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Are the Reds a threat to the Cardinals in 2015 and beyond?

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The Reds have been relatively competitive in recent years, but they had a down year in 2014. While they have an outside chance of being competitive in the NL Central in 2015, their long-term outlook isn't particularly favorable due to some questionable contracts and an average farm system.

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Being a Cardinals fan who goes to school in Cincinnati has been quite an interesting experience for me, to say the least. While I certainly get weird looks every time I wear a Cardinals shirt around campus, I can honestly say that some of my best friends are Reds fans. (Having said that, I hope they are not reading this, because I am not optimistic about the Reds' future, and I'm going to explain why later.)

Living in Cincinnati for the last couple of years has also made me realize just how many similarities there are between the Cardinals and the Reds. In fact, I think that of all the teams in the NL Central, the Reds share the most similarities with the Cardinals, especially in terms of baseball history, market size, and organizational philosophy.

For starters, the Reds and the Cardinals both have a very rich organizational history. The Reds were the first openly professional baseball team, and they have won five World Series titles and nine National League pennants. The Cardinals, who have also been around since the 1800s, have been even more successful, winning 11 World Series titles and 19 National League pennants. The rich history of these teams has resulted in St. Louis and Cincinnati both being baseball-centered sports cities.

The Cardinals and Reds also share very similar market sizes. Each city has a metropolitan area between two and three million people, putting them in the bottom third of all MLB cities. As a result of their relatively small market sizes, each team's success has been largely dependent on scouting and player development, since they can't always outspend other teams in free agency. Both teams have, however, shown a willingness to spend some money in order to keep their own successful players with the team long-term. For the Cardinals, that list would include players like Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Matt Carpenter. Similarly, the Reds have made long-term commitments to players like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, and Homer Bailey.

One of the only major differences that I can see between the two organizations has been their recent playoff success, or lack thereof. The Cardinals have won 17 playoff series and 70 playoff games in my lifetime while the Reds have won one playoff series (1995) and a total of five playoff games in that same period of time. I don't say this to mock the Reds; after all, playoff success is largely dependent on luck and success in small sample sizes, and the Cardinals have clearly had a lot of that in recent years. Of course, the Cardinals have made the playoffs several more times than the Reds have in the last 20 years or so, which explains much of this difference in playoff success. In the last five seasons, though, the Reds have nearly matched the Cardinals with playoff appearances, only to be quickly eliminated each time.

So with the relative similarities between these two organizations in mind, how do the Reds compare to the Cardinals in 2015 and beyond?

For 2015, the Reds are projected by Fangraphs to win 76 games, which is last in the competitive NL Central but only ten games behind the first-place Cardinals. This record matches the team's record in 2014, in which they had a disappointing season highlighted by several key injuries.

In terms of position players, the Reds have some potential for 2015, as they added Marlon Byrd to a lineup that already features Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Todd Frazier, and Devin Mesoraco. However, only Frazier, Mesoraco, and Billy Hamilton had better than a two win season in 2014, and only Frazier and Votto are projected by ZiPS to do better than three wins in 2015. If the Reds are going to have any chance at success in 2015, they will need a healthy Joey Votto (272 plate appearances in 2014) and bounce back years from Jay Bruce (1.1 wins below replacement level, 79 wRC+ in 2014) and Brandon Phillips (1.8 fWAR, 88 wRC+ in 2014).

On the pitching side, the Reds have some star power, with Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman, but they have little impact talent beyond those two players. Homer Bailey had a nice year in 2013 (209 IP, 3.7 fWAR, 3.31 FIP), but he had a down year in 2014, and it remains to be seen whether he can repeat his 2013 and prove to be better than an average starter. The other three Reds starters, Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani, and Anthony DeSclafani, are solid back-end rotation options, but they offer little upside.

As for the bullpen, the Reds appear to be in a similar position as last year, when they experienced problems bridging the gap between their starter and Aroldis Chapman. They brought in a solid bullpen arm in Burke Badenhop, but they are also going to need to depend on pitchers like Sam LeCure, Jumbo DiazLogan Ondrusek, and J.J. Hoover, all of whom had their share of struggles in 2014.  Besides Chapman, their options from the left side (Manny Parra and Sean Marshall, if healthy) aren't that inspiring either. Overall, while WAR is generally not a very useful stat for relief pitchers, I think it is telling that ZiPS projects three WAR from the entire Reds bullpen, with two of those wins coming from Chapman alone.

