The 2015 Cincinnati Reds were a historically bad baseball team. In the long and storied history of the franchise, only three other Reds teams lost as many or more games than this year's edition. By winning percentage, the 2015 Reds' .395 number is not quite in the bottom ten, becoming merely the eleventh worst showing in the franchise's 134 year history.
But there is good news. All those teams that were as bad as or worse than the recent Reds eventually bounced back, climbed out of the cellar and returned to postseason play. But how long did it take, and more importantly, how did they do it? What can history teach us about how the Reds can return to baseball relevance?
The 1930's was a strange decade for the Reds. Fully six of the ten worst winning percentages the Reds have ever posted came in that decade, including the two very worst, .344 in 1934 and .364 in 1937. Those teams lost 99 and 98 games respectively, matching and surpassing the 2015 squad, which is amazing considering the season was only 154 games at the time. By any measure, those are the two worst Reds teams in franchise history.
And then in 1939, they won the National League pennant, losing to the Yankees in the World Series. A year later, they returned to the World Series, defeating the Detroit Tigers for their first world championship since 1919.
So what changed? The short answer is that Powell Crosley purchased the team in 1934 and started making smarter decisions. It took a few years, but as players the Reds already had like Ernie Lombardi began to develop, and as the Reds acquired several stars via trade, especially Bucky Walters but also including Billy Werber and Lonny Frey, among several others, the Reds were able to vault back to the top of the National League very quickly.
Unfortunately, there’s little if anything the modern Reds fan can take from this example. The minor league system around baseball at the time bore little resemblance to what's in place now. The amateur draft was three decades away, free agency was four decades away, and there were only eight teams in each league. Baseball was run so differently then that it's difficult if not impossible to draw any meaningful comparisons to the current state of the Reds. However, it is heartening to know that a team can go from one of the absolute worst seasons it would ever have and come all the way back to a world championship in just a few years.
Then there's the 1982 Reds, the modern standard for Reds ineptitude. They remain the only Reds team ever (so far) to end the season with a triple digit number in the loss column, going 61-101 and tying with 1931 for the fourth worst winning percentage with .377. While it took until 1990 for the Reds to make the postseason, they actually bounced back relatively quickly. By 1985 they were back above .500, and from then until 1988, they finished in second place in their division four years in a row. Of course there was no wild card then, but if the current wild card rules had been in place, they would have been the second wild card team in 1985 and 1986, and the first wild card team in 1988.
Fortunately for the Reds, their minor leagues were already in decent shape when the 1982 disaster happened, a major difference between that team and the current incarnation. Eric Davis, Paul O’Neill and Tom Browning were already working their way through the Reds system. In the 1983 draft, the Reds took Kurt Stillwell in the first round with the second overall pick, but subsequent rounds yielded the Reds Chris Sabo, Joe Oliver and Rob Dibble. After a disappointing 1984 draft, in 1985 they drafted Barry Larkin. A few shrewd trades later (Jose Rijo for 37 year old Dave Parker worked out pretty well) and the Reds had the core of a magical 1990 team.
Which brings us to 2001. Most people reading this probably remember that year. The Reds lost 96 games and it would be another eight season after that before the Reds would return to the postseason in 2010. This is disconcerting given the fact that the baseball landscape was very much the same then as it is now, so the Reds are currently tasked with making their return to the postseason in pretty much the exact same environment that they so slowly and frustratingly did it in last.
In 2010, the narrative surrounding the Reds was often that they were a mostly home grown team, which was true. Much of the core was drafted and developed by the Reds, including Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Homer Bailey, just to name a few. But that narrative often ignores the number of impactful trades the Reds made to bring in key contributors like Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen (and, later, Mat Latos and Shin-Soo Choo). And two major parts of the 2010 – 2013 Reds contending window were international free agents in Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman. There were even a couple of pretty good free agent signings, like Arthur Rhodes in 2010 and Ryan Ludwick in 2012 (subsequent years notwithstanding). In short, the Reds rebounded from 2001 doing a little bit of everything a team can do to build a roster.
So what can we learn from this? It’s simple, really. The Reds need to draft and develop a future Hall of Famer or two like Lombardi and Larkin. Then they need to fleece a few other teams in trades and get a pitcher capable of winning an MVP award like Walters did in 1939, plus a World Series MVP in exchange for a broken down slugger in his late 30’s. While they’re at it, maybe acquire a good hitting/great fielding middle infielder for a player to be named Jeff Stevens later. Meanwhile, a pair of once-in-a-generation talents should be available in the international free agent market, so they should go ahead and grab those. And to cap it off, they need to keep a core of home grown players intact while adding just the right free agent signing to give the team exactly what it’s missing at exactly the right time.
Should be easy, right?