Momentum has Reds optimistic for 2017

Momentum has Reds optimistic for 2017

CINCINNATI -- Normally following a 94-loss season -- such as the one that the Reds had in 2016 -- there might be a lack of optimism or the feeling that there are too many needed upgrades to count.

But the Reds don't put themselves into that category. A 36-37 record after the All-Star break didn't just bring enthusiasm -- it earned manager Bryan Price a one-year extension to keep the momentum going.

"The last couple of years, we were preaching that we would have to make tough decisions, trade players, restock the system," Reds general manager Dick Williams said. "I think people are starting to see the fruits of that labor. They're starting to feel a little closer to the fun part where we start to contend again. You look around the diamond and the staff, there are question marks, but they're question marks that are surrounding young, talented players. Those are the kinds of question marks you want to have, because you've got big upside.

"It comes with risk, but this is the point we were hoping to get to. We're starting to get some of these exciting young players opportunities. This year, we'll learn about what those guys can do."

Looking ahead to the 2017 season, here are five of the biggest questions the Reds face:

1. Where will Jose Peraza play?

Besides having a perky bat, Peraza can play four positions -- shortstop, second base, center field and left field. The problem is that the Reds have established starters blocking the 22-year-old at all four spots.

Once given the chance to play regularly down the stretch -- often for the injured Zack Cozart or Billy Hamilton -- Peraza showed he belonged in the lineup, finishing with a .324/.352/.411 slash line, with three home runs, 25 RBIs and 21 steals.

Peraza's three-run homer

The Reds are exploring trades for Cozart and second baseman Brandon Phillips, but they are finding little demand for middle infielders this offseason. If no one can be moved, Price is preparing to play Peraza at least four days per week, with starters sacrificing some playing time.

2. Who will complete the rotation?

The Reds plan on having Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey, Dan Straily and Brandon Finnegan in the rotation. The fifth spot is wide open for one of several young arms -- Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett and Sal Romano -- as well as Tim Adleman and possibly a veteran free agent signed to compete. A couple of the pitchers who don't win the job could get a bullpen role, while others will be a phone call away in Triple-A Louisville's rotation.

Reed's impressive outing

3. Who will close?

It probably won't be one guy, or a definitive closer-by-committee. But Price and Williams do envision a scenario where on a given day, a reliever is capable of getting the last three outs, or the last six or even the last nine. Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Tony Cingrani likely could get the bulk of the late innings -- but not exclusively. Price will sell to his relievers the idea of fewer appearances but more innings.

Cingrani closes the game

Who fills out the rest of the bullpen? Williams will seek later-in-offseason bargains in pitchers who can also work multiple innings. The performance of the 2017 bullpen can only go up from what it achieved in '16, when home runs, walks and blown leads became all too commonplace.

4. Can Mesoraco still catch?

Catcher Devin Mesoraco was a 25-home run hitter and an All-Star in 2014. He played a combined 39 games from '15-16 as major surgeries on each hip and his non-throwing shoulder the past two years have dogged him. The 28-year-old says he's on track with his rehab and will resume catching drills in January. But it's natural to wonder if someone with two repaired hips can still work effectively behind the plate.

Mesoraco on return from injury

The Reds are optimistic Mesoraco can make the comeback, but they have contingency plans. Price doesn't envision a 120- to 140-game workload for Mesoraco in 2017, since he also has Tucker Barnhart as an everyday-quality catcher. A Mesoraco-Barnhart tandem is expected. And if Mesoraco has a setback, Williams is already seeking veteran depth on the free-agent market.

5. Can Hamilton build on his second half and stay healthy?

Following a slow start from the bottom of the lineup that resembled his 2015 season, Hamilton found himself at the plate again in the second half. He batted .293 with a .369 on-base percentage after the All-Star break and re-established himself as an explosive presence in the leadoff spot.

Injuries got in the way of progress as Hamilton missed the final 27 games of 2016 with a left oblique strain. At points earlier in the season, he missed time with a concussion, knee contusion and a thumb injury -- along with other bangs and bruises, as Hamilton has never been afraid to use his gifted speed and give up his body to make a play.

Hamilton recovering from injury

Hamilton only has one gear -- fast -- but he and the Reds know he can't do what he does best from the trainer's room. As for his offense, he's healthy and hitting in the offseason and studying under the guidance of third-base coach Billy Hatcher and teammate Joey Votto. Listening to one of the game's best hitters like Votto -- which Hamilton also did last season -- certainly can't hurt.

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.