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The 2019 Cincinnati Reds finally tried yet still failed

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A look back at the most recent 162 game slate.

Pittsburgh Pirates v. Cincinnati Reds Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images

Opening Day 2019 left such a resounding, wonderful image of what the Cincinnati Reds could finally, finally be. Jose Peraza, fresh off what was hopefully a breakout 2018 season, socked a dinger off Pittsburgh ace Jameson Taillon. Luis Castillo had already spun a gem from the mound, and recent minor-league free agent signing Jose Iglesias popped an RBI double to add to the fun.

Then Derek Dietrich stepped to the plate, himself also an under-the-radar signing from what increasingly looked like a savvy set of front office moves by the Reds. He stuffed a 3-run dinger into the RF seats in the Bottom of the 7th to effectively seal the deal, and the newfangled Reds were off to a brilliant start to this, the first year in which they’d actively tried to put a decent product on the field in a half-decade.

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It’s easy to justify the process when losing is all that’s required on the surface. Sure, there are talking points about heading in the right direction and patience and building from the ground up and whatnot, but when 90+ loss seasons are the expectation for the following year the moment the previous year ends, it’s hard to truly gauge how well the process is unfolding at the same time.

2019, though, was different. The Cincinnati Reds front office had finally purged Bryan Price, Jim Riggleman, and much of the staff that had bridged the gap from the Dusty Baker Era. In case you didn’t remember, it was GM Walt Jocketty - not GM Dick Williams, President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams, or GM Nick Krall - who had hired Price in the first place. With David Bell, Turner Ward, and Derek Johnson now on-board, the rotated front office now had hires of their own in place, and after 4/5/however many years of rebuilding effectively in the books, said front office finally began to make moves with a near-term sense of urgency in mind.

They swung the huge deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, for instance, finally managing to jettison the albatross that was Homer Bailey while actually landing Alex Wood and Yasiel Puig in the process - and yes, for now I’m collectively ignoring what has evolved into the more important aspects of that deal. Pitching! A media darling with endless upside! NO MORE HOMER!

Tanner Roark was brought along for a song. Sonny Gray appeared a perfect buy-low option for any franchise in baseball despite the druthers from the Evil Empire, and it was the Reds - and Vandy connection Derek Johnson - that not only traded for him, but extended him for a reasonable amount. Even solid big-league regulars like Dietrich and Iglesias were brought in, too, giving the Reds the kind of versatility and depth - as well as an incredibly overdue bump in payroll - to suggest they were actually, finally planning to be a competent team in a competitive as all hell division.

Nitpick the moves both at the time and the present, if you will, but the aggressiveness was nothing less than admirable in both critiques. The 2019 Cincinnati Reds were legitimately trying to win baseball games again, and that in and of itself warranted a tingling feeling not felt in Reds fans for years.

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After the scheduled day-off after Opening Day and a subsequent rain-out later, the Reds slumped to a 5-0 thumping against the Pirates on Sunday, March 31st, with the air seemingly let out of the balloon after Dietrich’s early heroics.

They lost again that Monday. They lost the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, too. Not only were they looking at a 1-8 record to begin the season at that juncture, they were doing so having played all 9 games against NL Central foes in a year in which there was nary a team obviously tanking across the division landscape. Four of those losses came by 1-run, a story that would recur over and over again all season. The other three losses came by 2-runs, something that would also continue to haunt the Reds in 2019. By Monday, April 15th, they were 5-10 and last in the division, a place in the Central where they would wake up each and every day for the next eight weeks, and a spot in the standings where they’d still be found as late as July 22nd.

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Individual streaks, plays, and pitches certainly will be remembered fondly from the 2019 Reds season, but perhaps there is no better encapsulation of sentiment about this season in the recent context of the club than how we went to bed the night of August 6th.

