I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Brothers Dotson and pod-talk about the 10 best things that happened during the 2021 Cincinnati Reds season. It’s an entertaining listen, if your ears have an hour to spare, and I encourage you to check that out.
Thing is, my cynical ass was prompted to take the 10 best moments concept in a different direction when I haphazardly put together my initial list. While the obvious moments were there - the team had a no-hitter and a RoY, after all - there was one in particular that stood out to me when looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight on my side.
It came on Opening Day. No, it wasn’t Luis Castillo getting shelled for 6 runs in his first IP of the year. It wasn’t the Nick Castellanos homer, either, or Nick Senzel simply existing in an actual lineup.
Batting 7th that day was Jonathan India, and my reverence for said moment had nothing to do with him socking a double as part of a 2 for 4 day. Said moment was that the Cincinnati Reds simply allowed him to be there.
There was no service time manipulation by an MLB franchise, one who has deliberately used that measure to their corporate advantage about as often as any other club out there. India came into spring training in 2021 fresh off a lost 2020 season, one that featured nary an MiLB game played, yet kicked the doors down effectively enough to force the team’s hand, and they rewarded him with the starting 2B job on day one because he was, quite frankly, obviously the right and deserving option there.
This is a bit of a rambling parallel, but an important one to where the 2022 Cincinnati Reds Opening Day rotation is headed, I believe. We’ve already seen the club simply give Wade Miley away to the Chicago Cubs, meaning he’s no longer set to be an option. There were rumors galore that the Reds were shopping some, each, or all of their elite combination of Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Tyler Mahle, all of whom have reached the point of having just two years of team control remaining before their respective trips to free agency.
There was also a very evident reveal that the Reds intend to be just about as cheap as they possibly can be this winter, those actual and rumored moves running alongside the giveaway of catcher Tucker Barnhart. Also, if there’s one thing that’s undeniable in the economics of baseball, it’s that the cheapest player a team can roll out is one that a) is making a league-minimum salary and b) has already been paid for.
Draftees, international signees to whom they’ve already doled out bonuses, who cost nothing additional to acquire and make as little as possible on the team’s payroll ledger. And for the Cincinnati Reds in particular, it’s hard to process all of that without a glance at the top of their prospect lists, with former 1st round draftees Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo sitting right there.
The two are the highest-rated combo of prospect arms to come through the Reds system together since, I suppose, Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto. Despite their immense talents, respectively, they’ve also got just 17 total games combined at the AAA level, barely 70 total IP there - all that coming in a 2021 season after zero MiLB season for them at all in 2020.
It’s enough to create a conundrum for the Opening Day version of the Reds, I think. There’s certainly the chance that when this lockout mercifully ends one, or both show up in Goodyear and buzz meteors past hitters with a proclivity that earns automatic, day one rotation spots, and last year’s willingness to let India go from the get-go suggests the Reds might be coming around to that concept despite the financial ramifications down the road. Heck, there’s even the chance that when these players finally get back on a Cactus League field, the newest Collective Bargaining Agreement phases out completely the loophole for service time manipulation altogether.
Still, there’s an expectation that we’ll see Greene and Lodolo in their 2022 MLB debuts at some point later in the season, meaning the Reds - who have all the makings of a team too cheap to make impact signings - will need to fill a five-man rotation without them on day one of the season.
There’s an increased expectation that Castillo won’t get moved, after all, and hopefully he’ll be there to front it again. There’s a very large likelihood that one of Gray and Mahle are dealt to save cash now (and to ease the pain that would result if the club held on to both, extended neither, and lost both after the 2023 season), and since I’m assuming it’ll be Gray that’s the one gone, Mahle slides into the #2 role. Behind him sits Vlad Gutierrez, whose 22 starts as a rookie in 2021 more than earned him a return in the same role, especially when you factor in just how much the Reds have already invested in him as an international signee out of Cuba.
That leaves the out-of-options Jeff Hoffman in line for another chance at the rotation. In the mix with him for the final two spots looks to be Tony Santillan, too, who had 4 starts last year but truly looked to flourish when given the shot to seize a bullpen role - and lest we forget, the club still has openings in their bullpen to fill for 2022, too. Reiver Sanmartin joins them as the only other in-house option that got multiple starts at the big league level in 2021, the lefty showing elite stuff, at times, even though it comes with the question of whether he can replicate it in enough quantity to be a viable starting option.
There’s good, young promise in that group. If and when Greene and Lodolo join them, it’s a group that while lacking hardly any experience has the kind of talent that could mold into something special for the coming years.
For 2022, though, it’s the kind of group that sure looks like it could it could use a Sonny Gray, or a Wade Miley, if winning games was truly the biggest priority during that bridge period. Unfortunately, that hand was long ago shown.