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How rebuilds succeed

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Nick Senzels are important, obviously. But so are the Josh VanMeters and Aristides Aquinoes.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

I’m in my mid-30s. That means a lot of things, of course. It means I’m roughly 20 pounds heavier than I was in college. It means I’ve settled into a career that almost daily heightens my sense of worthlessness and despair. It means the favorite bands of my youth and young manhood are embarking on reunion tours and they are looking roooouuuuugh (I saw the Smashing Pumpkins on Monday and Billy Corgan looks like a grotesque mash-up of Jack Skelington and Dom Deluise. They still fucking rip, though).

Perhaps most desperate though is that it means I have very little left to look forward to. I’ve hit most of life’s Facebookable milestones. I’ve been married a long time now (12 years next month). I’m done having children (the oldest started school this week). Basically, I feel like I’ve hit my peak and have begun the slow (god willing) descent into oblivion.

Which is all to say that mid-life crises are real and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leaving the country or buying a Camaro.

One small thing I am looking forward to is the very last time I’ll write something stupid here on this bloghole about the Reds and this rebuild. They say there will come a day when you pick up and hold your child for the very last time. We aren’t far off from these Reds getting there. I think we all knew this season was kind of a long shot, and damned if they didn’t hang in there long enough to make it interesting. But after that sweep in Washington they came running into the house crying because the neighbor pushed them down (where are his parents I always wonder) and looked up with those red, watery eyes with their arms outstretched and we scooped them up (with no small amount of effort) and comforted them in our laps.

I wonder if that was the last time.

We have a month and change of baseball left in the season and the roster certainly has a big kid look to it. They’ve assembled a competitive core with what looks to be enough auxiliary pieces to really make a go at it. And it has taken a lot of work to get to this point. Count the first-round picks on the 25-man: Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, Phil Ervin, Michael Lorenzen, and Robert Stephenson. It’s important for teams to hit on these high draft picks. You only get so many of them. And every one of these fellas cost multiple millions of dollars to sign. It’s a huge investment and if you want to build a competitive team, you can’t afford many (if any) mistakes.

You can technically count Sonny Gray here, too. The Reds sent top-ten prospect Shed Long and a Competitive Balance Round A pick (basically a late first-round pick) to the Yankees to bring him aboard. While we’re at it, put Trevor Bauer in here, too. Taylor Trammell, a first-round pick in 2016, was shipped to San Diego (by way of Cleveland) to get him. That’s a ton of capital spent to build a core.

But a person cannot live by bread alone, as they say. World Series-caliber teams cannot be built with top draft picks alone. You need to have a few prayers get answered, too. Eugenio Suarez and Luis Castillo are arguably the best hitter and pitcher on this Reds’ team and neither was a top draft pick or marquee amateur free agent. They were unremarkable prospects had in second-level trades. They have developed to their 95th percentile potential, far beyond any reasonable expectation at the time they were acquired. That’s luck.

It’s premature to making any bold pronouncements about them, but Josh VanMeter and Aristides Aquino could very well become similar success stories. Both were made available in the Rule V draft this past winter and there wasn’t a single team in baseball who thought they were worth the trouble. But they both forced their way into the conversation this season by destroying baseballs so consistently and thoroughly that the Reds could no longer ignore them. Both have accumulated a little over 1 bWAR so far, which is right around a 4.5 WAR pace over a full season for VanMeter and about 9 WAR for Aquino. Now clearly The Punisher is unlikely to keep that pace, of course, and same goes for JVM. But it underscores a vitally important ingredient to a successful ballclub: you gotta get lucky sometimes.

Teams cannot afford to miss on their big marquee investments like top draft picks and major trade acquisitions, but the inverse photo-negative of that team-building axiom is also true: they cannot afford to not ever get lucky on a few cheap lottery tickets.

These Reds look poised to finish the season strong and, maybe with a few bullpen additions this winter, roll into 2020 with eyes on the division crown. I get the sense that the next time that neighbor kid starting giving them guff they’ll be big enough to stand up for themselves. Who knows, man. Maybe this is the last time I’ll write about this rebuild.

This could be it. I think our little team is growing up.