You can effectively say that the origins of this Cincinnati Reds rebuild bubbled up almost exactly two full years ago. The 2014 Reds entered the All Star Break off a series victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, and at 51-44 sat just 1.5 games out of first place in the National League Central. They'd gone 15-7 over their final 22 games of the first half, entering the break on the kind of roll reminiscent of their great regular seasons of the two previous seasons.
That successful run did a solid job of masking the underlying stories, for a time. Joey Votto, who had been struggling through a quad injury for the entire season, hit the DL for good on July 8th, and Brandon Phillips joined him there three days later with a torn ligament in his thumb. The Reds opened the second half of the season by being swept by the New York Yankees, backed it by being swept again in Milwaukee, and ultimately lost 9 of 10 out of the gate to fall below .500. A week later, Homer Bailey was told he needed season ending surgery to repair the flexor mass tendon in his throwing arm, and the crumbling of the once vaunted roster - and season - was in earthquake mode.
The premise of almost every move made by the Reds since then has been with an eye towards the long-term future, and that has led to a systematic overhaul on a very large scale. They've traded away four players who were All Stars in their Reds tenure in Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, and Alfredo Simon. Similarly, they shipped out durable rotation cogs Mat Latos and Mike Leake. The losses mounted, their division rivals blew past them, and when they take the field tomorrow against the Brewers, they'll do so knowing that a loss could leave them the owners of the worst record in all of Major League Baseball.
The 2016 season doesn't matter at this point, of course. That's something that the front office has known for these last two calendar years. In fact, it wasn't too long ago that the team's COO admitted that the 2018 season was the one they had eyes on. But how close are they to making that a reality? What have we seen that suggests a 2018 contender is a reality?
After spending the bulk of the last two years clearly identifying which players were not going to be around for the next great Reds run, we've finally seen a bit in 2016 to suggest that at least a few of the new faces will be.
Nobody has jumped to the top of that list more emphatically than Anthony DeSclafani, as the righty has shrugged off an oblique injury with six starts that suggest his 3+ fWAR rookie season in 2015 was a building-block year, not his peak. With four full years of team control beyond this season, health appears to be the only thing that could prevent him staking his claim as the Opening Day starter for years to come.
On a slightly lesser - albeit still emphatic - scale, Adam Duvall has given all indication that he's far from a mere throw-in from the Leake deal, and could very well be a big part of the offense going forward. While his free swinging and lack of walks isn't prototypical, his combination of freak power and above average defense provides serious value, something that should complement Joey Votto in the middle of the order. Duvall sports the rare combination of peak age (27) and controlability (five more years) that also makes him project to be a fixture going forward in some capacity even if he regresses a bit from his breakout start to this season.
Beyond those two players, however, comes a lengthy list of question marks and uncertainty, albeit one rife with great talent.
Backing DeSclafani in the current rotation sit John Lamb, Dan Straily, Brandon Finnegan, and Cody Reed, none of whom have been Reds for even a full calendar year. Each have been inconsistent, yet each has flashed performances that give some confidence that development into sustained starting success is within the realm of expectations. All of them will be making roughly league minimum in 2017 and three of them still will be in 2018, and with Robert Stephenson on their heels, there's a wealth of super-cheap depth on the staff, if nothing else.
Eugenio Suarez and Jose Peraza, on the other hand, have yet to really establish how they'll figure into the offense in the future. With Peraza, it's been more due to a lack of opportunity, as he has largely languished on the big league bench, fighting both a lack of positional availability and infrequent plate appearances in the process. There's a lot riding on Peraza's still-young shoulders as the centerpiece of the Frazier deal, and while his best attributes are easy to see, 2016 hasn't exactly been the kind of year for him that has allayed the worries about his weaknesses. Suarez similarly has yet to cement a concrete spot, as his defense at 3B has been brutal while the offense he displayed in 2015 has not been replicated.
As for the holdovers, it's a mixed bag of those firmly on the trading block and those still not showing what they're fully capable of contributing.
Both Jay Bruce and Zack Cozart are playing some of the best baseball of their lives, but with just one more year of team control for each and their relative ages, it's likely both get moved instead of extended beyond 2017. Devin Mesoraco and Homer Bailey have been on the shelf for the second consecutive years due to major surgeries, meaning at this moment we've got no clue what to expect from them on the back end of their large contracts. Joey Votto stumbled out of the gate and is striking out at a rate we're wholly unused to witnessing, but there's been enough of a rebound over the last month plus to suggest he's still got that top end ability in the tank - but whether he still will when turning 35 years old in 2018 is far from a certainty.
Raisel Iglesias is...what is Raisel Iglesias, really? He's electric, he's dominant, he's weak-shouldered, he likes relieving, and he's got over $20 million left on his contract. He'll play a part if and when his arm allows it, to be sure, but this year has done nothing to really clarify how the Reds will count on him (which, of course, can largely describe who the Reds have in Tony Cingrani). Much of that applies to Billy Hamilton, - aside from the guaranteed money - as shown baserunning and defensive skills that indicate he can be a lethal weapon in some aspects, but other glaring flaws draw into question how the team will choose to deploy him as he gets more expensive.
That leaves us with Tucker Barnhart, and Tucker is exactly where a talk about the Cincinnati Reds and rebuilding should wrap. Tucker, in many ways, is the single most emblematic player wearing the uniform at the moment, as he and the current Reds can be described in very similar ways. Tucker will be around in 2018, and has done enough to show that he's worthy of being on most every team's 25-man roster. But, he's a backup catcher, someone who provides stability and solid defense while not overwhelming anyone with talent, and in most instances would check in as the 24th or even 25th man on those rosters. That's pretty much exactly where the Reds are at the moment, too, since they've assembled enough pieces to feel like they'll be big league caliber in the coming years, but haven't yet shown they're going to be better than their peers.
The rebuild is clearly incomplete, but there's still a year and a half left on the established timetable and enough upside in the current system to provide optimism. Part of the rebuild involves being bad enough to benefit from the perks provided in the draft and international signing windows, and Nick Senzel and a projected 2017 pick at the top of the draft will be a large part of emerging from the cellar, too. A few more trades, some more available playing time for the newer pieces in the system, and a half-decent break or two, and there's at least enough around now to see that 2018 just might be an OK year again.