Four of five NL Central teams were playoff-relevant for at least part of the 2018 season. The exception? The Cincinnati Reds. Despite having begun the season with hopes of emerging from their rebuild, the team will end the year having improved by only a couple of games over their 68-95 record from 2017.
Cincinnati’s last period of competitive baseball burnt out quickly, the team’s most recent peak ending after the 2013 season and three playoff appearances in four years. The Reds weren’t exactly overeager to start rebuilding, an August trade of Jonathan Broxton to the Brewers (during one of Broxton’s ever-narrowing periods of effectiveness) representing the only nod to the future in 2014.
The Reds continued to hint at a rebuild during the 2014-15 offseason, sending Mat Latos to the Marlins after a 2014 campaign truncated by a knee injury from which the team rushed Latos back — a move that appears to have been ill-advised given subsequent events. And in one of my favorite trades at the time — which looks even better now — the Reds traded 2014’s team leader in wins, Alfredo Simon, to a team that foolishly thought that was important, the Detroit Tigers, netting the organization Eugenio Suarez and Jonathon Crawford.
The rebuild continued in late 2015, Cincinnati dealing Marlon Byrd, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake. That said, the organization continued demonstrating a reluctance to trade veterans who were at or near the point of peak value. Todd Frazier, who recorded a .922 OPS in the first half and started at third base in an All-Star Game hosted at Great American Ballpark, was traded only after the conclusion of season, by which time his line had dropped to .255/.309/.498 amidst second-half struggles.
The Reds slowly shed some of the remaining pieces of the contending teams over 2016 and -17 while sorting through the second- or third-tier prospects who were acquired in various trades. While the team had some fortune with their low-cost pickups — such as with Adam Duvall, for example — there was a consistent struggle to develop even the core of a rotation that would compete in the future.
– Anthony DeSclafani showed a great deal of promise in 2015-16 and was one of the few pitchers who ought to have conclusively been part of any long-term rotation planning, but he missed 2017 with a partially torn UCL.
– Brandon Finnegan stayed in the rotation throughout an erratic 2016 season but missed most of 2017 due to injury. He wasn’t a terrible starter or anything in 2016, but he wore out quickly and his repertoire wasn’t deep enough to support a less-than-top-tier fastball.
– Amir Garrett turned heads after starting the 2017 season with 21 strikeouts and a 1.83 ERA in 19.2 innings over three starts, but 18 homers allowed over the next nine starts resulted in a demotion to Triple-A.
– Robert Stephenson’s command issues continued, even during his near-adequate stretches with the Reds, a disappointing outcome for a pitcher who had been on the Reds’ top-prospect lists for five years already.
There are other Reds prospects not included in that quartet. After two years of trying to graduate this set of starters, however, the Reds appeared no closer to forming their future rotation. Cincinnati’s offense was respectable in 2017, but there was little indication that the team could find the pitching to match in 2018.
There was one notable exception in Luis Castillo, picked up from the Marlins for Dan Straily, one of the trades in which the Reds actually did deal a veteran at the top of his value. In 15 starts for the Reds in 2017, Castillo put up a 3.12 ERA, with 98 strikeouts and an acceptable walk rate in 89.1 innings.
The projections thought that the Reds might be able to find success with one or two of the rotation names from above, plus Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Sal Romano. Not enough to actually be a good team or make the NL Central feel a little uncomfortable, but enough to claw their way into the mid- to high 70s in wins. ZiPS pegged the Reds at 74-88 in late March.
The Reds spent the first three weeks of the season doing their best to guarantee that fans would not hold false hopes about the 2018 outcome. While one could argue that Bryan Price had worn out his welcome as team manager by the end of 2016 or -17, the club’s 3-15 start is what finally resulted in his trip to the guillotine.
In was Jim Riggleman, a future inductee in the Hall of Being Helpfully Nearby When Another Manager Is Fired. The Reds played near .500 for a long time after Riggleman took over, leading to declarations in some circles that Riggleman should be made the permanent manager.
Dreams of some rotation breakouts turned out to be… uh… dreams. Luis Castillo occasionally looked like the pitcher of 2017, but at other times led one to wonder if the Reds had actually signed Luis Castillo the former second baseman and given him a comeback on the mound. Neither Mahle nor Romano looked anything greater than No. 4 or 5 starters. DeSclafani returned from oblique issues and had a solid run of starts in August, but now hasn’t had a quality start in more than a month. Brandon Finnegan’s finally been converted to relief, likely for good. Homer Bailey kept pitching thanks to the organization’s failure to understand that giving him innings (mostly) to justify his contract is essentially just throwing good money after bad.
On the plus side, Jose Peraza finally started hitting enough to establish himself as a league-average-ish starter at short. Eugenio Suarez flirted with a MVP candidacy for a while and Scooter Gennett showed his 2017 wasn’t a fluke, having recorded a .315/.363/.496 and nearly fives wins as I write this. Jesse Winker’s season ended early due to injury, but his .405 on-base percentage allows one to draw comparisons to Joey Votto, even if the team’s confused father-and-son broadcasting team doesn’t quite understand how that’s good.
What Comes Next?
The organization’s reluctance to trade older players is likely rooted in laudable intentions — namely, to retain a recognizable core who have a history with the team and who resonate with fans. Nevertheless, that reluctance has come back to bite the team over and over. And I’m not even talking about Joey Votto, a hitter who has actually earned his contract but has been publicly insistent that he’s not leaving Cincy, with the no-trade clause to back up that desire.
I’m also not even talking about older moves, like the sell-low trades of Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman. This pattern continued in 2018. Matt Harvey, picked up to flip at the deadline, turned out to never be flipped at all, reportedly because of ownership’s desire to retain him. Adam Duvall was traded after his collapse season rather than before, and the team made few significant inquiries into trading Billy Hamilton. Raisel Iglesias stayed put because there’s nothing more valuable for a last place team than a closer or something.
Cincinnati’s rebuild hasn’t been a disaster or anything, and there are plenty of big names to come. But you have to wonder if the organization has enough of that hard-hearted side that’s frequently necessary for a successful team. George Orwell once wrote that journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed and everything else is public relations. Putting together a great baseball team and good PR don’t always go hand-in-hand. Too often, the team chooses the PR side over the baseball one.
Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projections – Luis Castillo
I felt that, with an ERA near six in late June, Castillo possibly needed some time at Triple-A just to get some of the issues ironed out. That turned out not to be necessary, with Castillo putting up a 2.63 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 14 starts since July 1st. With the Reds still facing unresolved starting rotation questions, Castillo once again establishing himself as the now-and-future ace is a much welcomed result.
ZiPS doesn’t see an ace-like path as the most likely one for Castillo, but the Reds would still take these projections given their difficulties with the rotation.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.