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Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood Become Reds


Starting pitcher Alex Wood, catcher Kyle Farmer, and outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig are trading Dodger blue for the bright kit of the Cincinnati Reds. The trio was traded for Homer Bailey and prospects in what was essentially a salary dump for Los Angeles as they attempt to sign or trade for more superstars. The Dodgers’ run for that elusive championship has hit a breaking point, and they decided that the aging Wood, the surprisingly productive Kemp, and the eccentric Puig were expendable.

On the other side, Cincinnati has clearly had it with the losing over the last few seasons. Joey Votto isn’t getting any younger, and the roster is full of guys who aren’t necessarily stars but are effective big leaguers. Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, and Jesse Winker are the studs, but Tucker Barnhart, Scott Schebler, and Jose Peraza are all simply good players. When the team surprisingly declined to move closer Raisel Iglesias, the Reds appear to have foreshadowed a belief that 2019 relevance in the stacked NL Central is a reality.

Offensively, Cincinnati was quietly effective and could produce with the top units for stretches. But the drag on the Reds continued to be its pitching staff. Once hailed as one of the best in baseball, the farm system hasn’t produced the glut of arms once predicted. Instead, Cincinnati’s 40-man roster is filled with guys that were hoped to be the good to great starters and have settled as ok to good relievers. Only Luis Castillo has really panned out as a starter in recent years, and the whole staff combined to give up an NL-worst 819 runs in 2018. The bullpen is likely to improve with another year’s of experience for talented mainstays Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen, as well as with some more reinforcements from the minors, but the rotation consists of the aforementioned Castillo, miscast as a club ace, the oft-injured Anthony DeSclafani, the oft-ineffective Homer Bailey, and a poo-poo platter of former prospects Cody Reed, Sal Romano, and Tyler Mahle. Aside from Kemp and his albatross contract, Cincinnati received Yasiel Puig, Kyle Farmer, and Alex Wood. I don’t know if Cincinnati is crazy or sly, but in this deal, they receive players with some of the most dramatic swings from floor to ceiling in the league. In hopes of trying to wrap our heads around this fever dream, let’s examine the situation and possibilities player-by-player.

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Meet the Newest Reds

Alex Wood (RP/SP, CIN)

We’ll start with maybe the easiest to unpack of the trio, and that is Alex Wood. The 27-year-old broke through with the Braves in 2013 and made a splash in 2017, even garnering a Cy Young vote in the process. He brings good control and good strikeout stuff to the table, and has primarily worked as a starter. His inclusion to the Reds rotation potentially brings stability to what may be the most unsteady rotation in baseball.

When he pitches, Alex Wood has shown skills at times on par with the best in the majors. When he’s on, he’ll punch out more than a quarter of hitters he faces while walking less than 10%. He can string together quality starts and look like the kind of No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher that can win a league. There’s a reason that he picked up a Cy Young vote despite only throwing 152.1 innings in 2017, and it was because Wood can limit hard contact, strikeout better than a batter per inning, and induce groundballs at an above-average rate.

Of course, while Wood’s skill can’t be questioned, his health certainly can. Wood has lost significant time every season to injury. If staying healthy is a tool, then Wood grades as a 20. Elbow, shoulder, ankle, his injury history reads like an index of the human body. In fact, and this is more anecdotal, he seems like the kind of pitcher that just wears down over the course of time, perhaps even more so than his peers. His performance backs this up, as his best stretches of performance come either early in the season or after a lengthy stint on the disabled list.

Wood is being drafted between picks 240 and 260, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that position drop as players like Danny Jansen, Peter Alonso, Joe Musgrove, Alex Reyes and Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi begin to generate more excitement during spring training. If I can get him in the 260-270 range, I’m jumping on that.

Even if I plan on moving him during the first half, there’s no reason to think that he can’t put up the very effective numbers between March and May that he’s delivered the past two seasons. During those months, a total of 110.1 innings pitched, he’s allowed a scant .198 batting average, 9.65 strikeouts per nine innings, and groundballs on more than half of contact. If you can give me a month or so of that kind of performance, I’m jumping on it. Wood can do that, so there’s plenty of room for value.