Given this information, it is easy to see why the Reds are currently projected as a 76 win team for 2015. They have the potential to be competitive in 2015, but they will need a lot of bounce back years and healthy seasons to do so in the competitive NL Central. Having said this, the Reds embarked on a semi-rebuilding process this offseason by dealing away Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, but they didn't commit to a full-scale rebuild and trade players like Johnny Cueto or Brandon Phillips. Clearly, Walt Jocketty must have seen the need to potentially start rebuilding, but at the same time, it appears that he didn't want to completely give up on the 2015 season.

So where do the Reds stand long-term in comparison to the Cardinals?

A good place to start would be to look at each team's future payroll obligations on a year to year basis.

(The dollar figures on the left side are in millions.)

As you can see, the Cardinals are set to spend slightly more than the Reds in 2015, and this isn't surprising, given that the Cardinals generate more revenue due to having a slightly bigger market and a much higher attendance level. Given each team's projected win total for 2015, the Cardinals appear to be using their money more efficiently than the Reds despite having a higher overall payroll number. While the Cardinals once again have a slightly higher payroll commitment in 2016, they clearly have more long-term flexibility than the Reds after 2016.

Having said that, analyzing the amount of money committed to future payrolls doesn't help much unless we look at which players this money is being paid to. Most of the Cardinals' guaranteed future payroll obligations belong to Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Jhonny Peralta, Lance Lynn, and Matt Carpenter, and as I pointed out in my post last week, none of these deals are expected to significantly hurt the team long-term.

The Reds, however, are in a less optimal position with regard to their future payroll obligations, and the Joey Votto contract is a big reason why. The Reds gave Votto a ten-year $225 million contract which covers 2014 through 2023, or his age 31-40 seasons. Votto made $12 million in 2014, and he is set to make $14 million in 2015, $20 million in 2016, $22 million in 2017, and $25 million each year from 2018-2023 with a $7 million buyout in 2024. While the Reds aren't paying Votto $225 million in present value due to the time value of money, this is still an awful lot of money for any team, much less a small market team, to pay for a player's decline years. Given that Votto only produced 1.1 fWAR in 272 PA in 2014 and has had injury problems in recent years, this contract may end up haunting the Reds for many years to come.

The Reds also owe Homer Bailey $96 million over the next five years (including a $5 million buyout for 2020), and given Bailey's 2014 performance (1.3 fWAR, 3.93 FIP in 145.2 IP), this could be another deal the Reds regret. Interestingly, the Cardinals gave Adam Wainwright a very similar amount of money ($97.5 million) for five seasons (2014-2018). I find this comparison to be fascinating, since besides throwing two no-hitters, Bailey has never come close to Wainwright's ace level of performance.

The Reds are also paying top dollar for at least two more years of Jay Bruce and three more years of Brandon Phillips. While Bruce is only 27 and could certainly bounce back, it is harder to envision Phillips being considerably better than he was in 2014, given the fact that he turns 34 this summer and has been steadily declining in recent years. Unless these players return to their pre-2014 level, their contracts could hamstring the Reds considerably over the next few years.

The last area to look at for comparing these teams going forward is their minor league systems. Recently, Keith Law ranked all 30 farm systems and put the Cardinals 13th and the Reds 17th. The Reds do have some intriguing prospects, including high-end pitching prospect Robert Stephenson and outfielders Jesse Winker and Yorman Rodriguez, but these players hold a moderate amount of risk, as they have yet to reach Triple-A. Like the Cardinals, the Reds have a lot of talent at the lower levels of the minor leagues, and we'll have to wait a year or two to get a better sense of where these players are headed. BP writer Nick Faleris summed up the Reds system in his writeup of their top 10 prospects when he wrote,

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and depending on your lens this system could appear flush with future major-league contributors or a lot of bullpen arms and low-probability position players. Time will tell…"

While the Reds have a system ranked lower than the Cardinals' system, it's feasible that the Reds could get more impact talent from their minor league system in the coming years, especially if their high risk players pan out. With the Cardinals recent success and the amount of money the Reds have committed to underperforming players, the Reds will need impact talent from their minor league system if they're going to have any chance of competing with the Cardinals and the rest of the NL Central in the future. Otherwise I think it's quite possible that the Reds could find themselves at the bottom of the NL Central for years to come. Going forward, it will be quite interesting to see if the Reds can turn things around or if they will have to commit to a Cubs-ian rebuild in the coming years.