The bitterness that so many of us hold towards the Cincinnati Reds is, in part, due to the way their ownership group has gone about their business. The frugality has made things inherently austere around here, the audacity of their COO a salty icing on a preexisting salty cake. How they’ve run things has, for the better part of two decades, stunk.
Who’s pulling the strings aside, though, and it’s the seemingly endless spate of losing that has tickled us the wrong way. The current iteration of teardown isn’t just tanking, or a rebuild, it’s a re-rebuild. It’s taking a jackhammer to the then-newly poured footers set in place somewhere in 2015-2016 when the Reds last jettisoned stars by the handfuls, finding rot in the boards that feel like they were just put in place.
The 2015-2016 seasons were patently awful around here, especially given that the team had finally found success at a marginal level from 2010-2013, the kind of success that we’d not so much as sniffed in these parts since years began with a 1. With no slight towards the vast array of talented new youngsters the Reds have accrued in the last year or so, the 2023 season is, in the win/loss column, about to pair with the 100 loss campaign of 2022 as yet another pair of back to back miserable seasons.
When a team embarks on such a path - slashing payroll, balking at carrying any long-term contracts, and hoarding young players - it’s pretty typical to suggest they’re following previously blazed trails by one of two sources. The Houston Astros get mentioned, as the near dissolution and trio of 100+ loss seasons early in the previous decade begat the beast that has powered its way into four World Series appearances since. So, too, do the Tampa Bay Rays, who’ve managed to tear apart and rebuild without the same financial investment, a nameless, faceless churn of temporary talent in their pipeline as they operate the leanest of successful enterprises.
Whether or not the Cincinnati Reds are a) following either model or, more importantly, b) trying to follow either model may never truly reveal itself. What I’m secretly hoping for, however, is that the Reds are on the same path taken by the Atlanta Braves.
Given their recently brilliant run of form, it’s rather easy to forget that Atlanta embarked on the same rip and shred path as the Reds at the exact same time (the second to last time). Their 2013 season saw them win 96 games before crashing out in the NLDS, and a year where they merely flirted with .500 then followed. A cull came quickly thereafter as they dealt away Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis, among others, while the likes of Ervin Santana reached free agency. They went on to lose 95, 93, and 90 games, respectively, in the following three seasons.
While the tanking set in, they went to work gathering their next wave of players, and did so in a multifaceted method. They drafted early, and well - each of Austin Riley, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, and Ian Anderson were added as 1st round picks from 2015 to 2017. Though the dealings in the international market eventually were deemed shady enough to cost John Coppolella his job, they signed and began developing future stars like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña, Jr. during that window (along with Cristian Pache, who became a key piece of acquiring Matt Olson).
Perhaps most importantly to this parallel is that they absolutely nailed their trades during this time, sending out players who weren’t going to be part of their next wave and getting slam-dunk returns. The deal that sent Jason Heyward to St. Louis, for instance, brought back Shelby Miller in return - the same Shelby Miller who they flipped barely a year later to Arizona for Dansby Swanson. The deal that saw Justin Upton head to San Diego brought back current ace Max Fried, Evan Gattis began Mike Foltynewicz, and it was the BJ Upton/Craig Kimbrel deal that landed them a Competitive Balance Round A pick that ended up being used to select Riley.
A trio of fronts - the international free agent market, the draft, and the trading block - all mastered by the front office of Atlanta at the time. It won them a World Series on top of five consecutive NL East titles. That, of course, dovetailed with extending almost every single young star on whom this was built, a commitment to the future in a way folks who follow the Reds can only dream of at the moment, too.
Of course, it was a pretty miserable time for Braves fans for a bit. The four consecutive losing seasons with a trio of 90+ loss years in there, too. Fortunately for their fans, they got it right the first time around, and their rebuild ended up being just that - four years, not eight like the Reds are slogging through right now.
It’s that latter point that’s exacerbated around here. That they missed the last time has put more angst, more pressure on getting it right this time. What goes hand in hand with that is the increased hope, the increased assertion that the prospects who are shining brightest right now are absolutely, positively going to be the ones who turn things all around. Time, as it always does, polarizes us all.
It’s hard to watch international signees like Elly De La Cruz and Jose Barrero and not see the incredible talent both possess. It’s hard to watch Christian Encarnacion-Strand sock mammoth dingers and feel anything other than that the Reds got a steal in the trade with Minnesota. Watching draftees Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene make batters look silly while Matt McLain shrugs off balls out of the zone with aplomb gives rise to the thought that the slump of drafting experienced a couple of years back is finally, mercifully in the past. There’s hope on all three fronts in Cincinnati right now, with a very specific old National League West foe serving as the beacon for what it all might mold into in the near future.
That’s wildly exciting, even if it still means you don’t want to look at the win/loss column again this season.