 

Matt Kemp (OF, CIN)

I’ll be brief in regards to Matt Kemp. Despite a downright stunning return to relevance to start the season, the bottom dropped out from under the 34-year-old as soon as the summer settled in. An eye-popping .310/.352/.522 with 15 homers and 60 runs batted in gave way to a punchless .255/.313/.406 and six home run second half.

With all of the youth and depth in the outfield and no designated hitter to spell him, it’s almost certain that Kemp will be reduced to a part-time player. He doesn’t possess the kind of obvious splits you look for in a platoon player, but a deeper dive shows that he hit left-handed pitching significantly harder last season. He produced similar enough slash numbers, but his ISO was .235 versus .161 against righties.

Scott Schebler has an obvious platoon split favoring southpaws as well, so maybe Schebler is traded before the season, and Kemp plays left or center on days against lefties. With the Reds already confirming that Jesse Winker is the guy in right field, and with Puig more traditionally a corner outfielder and a better fit than Winker for left, Kemp serving part-time in center alongside 26-year-old Phillip Ervin may work. All that said, I expect that the Reds have another move in them, so this apple cart could get upset pretty quick.

Kemp is ranked somewhere between 285 and 300, putting him near Kevin Kiermaier, Jake Bauers, and Tucker Barnhart. Which of course means he won’t cost you much to acquire. Considering how hot he came out of the gate, he’s worth a gamble considering the cost if you have a spot open in the outfield. If he has a big March/April as he did in 2018, perhaps he could be flipped for a better asset with a team owner that panics out of the gate. He’ll be 35 next season, so don’t expect a full season, but I’d rather have him than the three other guys I mentioned.

 

Yasiel Puig (OF, CIN)

Ooooooooh baby, here we go! Yasiel Puig is Cincinnati’s prize. The enigmatic outfielder has been one of the most talented, and the most puzzling, players in all of baseball for the last few seasons. Puig can be, at times, a franchise player, almost as good as anyone in the game. Then, seemingly with the flip of a switch, he can devolve into an afterthought. I can vividly remember his dramatic and startling ascension to stardom back in 2013. I can also remember stretches that saw him benched in favor of older or less talented teammates. There has just been no telling which Puig we’re going to get on any given night.

What can’t be denied, and what he brings to Cincinnati, is the 28-year-old’s sheer presence. Puig always seemed like a perfect fit for the culture of Hollywood, with his neon-bright smile and larger-than-life personality. Now, that energy is being brought to the Reds, a Midwestern city better known for teams like the Bungles than for any sort of winning culture. He joins Joey Votto, the consummate pro who brings a certain salty energy himself; not to mention one of the most cerebral approaches to hitting in the sport. So now, we have the grizzled vet teaming up with the effervescent talent. It’s like every buddy cop movie come to life.

What does this matter for fantasy? Well, I’m a firm believer that culture and energy matter in terms of performance. While the situation is certainly volatile (Votto and Puig could just as easily want to strangle each other as play together), I think that the pair of stars will find enough in common to prosper. It’s an overly applied maxim, but if even 10% of Votto’s career-defining approach to hitting bleeds into Puig’s hyper-toolsy game, we could be on the precipice of fantasy superstardom for the outfielder.

In terms of numbers for Puig, the 2018-edition saw an almost identical ISO to his re-breakout in 2017 when he slashed .263/.346/.487 with 28 home runs and 15 steals. While Puig regressed in walk rate and became more aggressive at the plate in 2018, he also quietly increased his swing rate on pitches in the zone, his contact rate overall, and significantly improved his hard-hit percentage, line drive rate, and even his hit distribution to all fields. The reduction in counting stats can be contributed to the 126 fewer plate appearances, and by almost every other measure was a better hitter. And now, Puig moves from Dodger Stadium to Great American Ball Park, receiving the benefit of moving from a pitcher-friendly park to playing half his games in the single best stadium for home runs in 2018.

