You can point to a number of different torpedoes that sunk the 2021 Cincinnati Reds. Seasons as long as 162 games provide ample opportunity for failure, and with 79 losses on the books, there were certainly plenty of reasons why things went south. The bullpen rightly held much of the early blame, while the untimely injury to Jesse Winker seemed to sap the will of the offense late.
As things petered out completely late in the season, though, it was the stretch that saw the Reds up against left-handed starter after left-handed starter that seemed to sink them on the biggest of stages, when their backs were against the same wall as the writing. They just looked futile against LHP from the first pitch of each game.
The numbers mostly back that up, too. Their .299 team wOBA against LHP ranked 27th among the 30 MLB clubs in 2021, with just Pittsburgh, Miami, and Texas behind them, none of whom had any intention of winning games last season. It’s a problem that has been pervasive dating back to the start of the 2020 season, really, which I guess shouldn’t be too surprising given that it was mostly the same cast of characters for both campaigns - if wRC+ is more your kind of stat, the collective 79 wRC+ the Reds have posted since the beginning of the 2020 season is 2nd worst in the game, just a smidgen ahead of Texas’ 78 mark.
There are a number of culprits here.
There was a time in the career of Eugenio Suarez where he was an absolute destroyer of LHP, but in 2021 he hit a paltry .172/.268/.351 against them in 153 PA, numbers that tanked both his overall line and the heart of the would-be thumpers in the Reds lineup against LHP. With fellow righty Nick Senzel effectively absent for the entirety of the year, that often left more lefties in the lineup than would ever be desired against LHP, too.
Nick Castellanos, predictably, mashed LHP the way he mashed pretty much everything during the 2021 season. His 142 wRC+ against LHP was tied with Nelson Cruz and ranked in the top fifth of all qualified hitters against LHP, but as we’re all well aware, it’s more likely than not that he opts out of his contract and into a thirsty free agent market. If he’s gone, if Nick Senzel can no longer be counted on (until he proves he can be), if Eugenio Suarez is no longer the Geno of old, an issue that was already a serious one for this offense becomes one that may be nearly impossible to overcome without big time overhaul.
That’s true despite the fact that each of Jonathan India, Kyle Farmer, and Tyler Stephenson were good against LHP last year. Each hit better against them than against RHP, but three hitters doesn’t come close to making a lineup. For as promising as Jose Barrero looks to be (whether at SS or in CF), he even comes with reverse platoon splits from his 2021 season in the minors, as he mashed RHP to the tune of a .933 OPS between AA and AAA while only tagging LHP at .766. And if lefties Max Schrock and Shogo Akiyama are the presumptive bench options, well...
Well, the Reds need some help. Whether or not they’ll go get it, or spend money on it, is another story entirely - this is merely identifying the obvious, what other teams in their position would be angling to sort out.
Sitting just behind Castellanos on the ‘vs LHP’ wRC+ leaderboard from 2021 are a pair of intriguing free agents - shortstop Trevor Story and do-everything Chris Taylor, both of whom posted 141 marks last year.
Story is coming off a ‘down’ season by his own lofty standards, but given the incredible depth in the shortstop free agent market, that might be just enough to drop his overall price into a range where the Reds might give it a whiff in a sensible world, though their commitment to Farmer (with Barrero also around) is absolutely, positively the more ‘affordable’ route. So, you likely know where this story ends.
Taylor’s offseason exploits might bump his bargaining power up a bit, as will his ability to play absolutely everywhere, and he’s probably the most perfect tier-two free agent the Reds could possibly be targeting. His age (already 31) is a slight concern given that he’ll be asking for at least a three-year deal, but his versatility makes him a tremendous fit for the Reds current roster even before you factor in the DH (which would only make him a better fit).
I used the term ‘tier-two’ for Taylor because there are certain obvious free agent superstars out there who’d be great fits for a Reds club that can’t, or won’t, spend to sign them. There will be no Carlos Correa, no Kris Bryant donning a Reds uniform for the 2022 season. That still shouldn’t prevent them from finding help, though, as there will be the Jorge Solers (128 wRC+ vs LHP in 2021) out there if they’ll just pursue them. Either that, or they’re going to need to get deep into the trade market to track down what they need.
The frustrating reality of this entire post is that the ugly overall numbers put up by the Reds against LHP last season came with Nick Castellanos in the fold. The pipe dreams of adding Story or Taylor should be in-play under any scenario, but if the Reds were serious about addressing their issues here, they’d be in-play after the found a way to keep Castellanos around, too. I’m just not sure hoping Joey Votto has an age-38 renaissance against LHP instead is a hope on which to bank, much like simply hoping Winker and Tyler Naquin suddenly stay healthy all year and hit well against LHP for the first time is, either.
Alas, the ball is always in Castellini’s court.