PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Sorting Cincinnati's crowded outfield

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have been the busiest team in the NL Central this offseason, adding depth every area of their team. Among the biggest investments were Shogo Akiyama (OF, CIN) and Nick Castellanos (OF, CIN), crowding the outfield depth chart. With both projected to earn near every day playing time, Jesse Winker (OF, CIN), Aristides Aquino (OF, CIN), Josh VanMeter (OF, CIN), Phillip Ervin (OF, CIN), and Nick Senzel (OF, CIN) are left to fight for remaining at-bats.

While Senzel is likely to get the first crack at regular playing time, he ended the 2019 campaign by undergoing shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Though he was set to begin baseball activities in the middle of January, there has yet to be official word from the team that he’ll be ready for Opening Day. Even if Senzel begins the season healthy, he has managed to play only 343 games in four seasons as a professional due to several injuries and has yet to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season.

Outside of Senzel, Winker carries the biggest name value of the Reds remaining outfielders. However, a deeper dive into his profile suggests large concerns about his ability to maintain regular playing time. Both his splits against lefties (.176/.295/.248 for his career) and poor defense (he’s never posted a UZR better than -2.3) make him an extreme risk given the depth in the Reds’ outfield.

Of the other players vying for playing time, Aquino made a loud entrance to the big leagues in August by crushing 14 home runs in 103-at bats. However, he also had the flaws in his game exposed over time (ct% fell from 75% to 67% from August to September; BPV from 117 to -5). Still, he clearly packs plenty of pop (xPX 110 and PX 166) in his bat, and he didn’t display severe splits in his small sample in the big leagues. VanMeter was perhaps the steadiest performer of the group, and also showcased many desirable traits at the plate (132 xPX, 125 HctX, 41% FB). Unlike many of his competitors, VanMeter also exhibited roughly average fielding ability in the outfield. Finally, Ervin may remain in the mix for at-bats and could pair well with Winker or Akiyama as a platoon partner, though the Reds appear hesitant to hand him full-time plate at bats.


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Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have had little roster turnover this offseason, stuck in a holding pattern as they awaited the decision on Kris Bryant’s grievance while also aiming to get their salary figure below the luxury tax.  Due to the lack of moves, much of their rotation from the 2019 season appears set to return, with Yu Darvish (RHP, CHC), Jose Quintana (LHP, CHC), Kyle Hendricks (RHP, CHC) and Jon Lester (LHP, CHC) all locks to begin the season in the rotation assuming health.

The fight for the final rotation spot appears to begin with Tyler Chatwood (RHP, CHC), who came out of the bullpen in all but five of his 38 appearances last season. Though he was a disaster as a regular starter in 2018, Chatwood showed some improved skills in 2019 (8.7 Dom, 4.3 Ctl, 2.0 Cmd). The results included his best WHIP (1.33) and xERA (4.03) since 2014.

While Chatwood may be the favorite, there are other intriguing options if Chatwood were to lose control of the job (pun intended). Adbert Alzolay (RHP, CHC) made an anticipated major-league debut last season that was cut short by injury. That’s been a common problem for him in recent seasons, as he’s failed to surpass 100 innings in both 2018 and 2019.

The Cubs generated some buzz when they signed Jharel Cotton (RHP, CHC) this offseason, but he’s pitched just 27.2 innings across the last two seasons while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Even when healthy, he shares concerns about control as he managed a 3.7 Ctl across 129 IP in 2017. Colin Rea (RHP, CHC) and Tyson Miller (RHP, CHC) are also both on the 40-man roster and could find their way into the rotation at points throughout the season.  

 

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers enter the 2020 season with plenty of question marks in their rotation, a statement that could have been copied from the 2019 campaign. Brandon Woodruff (RHP, MIL), Adrian Houser (RHP, MIL), and Eric Lauer (LHP, MIL) all appear to be relatively safe bets to begin the season as starters. The remaining two slots are currently filled by Brett Anderson (LHP, MIL)—a major health risk—and Josh Lindblom (RHP, MIL)—a relative unknown after pitching the past three seasons in Korea.

