Pirates – Reds Series Preview
By Jim Sutter
After kicking off the season with an impressive sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pirates will begin their first road trip of the season tonight in Cincinnati against the Reds.
Reds Record: 3-0
Last Series Result: Swept the Philadelphia Phillies
The Cincinnati Reds came into this season, like much of the National League, in rebuild mode. Their season opening series sweep of the Phillies doesn’t change this, and not just because the Phillies are another NL team that will be in rebuild mode this year. The Reds of 2016 are a far cry from the team that came into PNC Park for the Wild Card Game in 2013. First Baseman Joey Votto remains one of the best players in baseball, but beyond him there isn’t much to get too excited about.
Right Fielder Jay Bruce, despite being only 29, has seen his production fall off a cliff the last couple seasons after contributing an average 3.7 WAR per season from 2010 through 2013. Though he remains a Home Run threat, as evidenced by his two in the Reds’ victory over the Phillies yesterday, he has seen those numbers go down. This is in addition to his plummeting On-Base Percentage, which has been under .300 each of the last two seasons. The rest of the Reds Outfield is a bit of a mess as well. While they do have “track star” Billy Hamilton manning Center Field, he remains such a detriment from the plate, slashing .226/.274/.289, that the Reds manager Bryan Price bats him ninth in the starting lineup. Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall, with their combined 198 career Plate Appearances, make up the Left Field platoon.
The middle infield spots are manned by the aging Brandon Phillips, who is currently day-to-day with what is reportedly a stomach virus, at Second Base and Zack Cozart, who is returning from a knee surgery that cost him 2/3 of last season, at Shortstop. Cozart does provide a steady hand in the field for the Reds, with 19 Defensive Runs Saved and a Gold Glove nomination in 2014, his last full season. Fortunately for the Pirates, gone is Todd Frazier and his 18 career Home Runs and .539 slugging percentage against them. The Third Baseman was traded to the White Sox as part of a three team deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December. There will be more about Eugenio Suarez, the Reds new Third Baseman, below.
Game 1 – April 8, 7:10 P.M. ET
Francisco Liriano (L) vs. Alfredo Simon (R)
Game 2 – April 9, 1:10 P.M. ET
Gerrit Cole (R) vs. Raisel Iglesias (R)
Game 3 – April 10, 1:10 P.M. ET
Jeff Locke (L) vs. Anthony DeSclafani (R)
Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke will be making their first starts of the season for the Pirates in this series on Saturday and Sunday. Before they get their turns though, Francisco Liriano will make have his second outing of the season. Liriano will look to build on his 10 strikeout performance on Opening Day and continue his hot start to the season. On Saturday Gerrit Cole, believe it or not, will be looking for his first career win against the Reds. Meanwhile, Jeff Locke’s season debut on Sunday will be our first chance to get a look at his new delivery in a regular season game.
The Reds have had bad luck with injuries to starting pitchers to begin the season, with five of them beginning the season on the Disabled List. Most detrimental for the Reds would be Homer Bailey being out until May as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery. The Reds will get some reinforcements during this series though as Anthony DeSclafani is expected to return from the Disabled List and make his first start of the season in the series finale. Also pitching for the Reds in this series are Raisel Iglesias and Alfredo Simon. Simon, who pitched for the Reds from 2012-2014, was signed midway through Spring Training, after spending 2015 with the Detroit Tigers, to bolster the depleted rotation. Iglesias earned the nod as Opening Day starter and struck out seven over six innings, while giving up two runs and getting a no decision. The 26-year-old Cuban is still a relative unknown with only 101.1 career innings. In that time he has shown a knack for getting strikeouts (9.86 K/9) despite having less than impressive velocity with his fastball topping off at around 92 MPH.
This is of course the first series of 2016 between the Pirates and the Reds. In 2015 the Pirates and Reds played 19 games with the Pirates going 8-11 in those games. The Pirates overall scored 12 fewer runs than the Reds finishing with 69 runs to the Reds 81 runs. The Pirates inability to beat the Reds last year was especially frustrating given that they finished last in the NL Central Division with a 64-98 record.