Anthony DeSclafani served up a 3-run blast to Justin Upton in the Top of the 1st inning to put the Reds in an immediate 3-run hole, only for both Eugenio Suarez and Jose Iglesias to homer in the Bottom of the 1st to get those runs right the hell back. The emergence of Aristides Aquino reared its head later in the game as the rookie slugger belted his 2nd homer of the season, and in the end the Reds swatted away the Los Angeles Angles 8-4 to claw their way within 4 games of .500. At 54-58, they were just 6.5 games out of the division lead, some 4 games back of an NL Wild Card spot, and just picked up Trevor Bauer from Cleveland the week before, and looked as if they were on the cusp of something special for the first time in ages.

From that point forward, Sonny Gray continued to pitch as if he was hell-bent on winning a Cy Young Award. Suarez and Aquino continued to melt faces with homer barrages the likes of which we’ve rarely seen at any juncture in Cincinnati Reds history. The fact is, though, that the Reds only mustered a meager 21-29 record from there until the end of the season, including a lackluster 2-5 stretch over their final seven games once even the idea of a .500 season had been mathematically rendered impossible.

The result: 75-87, 4th places in the NL Central, and drafting 12th overall in the 2020 MLB Draft.

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Despite the overall mundane nature of the season at the close on Sunday, there were absolutely some positive developments. Let’s check in on those, first.

On the hurling side of things, there were massive, massive steps forward. Sonny Gray was simply brilliant, his 5.6 bWAR performance marking the team-best, as he fanned over 200 for the first time in his career while also pitching to a 2.87 ERA, 158 ERA+, and stellar 1.08 WHIP. Luis Castillo was step for step with him for much of the year, too, finishing with a 133 ERA+ as part of his brilliant 4.4 bWAR season, his change-up baffling hitters at a prolific rate as both were named rightful All Stars.

At the plate, Eugenio Suarez crushed 49 homers, breaking a record for the most single-season homers ever hit by a player from Venezuela as well as breaking the record for most single-season doinks by an NL 3B. Only George Foster, with 52 in 1977, has ever hit more homers as a Red in a single season. Backing him up was Aquino, too, who finished with 19 homers in just 56 games played, winning NL Player of the Month in August less than a year after being booted off the Reds 40-man roster altogether and being out there for any other club in the game to pick up.

DeSclafani had a healthy, productive season. Michael Lorenzen had perhaps his best overall year, getting more and more opportunities to show off his pure athletic ability in CF, too. Tanner Roark proved to be an astute pickup before being flipped at the deadline, Dietrich had the kind of May you could only dream of, Phil Ervin finally looked the part of a big league player, and Jose Iglesias proved to be a worthwhile addition to a club that needed his blend of defensive prowess and 2-out hitting.

Yes, there were plenty of bright spots worth remembering about these 2019 Reds, some of which look the part of legitimate building blocks.

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The stumbles of the 2019 Cincinnati Reds were early and often, however. Such is usually the case for teams 12 games under .500.

Easily the single biggest disappointment for the 2019 Reds was the lack of development from players considered just last winter to be essential cogs of the future of this franchise, ones that figured to be rock-solid members of the team’s next great core. Some of that was through fault of their own, while some came simply from injuries sapping again our chance to see the future in the now.

Nick Senzel’s season got off to a tumultuous start before it ever began as he was tasked with playing CF despite having never once played there. While his bat clearly was ready to break camp with the Reds after Spring Training, the club opted to reassign him to minor league camp just before the regular season ended, carrying with them absolutely zero goodwill from the fans in the process. Senzel promptly busted up his ankle and was set back from day one of the regular season, and while he eventually made his way to the bigs and flashed brilliance at times, further nicks and bruises, an odd mid-year swing-change attempt, and a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder rendered his rookie year yielding just as many questions as answers. The Reds are “hopeful” he’ll be ready for Opening Day 2020, but it’s clear he’s going to be forced to spend his offseason rehabbing more than season-prepping, something you never want to see with a kid with as much riding on him as Senzel.

In a similar vein, Jesse Winker’s season was again muted, with neck issues this year sending him to the shelf in a way similar to the shoulder issues he faced in 2018 did. He flashed some positive pop with his bat while healthy, but his OBP sunk from the over-.400 mark he posted in 2018, and with his defense still not taking a much-needed step forward we didn’t see a true step forward from him this year. Jose Peraza was even more of an issue, as he went from a 24 year old in 2018 who looked like a potential cromulent shortstop of the future to a bit-part player in 2019 who - thanks to already being ready for his second trip through arbitration - is being mentioned as a potential non-tender candidate.

