Five years in the baseball world is dang near a lifetime. It’s roughly long enough at the big league level for entire generation of player to pass through. Get drafted out of college, spend three years in the minors, get called up at 25, and five years later you’re on the wrong side of 30 with your best days behind you.
For reference, the 2013 season gave us the last real vestiges of competent baseball from the Cincinnati Reds, and a quick glance at that loaded roster shows just how much five years can do to MLB players. Twenty pitchers threw pitches at the big league level for the club that year, and the team’s collective ERA+ of 112 shows they were pretty damn good at doing so, too. At the moment, a grand total of three of those twenty are still on active rosters of MLB teams, as only Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, and Zach Duke have had their arms hold up well enough to be pitching at the moment, as the grind of throwing baseballs 90+ miles per hour has either ended the careers of their peers or put them on the shelf for months on end as they recover while under contract.
A lot changes in five years of baseball, some by design and some simply through wear and tear. The Reds have certainly ripped things apart on purpose in that time, slogging through a rebuild that’s burned through most of a generation of players. However, for the first time since that 2013 season, the Reds have finally strung together a stretch of good looking baseball, and are actually doing so with a rather balanced group of players.
The last 62 games have seen the Reds post a 31-31 record, with more recent selective endpoints of 26-19, 12-3, and 9-1 to be found as you whittle down that sample. The offense is healthy and rolling. The bullpen, after its mid-April revamp, has become one of the more elite units in all of baseball. Even the starting pitching has become a middle-of-the-pack unit after years of being historically awful, owners collectively of a 4.01 ERA over the last 30 days that’s been the 17th best among all MLB units in that time.
And, a quick glance at the 25 man roster shows that Matt Harvey and Matt Harvey alone is set to be a free agent at season’s end, meaning this is a group that’s not just playing well now, but should conceivably have the opportunity to keep playing well together going forward.
As for the 2018 season, though, what the heck should we realistically expect to see from these Reds, both on the field and in the front office?
Prior to the start of the year, there were many of us that looked at the entire roster and thought there was enough talent to not just flirt with a .500 season, but to show the front office that the Reds weren’t more than a player or two away from being legitimate contenders. Then, the cavalcade of injuries struck again, with Anthony DeSclafani and Michael Lorenzen dealt oblique woes, David Hernandez went to the shelf with a sore shoulder, and both Eugenio Suarez and Scott Schebler were plunked thoroughly enough to be out of action for nearly three weeks. A 3-18 start coincided with their collective absences - for the record, that fivesome has already been worth 6.9 bWAR on the season when healthy and playing - and suddenly the Reds were staring at needing a 78-63 finish to their season just to sneak back to a .500 season. After their 31-28 stretch since that awful start, that leaves a 47-35 finish to the season needed to post their first non-losing season since that 2013 run.
That’s essentially winning 57.3% of their remaining games, which sounds a bit absurd to ask of any team, since that’s roughly a 93 win season on a per-162 game pace. However, these Reds have strung together a 26-19 run over their last 45 games, which just so happens to equate to a rate of 57.8% in that span.
Perhaps the biggest variable in the quest for .500 baseball at this point of the deep, dark rebuild is which way the front office chooses to toggle as we approach the July 31st trade deadline.
As the lone pending free agent, Harvey’s the name that obviously comes to mind as a player who’s likely to be subtracted from the current core within the next month, as the club will look to cash-in on his run of decency just a handful of weeks after acquiring him off the New York Mets scrap-heap. While he’s been far from an ace, trying to replace the 4.31 ERA he’s provided in his 48.0 IP with one of Homer Bailey, Cody Reed, or Robert Stephenson won’t exactly be seamless given that trio’s collective struggles at the big league level, though I suppose that’s not completely out of the question.
Then, there’s Scooter Gennett, who isn’t a free agent after this season, but is set to be one after next year while having what’s by all accounts a career year. His .386 BABIP is the highest mark in all MLB this season, and while Nick Senzel’s finger injury will keep him from out for the remainder of 2018, there’s both an obvious line of succession in place for the Cincinnati infield as well as incredible depth there with the likes of Alex Blandino, Brandon Dixon, and Dilson Herrera all around. While the drop from Scooter’s current excellence to Senzel’s potential peak hopefully isn’t a drop at all, the drop in 2B performance for the last two months of 2018 should Scooter get traded might well be significant in the form of a couple of wins.
Of course, that’s just a look at potential subtractions, one of which is far from a slam-dunk to actually happen this July. It ignored the fact that trading either Harvey, Scooter, or both would only happen if good assets were acquired in return, too. On top of that, Front Office Baseball Guy Whose Title Isn’t Technically General Manager Anymore Dick Williams told The Enquirer’s John Fay earlier this week that the club will be approaching this trade deadline open to adding players for the first time in the last five awful years, which means a significant boost to an area of need might give this roster even more oomph at some point during the final 82 games of the year.
As we all know, the point of an 81-81 season is no real different than one that ends up 82-80 or 78-84, all told. Getting to any of those records after the last few years of 90+ losses is the kind of significant step in the right direction that any franchise would hope for after so much losing on purpose. The key, though, is getting to those kinds of near .500 records while sporting a roster that’s a) on the up-tick and b) controllable as a core for years to come, and that’s certainly where the Reds appear to be. My personal expectations are for the Reds to continue to play like they finally know that, too, which should give the front office the kind of confidence to make some splashes to help augment them for 2019 and beyond.
The good thing, though, is that that should go hand in hand with competitive baseball for the rest of 2018, which is something I’m not sure any of us held out hope for during the doldrums of April. Somehow, in just two months, the Reds have flipped my brain from expecting them to lose every game they play to legitimately expecting them to have a chance to win everyday, and that’s a mighty significant leap forward.