The Pirates’ frustrations with the Reds last season began right away as they opened the season by getting swept by the Reds in Cincinnati with two of the three loses coming in walk-off fashion. This put the Pirates in a hole right away in the NL Central race that they, while getting close, never got out of. The Pirates went only .500 against the Reds the rest of the season, but ended the regular season by taking two of three from Cincinnati at PNC Park. While the Cardinals had clinched the division prior to the series starting, the Pirates were able to clinch, the ultimately meaningless, home-field for the Wild Card Game during the series. The first game of the series was probably the most notable for the Pirates against the Reds last season as they came back from four runs down and won in 12 innings off a Starling Marte 2-run Home Run.
Reds Player to Watch: Eugenio Suarez
The Reds new Third Baseman is embarking upon his first full season in the Major Leagues this year. The 24-year-old Venezuelan came up in the Detroit Tigers organization and played in 85 games for them in 2014, primarily at Shortstop. He came over to the Reds in the trade that had initially sent Alfredo Simon to the Tigers and began the 2015 season in AAA. When Zack Cozart went down, he was called up to fill-in at Shortstop. While his defense is no substitute for what Cozart brings to the field, he was a pleasant surprise on offense. He outperformed all expectations based on his minor league track record, producing a .280/.315/.446 slashline with 13 Home Runs and a wRC+ of 105 in 398 Plate Appearances. Suarez has credited his improved power from the plate on the incorporation of a leg kick since joining the Reds organization.
With Cozart back and Todd Frazier gone, Suarez has been slid over to Third Base. It remains to be seen if Suarez can replicate this performance over the course of a full season, especially given his higher than average Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) last season (.341). Additionally he struck out in nearly a quarter of his Plate Appearances (23.6%) in 2015 and rarely walks (4.3% BB Rate). Early returns for 2016 are promising though, as he went 4 for 12 in the first series with 2 Home Runs. This is of course in a small sample size and against the moribund Philadelphia Phillies, so these numbers should be taken with a huge grain of salt. If Suarez can replicate or even improve on his 2015, it could help the Reds be a lot more competitive than many are expecting so he is a player to keep an eye on in this series and as the season progresses.
Pirates Keys to Victory
More of the Same
For the most part the Pirates began the season firing on all cylinders. Francisco Liriano and Juan Nicasio turned in fantastic starts and the bullpen was lights out. The lineup has been balanced with production at times coming from every spot in the lineup, from John Jaso’s little league home run leading off to Jordy Mercer’s game winning hit from the eighth spot. If the Pirates can just keep this going through this road trip, they may finally have a season where they are not playing catch-up the whole time.
Marte Needs to get Going
The biggest disappointment from the Pirates at this very early juncture of the season would probably be from Starling Marte. In addition to making a couple of mistakes in the field, it took him until the series finale to get his first hit of the season. Marte is currently 2 for 11 on the season with 2 strikeouts and a walk. Both of those hits did come in the series finale, so hopefully he can build on that and not let one bad series lead to a slow start to the year. The Pirates could have a deadly lineup if Marte is just his usual self.
Keep it in the Park
As I feel I’ve made clear already, the Reds are not going to be very good this year. That being said, they weren’t good last year and still got the better of the Pirates over the course of the season. Overall, the Reds may be able to win some games they maybe shouldn’t due to hitting timely Home Runs. Jay Bruce has a history as a Home Run hitter. If he can regain his power, (Reminder: He did hit two Home Runs against the Phillies yesterday) the NL Central may have to deal with a Reds team with the Jay Bruce they saw before 2014 that had 30 Home Run seasons. Additionally Eugenio Suarez (who already has two Home Runs), Scott Schebler, and Adam Duvall are all young with power potential. Duvall has 8 Home Runs through only 153 career Plate Appearances and Schebler has 3 Home Runs through only 45 Plate Appearances. If the Pirates can keep the ball in the yard, the Reds will have a hard time scoring runs and things will be that much easier for the Pirates.
I find it a near-pointless endeavor to attempt to predict the outcome of not just one baseball game, but a series of three as well. However, I will do so because it’s fun and I’ve always mentally tried to do it at the beginning of every series anyways. I think the Pirates will win this series and I could see them sweeping it. The Reds are sending out three Right-handed Pitchers, just like the Cardinals did, but their Pitchers are younger and less experienced. Meanwhile, the Reds will have to contend with the two best Starting Pitchers from the Pirates in Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. I expect the Pirates to leave Cincinnati with another series victory, but the Reds will likely steal a game at some point and hand the Pirates their first loss of the season. I also expect the Pirates to at some point use a lineup different from the one they used in every game against the Cardinals.
Prediction: Pirates 2-1
*Stats from Baseball Reference, ESPN, and Fangraphs