Contending teams can’t afford to lose 3 of 4 at home in big spots. Teams just trying to remain relevant sure as hell can’t.
That, though, is exactly what we saw from the Cincinnati Reds this weekend, as they managed just a lone win in their vital series against the St. Louis Cardinals - a Cardinals club that was without Yadier Molina, Marcell Ozuna, and Matt Carpenter.
At 44-53, the Reds sit 9 games under .500 and a full 9 games back of the Chicago Cubs with the make-or-break July 31st trade deadline now just 9 days away. It’s an unenviable position, being last in the National League Central for the Nth year running, and there’s even less solace knowing that the Miami Marlins are the only NL club that currently sports a worse record that these Reds.
Being in the division cellar is something with which we’ve dealt for years now, something that’s been consistent and inevitable both every day during the season and each day of the winter trade season. 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 were last place seasons for each of their 365 days, as we simply knew the team was in full-rebuild mode and had priorities in significantly different places that winning. We knew they’d end up last, they knew they’d end up last, and the other 29 franchises in baseball knew they had last place written all over them.
2019, though, was different, and I think that’s why the last week’s worth of games has been so, so deflating. While still definitively keeping one eye on the future - a prudent move for any franchise, much less one who has dedicated years to rebuilding - the 2019 Reds actually focused on making this particular season one that had a chance. They swung the huge deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers to add Yasiel Puig and finally shed Homer Bailey. They bailed Sonny Gray out of New York and signed him to a deal that signaled he’d help lead the rotation out of its woes. They didn’t flip their stalwarts who were on the cusp of free agency, instead choosing to roll the dice that this club could finally bring both wins and excitement back to the aura around Cincinnati Reds baseball...
And, they’re still in last place, with the second worst record in the NL. Ugh.
The one takeaway about this increasingly lost season, though, is that the Reds have at least taken the first step towards relevancy. Sure, we all hoped that first step would be more of a leap, one that would jolt them immediately to the top of the standings at first attempt, but the winning simply has not come with the other peripheral moves that were made to increase relevancy. Rest assured, though, that those moves were made, and are ones that demand that there’s no taking a step back after this season.
There was the poaching of pitching coach Derek Johnson from the Milwaukee Brewers, for instance, a move that has resonated around baseball given the success of this Reds pitching staff. That’s a move that you would totally expect the Reds to build on for next year and beyond, leveraging his success and reputation in searches to continue to bolster the pitching staff. There’s also the “record payroll” the Reds put in place this season, a level that while still well below the MLB average also suggests that this is just year one of spending at a relevant MLB level, one that should again be reached in 2020 in some form or fashion despite the chance that roughly 1/3rd of the current roster is set to hit free agency at year’s end.
Most importantly, however, is that the 2019 Reds at least provided us with relevant July baseball, something we’ve not seen in these parts in years. God, I hope a Red Sox fan stumbles on that sentence and has a smug as hell remark to make. In all seriousness, though, it’s been a half-decade since there was really anything on the line in series against the Cubs and Cardinals in the shadow of the July trade deadline, and while the Reds completely stubbed their toe coming out of the gate in the second half, that’s something that was refreshing as hell to get to experience again. And while the 2019 season appears to be circling the toilet drain mid-flush, that’s a threshold that was crossed that will resonate with Reds fans for the near term.
We finally, finally got a taste of competitiveness again. And as the team turns in all likelihood towards the future in the coming weeks, that’s a threshold that absolutely, positively must be the bare minimum for the 2020 Reds, and is more a mark that they must target to surpass.
It sure as hell isn’t winning, but it’s something more than we’ve seen from them in some time.