Remember just a few short weeks ago, when the Cincinnati Reds briefly came alive? I know, the enthusiasm and excitement of the last couple of weeks of the baseball regular season seems like it happened ages ago. In a flurry of strikeouts, weak groundouts, and an all-around historically pathetic performance by the Reds lineup, the club was swept out of the playoffs without scoring a single run. Sorry to remind you.
So here we are again, doing the “wait ’til next year” thing. Cincinnati sports are nothing if not predictable, you know. But is there any reason to believe that anything will change next year?
I have an unsatisfactory answer to that question: Maybe. We’ve been burned by this team so many times over the years that I’m hesitant to step too far out on that particular limb, but it’s a fact that the Reds will bring back a lot of talent in key areas. And if we’re being fair, we have to admit that the 2020 season was not a complete failure. Yes, the playoff disaster leaves a bad taste in our collective mouths, but the Reds did finish above .500 for the first time in seven years (and only the fifth time in the last 20 years). That’s something, right?
Another positive: Cincinnati’s pitching was outstanding all season long behind the quartet of Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Tyler Mahle. At least three of those names will return next year; as for the fourth, we’ll get to him in a moment.
But let’s be honest: The 2020 Reds were largely painful to watch on a daily basis. The lineup, overly reliant on the longball and among the very worst offenses in all of baseball, never showed much interest in scoring runs until late in the season. Cincinnati’s defense and baserunning were mind-numbingly bad from day one. David Bell made curious move after curious move, and he did it so often that you’d be justified in wondering if his only goal was to remind everyone that he was still there in the dugout.
Yes, the Reds did make the playoffs. But it was a watered-down playoff system that permitted more than half the teams in the league to participate, so let’s not break out the champagne. Especially given the way that short playoff series against Atlanta ended, a dispiriting loss that will linger throughout the winter. Even this shortened 60-game season exposed some real holes in the organization. How the club addresses those deficiencies during the off-season will tell us whether Cincinnati is serious about competing in 2021.
Then, in the wake of the disappointing end to the season, Reds President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams submitted his resignation. He’s been the man in charge of the baseball ops department for the last five seasons, and he revolutionized the organization from the ground up. He led the Reds out of the dark ages in terms of analytics and improved the spring training and minor league operations in innumerable ways.
Ultimately, though, all of the good work by Williams and company has yet to translate into a championship-caliber team on the field—although when you consider the Walt Jocketty/Bob Castellini-sized hole he was trying to dig out of, it’s somewhat understandable. I’ve already made the case that Reds fans should be completely out of patience with a botched rebuild that’s going on year No. 8. It’s no secret what the Reds need to do to put a winner on the field next year.
The offense simply has to be fixed. Cincinnati had a bunch of players underperform this year, but two spots in the lineup—catcher and shortstop—were notable for their lack of production. The Reds have nice-looking prospects in the pipeline at each of those positions, as we saw this year when Tyler Stephenson and Jose Garcia made their major league debuts. But if the Reds aren’t convinced that one or both of those guys can help improve the offense immediately, GM Nick Krall and company will need to find a way to fill at least one of those positions with a legitimate big league hitter.
The Reds and certain other observers have worked overtime to convince everyone that this year’s club simply suffered from some bad luck. Yes, it’s true that Cincinnati’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was really low. But if the Reds front office just chalks up this year’s historically bad performance to bad luck, then hold onto your seats, because 2021 will be a bumpy ride.
There is reason to hope that some of this year’s players will improve upon their 2020 performance. Eugenio Suarez, for example, probably isn’t going to hit .202/.312/.470 again. Shogo Akiyama may have finally adjusted to baseball in the U.S., and maybe we can expect his numbers to rise next year. Perhaps Nick Senzel will finally have a healthy season and demonstrate the promise everyone has been anticipating.
But hope is not a strategy. Cincinnati management can’t simply sit on their hands and hope that they don’t have “bad luck” next year. How exactly they will go about improving this club is less clear.
There are two other big question marks: Bauer and right fielder Nick Castellanos. Fortunately, there seems to be a consensus that Castellanos will not opt out of his contract and thus return for a second season with the Reds. That would be good news (and one less hole to fill in the lineup). But questions remain about Bauer, a strong candidate for this year’s Cy Young Award who’s now a free agent.
Bauer has long contended that he will sign only one-year contracts for the rest of his career. On the heels of a dominant 1.73 ERA season (with an even better Reds playoff debut), he could hardly have a stronger case as he hits the free agent market this year. He’s already having fun with the process, but Bauer has been very complimentary of Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson and indicated that he’s open to returning to Cincinnati next season.
Securing Bauer is the top objective for Krall, even moreso than the holes in the everyday lineup. Hovering over all these questions, however, is whether Reds owner Bob Castellini will lay out the cash necessary to retain Bauer and improve the offense. After all, Castellini authorized more spending last off-season than ever before, and what did that get him? A “playoff” embarrassment, that’s what. With no fans in the stands all season and revenues likely far off what would have been anticipated, it’s not difficult to imagine Castellini ordering his front office to hold the line on spending this winter. Perhaps our only hope is that he remembers that he has completely and utterly failed to deliver on the promises he made Reds fans, and doubles down on trying to build a championship team.
There’s that word again: hope. Yes, I do have hope for the 2021 Reds. And it’s OK for fans to be optimistic, though this franchise has given us little reason for that in recent years. But the front office and ownership need to be active in filling the holes identified over this truncated season. Hoping for better luck next year is not a strategy that would be employed by any organization that’s actually serious about fielding a championship team.
Over the next six months, we’ll see whether Bob Castellini’s Reds are serious. I want to hope … but I have my doubts.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.