Five plus years ago, the Cincinnati Reds packed up their covered wagons and set out on a new journey, one dedicated to finding fresher, greener pastures. They quickly settled on a fertile patch of land called Last Place, a rather hardscrabble plot upon first glance, but one that sure looked like it could be special once cleared, tilled, and fostered. Satisfied, they set up their homestead at Last Place, dedicated to making it one day a source of pride.
A quick glance at the National League Central standings shows the Reds are still homesteading the same spot, their 38-43 record again having them dead last in the division. Though for some reason, the first 81 games of this 2019 campaign have at least seemed different than their five predecessors, and that has come in a multitude of fashions.
For one, this Reds club can pitch. The influx of Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray brought validity and experience to a starting rotation that had been the bane of the game for at least three full years running. They have gracefully flanked Luis Castillo in his ascendance, helping turn what had been a tragic flaw into the bedrock of the current roster, with new pitching coach Derek Johnson looking more and more a wizard by the inning. And it’s not just the starting rotation that’s looked the part, either, as the bullpen has been rather rock solid, too, despite the entirety of its parts making roughly the same amount combined as, say, one Aroldis Chapman is this season.
Losing games despite great pitching is a new thing to get used to in Reds country, because that’s come largely due to the ineffectiveness of the team’s offense. That’s a sentence that’s rarely been used around any good Cincinnati Reds baseball season, as the franchise has long prided itself on rolling out offensive juggernauts that oh-so-often have ignored investing in and developing reasonable pitching staffs. This Reds team, though, is chock full of hitters who either haven’t performed the way you’d expect them to or simply haven’t been around to chip in at all. To date, we’ve seen career-worst OPS+ production from the likes of Yasiel Puig, Joey Votto, Jose Peraza, Tucker Barnhart, and Jesse Winker, while the disastrous start we saw from Scott Schebler makes you question whether he’ll ever again be a consistent part of this club. Matt Kemp was even a thing for a hot minute, which I’ll casually allow you to immediately forget again. And Scooter Gennett, the sparkplug of the offense for two full years running, just returned over the weekend, in doing so sending the one true offensive force the Reds have had all season - Derek Dietrich - back into more of a utility role.
That’s some 450 words on another year of losing Reds baseball, albeit in a fashion we’re not accustomed to watching. It’s a disjointed roster both in current construction and in how we’ve grown used to following the Reds, and it’s one that again sits in last place with a pile of short-term contracts just 30 days from the One True Trade Deadline. Despite all of that, I swear to heck this piece is about to get optimistic, and that’s not a word that’s been kicked around too much since the Reds built their first cabin at Last Place.
The Reds have scored 39 more runs than they’ve allowed in 2019, for the record. Their pythagorean record - joke about it all you freaking want - is an estimated 45-36, a mark that you might notice would be the single best in the jumbled NL Central. And even for those who don’t give a damn about how good this team should/could be, they’re still just 5.5 games out of 1st place in the division and 4.5 games out of a playoff spot, and have done so despite just now welcoming back Dirt Bike Gennett.
This Reds team, as currently constructed, sure looks and feels better than the record they own at this point, is what I’m trying to say. It looks like a team that sputtered to an awful 1-8 start but has stabilized and eschewed that stumble. It looks like a team with budding star in Nick Senzel, a player who wasn’t even a part of that awful beginning because ownership wanted a few extra dollars in their back pockets, but who now looks the part of an offensive dynamo atop the order. Votto and Puig, the team’s two most obvious offensive battleships, have woken from their April/May slumbers and have begun to hit like the juggernauts they’ve been before. And none of this even speaks of Jose Iglesias, who covers the most important defensive position on the infield like a hawk and looks daily like the best bargain signing in baseball.
It’s easy to be romantic about this particular Reds roster. It’s a team-record payroll, for one, and seeing multiple former All Stars up and down the lineup suggests there’s much, much more to come from this club. Even on the pitching side, there’s not a ton that we’ve seen from the best of that bunch to suggest that the bulk of it isn’t sustainable, as it isn’t comprised of a bunch of frisbee-tossers benefitting from extreme batted-ball luck, or anything.
The fact of the matter, though, is that this club still lacks a concrete identity, and the next 30 days on the calendar are probably the reason why.
Scooter, Roark, Puig, David Hernandez, Jared Hughes, Zach Duke, the still-injured Alex Wood, and Jose Iglesias form a huge part of the roster not only mathematically, but in their production. And each and every one of them could be a free agent at season’s end, and rental pieces on last place teams have historically been the single most moved players at the summer trade deadlines. The thing is, though, that even if the Reds don’t decide to move any of them and instead opt to hang on in hopes that the collective juju of this 2019 bunch has the chops for a second-half run, that’s a whole pile of players in the clubhouse everyday who simply don’t know a single thing about their near futures, or the near future of this Reds team as a whole.
That was completely by design, of course. This past winter saw a huge influx of talent and payroll obligations, but only for such a short term that the cost of acquisition was rather minimal. This always had the look of a one-year flurry, but one that didn’t dent the long term goal of turning Last Place into a farmable plot capable of supporting Reds fandom for years into the future. And that still appears to be the case, as a complete lack of transactions between now and five days after the 2019 World Series would see some $60-65 million lopped off the Reds payroll and create yet another blank canvas for the 2020 season.
What the front office is hoping for, I think, is that the core of this roster can find a way to come together and win as the 2019 Cincinnati Reds despite so, so many of them still having unanswered questions about their long-term futures. With exactly half the season already in the books, I think the front office would admit that they hoped that premise would’ve materialized already, but I certainly don’t get the impression that they’re interested in tearing things apart because it hasn’t just yet.
The reality is that there are now just 25 games left before that July 31st trade deadline - 17 of which come against NL Central opposition - and that’s the sample that will determine whether or not this particular group of Reds will play next to one another down the stretch in August and September. Go on a tear, and perhaps Dick Williams & Co. go find another elite bullpen arm to add to the mix for 60 games. Get beat and fall in the standings, and any of Puig, Roark, or Scooter could be on the move. Chug along akin to the last ~70 games, and maybe one piece gets flipped and another brought in. Here, at the half-way point of the season and with just 25 games until the trade deadline, we still have almost zero idea which path the 2019 Reds will end up heading down, but we do know that the play on the field this upcoming month is going to be what ends up charting that course.