On the surface, the Cincinnati Reds' 2019 campaign resembled the five forgettable seasons that preceded it. The Reds settled into fourth place in the National League Central standings five days into the season, and they resided there (or in fifth) for the remainder of the summer, ultimately finishing umpteen games back of a postseason berth.
The similarities to past years, however, belie how promising - and different - Cincinnati's season actually was. The long-suffering Reds made legitimate strides this year. They received major dividends on several of their unexpected offseason moves - made, presumably, to jumpstart a seemingly stagnant rebuild - while several key youngsters held their own (or better) in their first extended looks at the big-league level. The front office was so encouraged by the team's performance through the first four months of the season that the brain trust decided to add, not subtract, at the trade deadline. The Reds acquired Trevor Bauer in a three-way swap in which they gave up the most highly touted prospect.
Ultimately, Cincinnati managed the third-best run differential (-10) in the division - the Milwaukee Brewers, who were ousted in the National League wild-card game, finished just 13 runs better - and added eight wins to its 2018 total, ending up at 75-87. While characterizing those gains as anything more than modest may seem disingenuous, the Reds assembled one of the game's better rotations, anchored by Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Bauer. The team has a decent amount of upside in its lineup, too, between Eugenio Suarez, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, and Aristides Aquino. For the first time in more than a half-decade, the Reds came into the offseason with a license for optimism and an implicit intent to improve their active roster.
“I felt our season was a lot better than what it ended up," general manager Nick Krall told Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer last month. "Look, we want to continue to move forward. That’s the goal: continue to get better and put a winning team out on the field.”
Krall, it turns out, wasn't bluffing. The Reds reportedly took another step toward competing on Monday, signing veteran infielder Mike Moustakas to a four-year deal worth $64 million, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan. Despite spending the bulk of his career at third base, Moustakas will likely play second in Cincinnati, replacing the recently non-tendered Jose Peraza. (Suarez, who received down-ballot National League MVP votes in each of the last two seasons, won't be bumped off third base for Moustakas, and Joey Votto remains ensconced at first.) Moustakas was hardly a liability in 47 games at second base with the Brewers in 2019, according to both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, but the Reds are willing to tolerate sub-standard defense in order to get Moustakas' powerful bat into the lineup.
After all, the Reds fielded one of baseball's most punchless lineups last year, finishing tied for 19th in isolated power. Moustakas, more than anything else, has pop. Since 2017, only 13 hitters have socked more dingers than Moustakas (101), who also ranks 37th in isolated power - tied with Freddie Freeman - over that span. Last year, Moustakas set a new career-high in isolated power at .262, tying him with Josh Donaldson, a former AL MVP, and Charlie Blackmon, who played half his games at altitude. (Yes, the ball was juiced, but it was also juiced in 2017 when Moustakas set a career-high with 38 homers.)
MLB HR leaders, 2017-2019
Outside of his ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, Moustakas is merely a good hitter. He doesn't walk a lot and doesn't make as much hard contact as you might expect given his gaudy home run numbers. The three-time All-Star has been league average at the plate over his career after adjusting for park effects, managing a 99 wRC+ over parts of nine seasons. But that figure doesn't accurately convey who he is now. Since 2015, Moustakas has slashed .264/.325/.491, yielding a 113 wRC+ that slots him 88th among baseball's 334 qualified hitters, ahead of dudes like Javier Baez, Yasiel Puig, and Lorenzo Cain. While he might not be elite at the plate due to his on-base deficiencies, Moustakas hits the baseball in the air better than most, and there's plenty of value to be wrung out of that particular skill.
Between his power, steady defense (at least at third base historically), and durability (he's played fewer than 140 games just once in the last six seasons), Moustakas is a fine player - good for 2-3 WAR per year - who immediately makes the Reds' lineup better. Having only just turned 31, Moustakas should continue to be productive over the life of his contract, effectively taking some of the developmental pressure off of Cincinnati's nascent position players. They still have work to do, but the Reds' first significant offseason gambit makes it clear that moral victories won't suffice again in 2020.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.