Anthony DeSclafani spun a gem yesterday, fanning eight Colorado Rockies and keeping the scoreboard quiet, pushing his early 2021 run to 11.0 IP with just a lone earned run surrendered. He’s not a Cincinnati Reds pitcher anymore, of course.
While the Reds burst out of the gate this season and, despite a mild stumble in Arizona, still look like they plan on playing the part of scrappy contenders this year, the story of their success so far this season is equal parts about who hasn’t been around to be a part of it.
Disco exited into free agency over the winter, eventually signing a deal with the San Francisco Giants, and he was joined in staff exodus by Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, who also headed to California to join the Dodgers. Heading west was the theme of the former Reds hurlers, it would appear, as Raisel Iglesias was dumped onto the Los Angeles Angels, too. That’s quite the formidable trio that to whom the Reds simply waved goodbye, but at least they did so in a calculated fashion - even if those calculations were due to machinations of a bottom line.
What those transactions were depending upon heavily was something the Reds have not been able to do for most of all of our adult lives, and that’s bank on player development - specifically on the pitching side of things. While the Reds have hung numerous banners throughout their long baseball history, it’s been on the backs of their thumping bats, bats that have terrified opponents since their outfielders had to turn and look up the hill in Crosley as dingers flew over the fence.
This Reds club, though, was banking as much on the arms they had left as they were on Derek Johnson, Kyle Boddy, and the Driveline development methods. They were banking on the ability to unearth a few arms that had the arm talent to be competent big leaguers, but simply hadn’t had the right tweaks just yet. The likes of Jeff Hoffman and Jose De Leon, Carson Fulmer and Cionel Perez weren’t just brought in as peripheral pieces, they’re here to be integral parts of what the Reds have in their arsenal this season. They’re here to take leaps forward the way Tejay Antone and Tyler Mahle and Lucas Sims did a season ago despite entering 2020 without a ton of fanfare, to become spin-masters who can get outs in situations vital to the Reds contending in the NL Central this season.
Of course, the successes of those four were dependent upon a natural progression up the depth chart. Just as Mahle and Antone and Sims were being tasked with higher importance for the 2021 season, Perez, De Leon, Hoffman, and Fulmer were being asked to fill their roles as breakout candidates, not being asked to jump straight into anchoring the staff altogether. That vital responsibility was still going to fall to the more senior arms on staff, the ones who had the unique combination of stuff plus proven results, something that became exceedingly rare after the Reds winter transactions.
Central among those were Sonny Gray and Michael Lorenzen, the two arms with the best combination of success at what they’d been tasked, experience, and stuff still left on the staff. And after winning six of their nine games to open this 2021 season, the Reds have so far gotten nothing from them.
Gray is due back later this week, which is an incredibly helpful development, but Lorenzen’s balky shoulder has him still sidelined indefinitely. Add-in that Antone’s series of minor leg issues in spring camp left him not fully stretched out for the rotation, and the overhaul of the 2020 club’s rotation into what we’ve seen so far in 2021 has been almost a complete 180, albeit with the fortunate reintroduction of a more vintage Wade Miley than what we unfortunately saw from him in a banged-up first year with the Reds in 2020.
In a similar vein, even the team’s vaunted offense so far this season has performed as such without some of its most key elements. Jesse Winker, by most every single metric in the book, was hands down the team’s best offensive player last season, yet flu-like symptoms and a series of calf-cramps have kept him on the sidelines more often than not already. And the only point when Winker wasn’t the team’s best hitter in 2020 might’ve been down the stretch when Shogo Akiyama simply refused to make outs, and he, too, has been out for the duration of Reds games so far in 2021.
The bottom line finances of the Reds had already dictated that there would be significant turnover from a 2020 season that still left some promise on the roster, but a bevy of (fortunately) minor injuries have also thrown the early 2021 group into constant flux. In the face of it all, though, there’s already been the kind of chest-pounding success we’d all thought was unlikely early for this group, and that’s been refreshing as all hell to experience. And even though it was far from their intention, it looks like this banged-up group that has already found an identity for itself is set to get a good series of very, very good reinforcements in the coming weeks, a development that could - despite the already fun beginning - portend that there is even better fun to be had from this roster down the road.
To San Francisco and the fightin’ Johnny Cuetos they go...