Imagine if Rob Manfred gave Bob Castellini a phone call in July and said “Hey Bob! You know, I’ve been thinking...St. Louis is just such a wonderful baseball town with such wonderful, wonderful fans, and I just think that market would be perfect for housing a second MLB team. How would you feel about moving the Cincinnati Reds a bit to the west?”
Yes, that would be the absolute worst-case scenario for the Cincinnati Reds.
If the entire Reds system came down with a brutal case of dysentery, one so bad it caused the Cincinnati wagon train to disintegrate miles before it reached The Dalles, that might well be the next-worst-case scenario.
The truth is that the Cincinnati Reds are going to win some games in 2018. Lots of them, really, purely because they play so damn many of them. And while end of the world situations would obviously take the title of the worst thing that could possibly happen, we’re going to merely look at the realistic things that could break poorly enough in 2018 for the Reds to consider the season an abject disappointment.
Now in year four of the deep, dark rebuild, the Reds have assembled a versatile roster teeming with talent, although the bulk of the non-Joey Votto portion of it is still as green as can possibly be. The thought was that the 2017 season would be one where the new Reds could cut their teeth, gain valuable experience, and collectively help turn the corner towards winning again, but the reality is that didn’t exactly happen as planned in most cases.
Specifically, it didn’t appear to happen with the young pitchers the Reds have herded together, and I think that group shoulders much of the worst-case-scenario weight at the moment.
Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan threw a combined 13 innings last year, and both will begin the 2018 season on the DL, too, albeit due to injuries completely unrelated to the ones that shut them down last year. Cody Reed walked 19 batters in just 17.2 IP, and is once again back in AAA. John Lamb, who came to the Reds in the same Johnny Cueto deal that brought in both Finnegan and Reed, long ago left town, and Keury Mella - at the time the centerpiece of the Mike Leake trade with San Francisco - is almost an afterthought in the pitching pecking order these days. Rookie Davis, of course, is already on the 60-day DL with a hip injury, and that’s after his 8.63 ERA last year was worse than all those other names I just mentioned.
Each and every one of those arms came to the Reds via trade, all of them in deals that shipped out cogs of the previous era during the rebuild. Yet here we are, four years deep, and we’re entering the 2018 season with each and every one of them still a question mark. Put that side by side with the struggles finding the strike zone of Robert Stephenson, a former 1st round pick by the Reds, and the shoulder-woes of Nick Howard, also a Reds 1st round draftee, and there’s a great preponderance of potential mediocrity in many of the arms on whom the Reds have bet over the last few seasons. Even if Luis Castillo, Sal Romano, and Tyler Mahle manage to pan out, and if Homer Bailey somehow miraculously turns around his career after three major arm surgeries, the lack of an emergence from any of the rest of the pitching could well sink the Reds deeper into their rebuild.
It’s worth emphasizing at this point that the person who’s been in charge in the most hands-on way throughout this rebuild has been manager Bryan Price, himself a former pitching coach. For one, it’s somewhat telling that so many talented young arms have failed to markedly develop at the big league level while he’s been in charge, and while their youth and inexperience over the last few years has meant that Price hasn’t had to be judged on his wins and losses, he’s absolutely been judged on their collective development. The Reds have tied him to these young arms, and as he again enters his final year under contract, I think it’s safe to say that another three or four months of the same from that large group of pitchers will likely result in the Reds seeking another option to be their manager, adding turmoil and a leadership void to this already worst-case scenario.
It’s easy to say that continued bad pitching would be the driver of any scenario where the Reds were still in last place by, say, July. Bad pitching is precisely why they’ve been there each of the last three seasons despite a position player core that’s actually been pretty decent. But another season of last-ness inches a few position players that much closer to the end of their service time, to the point where moving them for whatever return the Reds can get becomes a more prudent consideration. The three players who are most directly in that spotlight right now are Billy Hamilton, Scooter Gennett, and Devin Mesoraco.
Even if Billy is who he’s always been through the first few months of 2018, the fact that he’ll be a free agent after the 2019 season will loom large in how the Reds handle him. Also impacting that decision is his $4.6 million salary in 2018, one that will likely rise to over $7 million in 2019 through the arbitration process. Considering the way in which he plays, his slight frame, and the fact that injuries have cost him nearly 40 games a year over the past three seasons, he’s not exactly a player around whom the Reds will look to build long-term, either, meaning shopping him to a contender may well be their best decision. That said, the Reds reportedly shopped him this past winter to rather tepid response, and that was when he came with a full two seasons of team control.
Scooter’s similarly under team control for just the 2018 and 2019 seasons, earning $5.7 million this year with an expected rise to over $8 million next year. And while that’s not enough to break the bank of any team - even the Reds - that he’s the incumbent 2B with top prospect Nick Senzel now manning the same position down in AAA cannot be overlooked. If the Reds are still in the cellar come July and Senzel has shown he’s fully ready for his MLB debut, it sure doesn’t make a ton of sense to pay ~$11 million to a bench bat on a last place team for a year and a half, meaning trading Scooter would become increasingly likely, too. Of course, considering the Reds merely got him off waivers a year ago and that his breakout 2017 was still only valued at 2.4 bWAR, chances are the return for him wouldn’t be nearly what many Reds fans would hope it would be.
Then there’s Devin, who’s making $13 million in 2018, somehow already his final year under contract. With a reduced role, that large price tag, and an injury history that needs its own external hard drive, anything short of a replication of his massive 2014 season makes him virtually untradeable period, much less as a catcher who’d be heading to a completely new pitching staff as a July trade. Still, the chance for the Reds to save a few million bucks would likely have them looking at that avenue if things were absolutely, positively the worst.
There’s a way you can look at this worst-case scenario through an optimist’s lens and see it as reasonable. Back in 2014, it was easy to see the team either needed to tear down to build again, assuming you could see the obvious fact that the team’s payroll couldn’t add another $100 million to its ledger for the next four years. Getting what you can for Hamilton, Gennett, and Mesoraco while you can makes sense in many ways, especially if it opens playing time up for the likes of Senzel and Jesse Winker, among others.
However, it’s already been four years since the previous tear-down, and here we are talking about another round of the same dang thing. A worst-case further tear-down in 2018 certainly wouldn’t appear to expedite getting back to winning baseball, especially if the onus for why those position players were being traded was due to the starting pitching again being unable to carry the team forward.
That, really, is the crux here. The Reds will only go as far as their young pitching can carry them, and another year of them failing to take the next step as a group would absolutely be the worst-case scenario for Cincinnati, as it would mean a) the residual effect would prompt them into trading away parts of the roster that weren’t necessarily the problem, b) force them to find starting pitching elsewhere (which is the single most difficult thing to do in modern baseball), and c) likely prompt a managerial change that throws everything up in the air.
It’s tough to fathom waiting through all of that as a fan even if it all happened to a club that made the playoffs last year. From the perspective of fans of a team that’s already watched four years of awful baseball, having to go through it all again truly, truly would be the worst.