The 2020 Cincinnati Reds season was set to begin with a ‘favorable’ start, with the lowly Detroit Tigers in town for an Opening Day series in a year where the Reds would only be tasked with playing their midwestern peers in the pandemic-shortened season. That turned out not to be so easy, however, and with some later help from the Chicago Cubs, the Reds limped to a 1-4 (and 2-5) start to the season.
A lifetime ago back in 2019, Derek Dietrich rescued the Reds on Opening Day with a tide-turning 3-run bomb and an Opening Day victory, only to see them immediately slump into an 8-game losing streak that effectively ended that season’s hopes before they ever truly began.
Then, there was the titanic disaster that was the 2018 campaign, one whose 3-15 start saw Bryan Price canned and interim manager Jim Riggleman lose his first trio of games, too. It was a 3-18 start that served as the very goopy icing on the very, very, very goopy rebuild cake.
Getting off to fast starts has been a bugaboo for these Cincinnati Reds, to be incredibly polite. And here we are, just 9 days before Opening Day 2021, wondering if a Reds club that played the subtraction game all winter long can not only improve upon the .500 ball they played over 62 games a season ago, but can also at least give enough early optimism to sustain our gaze for more than just the month of April.
It’s a task that was already scripted to be complicated. While the non-Pittsburgh portion of the National League Central finally got around to adding some proven talent this winter, these Reds largely avoided that route entirely. On top of that, this is a club that was set to be devoid of Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani, Freddy Galvis, Raisel Iglesias, and Archie Bradley before the idea of addition even ever crossed their minds - which it didn’t ever, to be fair.
That’s the before-camp ledger for these Reds, of course, though the in-camp ledger has been almost as unkind. Joey Votto was sidelined for two full weeks after a COVID diagnosis and has yet to get off the injured list and back into Cactus League play. Joining him on the sidelines have been both Shogo Akiyama and Sonny Gray, two pieces being counted on heavily to replicate portions of their 2020 campaigns just to make the voids left by the offseason departures less felt. Tejay Antone and Michael Lorenzen, meanwhile, were two arms tabbed with picking up bigger roles this year, yet both are dealing with minor injuries that have set them back in spring camp, something fellow projected starter Wade Miley has already slogged through in Goodyear, too.
The bullpen has seen similar clouds roll in, as each of Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims have been slow on the uptick so far, the duo who are expected to anchor the team’s relief corps combining to log just a lone Cactus League inning combined to date.
Have I mentioned Opening Day is nine days away?
While the health issues are the most pressing issue in camp, they’re far from the only ones, unfortunately. Despite having all winter to help formulate a more potent infield, the Reds waited until mid-March to make their major shakeup, moving All Star 3B Eugenio Suarez back to his original position of shortstop while moving former All Star 3B Mike Moustakas back to said position from his recently-adapted home at 2B. It’s a series of moves that is easy to chalk-up as easy for two players with such elaborate baseball experience, but it’s also a scenario that makes you ask if it was so easy to do, why the hell didn’t they just do it to begin with months ago?
Said infield shuffle has largely been done to prioritize offense, the aspect of last season’s club that was most frustrating, but also to accommodate the inclusion of rookie Jonathan India at 2B. While the former 1st round pick has looked brilliant in camp so far, he’s still a rookie with zero big league experience, and simply hoping he can hit the ground running come Opening Day as a viable big leaguer is still going to take a lot of finger, toe, leg, and eye crossing. And while India has been the rookie on whom most eyes have looked this spring, the Reds will also be working in another rookie with incredibly little experience into their infield mix in Tyler Stephenson, who’s expected to split the load behind home plate and grow into a stalwart quickly.
A pitching staff with big-name departures, mostly in-house replacements, and a laundry lists of nagging injuries. An outfield down a productive member. An infield with all four field positions in flux a pair of rookies getting their feet wet. Add-in that the front office is still waiting for word on the option situation of each of Aristides Aquino, Jose De Leon, and Cionel Perez for some ungodly reason, and informing guys of their roles and expectations for Opening Day - nine days away - isn’t even something these chaps can do in preparation.
None of this is meant to undercut that there is a lot of talent in this camp. There are more hard-throwing arms in camp right now than there have ever been for the Reds, even if the stats on the backs of a few baseball cards will make you cringe at the moment. For all the position-player shuffling, it has absolutely been done in order to maximize offense, something that on paper looks to have been a very wise decision. All I’m getting at, though, is that with just nine days until these games begin to count, it sure does seem like this construction project has a metric ton of projects to wrap up to stay on schedule.
Maybe that just means I’ve just been watching way, way too much HGTV for the 13 months of this godawful pandemic. Given the failures of this club to be ready for things to count in each of the previous three seasons, it’s a bit hard to tell.