Winter sucks. Everybody's got the flu. Major League Soccer has apparently lost our phone number and the last major sports championship this city has seen was 28 years ago. How about some blue skies, seashells and balloons today?
By the time you read this, it will be less than six days until Reds pitches and catchers report for spring training. You can't find anyone not named Castellini who thinks the Reds have a shot to win the National League Central Division this year.
In fact, my good friend Gabe Lacques at USA Today just picked the Reds to finish 68-94 for the THIRD season in a row.
Am I predicting the Reds will win their division this year? I'm not that delusional, even with an open bottle of Castello di Amaa, L'Apparita in front of me (merlot connoisseurs all over the world nod, knowingly).
But as the Reds head to Goodyear, Arizona, let me now offer nine good reasons why we should be optimistic about the hometown team this season.
1. Joey Votto
Last I checked, Joey Votto is still on the roster. And though he may be wasting the best years of his baseball life on non-competitive teams, he remains the best-hitting player in team history. Period, end of story.
However, let's continue the story.
Votto hit .320 last season, with a staggering on-base percentage of .454. Almost as amazing, Votto played in all 162 games. The only other player to do that last season was the Phillies' Freddy Galvis.
By the way, Votto did it in 2013, too. Votto and Hunter Pence are the only players to play in all 162 in multiple seasons since 2008.
Dan Szymborski, he of ZIPS projections fame, has Votto making 624 plate appearances in 2018, down from 694 this past season. But Szymborski has Votto hitting .303, with a .434 on base percentage and a wRC+ (weighted runs created) projected at 147. In other words, Votto continues to be a once-in-a-lifetime player.
2. Better starting pitching
Anthony DeSclafani is allegedly healthy again. The operative word is allegedly.
Before the Reds caravan departed on its annual journey through the Midwest, Bryan Price told me he expected DeSclafani to be ready for full workouts at the beginning of camp. The one-time ace in waiting didn't throw a single pitch this past season. But DeSclafani did throw a bit in the Fall Instructional League and reported no problems.
DeSclafani won nine games in 31 starts in 2015. His 2016 season was delayed with a muscle problem in his torso. When he did make it onto the field, he won nine times in 20 starts. Is he a top-of-the-rotation guy on a contending team? Nope. But on the Reds, you could reasonably see him as a healthy starter.
Which leads to the whole starting rotation question. On paper it looks like a collection of pitchers who are just eligible to vote or have had their arms re-attached.
Luis Castillo looks like a star in the making. He was just 3-7 last season. But his 3-1 strikeout to walk ratio coupled with his mound presence has a lot of baseball smart guys talking. Szymborski has Castillo making 28 starts this season, up from 15 last year, throwing over 156 innings and his ZIPS comparison is Don Drysdale. Not bad company.
Though he throws far too many pitches to get through not enough innings, Brandon Finnegan will be back. Homer Bailey ended 2017 healthy for the first time in forever. Bailey is what he's been, basically a .500 pitcher. And anything you get from a pitcher who's had Tommy John surgery is a bonus.
The Reds have a lot of contenders for the rest of the rotation. It won't be a team strength. But the starting rotation may not be the liability it's been in years past. It will need help. And that brings us to...
3. Improved bullpen
The bullpen should be a lot better. The back end is particularly strong.
I think Raisel Iglesias is more than adequate as a closer. Michael Lorenzen could wind up in the rotation. But if not, he's back to set up. And Jared Hughes and David Hernandez are major upgrades.
No bullpen in all of baseball has thrown more innings than the Reds pen has thrown since the start of 2016 season. It will take more than those four, but I don't see Ross Ohlendorf, Jumbo Diaz or Caleb Cothman on the 40-man roster. So that's a good thing.
4. Going deep
Home runs have been devalued lately. EVERY team hits home runs now.
But the Reds have the bop to keep pace with the better teams. ZIPS projects Votto, Eugenio Suarez, Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler to all hit 24 or more home runs in 2018. Scooter Gennett is projected to hit 19.
Projections and reality often don't intersect, but in the era of the big ball, that's 154 dingers for just those five players.
5. Billy's potential
Billy Hamilton plays the best defensive center field in the game. I don't want to hear about Gold Gloves. Just watch him. It's called runs prevention. The more runs you prevent, the more of a chance you have to win.
The problem with Hamilton, of course, is his ability to get on base. He's not a top-of-the-order hitter and really never has been. But when he gets on base, he's not only a threat to steal a base, he can distract a pitcher to the point of helping the batter.
Hamilton got on base an embarrassing .299 last season. He also led the team with 133 strikeouts. Even free-swinging Suarez walked more than Hamilton.
The fact that the Reds were listening to trade offers for Hamilton this past off-season tells you they're running out of patience with him.
IF Hamilton can add 20 walks, at the expense of strikeouts. IF Hamilton can bump his OBP to .335, he could steal 70 bases this season. Those are huge ifs. But there's more to be encouraged about here than discouraged.
6. Barnhart on the rise
Tucker Barnhart is the Reds' everyday catcher.
He won his first ever Gold Glove in 2017. The last Reds catcher to win a Gold Glove was Johnny Bench. Not comparing the two. It wouldn't be fair to either. But Barnhart calls a good game.
Defense has never been a problem. Barnhart's offense has lagged behind his defense. But in 2017, he hit .270, a big number for a Major League catcher. Better than that, his OBP was .347.
