Rather than staring straight into the face of the current 6-game losing streak ridden by the Cincinnati Reds, let’s step back, take a deep breath, and look at how they got to 50-46 in the first place.
Their team wRC+ of 99 places them squarely in the middle of the pack (tied for 18th), though their 9.4% walk rate (4th) and MLB-best 114 stolen bases tell a two-part story in itself. The first, of course, is that they’re patient in the box and elite while running for bags, but also that the team’s identity is now driven by a couple of guys who didn’t even feature into things during the early portion of the season when the bats were mostly quiet, too. Since Matt McLain’s debut on May 15th, for instance, their team 106 wRC+ ranks tied for 9th, their .339 wOBA all the way up at 5th.
Both the larger sample there and the smaller one barely feature Joey Votto, either, and we know what we’ve been able to see from him since his return. The position player production, as it stands, seems to be in plenty good shape.
It’s the other side of the card where issues have plagued the Reds throughout their 2023 campaign, and yes, that includes the recent stretch of solid results the same way that recent stretch dented the overall hitting numbers.
Cincinnati’s starting pitchers own, collectively, a 5.45 ERA that’s the second worst in baseball. That group owns that without the likes of Hunter Greene or Nick Lodolo being around for a bunch of it, too, and recent word from Charlie Goldsmith of The Enquirer lists their return dates nebulously as ‘no calendar’ while many of their peers are already on concrete-enough schedules to have target dates. Luke Weaver just took a comebacker that might force him to miss a start, and Ben Lively came off the IL only to leave with cramps in his first start back. The unit is banged up, threadbare, and also somehow owns the single worst groundball-rate among starting units in the game despite playing in the most homer-happy park - hardly a combo that suggests more runs are likely to be kept off the board soon.
If you’re of the opinion that getting to 50-46 warrants applause and, to a smaller extent, help from the front office in prioritizing more wins this season, it’s easy to pinpoint the starting rotation as an area where an upgrade is of massive importance. I won’t disagree with you, either, though I’ll point out that it’s an area where every single team in baseball is looking for help - even those teams that aren’t necessarily eyeing deep postseason runs in 2023. Injuries to starters have come in waves this year, few teams have thrown up the white flag, and prying starters of significance from anywhere (read: the Chicago White Sox) is going to feature a bidding war the Reds may well be better avoiding.
If they deem that there are no starters moving via trade for a prospect cost that’s palatable, you can squint and see two things: they got to 50-46 without said impact starter, and Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo will be great additions right after the deadline. Does that make the long-term outlook of the rotation better than if they got, say, Lucas Giolito, too? No, it certainly does not, but it does at least concede that some potent options are going to be available to them in relatively short order, and the options already around have played just enough of a part in getting the whole team where they are.
That scenario, though, quite literally demands that they go buy relievers, and that’s plural.
I’m having a hard time remembering a unit that outperformed their peripherals as much as the 2023 Reds bullpen. On the surface, their 3.55 ERA has been completely tremendous, that mark good for 6th best in baseball. They’ve got a hammer in Alexis Diaz, Lucas Sims has been electric more often than not, and Alex Young has proven to be exactly what the Reds needed as the team’s go-to lefty.
That said, the unit as a whole owns a 5.21 xFIP, and while I’m always a bit hesitant to lean too much into expectant stats, that’s the third worst mark among MLB bullpen units, and there’s a reason for that. Their collective 39.8% groundball rate is the 4th worst, their .276 BABIP the 5th lowest (read: luckiest), their 4.53 walk-rate checks in at 3rd worst, and their 77.8% strand rate checks in at 3rd highest. To parse that together into words really quick, that means they don’t keep the ball on the ground much at all in their tiny home ball park, they let runners on at a rate higher than almost anyone, and yet they’ve somehow, somehow managed to mostly get away with it despite barely striking anyone out at all (their 7.91 K/9 ranks 3rd lowest).
While the squint-look at the future of the team’s rotation looks rosy with Greene and Lodolo potentially there to rescue it, a look behind the bullpen curtain reveals duct tape and hamster wheels that have somehow just managed to keep the lights on. It’s not exactly hard to see why, either, when you look at the nature of the investment in that area - Sims and Buck Farmer are combining to make a whopping $3 total million this year, while Young ($1.15 million) and Derek Law ($1 million) are the only other ones making more than league minimum this season.
Farmer and Law, you’ll recall, have both been designated for assignment by the Reds themselves since May of 2022, and in both instances, both went unclaimed.
The Reds could use upgrades all up and down their pitching staff if making a run in 2023 is a true priority, but I’ll at least acknowledge that the price to add a starter right now might be too damn high. Nobody wants to see Christian Encarnacion-Strand or Noelvi Marte dealt away for a guy who’ll be a free agent in a blink, after all. Circling the wagons and squeezing every last ounce of talent out of what’s left of the starters for a few more weeks until Greene/Lodolo return doesn’t sound fun, but it could at least sound plausible if, and only if, Nick Krall and Co. turn their sights fully onto bullpen additions that could truly give the unit more foundation.
Call the Angels about Carlos Estevez if they’re truly shopping Shohei Ohtani and folding up shop again. See if San Diego would deal Nick Martinez to add a guy capable of length on days when the starter goes sideways. Find ways to augment the staff with guys who won’t cost the top prospects in the system, since there are at least a handful of roster spots there than could be upgraded to help prop up the team’s ragged rotation that way.
One way or another, the team needs pitching. The team deserves pitching.