Everything adds up to a tremendous opportunity for value in 2019. Yasiel Puig is by all accounts a better hitter than at any point in his career, inherits a full-time role, and will now be playing in a park that maximizes what he does best. Best of all, he’s expected to be drafted somewhere between picks 105 and 140. I expect some helium thanks to the move, but wouldn’t be surprised if he settled between 90 and 100.

The equation for fantasy success is “talent + opportunity”, and even if there’s just a 50% chance that Puig delivers the kind of five-tool ability he’s capable of, he’s well worth picking over Michael Brantley, Miles Mikolas, David Dahl, Michael Conforto, and new teammates Scooter Gennett and Jose Peraza, all of whom are projected to go near or before Puig. It’s early yet, but after years of not being sold by the Cuban talent, I’m now all-in on Puig and expect to rank him personally closer to 50. I’ll be pushing guys like Whit Merrifield, Xander Bogaerts, Adalberto Mondesi, James Paxton, Zack Greinke, Khris Davis, and would think really hard about picking him over Rhys Hoskins, Cody Bellinger, Gleybar Torres, and even Juan Soto. In a 10-team league, that means that he went from an 11th rounder to a 4th for me, and I think that Yasiel Puig could be one of the very best players in all of baseball in 2019.

 

The Reds Going Forward

For the incumbent Reds, I can foresee an increase in scoring opportunities for fantasy mainstays like Votto and Eugenio Suarez. Jesse Winker, of whom I am a huge fan of, should see an increase in run scoring chances and, along with his .400+ on-base percentage, could be a sneaky value as a non-traditional lead-off hitter. The biggest question to answer is where do all the outfielders play, which I sort of addressed earlier with Kemp.

If the season started today, I’d expect that they rotate Kemp, Ervin, and the occasional start by Puig at center with Schebler filling in at the corners and providing depth behind Winker and Puig. The only guy here I’m confident gets as many at-bats as they want is Puig, as I wouldn’t be surprised to see them deploy Winker a little more strategically than to make him the absolute everyday right fielder, which is really the only place he can play in the National League. I can’t imagine, whether due to injury or playing time, that Kemp gets more than 500 at-bats.

The big loser here may be Schebler, who is just one season removed from a 30-homer campaign, looks more and more like the odd-man-out. If one of the group is dealt, my money is on the 28-year-old Schebler, and I would be very interested in drafting him at a depressed price point in hopes of a Stephen Piscotty-esque resurgence. There’s a lot of moving parts here, and I won’t be surprised if there’s more movement to come before Spring Training.

Votto and Suarez don’t stand to gain much in terms of draft value, but run-scoring opportunities are likely to increase, bringing added across the board production to the entire offense. This has become a really interesting team from a fantasy standpoint, and the construction of the batting order is one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

As far as the rotation, Wood brings much-needed stability and is far less likely to be downgraded to the bullpen at any point in the season. If he’s effective, his inclusion on top of the improved offense would create more hold and save opportunities for the bullpen, making closer Raisel Iglesias more valuable, as well as making set-up men Michael Lorenzen and Amit Garrett more interesting as late-round fliers or deep league options. Puig’s defensive capabilities also help, and improvement on an NL-worst .266 batting average allowed should be in play. Finally, there’s a bit of addition by subtraction, as no longer with the Reds have to give innings to Homer Bailey and his 6.35 ERA.

While all of the players heading to Cincinnati are flawed, and the National League Central is a murderer’s row of talent, the Reds have made themselves far more interesting from a fantasy perspective. With farm fresh youngsters and a lot of holes a season ago, they surprised by posting solid offensive metrics. This new infusion of true major league talent, as well as the reinforcements on the way in the form of top prospect Nick Senzel, the Reds can be a surprising source of fantasy goodness.

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