When the Atlanta Braves walked on to the field on Opening Day 2022, the freshest memory in their collective mind was of celebrating the 2021 World Series title on the home turf of the Houston Astros. Jorge Soler had crushed a 3-run tater, Max Fried kept the electric ‘stros offense off the board completely, and the Braves earned themselves a gorgeous ring for their efforts.
Perhaps there was a bit of a hangover for the key parties involved, as Fried was tagged for 5 ER to start the 2022 campaign. He exited with runners on in the Top of the 6th, and Brandon Drury punished him by swatting a 3-run dinger off Colin McHugh to put the nail in the Atlanta coffin. A few vintage Cincinnati bullpen jitters later, and the Reds went home winners by a 6-3 score.
One of the beauties of Major League Baseball’s six-month regular season is that individual games rarely, if ever, mean anything significant. By the time a month had passed, however, that Opening Day victory meant the world to Cincinnati, though not in the way any of us would have expected.
That they defeated the reigning World Series champs was cool, albeit meaningless in the grander scheme. That they had won a game at all became what set it apart. From the day after their Opening Day win through May 5th, they played 24 games against their big league peers, and somehow managed to find ways to lose 22 of those. A 3-22 start, all from a club who had jettisoned the vast majority of their core in the most frugal of fashions, had the son of the team’s primary owner publicly taunt the fans, and had made it a grand total of four calendar years since a then-unfathomable 3-18 start to a season.
Rebuilding is a miserable process. Rebooting, despite claims to the contrary, is equally as miserable. Being lied to is miserable, as is being taunted and patronized as if we’re too dumb to notice. Above all of that, I’ve found, is the single most miserable occurance of rooting for a club who is pushing 30 years without so much as a single postseason series victory: being out of the race before you even get a chance to hope.
The kindest of the projection systems have the 2023 Reds pegged as something of a 70 to 72 win team. They’re the ones that lean hard into the idea that the godawful luck and injuries suffered by the bulk of the roster last year won’t happen again, and they also see the perhaps limitless upside of some of the most talented youngsters. The more sour ones see a team again flirting with 100 losses, albeit doing so with that cache of youngsters doing their best to gain experience and get better every day in lieu of aging placeholders out there scrapping for every last win of their career.
I am optimistic that the Reds have reached the ‘bottom’ of this iteration of rebuilding. They have accrued incredible talent on both the mound and in the batter’s box, and even though it doesn’t look like that alone will carry the team out of the doldrums, it’s an incredible first step. They’ll need help from their front office and ownership, the aspect of this where I’m most dubious, but at least the liability line on the balance sheet is about to provide them with more flexibility than any other franchise out there. They’re going to be better going forward, though that’s no claim nor guarantee that they’ll get the help they need to reach the top.
I am not optimistic that the 2023 Reds are going to end up looking down on a lot of teams in the win column at the end of the season, though. For one, I don’t expect them to be a team making bold additions at the July trade deadline, something that each of their peers would be doing in the wild scenario that has the Reds in contention at that point of the season. I also have a hard time believing that a club that wouldn’t invest in innings-eaters around the exciting trio of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, and Graham Ashcraft will also ask them to eat 15 starts in a September where the rest of the team isn’t there yet, and that’ll dent their win total down the stretch. Finishing strong in a season where prioritizing wins in August and September was never in the cards is an incredibly tough scenario to expect.
What this team should be capable of, however tough the start of the schedule, is punching hard with what they’ve got to start the season. They’ve got three burgeoning young aces and a giant collective chip on their shoulder, having lost 100 games last year and been left out to dry by their owner. They’ve got a Hall of Famer in his final guaranteed year with the club, a lame-duck manager in the final year of his deal. They’ve got youth in spades, doubters in clubs, and no diamonds in their owners’ bank accounts. Someone please punch me for drawing out this metaphor for a second consecutive sentence, but that’s a recipe for having any early season success hit us all right in our hearts.
These Reds, unlike the ones lugging around Mike Moustakas and boasting Luis Castillo, are built like an underdog. Flying out of the gate, or even scrapping out of the gate, would go an incredibly long way to endearing them to all of us, especially in the shadow of how flat the club has fallen in recent Aprils.
Get us to May without the season having long been lost. Get us to June with a .500 record two good series away. Play games in July with worse clubs being listed on the ‘sellers at the deadline’ list while we look to the inevitable promotion of Elly De La Cruz bolstering the club when other rebuilding clubs shed veterans. Get us to the summer where we still have the chance, the gumption, a tangible reason to still root like hell for Cincinnati Reds baseball.
Or, at least start the run when the starting gun fires this time around. I think they’ve had earplugs in for a few too many races of late.