The Reds and Diamondbacks both improved this winter. Is it enough to make the playoffs?

Cincinnati and Arizona tried the novel offseason approach of making their baseball teams better.

Rather than focus for the moment on a financial behemoth of a team possibly trading away its best player because said rich team claims it couldn’t possibly afford him beyond this year, I thought I’d look at a pair of baseball teams actively trying to improve in 2020.

The Reds and Diamondbacks both missed the playoffs last year — the Reds haven’t played in the postseason since 2013, in fact — but both made splashes this offseason in attempt to get back to October. Which team is better this year? Which of the two has the best shot of getting to the playoffs? Let’s discuss.

Hunt for Reds October

The Reds signed Nick Castellanos to a four-year, $64 million deal that tied the largest free agent contract in franchise history ... the same deal given to Mike Moustakas earlier this offseason. Cincinnati has been busy this winter, adding an offense to a pitching staff headed by Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer.

“Being a part of Detroit in the earlier parts of my career, I know how important power pitching is, and that’s what you guys have here,” Castellanos said during his introductory press conference in Cincinnati. “It has a chance to take you deep, not only during the season but into the postseason as well.”

The Reds’ 25.6-percent strikeout rate ranked fourth in the majors in 2019, which helped put them in the top third of MLB in run prevention. They bolstered the starting rotation by signing Wade Miley to a 2-year deal, but it’s the offense where the Reds improved the most.

Cincinnati ranked 25th in runs scored in 2019, with the five teams below them averaging 100 losses and the five teams directly ahead of them averaging 96 losses. The Reds lost 87 games, but were only outscored by 10 runs, suggesting that their record should have been closer to .500. By BaseRuns (the runs a team is expected to score based on their underlying performance) the Reds played like an 84-win team.

Since then, they added:

  • Moustakas — who hit .259/.319/.498 with a 113 OPS+, and and average of 34 home runs the last three years — to play second base.
  • Castellanos — a .287/.337/.505 (120 OPS+) hitter averaging 47 doubles and 25 homers the last three years — to play a corner outfield spot.
  • Outfielder Shogo Akiyama, a nine-year veteran of the Seibu Lions in Japan whose worst on-base percentage in the last five years was .385 (the Reds’ .315 OBP last year ranked 22nd in MLB).

Factor in expected improvement from second-year outfielder Nick Senzel, the second overall pick in the 2016 draft, and there’s plenty of reason for excitement and optimism on offense in Cincinnati for the Reds to improve.

Putting the “back” in Diamondback

Arizona is in the odd position of being in contention during their rebuild. The Diamondbacks are somehow in a better position than they were a year ago, despite trading their two best players, Zack Greinke and franchise icon Paul Goldschmidt.

The biggest splash in Phoenix this offseason was signing longtime Giants ace Madison Bumgarner to a five-year, $85-million deal. He’s the team’s nominal ace even if hasn’t exactly pitched like one the last couple of years. Bumgarner joins a surprisingly deep pitching staff, whose top seven starters on the depth chart all posted above-average ERAs in 2019.

The big offensive addition was a trade for Starling Marte, a solid all-around outfielder who looks even better considering he’s essentially replacing Adam Jones, who signed in Japan.

D-backs right fielders

Player PA 2B HR SB BA/OBP/SLG OPS+ wRC+ Outs above avg. WAR
Player PA 2B HR SB BA/OBP/SLG OPS+ wRC+ Outs above avg. WAR
Starling Marte 586 31 23 25 .295/.342/.503 120 119 +2 2.9
Adam Jones 528 25 16 2 .260/.313/.414 87 87 -6 -0.4
2019 stats Source: FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant

There’s something to be said for a lineup with no obvious holes, and the Diamondbacks have exactly that. Every position but one is fielded by a hitter who is at least league average or better. And their worst offensive regular, Nick Ahmed, is arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball. His 45 outs above average in 2018-19 are the most by any infielder.

The path to October

Arizona won 85 games last year, and given their run differential played like an 88-win team. BaseRuns pegged the D-backs for 84 wins, the same as the Reds. Both teams are confident, and on the rise heading into 2020. Here is but one example prediction (or rather, six USA Today writers in aggregate) for the upcoming season, but it illustrates how tightly bunched a lot of the National League is.

That’s eight NL teams projected to win between 82 and 88 games, and I’m totally rooting for this exact finish because it would involve a four-way tie for the second NL wild card spot, with the Mets and Phillies joining the Reds and D-backs in a chaotic mess that would take literal days to sort out. BetOnline.ag sees the league similarly to USA Today, with seven non-division winning NL teams with an over/under between 83½ and 86½ victories.

The key here is the division. The Dodgers are clearly the best team in the National League West (and maybe the entire NL) even if they don’t trade for Mookie Betts. Arizona’s best, and possibly only, shot at the postseason is earning one of the two wild card spots. This path can be quite fruitful, with wild card game winners under the current playoff format beating the team with the league’s best record in the division series 7 out of 16 times. It’s how the Nationals got into the playoffs last year on their way to a World Series win.

But having two avenues to the postseason increases a team’s odds. By virtue of being in the NL Central, the Reds have a legitimate shot to earn a wild card or division-title berth. While Cincinnati was busy adding pieces this winter, other teams in the division were stagnant or got worse. The Cardinals lost outfielder Marcell Ozuna, but signed pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim. The Cubs’ largest free agent expenditure was a $1 million, 1-year contract for outfielder Steven Souza Jr.

Given how tightly bunched the projections are, it might not take 90 wins to capture the NL Central in 2020. It only took 91 wins last year. That means if the Reds look like a mid- to high-80s win team, they are a break (or perhaps midseason acquisition) away from winning the division.

It’s one thing to argue whether the Reds or Diamondbacks are the better team in 2020. But given their divisional competition, Cincinnati’s path to the postseason is much clearer.

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