Barnhart has emerged as one of the stars of the game at a position that is difficult for a MLB team to staff. This is a real strength for the 2018 Reds.
7. Time for Senzel
Nick Senzel will be in Cincinnati at some point this season. The 2016 first-round pick is on the fast track here.
Senzel, by almost all estimations, is a super star in waiting. The Reds will have to get creative to work him into the lineup. It might mean that Suarez may have to move to shortstop or Senzel may need to play a little there.
But in High A ball last season, Senzel hit .305, got on base almost 48 percent of the time he came to the plate. And after getting promoted to Double-A, his average rose to .340.
Senzel also hit 10 home runs in 235 Double-A plate appearances in 2017. He's the Reds third baseman of the future. The future and present should intersect sometime this summer.
8. Starting the clock
Which means the future may really be now.
The Reds have been reticent to "start the clock" on a lot of their minor league players.
Jesse Winker is a prime example. Was he Major League-ready in 2016 or 2017? We'll never know. The Reds didn't want to know because the sooner they brought any of their minor league talent to the Major League level, the clock would start. It would tick-tock first to arbitration and then to free agency.
And the decision was probably made early in those years that the team wouldn't be competitive, so why do it? Maybe that's not the best thing to do for your fan base, but from an economic point of view, it made sense.
It's always easy to spend someone else's money, but I think the time for saving dollars now for future spending should be over. I've never understood "playing the clock" with minor league pitchers. In the five years you have salary control over a pitcher he will invariably suffer a major arm injury. It might even require surgery.
Everyday players are different, in this equation. They stand a chance of getting hurt, but not to the extent a pitcher might.
The best thing the Reds owner and his front office staff can tell their long-suffering fan base is that the days of "playing the clock" are over. And let's be honest, you want to play the game, you have to do what ever it takes to win. Most of the time a team competes and wins a championship, it usually has a lot more than just talent. It's a lot of that and a lot of luck. Most of the time, you don't get to choose when you compete. It's chosen for you. It has as much to do with what you have as with what the other teams don't.
9. It's not 2017
Every season begins fresh and this may be the most encouraging of all the reasons why it's not a bad time to think big. Why not?
Now some random thoughts on this random Thursday...
With the Reds and the rest of the MLB teams heading to camp next week, here is something you'd might like to see happen this season, too...
I'm not surprised the Eagles beat the Patriots. I actually picked the Pats to win Super Bowl LII but fully realized that Philly's defense was capable ot curtailing Tom Brady.
What I was surprised about was Nick Foles and the way he operated in that spotlight. It was very impressive.
I'm hearing a lot of talking heads say the Eagles have a dilemma now: What to do with Foles since Carson Wentz is expected back by training camp. Here's a novel idea: nothing.
The Eagles have Wentz under contract through next season. They don't know, yet, if Wentz will be ready by opening day next season. If Foles has to play a couple of games at the early part of next season, what's to worry? And there's always the NFL trade deadline.
The Eagles have a lot of flexibility with Foles and while I wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles asking price for Foles in a trade would be two first-round draft picks, I would be surprised if any team would pay that much to get him. One great month, paired with one above-average career is about what you get if you deal for Foles...
Josh McDaniels must have either gotten a guarantee he's the prince in waiting when the King leaves the throne (which the New England Patriots deny, but there's always a question of truth coming out of that franchise) or he must have gotten an update on Andrew Luck that wasn't too encouraging.
Other than hiring some coaches (who'll be paid in full and maybe remain on the job) that he was going to work with in Indianapolis, there really isn't anything different here than what thousands of people do every year: Agree to take a job and then back off. I've done it. And if I'm the employer, I'd rather have a potential hire back off before he starts than after a couple of months on the job.
McDaniels was a head coach once before and bombed. Most coaches only get a couple of shots of being a head coach in the NFL. And if you look at the Colts roster, this isn't a lot going on there. They operate in a division with the best defense, in my honest opinion, in the NFL, the Jaguars, and another playoff team in Tennessee. Houston, when healthy, may be the best team in that division.
The rebuilding job in Indianapolis could take a while. Whomever gets that job may only have 2-3 years to pull it off. And the Colts may need to find another quarterback even if Luck's health improves. Why take the risk? McDaniels did a little research, I guess, and decided to pass. Nothing wrong with that...
She is one of the most prolific songwriters in the history of music. Tomorrow, the great Carole King will celebrate her 76th birthday.
This list of songs that King has written, some with her former husband, Gerry Goffin, is a history of rock-and-roll in and of itself. Many were written for other singers, like The Shirelles ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow"), Bobby Vee ("Take Good Care Of My Baby"), The Beatles ("Chains") and Herman's Hermits ("I'm Into Something Good").
But it's the work that King composed and sang herself that has really left its mark. Her 1971 album "Tapestry" sold more than 25 million copies. It won four Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year. It also offered up this piece of rock-and-roll treasure.
Back in the day when 45 rpm records ruled the industry, this was a double-sided hit, along with "It's Too Late." But on its own merit, this song hit No. 1 in the summer of 1971 and stayed there for five weeks. King is on the piano. Danny Kootch, a great session musician who's worked with James Taylor, Neil Young, Carly Simon and co-written songs with Don Henley, is on the electric guitar. It's a great piece of music, written by the woman who turns 76 tomorrow, Carole King.