After a Thursday rain out, the Cincinnati Reds are scheduled to open their season on Friday at 4:10 p.m. against the Washington Nationals.
Coming off three successive 90-loss seasons -- 64-98 in 2015, 68-94 in 2016 and 68-94 in 2017 -- here are five questions about the 2018 Reds:
1. Will the Reds’ starting pitching be improved?
That’s the most important task for fifth-year manager Bryan Price. The Reds used 16 different starters in 2017, who compiled a National League-worst 5.55 ERA.
Health was part of the problem. Anthony DeSclafani, the team’s best starter in 2016, missed the entire 2017 season. Homer Bailey, coming off Tommy John surgery, missed most of the season. Brandon Finnegan, expected to play a key role, was injured early in the year and never fully returned.
DeSclafani (oblique strain) and Finnegan (left biceps strain) are back on the disabled list. DeSclafani is on the 60-day list; Finnegan the 10-day. Bailey is back, however. He’s the Reds opening day starter versus the Nationals’ Matt Scherzer.
Plus the Reds boast a potential elite starter in Luis Castillo, acquired from the Miami Marlins before last season in the Dan Straily trade. Castillo went 3-7 with a 3.12 ERA in 15 starts for Cincinnati last season.
The 25-year-old Castillo will be joined by 23-year-old Tyler Mahle, 24-year-old Sal Romano and Amir Garrett, who turns 26 on May 3. All have had a taste of the major leagues. Their development will be key.
2. Will the four-outfielder rotation work?
Left fielder Adam Duvall, center fielder Billy Hamilton and right fielder Scott Schebler are all back, but the Reds want to work 24-year-old Jesse Winker in the the mix.
In 47 games and 121 at-bats with the Reds last season, Winker hit .298 with a .375 on-base percentage and a .529 slugging percentage for a .904 OPS. That’s worthy of playing time.
Duvall hit .249 last season, but produced his straight 30-plus homer season with 31 homers and 99 RBI. Schebler hit just .233, but joined the .300 homer club to go with 67 RBI.
Hamilton presents a trickier problem. He hit .247 last season, but managed a pedestrian .299 on-base percentage. Those numbers did not allow to take advantage of his speed. Hamilton’s 59 stolen bases ranked second in the NL. On the other hand, he’s a terrific center fielder who covers lots of ground.
3. How will the infield sort itself out?
Long-time shortstop Zack Cozart is gone, having signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent. Jose Peraza takes over Cozart’s spot with Scooter Gennett the starter at second base. And the Reds’ just signed third baseman Eugenio Suarez to a seven-year contract.
Where does that leave Nick Senzel, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2016 who is the highest-rated prospect in the team’s organization. The 22-year-old former Tennessee star will start the season at AAA Louisville at a new position -- second base.
Gennett, a former Brewer picked up right before the start of 2017 season, is coming off a shocking season in which he hit .295 with 27 homers and 97 RBI. If Gennett falters, Senzel could find himself in Cincinnati sooner rather than later.
If Peraza doesn’t cut it at short -- the soon-to-be 24-year-old -- then Gennett could be moved there, leaving second base for Senzel. Either way, it appears that Suarez, who hit 26 homers with 82 RBI last season, is set a third.
4. Will Joey Votto keep on trucking?
Last year, Votto hit .320 with a .454 on-base percentage and a .578 slugging percentage for an OPS of 1.032. He hit 36 homers with an even 100 RBI. He led the National League in on-base percentage and OPS. He’s a future first-ballot Hall of Fame.
But Votto turns 35 in September. He’s coming off the second-best slugging percentage and home run totals of his career. He can’t go on like this forever, right. Or can he?
Asked in the spring by Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs how he has been able to hold off decline, Votto answered that he may be declining, but he may also have been able to mitigate that decline.
“Neither of us know if there is a decline,” he said. “I may have found ways to mitigate that (loss of physical skills). I don’t have the answer.”
And I’m not about to bet against Votto.
5. How much improvement is needed to keep fans ok with rebuild?
Heading into the fourth year of the rebuild, the Reds know they need to start showing some improvement in the win column.
“I’m very hopeful about this year,’’ owner Bob Castellini told the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty earlier this month. “I know we’re going to have a much better season. Our position players could be better than good. Our offense is in pretty good shape. Coupled with a pitching staff that’s on their way to being exceptional, I think there’s a possibility we’ll have a very good season.’’
Indeed, if the rotation comes through to match a solid everyday lineup, the Reds could be an NL sleeper.
What the Reds cannot do is lose 90 games again, not if they want to keep Reds fans on their side.
Nationals at Reds
When: Friday, March 30 at 4:10 p.m.
Where: Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati
Reds starting pitcher: Homer Bailey (6-9, 6.43)
Nationals starting pitcher: Max Scherzer (16-6, 2.51)
TV: Fox Sports Ohio