Then, there were the struggles of the cadre of one-year players the Reds had banked so much of their improvement on in the offeason. Matt Kemp was a predictable disaster from the start before being jettisoned, Alex Wood’s back kept him sidelined almost throughout the season, and even fan-favorite Scooter Gennett suffered a major groin issue in Cactus League play that effectively sent his season to the toilet from the start. David Hernandez was an unmitigated disaster from the bullpen, while Jared Hughes wasn’t much better before both were let go mid-year. Even Puig, who certainly did eventually get hot before being shipped off to Cleveland in the Bauer deal, wasn’t able to work magic soon enough to resurrect the offense from its April woes, while Dietrich slumped impossibly bad after his brilliant May, a shoulder issue plaguing him until the final weeks of the season while he largely sat idle or looking utterly awful at the plate.

On top of that, we watched as Joey Votto suffered through easily the most disappointing season of his career, one that saw his walk rate plummet, strikeout rate rise, power continue to seemingly evaporate, and even force a mid-season swing change as drastic as any we’ve seen with the hitting savant in his career. It was enough to make us all wonder whether the glory days we saw from him as recently as 2017 could ever, ever return.

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Wrapping 2019 is impossible to do without looking towards 2020, and despite my innate optimism, it’s hard to see a clear way forward for the Reds in 2020 without a great bit of fortuitous luck.

I left out half the Dodgers trade earlier in the article, but it included now Top 100 prospects Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray, who had brilliant campaigns in 2019 in the LA system. Top Reds prospect Taylor Trammell was included in the Bauer deal at the deadline, too, meaning the Reds jettisoned a trio of now Top 100 prospects last winter and enter 2020 only having Kyle Farmer and one final season of team control of Bauer to show for it. Pair that with the rough year of many of the rest of the Reds top prospects - Tony Santillan, Vlad Gutierrez, Jose Siri, Hunter Greene, Jonathan India - and the Reds have put themselves in a bit of a conundrum.

To spell it out clearly, it looks to me like this - the Reds have spent a ton of prospect capital to put emphasis on the 2020 season specifically, yet 2019 revealed more holes on their roster than they can fill by promoting from within. And while they’d love to fill those spots via trades, they don’t look like they’ve got enough prospect depth left to pull that off. Pair that with the statuses of now non-prospects who have graduated but still aren’t arbitration eligible yet - Winker and Senzel injured, Tyler Mahle having not stepped forward, etc. - and this is a club that needs help but doesn’t appear to have the wherewithal to get it through their usual channels.

That leaves free agency, of course, but keep in mind that this is a club whose record free agent contract was doled out to Francisco Cordero a full dozen years ago, and that amounted to a paltry 4 year, $46 million as big free agent deals go. Free agency simply isn’t something the Reds have ever used as a means to get better in their most recent era, yet that appears to be their best shot at doing so (barring a leverage of sub luxury tax payroll space akin to last winter, which they won’t likely have a monopoly on exploiting with a year of collective MLB front office hindsight).

That’s frustrating, obviously.

You can certainly make the argument that the Reds are absolutely steps closer to contending than they were this time a year ago. That’s almost undeniable, really. Where the questions arise, though, is whether they’ve used too much fuel to take that lone step and don’t have enough to take the final steps necessary, and if that’s the case, they might actually be further from being a contender again than they were when this commitment towards upping the payroll and trying to win a few more games began. That’s a sentence I wish I didn’t feel obligated to write, but one that after trying time and time again to avoid keeps resonating as the most rational way I can relay my final assessment.

I hope things work out for the Reds. I always, always do. I hoped they’d pan out brilliantly for the 2019 vintage, and that once again didn’t go as best hopes had in mind. I’m hopeful that the moves made this winter will lend hope for 2020, too, but thus begins yet another entry into the winter with hope on hope on hope as the mantra for how these Reds will finally climb their way back to the top.