Calendar year 2018 started off fairly well for the Cincinnati Reds, all told. The ball dropped in Times Square just a handful of days after the signing of Jared Hughes, which already looks to be one of the more savvy deals this club has made in years. January 8th saw them bring in Dylan Floro on a harmless minor league contract, which also paid off quite well during the 2018 season. Then, on January 30th, they picked up bullpen bookend David Hernandez, too, wrapping a month of moves that, today, look the part of having been made by a front office that has its collective head screwed on straight.
The 2018 season, though, couldn’t have begun in more polar opposite fashion. As lookback montages of the trials and tribulations the Reds have faced in recent memory go, the beginning to the 2018 season probably deserves to be set and staged akin to the start of Apocalypse Now.
In the current context, it’s odd to look back on the season’s first game with anything less than surprise and admiration. That’s because Homer Bailey - who had perhaps the worst pitching season in recent MLB history and has sense been shed via trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in a pure salary dump - actually opened the year in impressive fashion. Bailey dueled with Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the season’s cold, dank opener on March 30th, ultimately taking the loss after allowing a lone earned run (not a dinger) through 6 IP against what was supposed to be an incredibly potent Nats offense.
It was a 2-0 loss for the Reds that day, and in hindsight that actually looks like one of the best games from the abysmal first month of the season. You also likely remember that the 99th Findlay Market Parade wasn’t actually held on Opening Day this year due to a scheduling conflict with the Easter holiday, and while I’m no particular believer in curses...
Well. After Tyler Mahle got our collective hopes up with 6 brilliant, scoreless, 1-hit innings against the Chicago Cubs in the season’s fourth game - the first victory of the year for the Reds, mind you - the cavalcade of awfulness reached a staggering pace.
On April 6th, Yovani Gallardo was blasted for 6 ER while recording a lone out in relief against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The veteran pitcher was only signed on March 31st after the season had already begun, never looked at all ready to contribute despite getting a big league guarantee, and at least managed to lower his ERA with the Reds to 30.86 with a clean inning on April 8th before he was summarily cut from the roster.
Eugenio Suarez was hit by a Jameson Taillon pitch during that same April 8th game, and the burgeoning star 3B ended up shelved for some three weeks with a broken thumb. A day later, Scott Schebler finally landed on the DL retroactive to April 6th - he hadn’t actually played since being hit in the funny bone by a pitch on April 1st - and he remained sidelined until April 20th. And by the time both sluggers made their returns to the Reds lineup, the Reds themselves had gone through their first major shake-up of the season.
After stumbling to a putrid 3-15 start to the season in which they’d been outscored 110-54, the Reds finally, mercifully fired manager Bryan Price, back to back shutout losses to the Milwaukee Brewers the final games of his tenure in charge. It closed the door on a tumultuous chapter in Cincinnati Reds baseball history, one that included a thorough roster rebuild, a commitment to revamping the farm system with priority over winning at the big league level, and of sticking with a coach for three plus years despite doing almost nothing to give him a chance to compete against his peers.
That move, alongside the one that removed pitching coach Mack Jenkins, was no immediate magic wand. The Reds lost their next three games, too, their 3-18 record officially the worst start to a season in franchise history. Bench coach Jim Riggleman had been named interim manager despite having been in the same dugout for the same copious losing as Price for the previous two years, and things at that point seemed about as bleak as they had ever been among Reds fans.
Early May didn’t seem to have anything else in terms of positivity for the Reds, either. While Suarez’s freak thumb injury had grown hopes that top prospect Nick Senzel might finally get called up for his big league debut, he fell to a second bout of vertigo on May 3rd, and was ultimately sidelined for four weeks. Five losses in the first six games of May left the Reds at just 8-27 on the season, which had a good chunk of us wondering if the dismal four year rebuild was still only somehow, some way just beginning.
The wonder of hindsight now has me thinking that May 7th loss to the New York Mets might well be the point we cite years from now as the worst it ever was for this era of Cincinnati baseball.
