/Mike Moustakas Signing Vaults Cincinnati Reds into Pole Position in NL Central

Mike Moustakas Signing Vaults Cincinnati Reds into Pole Position in NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers' Mike Moustakas rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

With one signing, the Cincinnati Reds have improved from mere wannabe contenders to actual contenders in the National League Central.

As Jon Heyman of MLB Network was first to report, the Reds agreed to a deal with slugging infielder Mike Moustakas on Monday. It’s a four-year, $64 million contract, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan:

By their standards, the Reds’ $64 million pact with Moustakas is no small investment. It tops closer Francisco Cordero’s four-year, $46 million deal from 2007 as their largest-ever free-agent contract.

This is a window into just how badly the Reds needed to add an impact bat. Though they improved from 67 wins in 2018 to 75 wins in 2019, they couldn’t do better largely because their offense, well, stunk. It ranked 12th in the NL with 4.3 runs per game and a .736 OPS.

“There were a lot of close games that we lost that could have flipped the other way,” Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams said in November, per Chris Haft of MLB.com. “So offense is an area we want to address, we want to improve.”

For his part, Moustakas isn’t the most consistent on-base machine. The .329 OBP he posted in 2019 was high relative to the .310 career mark he’s compiled over nine seasons with the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers.

What the 31-year-old can do, however, is hit a lot of home runs. He’s reached the 35-homer plateau in two of the last three seasons, and his 101 long balls since 2017 rank 14th out of all hitters.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 17:  Mike Moustakas #11 of the Milwaukee Brewers hits a home run in the seventh inning against the San Diego Padres at Miller Park on September 17, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Rather than suppress it, Great American Ball Park is more likely to augment Moustakas’ home run power. Since it opened in 2003, the Reds’ tiny-dimensioned home yard has yielded more home runs than any other stadium in Major League Baseball.

According to Passan, the Reds aren’t done shopping just yet. Nor should they be. They have more money to spend, after all, and they probably need one more bat before they can call their offensive makeover complete.

But even as is, the Reds’ new Moustakas-infused lineup has solid potential.

For most of 2019, Eugenio Suarez almost single-handedly carried Cincinnati’s offense by going off for a .930 OPS and 49 homers. It wasn’t until August and September that a proper helping hand finally materialized, as Aristides Aquino exploded for 19 homers in only 56 games.

Starting in 2020, Suarez, Moustakas and Aquino can be perhaps the NL’s best trio of sluggers on an annual basis. Joey Votto, meanwhile, still got on base at a .357 clip in a “down” year in 2019. And if Nick Senzel can stay healthy, he might make good on the hype he generated while racking up a .312/.388/.508 slash line in the minor leagues.

In 2020, the Reds also figure to get decent power out of Freddy Galvis, who hit 23 home runs in 2019. In light of his .907 OPS against right-handers, Jesse Winker should be a good platoon bat.

If there’s a red flag about the Reds’ deal with Moustakas, it’s that they plan to play him at second base. His natural position is on the other side of the diamond at third base.

But given that they had one of the league’s most efficient defenses in 2019, the Reds can afford to take a hit on defense. And with the right shifts, they might neutralize whatever shortcomings Moustakas has as a second baseman anyway.

Besides, it’s not as if Cincinnati’s pitchers need much help. 

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 24:  Sonny Gray #54 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers at Great American Ball Park on September 24, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Reds are rolling into 2020 with a star-studded rotation headlined by Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer (who came over from the Cleveland Indians in a July trade) and Anthony DeSclafani. Their bullpen doesn’t measure up in terms of name recognition, but Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett and Robert Stephenson have plenty of nasty stuff between them.

As of right now, the Reds are probably more of an 85-to-90-win team than a 95-plus-win juggernaut. They shouldn’t be expected to go toe-to-toe with National League heavyweights like, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

However, the Reds don’t need to be a juggernaut to stand out in the NL Central.

The St. Louis Cardinals needed only 91 victories to capture the division championship in 2019. Now they’re tasked with re-signing or replacing star outfielder Marcell Ozuna while also abiding by a mandate not to increase payroll.

The Chicago Cubs are facing a payroll crunch of their own in the wake of their disappointing 84-win season. Heck, they might have to trade core players such as Kris Bryant or Willson Contreras.

Yet no NL Central contender is hurting as much as the Brewers right now. They’ve lost Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal and Drew Pomeranz in free agency. In other words: two of their best hitters and their second-best relief pitcher.

According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Brewers were already willing to listen to offers for ace closer Josh Hader. After losing Moustakas, Grandal and Pomeranz, the writing on the wall could convince them to actively shop the two-time All-Star.

That leaves only the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are likely years away from being a threat again as they seek to recover from a 93-loss campaign in 2019.

It’s a bit premature to condense all of this down into the simple message that the Reds are now the team to beat in the NL Central. The Cardinals and Cubs aren’t entirely broken, after all, and the Brewers may yet recover from the early blows the offseason has dealt them.

But if nothing else, 2020 should end the Reds’ string of consecutive losing seasons at six. And with the right breaks, they absolutely can win their first NL Central crown since 2012.

                 

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.