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Measuring success in the 2016 Cincinnati Reds season

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Winning was never on the table, so insight became the currency of the 2016 season.

Long before March 16th of this year, we’d known the Cincinnati Reds weren’t destined for greatness in the win column during the 2016 season. We’d seen Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Aunt Maude, me, Mat Latos, you, and Aroldis Chapman traded away. We’d watched as both Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco hit the shelf with major surgeries that drew their ability to compete in the 2016 season effectively into question. We’d seen Jay Bruce struggle mightily for a second consecutive season, and a cavalcade of rookie pitchers hammered again and again as the best mound options the franchise had available.

2016 was going to be bad, but the one caveat we absorbed with that was knowing 2016 was not going to be bad in the same light as 2015. The de facto reboot was still stuck in the starting gate in 2015 as the club held tightly onto aging assets with one eye still on the 2012 NL Central title and another on the 2015 All Star Game in Great American Ball Park. While all outside forces were pushing for an overhaul while the other great division franchises were on an upswing, the Reds sat in stasis, and spent much of the season losing with known quantities and an imperfect roster in rather sisyphean fashion.

2016, though, was different from the start. They’d shed all of those former stars and amassed a wealth of new blood, and were poised to spend the season in discovery phase. And while that makes watching the Chicago Cubs bull their way through the NL Central no more enjoyable, it at least zoomed out on the binoculars enough to see where things are supposed to be down the road.

On that March 16th, we identified four ways in which the 2016 season could be categorized as a success given that long-view, with the loss column’s might not deleterious to how we viewed the reboot. Seeing as we’ve reached the final month of the season, I thought it time to check back to see how those have gone.

1) Devin Mesoraco having a bounceback season

Welp.

The player the Reds signed to a four year extension following his massive 2014 season was originally slated to be the thumping righty bat in the middle of the order and the leader of the pitching staff, yet that plan immediately stepped on a LEGO and hasn't looked back.  After a hip injury limited him to just a .519 OPS in 23 games in 2015 - most of which shouldn't have even happened in the first place - labrum surgery ultimately shelved him for the rest of that season, but he entered 2016 with hopes for a rebound with the confidence of the team's front office behind him.

2016, however, went even worse, despite the possibility of that happening being miniscule.

Mes played in just 16 games this year, thumped to a meager .378 OPS, and had his season shut down due to labrum surgery again - this time on his left shoulder.  And just because the current iteration of the Reds haven't been allowed to have nice things, he then underwent preventative labrum surgery on his other hip to hopefully make it sturdier than the one that had failed him before.  So, yes, that's three labrums - labrii? - in just over a calendar year that have been knifed, and back to back seasons that have been completely lost.

He'll be 29 next year, and has 2 years and some $20.5 million left on his contract, and while the Reds again insist he'll be ready to be their catcher next year, it's nearly impossible for anyone to truly know what to expect from him at that point.  2016 was supposed to provide that knowledge, and instead made the already murky situation that much more muddled.

2) Jay Bruce recouping his fallen trade value

Bruce, like Mesoraco, had a debilitating 2015 season, though while the team's catcher felt that physically, Bruce dealt with it statistically.  Despite boasting an .834 OPS as early as the first week of August - just days after the team reportedly balked at a trade with the New York Mets that would've landed Zack Wheeler in return - Bruce's season belly flopped into free-fall and stayed there 'til season's end.  He hit just .170/.213/.339 over the final 57 games of the 2015 season, and that paired with defensive metrics showing increased disdain for his services made it both hard to envision him as part of the Reds' future and hard to imagine anyone trading anything of value for him.

Fortunately for both Jay and the Reds, the exact type of rebound both needed came in the first part of 2016, and it allowed Cincinnati to finally move Jay for a piece that's about as promising as they could've hoped for.

Bruce belted 25 dingers and an NL-leading 80 ribbies prior to being traded to the Mets for real this time, and netted former Top 50 overall prospect Dilson Herrera as the big piece in the return.  Herrera, it's worth noting, is a "former" Top 50 overall prospect not because his star has fallen, but because he's not qualified as a prospect anymore despite having turned just 22 years old this March (making him just barely a calendar year older than recent 1st round draft pick Nick Senzel, for reference).

Was it sad to see Bruce traded?  Of course, but it was also an inevitable that he'd be gone, and fortunately his successful first half catalyzed it in a positive way.

3) Homer Bailey finishing 2016 sans arm surgery

The Reds just might back into calling this one a "success," since so far this year Homer has avoided going under the knife after having back to back major arm surgeries in the prior two years.  A flexor mass tendon issue ended his 2014 season early and required surgery to be repaired, and after just two starts in 2015 he needed full-on Tommy John surgery to repair an exploded UCL in his pitching arm.

Considering he entered 2016 with 4 years and up to $86 million left on the massive contract he signed just prior to those injuries, just knowing he could exist healthily this year would've been a minor victory, and so far the Reds have seen at least that.

Of course, he was supposed to return at the start of May, and that missed by nearly three full months.  He debuted on July 31st, and was battered to a 6.65 ERA and 1.83 WHIP in 6 games started, numbers that don't scream excitement, either.  Then, he exited his August 28th start early with bicep soreness, and there's a decent chance we won't see him pitch for the rest of this season, either.

But, he's had no surgeries so far, and while those surface numbers were ugly, there were a pair of dazzling starts in their midst, and the 10.6 K/9 opposite just 2.7 BB/9 in the 23 IP he did throw suggest there's still a bit of talent left in his no-hit arm.  It wasn't a dream return season for Homer, but it certainly was better than the doomsday scenarios that were well within the realm of possibility.

4) Jose Peraza justifying the Reds' desire of him

Back before the domestic abuse issues surrounding Aroldis Chapman came to light, the Reds thought they had a deal in place to send him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a package reportedly centered on Jose Peraza.  Once that deal fell through, however, the Reds managed to pry Peraza away from LA in a completely different way, looping in the Chicago White Sox for a massive trade involving Todd Frazier, showing just how much interest Cincinnati had in acquiring the talented, versatile young hitter.

Peraza had a rather mundane 2015 season in AAA, yet got his first big league call-up at just 21 years old and flashed great contact ability and stolen base potential all through his MiLB career.  Unfortunately, the continued presence of Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart, and Billy Hamilton on the big league roster of the Reds meant he didn't have a clear path for playing time early, making it hard for the Reds to unleash him for all the critics of the reboot to see.  Finally, though, he managed to get some consistent playing time midway through the season, and while it's still a tiny sample size, he's shown the kind of talent that made the Reds chase him so thoroughly.

In 48 games, he's hit .340/.372/.411 with 14 steals, and he's done so while looking plenty capable at SS, 2B, LF, and CF.  No, he's not walking at all - just 4 in 148 PA - and no, his BABIP is not going to stay at a .380 clip, but there's still been plenty to suggest that he's got a shot to be a .290-.300 hitter with enough peripheral skill to be a damn valuable regular for the Reds for at least the next five seasons.

★★★

Fat, drunk, and 20 games under is no way to go through a baseball season.  Inexperienced, talented, and 20 games under isn't the best way to go through a baseball season, but it's leaps and bounds better than the previous option, and that's how the Reds have navigated 2016 so far.  It hasn't been 100% ideal - what in life really is - but it's provided enough knowledge on previously unproven assets to let the Reds know that much better what they need to make right to compete again in the National League.  Since winning wasn't an option at all, that's a reasonable door prize.