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Are the Reds starting to turn themselves into a team to watch for the next five years?

The Cincinnati Reds have not known much about October baseball in quite awhile. Cincinnati last made the playoffs in 2013, and they have only earned four postseason berths in the last 24 years.

Heading into 2019, however, there was some optimism that the Reds could be a “dark horse” contender in the National League Central.  Cincinnati traded for Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood in December, then acquired promising starter Sonny Gray in January. After signing former Washington Nationals starter Tanner Roark in free agency, the Reds were suddenly one of the more balanced teams in the division.

The Reds will not make the playoffs this year. In fact, three of the players named above (Kemp, Puig, and Roark) are now gone, and Wood will be a free agent this offseason and has only made four starts for Cincinnati due to injury.

Yet, despite “striking out” this past offseason, there is a real chance that the Reds could be one of the more competitive teams in the division in the coming years.

Can Trevor Bauer make the difference?

Heading into Spring Training, the assumption is that the Reds would score a lot of runs, but that they would not be able to prevent the opposition from scoring due to a relatively mediocre pitching staff. That narrative has since changed dramatically.

Before play began on Thursday, Cincinnati’s starters ranked eighth in fWAR, and seventh in ERA. Right-handed flamethrower Luis Castillo looks like a potential ace, and the team’s investment in Gray has paid off in waves, as the former All-Star had a 3.10 ERA and 10.2 K/9 through his first 23 starts.

While the bullpen has been less effective, relievers like Raisel Iglesias, Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen and Robert Stephenson still offer plenty of talent and room for growth.

Given that this purported weakness has turned into a possible strength, was Cincinnati’s aggressive deadline move to acquire former Indians starter Trevor Bauer justified? Time will tell the answer to that question, especially because Bauer can become a free agent after the 2020 season.

There is no doubt that Bauer has plenty of talent. He has tremendous stuff, with a plus heater and a breaking ball that drops off the map. Bauer has tremendous spin rates, and he generates high whiff rates with his breaking pitches on a consistent basis.

He also gets hit extremely hard. Opposing hitters have mashed Bauer’s fastball and cutter, especially this season. Despite an average velocity close to 95 mph, opponents are slugging .530 with a .390 wOBA against Bauer’s heater, according to MLB Statcast.

There is also reason to suggest that Bauer simply is not worth the kind of investment that the Reds made in giving up Puig and top prospect Taylor Trammell as part of a three-team deal. Bauer has had just one season with a sub-4.00 ERA as a member of the Indians, and it was when he posted a 2.21 ERA last year while leading the American League in FIP (2.44).

Part of the reason he had so much success is that–in addition to the high strikeout rate–Bauer’s HR/9 rate dropped to just 0.5, a number that also led all AL starters. However, with homer rates spiking and opponents torching his fastball, is it really likely that Bauer can find his 2018 form again?

Castillo and Gray hold the keys to the rotation in Cincinnati. But Bauer’s effectiveness (or lack thereof) in addition to his looming free agency could have a drastic impact on whether or not the Reds can establish themselves as a perennial playoff contender.

Plenty of boppers

Whereas Cincinnati’s pitching staff has outperformed expectations, the offense has been a major disappointment. The Reds released Kemp in May after he got off to a very disappointing start, and Scooter Gennett was injured for practically the entire season before struggling upon his return at the end of June.

Even Joey Votto–one of the best hitters of this generation and the face of the franchise–has had a disappointing season. Votto was coming off a three-year stretch in which he led either all of baseball or the National League in on-base percentage, but (outside of the homers, given that he hit just 12 last season) his numbers are down across the board.

The Reds rank just 21st in wRC+ (91), and would likely be lower save for an early offensive surge to begin the second half.

Still, hope springs eternal in Cincinnati. Outfielder Aristides Aquino set an MLB record by homering in nine of his first 13 games, including a three-homer performance against the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 10. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez has surpassed 30 homers for the second consecutive season, and his 13 bombs since the All-Star break is the second-best mark in baseball.

Meanwhile, Nick Senzel is putting together a solid rookie season, and Jesse Winker has an .828 OPS, although he rarely starts against left-handed pitching. Throw in young talents like Phil Ervin and Josh VanMeter, and the Reds have a versatile group of offensive weapons.

Not to mention, notorious home run “pimper” Derek Dietrich still has another year of arbitration, and could be a major run-producer once again next season.

What should we make of the Reds moving forward?

Cincinnati is a very intriguing team. Castillo made the All-Star team and–at just 26 years old–is the perfect guy to lead the rotation. With Gray and Bauer in tow next season, they could have a strong group of starters. They also have a ton of room on payroll, so do not rule out a run at Houston Astros ace and impending free agent Gerrit Cole.

Of course, there is a lot of skepticism with respect to this Reds team. First of all, can players like Aquino, Ervin and VanMeter sustain a high level of success as everyday players? What about the bullpen, is it a deep enough unit? Are Iglesias and Garrett reliable as impact arms and late-game options?

The Reds have the kind of young talent that could make them a riser in the National League, especially if they decide to spend some money. However, a lot of players on the roster could be considered “wild cards,” and Cincinnati’s farm system took a hit when they elected to give up Trammell (sure, he was struggling, but he was still just 21 and had plenty of potential).

A lot of Cincinnati’s potential as a winner feels contingent on Bauer, as well as how quickly some of the other guys in Cincinnati’s farm system develop over the next few years.

The Reds feel like a team that could make their presence known at the top of the NL Central, but there are also so many question marks. If nothing else, that certainly makes them an intriguing team to watch.