A fifth consecutive lost series was cemented for the Cincinnati Reds last night when Jason Heyward hit a moonball off Brad Brach - Brad Brach? - Brad Brach in what had been a tie game in the 10th inning in Wrigley Field. The 3-run tater gave the Chicago Cubs the game and the series, and sunk the Reds to just a 5-10 record over their last 15 games.
They sit a full game back of the San Diego Padres in the chase for the second National League Wild Card, the same Padres who’ve lost every pitcher imaginable to injury and were forced to move superstar Fernando Tatis, Jr. to the outfield just to get what health he has left back into the lineup. Keep in mind that’s the second and final NL Wild Card spot, since the other beasts of the NL West have made sure they’re 13.5 games clear with home field advantage and the other one, whether it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants.
It gives me no joy to point out that these Reds are in a pickle. Pointing out the Reds are in a pickle has become the norm around these parts for the better part of Red Reporter’s entire existence, after all, and I’d truly enjoy not having the looming obligation of acknowledging it once again. The Reds have yet to win a single playoff series in the history of Red Reporter. The Reds have yet to win a single playoff series in the history of Jonathan India - not his Reds career, his entire life.
It’s that last statement that has me, a Reds fan throughout that futility, in a bit of a dueling conundrum.
The mere idea of making the playoffs has become so foreign to this franchise that the idea that it may happen this season becomes gleeful. It should, too, as that’s truly the stage where watching baseball can become magical. The playoffs, unlike the 162 game regular season grind, become something of a crapshoot, a combination of ‘which teams are still healthy after all that work’ and ‘small sample size’ that means that truly anything can happen, and even if the Reds sneak in with the worst record of any club in the postseason, that’s still a semi-realistic thing to hope for. Make it, get in, kick the door down, fabricate counterfeit tickets, whatever...just get in any which way possible.
The conundrum kicks in when I wonder if that deserves any sort of pat on the back in the grand scheme. If it’s just another fleeting one-off kind of year, one that will again end with no advancement in the playoffs. One that despite that kind of endgame frustration will be allowed to be celebrated simply because it wasn’t as bad as it usually is around here. 10 teams make the postseason, 20 teams do not, and for once (in a non-expanded playoff format) the Reds actually weren’t part of the 20.
It also makes me wonder just how much of this is sustainable.
The epic teardown of the last decent run of Reds form began after the 2014 season fell completely into the toilet. 2015 became a fire sale - only after attempting to save a little face as hosts of the All Star Game - and the deep, dark rebuild that was the last half of the last decade was, we were told, to build this. This club is the byproduct. All the materials they acquired, the money they saved then, the foundation they poured, the plumbing they installed, all that was for this iteration of Reds form. And if all that produces in its prime window is maybe, maybe a sneak-in as a second Wild Card club, what doth the future hold?
Generally speaking, when you sign any sort of big free agent, they’re at the age where you’re hoping the first few years of their contracts go gangbusters and yeah, you might get stuck overpaying them a bit for the back-half of their deals. They’re luxury items, after all. Prior to the 2020 season, the Reds sprung for multiple big-ticket signings, breaking their bank for Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama and Nick Castellanos and Wade Miley. Miley, to his credit, has been tremendous, as has Castellanos when not getting pelted by opposing pitchers or catching bullshit suspensions from the MLB powers that be.
But if 2020 and 2021 were supposed to be the best of what we see from this group as Reds, that spells big trouble going forward. Moose hasn’t been able to stay on the field while Shogo hasn’t done anything much to warrant getting on it, while Castellanos has an opt-out clause that will allow him to explore free agency again this winter. Heck, when you roll Eugenio Suarez and his contract into this conversation, the Reds have $35 million tied up in Moose/Shogo/Geno for the 2022 season, a trio that has combined for -3.5 bWAR total so far in 2021 - and two of them play the same damn position.
The long-game scenario I’m trying to get at here all revolves around one thing, I guess, and that’s whether or not the rest of the Reds roster that’s not tied up in good money is going to be good enough beyond 2021 to make up for the underperformance of those that are making good money. I say good money here and not big money, and that’s on purpose, since none of Moose/Shogo/Geno are on ‘big’ contracts in the grand scheme of Major League Baseball. But for the ever-frugal Cincinnati Reds, they are. This club gave away Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley, after all, and haven’t sported a payroll in the top half of the game since smartphones and HDTV became things.
To be quite fair, the core of this Reds club looks incredibly promising. Jonathan India should rightfully win the NL’s Rookie of the Year Award, while each of Tyler Stephenson and Vladimir Gutierrez will get some down-ballot votes. None of the three were the top prospect in the Reds system entering this year, either, and that there is still no general consensus among the talking heads about which of Jose Barrero, Hunter Greene, or Nick Lodolo actually is, that’s actually a tremendously good thing since they’re all so talented. Luis Castillo is getting expensive without much team control, but he’s still part of a rotation equation that features Tyler Mahle, and Sonny Gray as controlled options - with Miley a team-option away from being an option, too.
That’s a foundation that has pillars, even if we still haven’t seen a full, healthy season from Jesse Winker. But if the Reds have $35 million tied up in a trio of players who aren’t even sniffing replacement level and you add $25 million to a 38 year old Joey Votto next year, are they going to have any money left to augment those pillars?
In many ways, it’s a situation reminiscent of where the Reds were at the trade deadline just 5+ weeks ago. It’s a situation reminiscent of where the Red were last winter, too. They nibbled without taking a big bite despite there being obvious needs on a club that was otherwise poised to make a run this year, and they’re suffering the consequences of their unwillingness to financially back the good parts they have. I fear that’s the cycle in which they’ll continue to rotate for now, too, punching with their one really good arm with the other tied completely behind their back.
So, maybe they should just go sweep the Cardinals, thump the Pirates nine times, and hang a miracle banner this season while the going might be the best it’ll be for this current group. Flags fly forever, after all.