Cincinnati Reds: 4 Players Who Exceeded Expectations in 2015

Coming into the 2015 season, the Cincinnati Reds didn’t have particularly high hopes for a return to the postseason. With little depth to speak of, most realized that everything had to go right and the team had to stay healthy to be competitive, especially in the NL Central, which figured to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.

Nearly everything went wrong from the very start for the Reds, as injuries ravaged their roster and their lack of depth came back to haunt them. The NL Central wound up boasting the top three teams in the league in the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. The Reds wound up finishing in dead last in their division for the first time since 1983 (a stat I found pretty hard to believe considering how bad the Reds were in the first decade of the 2000’s) and their 64-98 record was good for the second-worst mark in baseball.

In spite of all the things that went wrong throughout 2015, there were still plenty of bright spots in the Reds season, and some players who exceeded expectations on an underachieving team. Here’s a look at four players who ended up being pleasant surprises in an otherwise dismal year.

Brandon Phillips

Coming into the season, the expectations for Phillips weren’t particularly high. The second baseman was coming off of two straight injury-filled years with decreasing production, and it appeared that he was declining as he entered his age-34 season. But Phillips did anything but decline in 2015. In 148 games, he had his best batting average (.294), OPS (.723) and fWAR (2.6) since 2012, while batting all up and down the lineup. His success at the dish seems to have stemmed from a cut-down in his swing, sacrificing power for contact. This was also reflected in his strikeout numbers, as he was fanned in only 10.9 percent of his plate appearances, a career-low. Phillips also lost some weight in the offseason, helping him to regain some of the speed he had in his younger days. That resulted in him stealing more bases (23) than he did in the previous three seasons combined (22).

Raisel Iglesias

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The Reds probably couldn’t be happier with Iglesias’ development. Regarded by many scouts as a future reliever in the major leagues, the Reds signed him out of Cuba to be a starter and that choice has paid dividends thus far. Although the year didn’t start off so well for Iglesias, there was no better pitcher on the Reds’ staff in the second half of the season. In a seven-start span between Aug. 1 and Sept. 2, the rookie allowed only 12 earned runs (2.31 ERA), held opponents to an astounding WHIP of 0.77 and struck out 55 over 46.2 innings of work. For the year, Iglesias had a 3-7 record (that’ll happen when you play on an awful team) to go with a 4.15 ERA, 3.55 FIP and 1.14 WHIP. Right now, he looks like the only lock for next season’s rotation aside from Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani.

Zack Cozart

Before going down with a brutal knee injury in early June, Cozart was having a rather unexpected big season at the plate. He looked like an entirely different hitter in the first two months of the season, hitting nearly as many extra-base hits (20) as he did in all of 2014 (29). In addition to simply getting better contact on the ball, Cozart displayed better plate discipline, increasing his walk rate from 4.6 to 6.5 percent and lowering his strikeouts from 14.5 to 13.6 percent. All of that resulted in a .258/.310/.459 slash line, which was a vast improvement over the unsightly .221/.268/.300 line from the year before. Couple that offensive production with his typical stellar defense and Cozart was a legitimate All-Star candidate before he went down.

Eugenio Suarez

Performing admirably in Cozart’s stead was Suarez, who the Reds had acquired from the Detroit Tigers in a trade last offseason. He was the everyday shortstop from June 11 on out and was especially impressive with the bat, hitting .280/.315/.446 with 34 extra-base hits (13 homers) and 48 runs batted in. Suarez certainly still has work to do at the plate — his strikeouts were high and his walks were really low — and in the field (19 errors), but he definitely showed enough in his 97 games with the Reds to at least be a viable bench piece in 2016.

Next: A look at the Reds' impending free agents