The Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers aren’t really unlike the Cincinnati Reds in 2020. All four teams entered this shortened season with hopes of contending for the playoffs, and all four have played virtually the entire season with a losing record, currently residing either dead last or second-to-last in their respective divisions. On the surface, it seemed all four teams had incentive to sell with the end of the regular season now less than a month away. The first three teams did just that. The fourth did something very different.
After weeks of speculation leading up to the very final moments before Monday’s 4:00 p.m. trade deadline, the Reds made a pair of deals, acquiring reliever Archie Bradley from the D-Backs in exchange for infielder Josh VanMeter, outfield prospect Stuart Fairchild and cash, and acquiring outfielder Brian Goodwin from the Angels in exchange for left-handed pitching prospect Packy Naughton. In an ordinary season, under ordinary circumstances, Cincinnati would have been much better served shopping Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani — two starting pitchers on the cusp of free agency — and possibly even more controllable players as well. As you’ve no doubt heard repeatedly, though, this is no ordinary season, and the Reds were not operating under ordinary circumstances. Instead of selling with an eye toward the future, the team bought. I’m not sure they had a choice.
The three sellers I mentioned above are similar to the Reds for all the reasons I laid out, but their respective playoff chances look very different. Because of this season’s expanded playoff field, it isn’t just the first-place team from each division that is guaranteed a spot. Each second-place team also clinches a playoff berth, in addition to two other wild cards. The Angels and Rangers play in the AL West, where the second-place team is at least seven games ahead of them in the standings. The Diamondbacks, too, share a division with one established juggernaut and another ascendant one, and are seven games behind their second-place team. The Reds, meanwhile, for all their misfortune, still trail the second-place team in their own division by just 2.5 games — a gap that was just 1.5 games at the time of Monday’s deadline. That’s why, despite currently sitting 12th in the National League in win percentage, Cincinnati is actually ninth in FanGraphs’ playoff odds — just one spot out of a playoff berth.
FanGraphs Playoff Projections, 9-1-20
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In a dramatically shortened season, the projected wins column is what should catch your attention here. Barely two wins separate the Reds from the Phillies, who are projected to have the fifth-best record in the National League. The margin between making and missing the postseason is razor-thin in a 60-game schedule. Cincinnati currently resides on the wrong side of that margin, but a single good week could change its outlook dramatically.
Simply wanting to reach the postseason is a noble enough goal on its own — the Reds haven’t done so since 2013, after all — but there’s no guarantee this would be a one-and-done team in the playoffs, either. Aside from the idea that the postseason can be unpredictable in its small-sample surprises, giving underdog teams a better chance to push forward than those in other sports, Cincinnati also happens to be carried by the part of its roster that is most important to any team in the playoffs — its starting rotation. As ineffective as the offense and bullpen have been this season, the rotation has come as advertised, with only Cleveland getting more value out of its starters this season. If the Reds can actually get to the playoffs, the top three of Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo will match up well with just about any other group in baseball.
There is also this troubling question: If the Reds are not a playoff team this year, when will they be? There is no assurance that Bauer and DeSclafani will be with the team beyond this season, creating two holes in the starting rotation. Outfielder Nicholas Castellanos could very well opt out of his contract after this season. Gray, Mike Moustakas and Joey Votto are only getting older. And there is no White Sox/Padres-like wave of prospects due to flood the roster with premium young talent soon. This team — the one that is 15-20 and showing little sign of life in must-win games against division opponents — is the most talented Reds team we’ve seen in years, and could be the most talented Reds team we’ll see for the foreseeable future.
If the front office had folded on the playoff hopes of this current team, what would that have said about the 2021 or 2022 teams that were destined to be older, less talented, and more uncertain in their makeup? To deem this season a failure would mean deeming the entire project a failure. If that were the case, more dramatic action would have been required than simply selling off the pending free agents. It would have necessitated shopping your most valuable pre-free agency trade chip in Castillo, as well as cost-controlled veterans like Gray and Eugenio Suarez. Moves like that could certainly be on the horizon for his team if nothing ever clicks with the current group. But 35 games don’t provide nearly enough evidence to convince a front office to alter course that dramatically.
Instead, the Reds chose to press forward with the same belief they had when the season started a mere six weeks ago — that this is a team not only capable of reaching the playoffs, but also posing a real threat once it gets there. But it needed help. It needed more offense in their outfield than what their large collection of players in those positions have been able to provide. It needed a new late-inning reliever to take over for the underperforming stoppers who have cost the team essential wins this season. It also needs established players like Eugenio Suarez, Joey Votto and Tucker Barnhart to be better than replacement level, and to be aggressive in giving opportunities to rookies like Jose Garcia and Tyler Stephenson when the veterans ahead of them can’t cut it. Despite a lackluster record, the Reds’ playoff fate is anything but decided. Until it is, the front office has no choice but to keep pushing.