Waiting in the wings are a few familiar names in Freddy Peralta (RHP, MIL) and Corbin Burnes (RHP, MIL). Both will be stretched out as starters to begin the season, and could end up with jobs in the rotation before season’s end. However, each was also marred by inconsistent 2019 seasons, with Peralta making the majority of his appearances out of the bullpen and Burnes posting a disastrous 8.82 ERA across 49 innings. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of reason to believe in each of those young arms as Burnes posted the requisite skills (12.9 Dom, 3.5 Cmd) last season to earn a 3.83 xERA. Meanwhile, Peralta posted dominant numbers in the Dominican Winter League, but more notably reportedly threw an improved curveball and also introduced a slider, expanding his previously narrow arsenal.

Other names to keep in mind include Brent Suter (LHP, MIL) who returned from Tommy John surgery towards the end of 2019 and flashed strong skills (7.4 Dom, 0.5 Ctl). However, he too is very fastball-dependent and appeared reluctant to turn to his slider in his return from surgery. The final name currently on the 40-man roster is Trey Supak (RHP, MIL), who could be ready to make his major-league debut in 2020. Both his arsenal and physical build point to a capable, innings-eating starting pitcher. Shelby Miller (RHP, MIL), Zack Brown (RHP, MIL), Ethan Small (LHP, MIL), Jake Faria (RHP, MIL) are all non-roster invitees, and are names to keep in mind for deeper leagues.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

Despite general manager Ben Cherington’s refusal to say the Pirates are in the midst of a rebuild, the team’s direction has become clear after dealing longtime outfielder Starling Marte (OF, ARI) for a pair of teenage prospects. The move leaves Bryan Reynolds (OF, PIT) and Gregory Polanco (OF, PIT) as the cornerstones of their outfield, though how their infield will align on Opening Day is less clear.

Much of that will be clarified by two players: Adam Frazier (2B, PIT) and Kevin Newman (INF, PIT). Newman emerged as a strong asset for the team and fantasy managers alike (59 BPV, $21 earned in 5x5 format) in 2019. He also proved versatile in the field, appearing at second base, third base, shortstop, and even the outfield. Meanwhile, Frazier settled in as the Pirates’ primary second baseman, but has been subject to trade rumors for much of the offseason.

If, or perhaps once, Frazier is dealt, Newman will likely become the team’s everyday second baseman. That would allow Cole Tucker (SS, PIT) and Erik Gonzalez (SS, PIT) to compete for time at shortstop. Meanwhile, at the hot corner, Colin Moran (3B, PIT) would likely serve as the primary third baseman until Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B, PIT) is ready for the show.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

With Carlos Martinez (RHP, STL) potentially headed back to the rotation and Jordan Hicks (RHP) on the mend from Tommy John surgery, the closer situation in St. Louis is murky as pitchers and catchers get set to report. With another seemingly shaky landscape at closer across the league, speculating on a save source until at least-mid season could be a worthwhile proposition.

Geovany Gallegos (RHP, STL) may emerge as the main beneficiary. He had a breakout 2019 campaign, posting an 11.3 Dom that was backed a 17 SwK%. He also displayed pristine control (1.9 Ctl) while also keeping the ball in the yard at a respectable rate (1.1 hr/9). The team took note of his progress, trusting him to post a career-high 0.94 Leverage Index (LI). Andrew Miller (LHP, STL) is a familiar name, but his skills are headed in a troubling direction. Both his Ctl (4.4) and hr/9 (1.8) spiked, representing some of the highest marks of his career.

While unlikely, the Cardinals could also opt to utilize lesser experienced, but high-pedigree arms in the back of their ‘pen. Manager Mike Shildt has taken a more traditional view of the closer role in his tenure with St. Louis, though Genesis Cabrera (LHP, STL) could be an elite option to get big left-handed bats out late in the game. Cabrera’s prospect profile notes that his best fit in the majors could come as a reliever or closer thanks to his plus fastball and slider. His upside as a starter is limited by his control issues, which were on display in short order during his MLB debut (4.9 Ctl across 20 IP).

It would hardly be a Cardinals offseason without mentioning the impact that Alex Reyes (RHP, STL) could have on the rotation or bullpen. Shildt has already noted that Reyes is unlikely to begin the season in the rotation, but will compete for a high-leverage role in the bullpen. As a right-hander, he could for the more traditional closer that Shildt has opted for in the past, but will have to prove he can remain healthy for even part of the season.


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