The very next day, Luis Castillo - who’d struggled mightily to a 7.85 ERA in 6 starts in a frigid April - looked like the Luis Castillo of old, fanning 7 against a lone walk in 6 innings of 2 ER ball to pick up the win. The very next day, Matt Harvey was brought in from the other dugout in a trade that sent Devin Mesoraco to the Mets. The Reds then ripped off wins in their next handful of games, including a rare (and completely unexpected) four game sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
Suarez, who returned to the lineup on April 26th, began hitting exactly the way you’d hope a recently extended franchise cornerstone would hit, posting a .329/.384/.634 line from May 7th through the end of the month, including 6 dingers and 23 RBI in that 22 game span. Similarly, Scooter Gennett - who’d limped to just a .725 OPS through May 6th - took off, too, hitting an absurd .434/.448/.783 with 8 dingers and 24 RBI during the final 21 games he played in May, production that was good enough to earn him NL Player of the Month honors.
The Reds season was done at that point, really. The 8-27 start had already sunk them 13 games back in the NL Central, and even though the 12-10 finish to May showed there would be entertaining baseball to watch in 2018, the hole they’d dug for themselves was clearly too deep at that juncture. That said, it sure didn’t stop the Reds from doing their damnedest for awhile to work their way back into respectability. The 12-10 finish to May turned into a 14-11 month of June, and after an 8-2 series clinching victory over the Cardinals in St. Louis on July 14th, the Reds had somehow climbed to a 43-52 record, the single-digit games under .500 mark one that seemed preposterous just a few months before.
As it was, that mark was precisely preposterous, as the Reds never got that close to the .500 mark for the rest of the year. Just as a return to health and good fortune had helped turn the Reds from abysmal to flourishing, the baseball gods again helped turn the tides in July. Jesse Winker had emerged as an absolute force in the lineup, hitting a Joey Votto-esque .373/.473/.571 in 151 PA from June 3rd through July 23rd, but a freak shoulder injury when he hit the deck running the bases ended his rookie season that very July day. Similarly, Scott Schebler again landed on the DL after slamming into the outfield wall on July 14th, taking away a bat that had hit a scorching .319/.384/.548 in 36 games dating back to May 30th. Even Joey Votto, who had missed just 8 of the Reds previous 486 games, landed on the DL in August with a bruised knee courtesy of a Ryan Madson fastball.
The Reds limped to the finish in 2018, both figuratively and literally. Those DL trips helped derail the offense, as did Senzel’s broken finger at AAA that prevented him from riding to the rescue. The club shipped the struggling Adam Duvall to Atlanta for a trio of AAAA prospects, and that paired with the injury bug meant we watched a lot of Mason Williams, Phil Ervin, and even Preston Tucker in the outfield down the stretch - and even a string of Tucker Barnhart playing 1B in Votto’s stead. Meanwhile, the starting rotation largely stumbled to the finish, too, aside from Castillo’s ability to once again show he could be a generational talent in that role. At 67-95, the Reds again sat in the NL Central cellar at season’s end, and despite the feel-good pair of months the Reds banked earlier in the season, Riggleman was not retained as the Reds manager going forward.
Still, that decision to move on from Riggleman and the Reds tenure of old might well prove to be a significant step in the right direction, as promising new manager David Bell was subsequently hired. Once considered a contender to be the next general manager of the San Francisco Giants, Bell brings a rare combination of playing experience, dugout experience, and front office experience to the Reds, and that paired with the front office and ownership’s eventual commitment to adding players already has calendar year 2019 looking to be one of great promise.
We’ve already seen Bailey dumped, which was as much of a figurehead necessity as it was to the team’s win-loss ledger. The additions of Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, and Tanner Roark have shown that the Reds do intend to put more wins on the board, as well as give the butts-in-seats something more to dream about. And, given the repeated comments about having a ‘record payroll’ for next season, we head into 2019 with legitimate expectations that there will be more moves made before pitchers and catchers report to Goodyear, Arizona in some six weeks.
Winker will be back and healthy. Senzel will be, too, and we’ll get to see how the Reds finally deploy one of the consensus Top 10 prospects in all of baseball. The Reds bullpen, which was rock solid from the end of April to the end of the season, returns completely intact, and the starting rotation has already seen a pair of significant upgrades that will hopefully dovetail nicely with Castillo, a more experience Mahle, and a hopefully healthy Anthony DeSclafani. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even see one of Dallas Keuchel, Marcus Stroman, or even Corey Kluber added to the mix, too.
In a vacuum, the 2018 season won’t be one we remember for years, and there certainly won’t be any banners hanging around to remind us about it. However, given just how awful the years prior to 2018 have been for Cincinnati baseball fans, we might get to look back at 2018 as the year things finally got so bad they had to get better, and that’s at least something we can dream about as we head into 2019.