The Cincinnati Reds fired their manager this season, and have handed the reins to an in-house replacement for the rest of the season. They’re getting absolutely nothing from their $20 million a year pitcher. They’ve lost their top prospect for the rest of the season due to injury. They’ve got a corner infielder off a 30 dinger and 20 dinger season, respectively, who’s only hit about 10. To top it off, the production from their corner outfielders simply hasn’t met the expectations set on their collective “shoulders” earlier in the season - thanks, in large part, to a season-ending injury.
Heck, they even traded away one of their best outfield pieces at the July trade deadline, just about the same time that they pulled what had been their single most dependable starting pitcher out of the rotation for the rest of the year. Yet here they are, at 74-58, a full 16 games over the .500 mark, in possession of a coveted Wild Card spot, and in striking distance of the Chicago Cubs atop the contentious National League Central.
Y’see, when I said Cincinnati Reds up top and proceeded to list the litany of things that have just gone miserably wrong for them this season, it was actually the danged St. Louis Cardinals about whom I was speaking. What’s thoroughly, miserably annoying, is that they, too, have been forced to slog through a thunderstorm of mishaps and potholes, and instead of a fifth straight season of catastrophic losing on the horizon, they...they’ve somehow managed to flourish, again, and surge to the place in the standings where they normally sit.
Frankly, it’s annoyingly magnificent to watch it play out.
The Cardinals fired manager Mike Matheny this season, and turned things over to in-house replacement Mike Shildt, who was given the full-time job just yesterday thanks to their ship having been completely put back on course. Perhaps that’s rightly so, too, and here’s an exhausting set of reasons why, set specifically against a backdrop of what the Reds are going through - and are going through incredibly unsuccessfully.
St. Louis isn’t getting anything from their $20 million a year pitcher. They aren’t. Adam Wainwright is making $19.5 million in 2018, the final season on the 5 year, $97.5 million contract he signed years back, and has thrown a total of 18 IP this season - and none since May 13th, as an elbow injury has him on the 60-day DL. Given what the Reds have received from their own $20 million a year pitcher, perhaps they’d actually be better off if he wasn’t pitching at all, too - but here we are.
The Cardinals are also going through almost the entirety of the 2018 season without their top prospect, as talented hurler Alex Reyes was done for the year after just 4 IP with a shredded lat muscle, which came immediately on the heels of Tommy John surgery wrecking his 2017 season. So, while Nick Senzel’s finger injury sidelining him from a potential big league debut in 2018 was frustrating, the Reds are hardly the only team facing that peril.
That corner infielder fresh off a 30 dinger and 20 dinger season over the last two years, respectively? That’d Jedd Gyorko, who’s obviously no Joey Votto, but has seen his power evaporate largely, as he’s hit just 11 dingers this year.
As for the those corner outfielders attempting to “shoulder” the loads for each squad, it’s been a terribly disappointing .728 OPS campaign for Marcell Ozuna after coming to St. Louis from the Miami Marlins fresh off a season that saw him receive MVP votes, yet his year has been infinitely better than big money Dexter Fowler, who’s now out for the rest of the regular season with a broken foot after having the single worst season of any St. Louis Cardinal regular I can remember. And that just brings us to Tommy Pham, who was traded away at the deadline in July to Tampa just a year after leading the Cardinals with a 6.2 bWAR season, finishing 11th in the NL MVP voting, and posting an impressive 20/20 season.
Through all of that, the Cardinals are in a playoff spot, even though they shelved Carlos Martinez with an injury for a few weeks and can now only employ him in relief duties. Meanwhile, the Reds sit a full 17 games back of St. Louis in the standings, again in the cellar of the NL Central.
The what part of the difference here is obvious. What’s happened is that the Cards have weathered that storm with excellent starting pitching, as their collective team ERA by starters is a minuscule 3.36 on the season, 3rd best in all of baseball and nearly 2 full runs lower than Cincinnati’s 5.20 mark. And, more importantly, they’ve done it largely with young starting pitching that’s come up through their minor league ranks, the savvy signing of Miles Mikolas aside.
Jack Flaherty, for instance, is a former 1st round pick by the Cards who featured on the same Top 100 overall prospect lists as each of Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, and Tyler Mahle, but instead of floundering between the rotation, the bullpen, and AAA, he’s managed to turn in 122.1 IP of 136 ERA+ ball. Baseball Reference’s WAR doesn’t love what Luke Weaver’s done quite as much this year - thanks largely due to a .313 BABIP allowed and an ERA well above his FIP - but the 2014 1st round pick of the Cards (who’s also a former Top 100 overall prospect) owns a FIP better than every single starter the Reds have used this year, which is why his fWAR sits at a respectable 1.6 for the season.
The how part here, though, is much more nebulous than the what portion, enough so that it makes your heart and soul as a Reds fan begin to wonder if there’s even a why section to the story, too. The fact is, the Cardinals have been dealt a hand incredibly similar to that which the Reds hold at the moment, and they’ve not just weathered it better than the Reds have, they’ve somehow managed to flourish in it.
This isn’t meant to pour additional salt in the wounds, per se, but it certainly is meant to serve as a bit of a reference point. In a division where the Cubs, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cards, and even the Pittsburgh Pirates have been plenty competitive all season, it was always going to be hard for the Reds to compete this year. The trouble is, none of those other teams appear as if 2018 is the final season of the windows that they’ve opened. The Cubs are stacked for the near future, the Brewers have added superstar talent in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain for a handful more years, and even the Pirates - who shed Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen before the season - made a jump for Chris Archer, who figures to be better than he’s shown thusfar while controlled cheaply for more years.
If anything, what St. Louis was smacked with during the course of this season was the only real sniff of another team in the division potentially bordering on the time for a rebuild, but instead, they’ve seemingly managed to rebuild everything about what they always do in just a few weeks of play. After this year, they’ll lose just Wainwright and Bud Norris to free agency among players who they’ve had around all season, with recent peripheral additions Matt Adams and Tyson Ross hitting free agency, too. In other words, all the other pieces they still have, plus all those that have been sidelined this year, will be back, and it again seems as if they’re just the rolling, rotating juggernaut of black magic they’ve been for most of my entire life, even with the plot of their 2018 season being oh so similar to that of the 2018 Cincinnati Reds - the last place 2018 Cincinnati Reds, at that.
Man, those guys are annoyingly good.