesting. There are interesting questions. I look forward to getting the answers.
And now, a guess for the season, a useless exercise, but something I've done every year on the blog just before the season begins. Since our company's web overlords decided a while ago to delete all of our posts done before January 1st, 2013, I can only go back four years...
In 2013, I had the Reds winning 91 games, which ended up being pretty damn close to nailing the exact win today. Problem is, I thought they'd win the division. That didn't happen.
In 2014, I guessed 86, which would've been dead-on balls accurate had I guessed that many losses.
In 2015, I boldly guessed that the Reds would finish .500. Yeah, not even close.
This season, I have them at 71-91. Slightly better than last year because I believe the bullpen will be better and I don't think Votto will go through the two-month funk he endured last April and May. And if Mesoraco returns to something resembling his old form, their everyday eight isn't as awful as some will make it out to be.
But the starting rotation is, for the short-term, less than inspiring. They have to play the Cubs a billion times. The teams of the past two seasons lost 98, then 94 games and got valuable contributions from guys like Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Phillips, and Dan Straily. Without those guys, it's hard to imagine this team being all that much better.
It's not hard to imagine them being more interesting.