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Stick a fork in the 2019 Cincinnati Reds

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It was coming, even if we tried to ignore it. It’s now here.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Despite getting the pitching and the promise to set a record payroll for this year, the 2019 Cincinnati Reds were already up against a formidable quest to make the playoffs before the season ever started.

They made splashy deals to acquire a handful of proven, quality players, and jammed from Goodyear to Cincinnati at the end of March with some $128 million worth of baseball salary on their books. They actively ditched their long-held strategy of buying only from the bargain bin, and even doled out what could amount to a $50 million contract to Sonny Gray. There was a new manager, new hitting coach, new pitching coach, and new philosophy in the dugout, a sign that the previous era of atrocious ball during the massive rebuild was officially kaput.

Still, that robust payroll opened the season as just the 16th most in baseball, some $7 million or so below league average. It was some $80 million short of the Chicago Cubs, who were both expected and intended to be the goliath of the NL Central. It was well short of the $150 million on the books of the St. Louis Cardinals, who also were eyeing a return to the playoffs in 2019 after a few lean years. It was on-par with the Milwaukee Brewers, who absolutely intended to compete again this year after a playoff berth in 2018. And while it was well clear of the Pittsburgh Pirates, that club had intentions of being competitive again in 2019, too, before injuries completely wrecked their chances.

In other words, the Reds no longer intended to both appear and be doormats in their division, but that didn’t mean they had great odds to dodge that result. Then, they began the season with just a lone win in their first 9 games, and the 8-ball behind which they’d ended spring training suddenly began to grow in earnest.

On Wednesday, the Reds were trounced by the Washington Nationals to the tune of 17-5, with big-time trade deadline addition Trevor Bauer on the mound for the bulk of it. It resulted in a series sweep, a 4th loss in a row, and was the kind of pummeling of a team now 7 games under .500 in mid-August that should pretty well end all hope of sneaking into a wild card spot this season. Even the most egregiously optimistic folks watched that one unwind and started turning their eyes towards a 2020 season that still certainly has some promise.

The reality is, though, that the 2019 dream is officially over.

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It’s absolutely worth emphasizing that plenty of what the Reds did this winter and during this season went right. Very, very right, in many instances.

For one, they absolutely found their pitching, and did so in spades. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray have emerged as legitimate ace-caliber pitchers, helped in large part by the presence of pitching guru Derek Johnson. Bauer, though awful Wednesday, has flashed some of the brilliance he showed in his fantastic 2018 season, and that trio looks set to be as good of a 1-2-3 punch as any rotation in the game can muster for the 2020 season.

Jose Iglesias has been a gem of a find, the veteran coming in only on a minor league deal only to take the team’s starting shortstop position and run with it. Whether he’ll be back or not is yet to be determined, but the Reds deserve credit where it’s due for finding yet another under the radar gem. The same can mostly be said for Derek Dietrich, who also came in on a minor league deal and had the kind of start to the season that cemented him in Reds lore for life.

Then, there’s Aristides Aquino, who the Reds unleashed on the baseball world in the wake of trading away Yasiel Puig at the trade deadline. Aquino has done nothing but take the world by storm since then, and the Reds now appear to boast a promising, young, cheap, deep outfield mix with him and fellow pre-arb players in Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Phil Ervin. The same can largely be said for Josh VanMeter, too, who has been rock solid as an occasional OF option while also looking plenty good enough to potentially take over 2B now that Scooter Gennett has moved on.

The 2019 Reds, though, simply couldn’t quite put it all together. That’s a result both reasonable to expect from a group with so many new faces, but also one that was reasonable to expect given the depth of their competition, both in the NL Central and across the NL altogether. The hope now, of course, is that the flirtation with what meaningful August baseball can be like can carry itself in earnest into this offseason and, in turn, into a 2020 season that looks like it has ample promise.

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Round numbers make for easy reference points, really. This winter marked a full 10 years since the day I signed up with an account at Red Reporter dot com, largely due to the emergence in 2008 of a young core on a Reds club that looked like it finally, finally could get back into the thick of things once again. There was Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, and Homer Bailey. Mike Leake soon joined. It was the kind of core that looked like it could make waves in the Central in very short order, and many even thought that the 2009 version of that group was ready to knock the doors down and finally bring sellouts back to Great American Ball Park.

Those 2009 Reds didn’t quite cobble things together, however. They flirted with contention and even added a veteran star at the trade deadline - sound familiar? - before finishing the season a relevant yet uninspiring 78-84. That winter, on the heels of the roster they’d already put together and the bit of promise they’d shown, they didn’t even make any huge splashes for additions, merely bringing back veterans Jonny Gomes and Laynce Nix and throwing peanuts at veterans like Miguel Cairo and Orlando Cabrera.

The thing was, the 2010 Reds were mostly built in 2009, they just needed another year to fully blossom. 10 years later, those same storylines seem oddly relevant.

The Reds will need to play better in 2020 to be better than 2019, of course. They’ll need to patch holes in their bullpen, and perhaps bring back a veteran or two on cheap, short-term deals. That said, they won’t need to tinker too much with what they’ve already assembled to feel confident with their chances to slash, bash, and mash their way to greater success in 2020 than in any of the last 6 seasons.

The hope was that we’d see that in 2019, but the reality both was, and is, that this was a table-setter of a season, one that always had an eye on making waves in 2020. Heck, even the mid-year acquisitions the Reds admirably made this year in a last-ditch effort to contend had eyes on 2020, as each of Bauer, Freddy Galvis, and Kevin Gausman have team control for 2020. And all told, that’s a good thing, since it’s rarely wise to go all-in on one single season for any team, much less one who has dedicated such a long period of time trying to rebuild itself back to being relevant.

For awhile, the 2019 Cincinnati Reds were relevant. As of today, that’s significantly less so, even from where they were one week ago. At least we can rest our heads on the knowledge that as currently constituted, the 2020 Cincinnati Reds absodamnlutely are going to be relevant, perhaps in exactly the kind of way we’ve been waiting for patiently for seven years.