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Where the hell are we?

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It sure feels like the Reds have been rebuilding for a decade or so. When will they be good again? Will they be good again?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

All the way back in the summer of 2014, the Reds were at a crossroads. At the All-Star break, they had their heads above water, but their best player, one Joey Votto, was hobbled by a knee injury that had swallowed a good part of his season to date. Jay Bruce injured his knee as well, but he returned from the DL after only two weeks rarin’ to go. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hit baseballs anymore after that. They had also been counting on the festering corpse of Ryan Ludwick, to predictable affect. Brandon Phillips was on ice and would be until the middle of August. The team that won the NL Central pennant in 2010 and 2012 (and made a Wild Card game appearance in ‘13) looked like it wasn’t quite able to keep enough good bats on the field to score enough runs to support the still-amazing pitching staff. And so the Reds’ brass had to decide whether they were going to stick it out and keep running at the postseason or trade off some of their valuable but expiring assets to reload a bit.

It’s easy in hindsight to criticize the Reds’ decision to stick it out. But I will point out that I was advocating for a sell off even then. But whatever, I mean, this piece isn’t about how right I always am. Rather, I wanna trace the path of this current rebuild, how we got to where we are, what the Reds could have done better, and whether or not this whole thing can actually pan out.

So the place to begin is all the way back at the beginning. The Reds decided to stick it out for the rest of the ‘14 season, which merely delayed the inevitable. With Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon, and Mike Leake scheduled for free agency after the ‘15 season, the trade deadline in ‘14 would have been an advantageous time to exchange their value for a raft of prospects. Add in the likes of Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman, and holy gompers can you imagine the impressive reload they could have pulled off? Again, this is really easy to see in hindsight, but it is reasonable to conclude that, if orchestrated correctly, they could have reset their window of competitiveness to 2016 instead of 2019, which is where we are now.

But they sat tight and the reload was unofficially launched that winter. Mat Latos went to the Marlins and Alfredo Simon went to the Tigers on the same day in December. They probably kept Cueto and Leake a beat too long, as they were traded at the deadline during the 2015 season. Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman were shipped out in the subsequent offseason.

Again, I think it is easy to say that the Reds held on to all of these players a bit too long, but I also think it is a fair criticism. All of this precipitated the rebuild timeline in which we currently live. Which isn’t to say the whole thing is a big ol’ failure. Far from it, actually.

Heading into the 2017 season, the Reds had amassed an objectively impressive collection (this phrase sounds beautiful when said aloud, btw) of young talent. Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler, Eugenio Suarez, Jose Peraza, Tucker Barnhart, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, Brandon Finnegan, Anthony DeSclafani, Cody Reed, Rookie Davis, Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias (just to name a few) were all in their 20s and under team control for multiple seasons. Also, Joey Votto, although nearing his mid-30s, still capable of straining the English language’s ability to adequately describe his baseball-hitting prowess. The 2015 and 2016 drafts had infused the minor league system with a number of ace prospects, including Tyler Stephenson, Antonio Santillan, Nick Senzel, Taylor Trammell, and Chris Okey. They spent an enormous amount of money (around $30 million) on high-quality international prospects like Vladimir Gutierrez, Alfredo Rodriguez, and Jose Israel Garcia.

So yeah, one might criticize the Reds for not being aggressive enough on the front end of this rebuild, but it would be unreasonable to complain about the resulting talent they amassed. Of course, in spite of all that, the 2017 season was pretty much a disaster. What the hell happened?

In short, the pitching. The most illustrative fact of the 2017 Reds’ pitching staff is that Tim Adleman threw more innings than anyone else. DeSclafani and Finnegan got hurt and missed the entire season. Stephenson, Reed, Garrett, and Davis were all ineffective (to be polite about it). Primary innings were thrown by Scott Feldman and Bronson Arroyo. The Reds worked very hard to acquire all the talent necessary to turn the franchise around, but there is no accounting for bad luck. They rolled the dice with about a dozen talented arms and came up snake eyes on every single one of them. It is unreasonable to criticize the team for that.

So where are we now? Well, I guess one could imagine that 2017 never really happened. The team is pretty much in the same place in this rebuild that they were heading into the spring of last season. They still have about a dozen talented arms and they are still rolling the dice on all of them. DeSclafani and Finnegan (and Homer Bailey) are all finally healthy, Stephenson, Reed, and Garrett all look like their early-career struggles could very well be behind them. They even have a surprising emerging ace in Luis Castillo. They have solid depth with Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, and Jackson Stephens all likely to begin the season in AAA. With a solid lineup that can score enough runs to win, all they need is for some of these pitchers to pan out and they have a very real shot at vindicating this rebuild right this season.

Or, well, maybe not. While I’m confident in saying that the Reds have successfully overhauled the roster in this rebuild, I think it is going to be another thing entirely to actually make the postseason and succeed therein. See, the problem is that they play their baseball in the National League Central, which is probably the best division in the whole damn league. The Cubs have played in two consecutive NLCSs (and I guess they buried a curse or something back in ‘16), the Brewers are a dynamic young team a few steps ahead of the Reds on their own rebuild, and the Cardinals have the Ankh of the Talis Rah’amn, which imbues them with the powers to always be really good and never suck. Despite the Reds’ deft management over the last few years, their best might not be enough.

Has this rebuild been successful? Well, the answer is kinda complicated. In the abstract, I think they have definitely succeeded in restocking the roster with the kind of talent necessary to be winners. I can criticize a few individual moves here and there (holding on to some players a bit too long and diminishing the returns for them), but in the end the returns they did get have been generally successful. I don’t think there is a single unreasonable move they have made in the last few years (perhaps giving Alfredo Rodriguez $7 million wasn’t so wise, but whatever). However, it seems they probably would have had to do better than just “reasonable” in order to keep in step with their division rivals.

I’m afraid that the Reds might top out at about 80 wins during this current cycle. But I also think it would be unfair to call that a failure. Sometimes, you can play all of your cards right and the dice can still come up snake eyes (Happy Mixed Metaphors Day!) and I’m afraid that possible outcome is all to likely.