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Tipsheet: While Cards and Cubs suffer setbacks, retooled Reds get stronger as season nears

Tipsheet: While Cards and Cubs suffer setbacks, retooled Reds get stronger as season nears

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The Cardinals are missing key pieces of their bullpen in summer camp. Chicago Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo is battling a sore back as the belated Opening Day nears.

Meanwhile, everything seems to be falling in place for the retooled Cincinnati Reds. After wallowing in mediocrity for years, this once-proud franchise invested $166 million in free-agent hitters.

Mike Moustakas signed on to play second base. Nick Castellanos came aboard to play in the outfield. Centerfielder Shogo Akiyami arrived from Japan.

Slugger Eugenio Suarez had shoulder surgery in January, but the pandemic shutdown gave him time to heal. He is crushing the ball in summer camp.

Infielder Derek Dietrich missed the start of camp while recovering from the coronavirus, but he got back to work this week.

“The hitters are working hard,” Reds manager David Bell told reporters this week. “They are getting a lot of work. Like we said, even if the pitchers are ahead of the hitters, we’re going to work hard to overcome that. Hopefully, that’s what we’re seeing already.”

Akiyami is making the adjustment to MLB pitching, which can be challenging for veterans coming from Japan.

“He continued to do his routine over the break, and he’s just more comfortable,” hitting coach Alan Zinter told reporters. “He’s just settling in. He’s a human being and it’s not easy to go to another country and to start up with a brand-new team with a lot of hype. I think he’s filling in nicely. It’s a good feeling. He’s supported from the top down. He can feel that. He’s been a great teammate. I just think he’s now going to be himself.

“It’s nice to see him have quality ABs and to be able to see the pitch recognition that he’s known for in Japan. That’s who we want him to be. We want him to be the guy that he was in Japan. We don’t want him to come over here and do anything different. Shogo is fine the way he is.”

Dietrich’s return to health will give Bell another offensive option as he seeks favorable matchups in games. Dietrich hit 18 homers before the All-Star break last season before struggling in the second half.

“It’s great to have him back,” Bell said. “He became a big part of our team last year and we saw what he was capable of in the first half. He had the shoulder injury in the second half. He’s healthy and takes great care of himself. He’s in great shape.”

Here is what folks are writing about the Reds:

Jesse Rogers, ESPN.com: “They're an even better pick now that the DH has been implemented in the National League. They're so deep that last year's hotshot rookie Aristes Aquino, who hit 19 home runs in only 56 games, began summer camp on the taxi squad. He'd probably start on about 13 other teams in the NL, but, with the additions of Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas, the Reds are loaded. Plus, the shutdown gave third baseman Eugenio Suarez time to heal an injured shoulder. The team is stacked from top to bottom, though there are a few questions in the pitching staff. But it's a team without a glaring hole. The Reds will win the NL Central.”

Jay Jaffe, FanGraphs: “A lineup that had only two above-average hitters last year (Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winkler) added two more via free agency in Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas, and there's plenty of reason to believe that a healthy Nick Senzel and a more representative Joey Votto can add to that total as well. The new DH lowers the cost of keeping both Winker and Castellanos in the lineup given their rough glovework. Via FanGraphs, their rotation projects as the NL's third best; they're solid or better Nos. 1-5, with Luis Castillo being a star in the making and Trevor Bauer capable of much more than he showed after last year's trade.”

Michael Baumann, The Ringer:Sonny Gray is going to be Cincinnati’s Opening Day starter, and Trevor Bauer is the biggest name in the rotation, but Castillo is the best pitcher on a Reds team that could be surprisingly feisty this season. The skinny 6-foot-2 right-hander can run his lively fastball up to 99 miles per hour, but his out pitch is a gorgeous upper-80s changeup with nearly a foot of arm-side run. In the internet age, market size is less of an obstacle to stardom than at any point in baseball history, but it still matters. The only reason Castillo isn’t as famous as, say, Walker Buehler (who’s an excellent pitcher), is that Buehler plays in Los Angeles for a team that’s in the NLCS every year, while Castillo plays in Cincinnati for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013. If the Reds are competitive this year, Castillo will be a big reason why—and he’ll become a household name as a result.”

Emma Baccellieri, SI.com: “So, sure, the Reds’ baseline here is tied to the fact that they have not had a winning season since 2013, but after beefing up their lineup this winter — Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama —they just might be 'fun' in absolute terms, rather than relative ones.”

Craig Edwards, FanGraphs: “Suárez hit 49 home runs last year, though you'd be forgiven for forgetting that fact. Because his strikeout rate went up five percentage points and everybody in baseball hit a ton of bombs, Suárez was actually worse at the plate than he was in 2018 when he hit 34 homers. Worse is a relative term of course, as his wRC+ only dropped from 135 to 133, but Suárez is a pretty telling example of how the juiced ball affected league-wide scoring and also how using wRC+ can help keep offensive outputs in perspective over time even as the hitting environment changes. He had shoulder surgery earlier this year after an accident in a pool, and we don’t quite know how that will affect his thump, but the delayed start should mean Suárez will be back to full strength when the season begins. The projections see a decline in power that would make him more good than like the All-Star caliber player he’s been the last few seasons. Moustakas is expected to play second base this season, though if Suárez were to miss time, he might play third for a bit. (Nick) Senzel was once one of the best third base prospects in the game, but with Suárez signed long-term, he has shifted all over and is expected to play in the outfield if he can stay healthy. It’s possible that if there were an opening at third, he might get time over Moustakas, but there are a lot of moving parts to consider.”

MEGAPHONE

“The No. 1 concern, like we’ve talked about, is keeping everyone healthy. Our second priority is winning games and winning a championship. When someone is not available, our first concern is hoping that they are healthy, and beyond that we want everyone available to help us win games. When a starting pitcher falls into that category, it’s something that we would have to deal with.”

• Reds manager David Bell, on his team’s 2020 outlook.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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