McCoy: Reds get second chance to live up to last year’s hype

There is no valid argument that the Cincinnati Reds were not the winner of 2020′s Biggest Underachievers Award.

In the offseason, for them they did something as rare as a sacrifice bunt. They opened the vault wide-open and signed free agents Nick Casetellanos, Mike Moustakas, Shogo Akiyama and Wade Miley at a cost of $181 million.

As a result, the Reds were the flavor-of-the year pick to win the National League Central. But instead of getting any bang for their bucks, they received one very large fizzle.

They finished third, two games over .500 (31-29) in the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. They made the expanded playoff format, only to lose two straight to the Atlanta Braves during which they plodded through 22 innings without scoring a run.

Now it is 2021 and they get to perform a do-over, hopefully over a full 162-game schedule.

And those four underperforming free agents --Moustakas, Castellanos, Akiyama and Miley -- are afforded a chance to play closer to the numbers on the backs of their baseball cards than the low numbers on last year’s stat sheet.

And they have to improve for the Reds to compete. This winter, the Reds kept the vault double-locked. No name free agents were signed. They loaded the spring roster with waiver-wire acquisitions.

If spring training is any indication, and it usually isn’t, the Reds continued their struggles with loss piled upon loss.

But on Thursday, they start the regular season like everybody else, 0-and-0 with high expectations. And they start it off against the division favorite, the St. Louis Cardinals and their new third baseman, Nolan Arenado.

Luis Castillo, nearly untouchable this spring, is the Opening Day starter and a possible Cy Young candidate. The other stellar starter, Sonny Gray, has had back issues and is at least a week away from his debut.

The Reds lost starting pitchers Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani to free agency, slicing a large chunk out of the rotation. Tyler Mahle was up-and-down last season and Miley spent more time in the trainer’s room than on the mound.

The one major addition was free agent Sean Doolittle, acquired to give the bullpen a boost after closer Raisel Iglesias was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. That left the bullpen gate open for Amir Garrett to do what he desperately wants to do: be the closer.

Offensively, the Reds must do a 180 in the batter’s box. A .212 team batting average was light years below the worst in MLB history. And the team played a wait-and-see approach … wait for a home run to score runs. Sixty percent of its runs came via home runs, also an MLB record.

The face of the franchise still belongs to Joey Votto, although Eugenio Suarez is creeping over Votto’s left shoulder. Both need to rebound from subpar seasons for the team to compete.

Some believe that Votto’s career. at age 37, is in the past tense. His numbers in recent years have slipped like a bear market. His slash line last season was .226/.354/.446, all below his career averages. He hit 11 home runs and drove in only 22 in 54 games last season. He did, however, make some mechanical and mental adjustments and finished strong.

And he has vowed to be more aggressive this season and said, “I want to be dangerous again.”

Suarez’s slash line was worse than Votto’s at .202/.313/.407 with 15 homers and 35 RBI, but he is pumped over a chance to move back to shortstop, his natural position. He has lost weight, which should make him more mobile on defense.

It is a move the Reds should have made last season. When they let shortstop Jose Iglesias slip away after 2019, they brought in Freddie Galvis, who is now also gone through free agency.

Moustakas is a natural third baseman, but the Reds planted him at second base. They could have put Moustakas at third immediately and moved Suarez to short.

Now Moustakas is back at third, also trying to wipe away the nightmare of a shaky 2020 (.230/.331/.468 with eight homers and 27 RBI).

That leaves second base to rookie Jonathan India, who put together a solid spring training.

Akiyama, the team’s first Japanese-born player, spent the season acclimating himself to the American culture and U.S.-style baseball. He starts the season on the injured list, leaving the outfield in the hands of Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel and Castellanos.

The designated hitter was employed in the National League last season and Winker was Cincinnati’s main DH, a position he did not like. The DH is gone this year and Winker is back playing left field on a regular basis. To him, that’s happiness and a chance to show he can perform up to standards.

Credit: Ross D. Franklin

Credit: Ross D. Franklin

Senzel could be on the brink of stardom, if can cease and desist from compiling injuries and spend too much time in the infirmary.

Castellanos put together a mammoth spring and needs to carry it over after he, too, was an underachiever last season, He appeared in all 60 games and put together a .225/.295/.480 slash line with 14 homers and 34 RBI.

At quick glance, the National League Central appears to be a weak division, winnable to any team but the swordless Pittsburgh Pirates.

The St. Louis Cardinals added All-Star Arenado. The Milwaukee Brewers added outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., infielder Kolten Wong and brought back infielder Travis Shaw. The Chicago Cubs did little more than subtract talent.

The division is there for the willing and able. Can the Reds forget about launch angle and put more balls in play to produce more runs and lift their batting average?

The answers begin surfacing Thursday when all 30 major league teams open the 2021 season. And the Reds hope there are not too many questions left unanswered.

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