A quick Google search of "mlb power rankings" and a few click-throughs isn't exactly the best prescription for "how to have a good start to your day" for fans of the Cincinnati Reds these days. CBSSports.com's Matt Snyder has them 20th, Yahoo's Tim Brown has them 22nd, whoever FOX Sports has on the job has them 24th, and MLB.com's own combination of "experts" and fans only goes to 20 teams and the Reds aren't one of them. Other flapping heads have chimed in with their preseason prognostications, and those are also nearly as dire. Grantland's Ben Lindbergh sneezed on the Reds in his NL Central preview, ranking them dead last in the division, and the trio of writers from Yahoo's Big League Stew all picked the Reds to finish last among their peers, too.
Then there's Grant Brisbee, whose prediction for the Reds in 2015 is the baseball version of taking a shoe and smacking yourself on the forehead with it for six months:
5. Cincinnati Reds
It’s not that Jason Marquis is going to be in the rotation. It’s that two weeks before they needed to make a decision, the Reds said, "OK, we don’t need to see any more. Marquis is clearly the best option we have, so let’s just announce this now." This should be the last-gasp season of last-gasp seasons, with the Reds clawing frantically for one … last … shot … before nearly their entire rotation goes away in free agency. Instead, they embarked on a half-rebuild, half-contend strategy, trying to sell their cake and display it, too. This is how you end up with things like Jason Marquis.
(/takes off shoe)
The 2015 Reds aren't entirely a barren wasteland of hope, however. There's a difference between a team full of players who simply have no chance at being good and a team full of players who have been good before but just not recently, and the Reds are clearly the latter, not the former. It's not that this team doesn't have talent or upside, it's that their most recent foray into baseballing didn't baseball very well at all, and everyone's now a year older and a bit more scarred & stitched up. Pair that with the fact that the NL Central is going to be the biggest division dogfight in the sport, and it's easy to see why many don't think the Reds, as currently constituted, will be able to hang in there 'til the finish.
There are real, live reasons for optimism about this team. I'll give you three.
1) July 13, 2014
The 2014 season was collectively awful enough to suck the life out of most casual fans - and even some lifers - but it's easy to forget that there was still some promise embedded within the most injury riddled season in recent memory. On July 13th of last year, the Reds sat 7 games over .500 at 51-44, and their 6-3 victory that night over the Pittsburgh Pirates sent them into the All Star break just 1.5 games out of first place in the NL Central. And that, you'll recall, came despite Mat Latos missing a large portion of the first half after multiple surgeries, Jay Bruce tearing his meniscus and missing three weeks, Aroldis Chapman being out with his face bashed and stapled, and Joey Votto missing time and playing on one leg when actually out there.
Of course, July 13th was a Sunday, and in the five days prior the Reds had shelved Votto on the DL (where he'd be for the rest of the season) and also lost Brandon Phillips for six weeks with torn thumb ligaments, and when the team came back from the break they promptly dropped seven games in a row (and nine out of ten) to torpedo any hope of contending. The fact remains, though, that even with several of the team's stars battered and bruised, they still found a way to be 51-44 in the first half, and most all of those stars are still around for 2015.
2) 1-run games
The 2014 Reds lost more 1-run games than any team in baseball, and they did so despite their closer only blowing 2 of his 38 save opportunities. They were just 22-38 in such contests, a disparity so off-kilter in a scenario most statistics see as a toss-up that it's kind of hard to wrap your head around it. While the Reds bullpen was decidedly awful (their 4.11 ERA was better than only the Colorado Rockies in the National League and 26th in all of baseball), the combined record in 1-run games of the two teams immediately below them in team ERA rankings - the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox - was 7 games over .500, for instance.
Of course, those 1-run losses don't fall entirely on the bullpen's foibles, since the Reds' offense - which was as bad as any I've seen in my lifetime - certainly contributed to it, too. However, even the putrid 595 runs that the Reds did push across the plate in 2014 shouldn't have led to such an awful record in 1-run scenarios. The only two teams to score fewer runs in 2014 - the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego Padres - were a combined 4 games over .500 in such contests, with the 535 runs scored by the Padres leading to a stellar 33-21 record in 1-run affairs.
While it's not defined by "luck," per se, record in 1-run games is decidedly random enough to not see 22-38 records very often, and even a ho-hum .500 record in those contests in 2014 would've left the overall Reds record at a much more palatable 84-78.
3) The Abled List
In Matt Snyder's power rankings linked above, this is the first line of the Reds' blurb:
They lost 827 player games to injury last season.
Eight hundred and twenty seven player games. That's ridiculous.
Reds fans will tell you that was more than a crippling number, they'll tell you that it was more about who was hurt than how many games they missed. It was Joey Votto and Aroldis Chapman, Mat Latos and Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco and Brandon Phillips. It was Homer Bailey in the first season since he signed that nine figure contract. It was Tony Cingrani one year after posting the best K/9 among any National League pitcher who threw at least 100 innings. It wasn't the 5th outfielder and fifth righty in the bullpen that were injured and reduced, it was the All Stars, the MVP, the no-hitter hurler, and the defensive whiz.
Injuries rocked Cincinnati to the core, and I just don't see that happening at that level again. There will be injuries, of course, and a few of them may well be serious, but it won't be a replica of the decimation that saw this lineup in a night game while still in the race in July. It just won't.