There was plenty of movement on the Cincinnati Reds’ roster this winter, losing some notable players, but the one area that they didn’t really touch was their offense.
The Reds are making a big bet that their offense, which had the league’s lowest batting average (.212) last season, will naturally improve to give them a chance to compete for a divisional title.
It’s largely the same offense that went scoreless for 22 innings in the postseason last year, swept by the Atlanta Braves in the Wild Card Series. The main changes were catcher Curt Casali wasn’t tendered a contract to pave room for rookie Tyler Stephenson, Brian Goodwin was cut and Freddy Galvis left as a free agent.
Shortstop, of course, remains the team’s biggest question mark, but the club needs its offense to step up. The Reds relied on homers to score most of their runs and they had an abnormally low .245 batting average on balls in play, more than 20 points below any other team. Manager David Bell said it was something the organization studied the entire winter.
“It was in some ways a challenging puzzle to figure out,” Bell said. “When you look at our personnel, I have to start with just the fact that baseball has been played over the course of a long season for a long time. That is a factor. It is not an excuse, it's just a factor. I've seen it over and over and over again. We all have. Players typically come back to their track record and what they've done in the past unless there's a significant change or something drastic happens.”
The Reds committed about $150 million to sign free agents Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama prior to the 2020 season. They knew they needed to upgrade their offense as their pitching staff became a strength and felt like they had one of the better lineups in the division.
Castellanos hit the ball hard and consistently barreled pitches, according to Statcast’s metrics, but he had a rough .190/.263/.381 slash line over his final 46 games of the season. Eugenio Suárez is in better shape after he hit .202 and never found his rhythm offensively last year. The Reds hope Akiyama will feel more comfortable at the plate after his first MLB season.
“When you get close to the end of the year and your numbers aren't anywhere close to where they should be and what you're used to, you press,” Bell said. “I think that's a compliment to our players because of how driven they were to do well and contribute to our team.”
One year removed from making a big splash in free agency, the Reds’ offseason was more about who they lost. Relievers Sean Doolittle and Édgar García were the team’s only signings on big-league contracts.
“I do think we have the guys here to be a successful, winning team,” pitcher Sonny Gray said. “We didn't do a lot of major headline additions. We lost some guys out of that group from last year. Trevor (Bauer) was so important to our team last year along with a bunch of guys we lost. But you still look as an offensive unit, we still have some extremely established players who have been so productive and so successful throughout their professional careers.”
And that’s the bet that the Reds are gambling on for the 2021 season. If the offense improves and top players stay healthy, they’ll be in the mix in the National League Central. If the offense hits like it did last year, the Reds look more like a fourth-place team.
Bell said the focus will be a line-drive approach while squaring up pitches and grinding out at-bats. The important thing this year, of course, is seeing actual results.
“It’s seeing this group over the course of a normal season,” Bell said. “That’s it. I think just that in and of itself will produce completely different results. That’s not to say we didn’t learn from last year and work really hard all winter to think of anything we can do to make sure that we’re maximizing our lineup and our players and supporting them in any way, but the big difference is going to be this group is going to have a chance to show what they can do over the course of a long year.”