For a number of fans, the answer to the question posed in the title of this article boils down to wins and losses. "You play to win the game" (thanks Herm Edwards). Yet at the end of the day most should realize this is a fairly disappointing way to live. Only one team is going to win a championship each season which means twenty-nine franchises failed. If that is your only standard of success then this Reds season has to be a failure.
Realistically there are ways for a team to be successful without actually winning it all. Each season there are a handful of teams who have little chance competing from the beginning. Everyone but the most optimistic of fans (they primarily reside on Facebook) would have put the Reds in this category prior to the 2016 season. For those teams success can be defined by taking the steps necessary in order to experience long-term, sustained competitiveness.
Did the Reds take those steps this season? Are they in a better position in September then they were in April? Let's assess that question with a handful of other questions.
Was this Cincinnati Reds season a success?
1. Did they take advantage of their most valuable trade chips?
For the sake of this discussion we'll consider any trade that the organization made following the conclusion of the 2015 season. With that time frame in mind (mid-October 2015 to now), how has the front office leveraged their veteran players with trade value?
- Traded Todd Frazier to the White Sox, who sent Michae Johnson, Frankie Montas, and Trayce Thompson to the Dodgers. The Dodgers sent Brandon Dixon, Jose Peraza, and Scott Schebler to the Reds.
- Traded Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees for Caleb Cotham, Rookie Davis, Eric Jagielo, and Tony Renda.
- Traded Jay Bruce to the Mets for Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell.
3. Have they set themselves up for success in the future?
If we allow ourselves to dream a little dream, what could the Cincinnati Reds lineup look like in the middle of next season? Here is one analysts opinion:
Reds lineup in mid-2017: 3B Senzel, SS Peraza, 2B Herrera, 1B Votto, C Mesoraco, LF Winker, CF Hamilton, RF Duval. Could be solid.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) August 2, 2016
There are one or two things you might quibble with here (Winker in LF or Mesoraco at C), but on the whole this is probably right. While this probably isn't a lineup that will compete for a World Series, it is an upgrade from 2016. The lineup mentioned above is younger than the previous two seasons, and contains a handful of players who could be on the next contending Reds team.
What about the rotation?
Next season it will likely be some combination of Bailey, DeSclafani, Finnegan, Straily, and Stephenson/Reed (maybe even Garrett).
At first glance this feels much more uncertain then the future roster. Until Homer Bailey can put together a full season there will continue to be questions surrounding his health. Straily was a nice surprise this season, but it's hard to know if he can repeat that performance. Finnegan looked solid, and made some changes that could lead to sustained success. DeSclafani did his thing and ended the season as the Reds best starter by ERA+.
That's four potentially solid options in the rotation. The biggest question (outside of Bailey) is whether or not Reed, Garrett, or Stephenson can develop into a top of the rotation starter. For now it's hard to imagine that from Stephenson. Reed struggled in his major league performances this season, but he's shown enough "stuff" to still think it could fall into place. Garrett seems to be the pitching prospect people are highest on as the 2016 season comes to a close. If two of these three can turn into above average major league regulars...that would be a good thing.
Even though there are still major question marks, I think you can say the Reds have taken steps toward a more competitive lineup and rotation in 2017. We haven't even mentioned how the bullpen figures to be more competitive with a full season of Iglesias and Lorenzen.
Conclusion: In the short term the team has set itself up for more success. In the long term...we'll have to wait and see.
Before bringing this discussion to a close there is one more question I want to ask. Not so much about the team, but about our experience as fans.
4. Was this season entertaining?
The following quote comes from Sam Miller on the Effectively Wild podcast.
"[T]he point is to entertain people, and make them forget that we are all dying right in front of each other. That this is just this horrible, rotten slog to rigor mortis. That we are going to lose everybody we know, we are going to lose everything we have and the only way to distract ourselves is by separating our day into distractions."
This quote was clearly a bit tongue-in-cheek, and it presents a pretty pessimistic view of the course of human history. Yet, maybe there is some truth to this. Baseball is meant to be entertaining. We follow this team because we enjoy it. At the end of the day the on the field success of a major league franchise does little to change our every day lives. However, the enjoyment, relationships, conversation, and yes...distraction baseball brings is welcome.
Given this criteria I have to say the 2016 Reds season was definitely a success. There are few things as enjoyable as watching Joey Votto hit or Billy Hamilton run. Even in the misery of early season losses, a depressing bullpen, and an unwanted home run record there was some joy in the shared commiseration we experienced together. At the end of the day I have to remember that I have the kind of life that allows me to be concerned about, in detail, the development of a professional baseball team. For the new friends I've made, enjoyable conversations I've had, and joy I've found in specific moments this season was definitely a success.