Without context, 68 wins is a lot of wins. A lot! Sixty-eight times you got to tune in to watch the Cincinnati Reds win games this year. At some three hours a pop, that was 204 hours of your summer spent cheersing beers and high-fiving, a full two plus months worth of mornings you could wake up knowing the team you follow wholeheartedly had thumped their opposition the night before.
Context is often a kick to the beans, however. Such is the case for those 2017 Reds, whose season is now finished as the MLB Playoffs begin in earnest later tonight. Along with those 68 wins came 94 losses, many of which came in painfully obvious, predictable fashion.
To be blunt, the 2017 Cincinnati Reds were not good. Not good at all.
To be nebulous, though, the Cincinnati Reds themselves are not merely the 2017 Cincinnnati Reds. If you’re reading this, for example, odds are that you’re going to have interest in the 2018 Cincinnati Reds, too. Right? If you’re a student of the Reds - or at least a long time observer of the club - you’re also keenly aware that the franchise has 5 World Championships to its credit, each represented at Great American Ball Park with much aplomb.
Not to poo-poo that too much, but those 5 World Championships - while legendary in their own right - have taken 136 professional baseball seasons to attain. If winning is the only schtick to which you ascribe, that means that the Cincinnati Reds have fallen short of winning a whopping 131 times, a number large enough to swallow up any and all memories of the 2017 team’s record and digest it away in some cavernous baseball history stomach somewhere.
What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that looking back in judgement of the 2017 Cincinnati Reds based on the 162 individual baseball games in which they played this calendar year isn’t exactly the best way to measure. Rather, how they positioned themselves for a run at eventual World Championship #6 is how this particular year should be dissected, at least under the flags fly forever mantra.
Take the 1989 Cincinnati Reds, for instance. They finished 12 games under .500, a full 17 games back of the NL West champions that year. A scoffable, laughable 5th place finish in a season in which a reliever - Rob Dibble - finished as their team leader in bWAR. Judging that squad on wins and losses, obviously, isn’t the best way to measure the impact that club had on the franchise’s existence, however. The likes of Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, Eric Davis, and Paul O’Neill had taken over the middle of the lineup, all checking in between 25 and 27 years of age. The club had traded for Mariano Duncan and finally moved on from 40 year old Davey Concepcion in the middle of the infield. And young 24 year old fireballer Jose Rijo - acquired for aging veteran Dave Parker just a year before - had finally been used exclusively as a starting pitcher after bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen in his first tastes of the big leagues.
Of course, the 1990 Cincinnati Reds will forever own one of those 5 World Championship banners, not the 1989 vintage. Point is, though, despite the 1989 Cincinnati Reds being bluntly not good - not good at all - the front office had clearly used that calendar year as a building block for the future. And while those of us who are old enough to remember found it difficult to watch Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and the 1989 San Francisco Giants club their way to the NL Pennant that year instead of the Reds, in hindsight we can largely look at the 1989 season as a year where the Reds got better without winning.
I’m not anywhere close to claiming that the 2018 Cincinnati Reds will win the club’s 6th World Championship, clearly. That 1990 club - while excellent in hindsight - didn’t have a whole lot of World Series prognosticators backing them prior to the season, either. However, the continued excellence of Joey Votto, the emergence of Eugenio Suarez and Tucker Barnhart, the found-gold of Scooter Gennett, the budding star of Nick Senzel rocketing through the minors, and the electric arm we watched from Luis Castillo are the kind of storylines that will hopefully define the 2017 Reds in a way similar to the 1989 Reds. That’s the way the effectiveness of calendar year 2017 should be judged if you’re up for critiquing the front office.
Of course, even the 1989 season wasn’t truly enough to judge 1989 the year in Cincinnati Reds history, and that’s a parable that relates to 2017, too. It took until the winter prior to the 1990 season for the Reds to acquire Randy Myers, who eventually became a linchpin of The Nasty Boys. It took until that winter for the club to acquire Hal Morris, too, who stepped right in to hit .340 in his 336 PAs at 1B for the club in 1990. The onus is clearly on GM Dick Williams and the current Cincinnati front office to continue to make moves towards the goal of that next World Championship, and it’s clear that there is still ample roster manipulation needed to get the right parts, the right pieces in place to fit together to bring the level of winning in the organization commiserate with the level of accumulated talent we’ve seen emerge.
Going for it, making moves to win big, certainly requires stomping on the proverbial gas pedal. That’s what’s next on the docket for Williams and for the Cincinnati Reds. But for that to even have a chance, the engine needed an oil change and to be filled up with gas, two things that have been the club’s top priority for most of the last three seasons. The 68-94 record posted by the 2017 Cincinnati Reds will show a last place finish and nary a sniff of the postseason, but it also did yeoman’s work to get the franchise engine in shape to floor it for awhile. If - and it’s still certainly an if - that top speed gets reached as early as the 2018 season, we’ll be able to look back on the 2017 Cincinnati Reds as much more than a team that logged 68 wins for the club’s 136 year ledger.