I started to type “there are only 67 games left in the 2017 MLB season,” and it hit me square that this year has subtly flown by. The Cincinnati Reds have filed away 95 largely uninspiring results already this year, a number that just seems like too many, too quickly.
This cup of coffee has now convinced me that I know why I feel that way.
The 2017 season was never about the 2017 season for the Reds, something that’s been written about extensively in the corner of the world that follows the team. 2017 was about the beyond, a year tasked with a similar purpose to both 2016 and 2015. In fact, ever since Reds’ COO Phil Castellini went on record back in May of 2016 that 2018 was the team’s target date to contend again, there’s been a general sense of resignation that the results of the games played in that span wouldn’t carry a whole lot of weight in the memory banks. Instead, focusing on the development of the players who looked capable of sticking around for years became the “results” that were supposed to matter, as were the returns from trading players who didn’t fit that 2018 profile.
How the franchise was setting itself up for 2018 became the new wins and losses. The framing of the walls of the third floor nursery in the yet-unfinished dream house was what we were supposed to be watching, not the juice stain on the living room carpet of the starter home in which we currently lived. And while the rebuild was deep, dark, and thorough, looking at 2018 from back in 2015 and 2016 still seemed far enough in the future that an overhaul of the Reds’ proportions would have plenty of time to sort itself out somehow.
That brings me back to the 67 remaining games of the 2017 season. Those 67 games now serve as the lone remaining on-field opportunities for the Reds to figure out what it is they currently have in the system before 2018 - the 2018 - becomes the present, not the beyond. And while it seemed two years ago that by the time 2018 rolled around most everything would be set and ready, brimming with confidence, I’m not sure that’s exactly the case at the moment.
The stopwatch set years ago on this rebuild is quickly nearing zero, and while there are several solidly functioning parts of its process, the troubles with the starting rotation still seem to be defining the status reports. Cincinnati’s rotation still ranks last in collective fWAR, boasts by far the worst ERA of all MLB teams, and thanks in part to a HR/FB% that’s also the worst in all of baseball they’re again on-pace to allow the most single season home runs in MLB history.
At 95 games into the season, that’s no longer solely because of 40 year Bronson Arroyo being in the rotation, spot starts from the likes of Jake Buchanan, or a handful of bad outings that overinflate the total numbers. That’s due largely to the fact that most all of the talented young arms that have been given chance after chance to establish themselves as a future member of the rotation have fallen down, repeatedly. The underperformance of Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, Rookie Davis, Sal Romano, and Robert Stephenson has become the defining aspect of the team’s current rebuild, especially in the light of serious injuries to the only two other young pitchers - Brandon Finnegan and Anthony DeSclafani - who have actually shown any bit of consistency.
A quick jog back to that FanGraphs starting rotation fWAR leaderboard shows the following teams atop the list: Dodgers, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Indians, Astros, Yankees, Brewers. Those eight teams have accumulated the most value from their starting rotations among the thirty MLB teams this season, and it’s no coincidence that if the season ended right this very minute, all eight would be in the playoffs. With few exceptions, starting pitching has always been king, and this particular season is showing no different.
So, if 2018 is still the target date for the Reds to sneak into contention, they’ve got 67 games remaining to see if those young arms can show any sort of concrete promise that their 2018 season might go a lot better than the beginning of their 2017 season. That becomes the single greatest focal point, even if the offense falls off a cliff and the team’s to-date excellent defense begins to fall by the wayside, since at least those two aspects of the current roster have shown a large enough sample of promise to this point in the rebuild.
The Reds appear to be ready to roll out those young starters once again, with hopes that their early struggles and subsequent work back in the minors will have grizzled them enough to tackle the task this time around. Stephenson, he of the 8.03 ERA and 1.99 WHIP in 24.2 early season big league innings, will be recalled tomorrow to start for the Reds against the Miami Marlins. It’ll be his next - and who knows, perhaps final - chance to show he can be a viable member of a big league rotation as soon as April, 2018. It will also be one step closer to the Reds knowing how much, if any starting pitching they’ll need to pursue from outside the organization between now and 2018 if they’d like any real chance of competing.
It’s crunch time for the Reds, for Stephenson, and for the likes of Reed, Garrett, and whoever else gets a final handful of starts at the big league level this year if that 2018 dream season has any chance of materializing.