The Reds Keep Trying to Eliminate Peaks and Valleys

After sweeping the Yankees, Cincinnati gets swept by the Tigers at home. Last week perfectly sums up the state of the Reds.
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If you ever wanted a perfect microcosm of what the Cincinnati Reds have become under the Castellini Regime—and what you should expect for the foreseeable future—you got it last week. The Redlegs, six games under .500 as the week began, had just lost 10 of their last 15 games as they traveled to New York to face a Yankees team with the most wins of any American League club. It was a good time to discuss whether the Reds should be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.

And, because baseball is pure insanity, Cincinnati proceeded to sweep the Bronx Bombers at Yankee Stadium led by the exploits of the lone Reds All-Star, Elly De La Cruz. We’re back, baby!

And, because baseball is pure insanity, Cincinnati followed that up by returning home and getting swept by a subpar Detroit Tigers team. A certain meme comes to mind.

What a rollercoaster week, and it ended up right where we started: The Reds are six games under .500, a half-game out of last place. While this was understandably frustrating to Reds fans who were promised a competitive club this season, I’m starting to seriously believe that it’s actually all part of the plan. To the extent that Reds management has a plan, anyway.

Two years ago, the team’s president of baseball operations (he was actually general manager at the time), attempted to lay out his vision for the future of this franchise. Whatever Nick Krall’s talents as a baseball executive—a regular topic of conversation on Reds twitter—no one would claim that he’s a wordsmith or a great communicator. Alas, he used a phrase that he’d probably like to take back:

“We’re trying to eliminate peaks and valleys, that’s where we need to go,” Krall said. “We need to figure out how to continue to build through our player pipeline, player development and scouting. That’s got to be the base of everything we do. If that’s the base, that’s how we’ll build long-term success and sustainable success.”

A charitable explanation is that Krall was simply trying to say that he wanted to build a franchise that was consistently competitive. That’s a laudable goal, but it’s not what fans heard. You want to eliminate peaks? Wait … when was the last time this team reached one of those peaks of which you speak? 1990?

After watching what this team has done in the two years since Krall made that statement, I think I’m ready to take him at his word. I think he really did mean that he didn’t want any peaks or valleys. Krall is willing to sacrifice the peak seasons—years when the Reds are actually trying to be the best team in the league—as long as there are no valleys. You know, valleys like the seven full seasons preceding those comments in which the Reds lost at least 90 games five times.

Yes, I believe that Nick Krall is hamstrung by cheap ownership that isn’t willing to invest in a championship club. Is that even debatable any longer? Can anyone actually defend the Castellinis at this point? I feel certain that Krall is pushing forward on the only path he can envision under his current budgetary constraints.

And the sad fact is that it’s not actually a bad plan, given the fact that Krall works for owners who want to pretend that they’re poor. As baseball is currently constituted, with the expanded playoff structure, teams that hover around .500 have a legitimate shot at the playoffs these days. After the weekend, only two National League teams had fewer wins than Cincinnati, and yet the Reds were still just five games out of a Wild Card spot in the NL playoff race!

Krall and the Reds have clearly made the calculated decision that there is no advantage in trying to be one of the best teams in the league. If they can just put a team on the field that can hover around .500, that’s enough to convince fans that the Reds are still in the race. What’s the point in trying to get any better? The Diamondbacks made it to the World Series last year and only won 84 games. That’s the actual goal: 84 wins. The goal is not to construct a team that has a legit shot at winning a trophy.

Krall, confident in his abilities, thinks he can build an 84-win team with the dollars the Castellinis let him spend. But as long as current ownership is in place, you shouldn’t expect any effort to improve the team beyond that. One only has to look to last year, when the Redlegs were in first place at the trade deadline and yet steadfastly refused to improve the club. They faded down the stretch but, hey, they almost caught Arizona for a Wild Card spot! That could have been us in the World Series, you can almost hear them saying in the executive suite at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way.

We saw another example just this week when Krall and the Reds literally made the decision to play with zero backup outfielders because that would entail making a transaction that might improve the team (and cost a little money). As local radio personality Lance McAlister put it, “As the season sways in the balance, consider the state of the Reds roster. David Bell’s 2-out options to represent the tying run yesterday were down to Blake Dunn, then Edwin Rios, and finally Santiago Espinal.”

Somehow, Cincinnati has lost every single series they’ve played against the Tigers, Pirates, Giants, Mets, and Diamondbacks, all of whom have losing records. This isn’t a team built to win. And with every passing day, we get more evidence that it’s by design.

But! A friend reminds me that Cincinnati’s next seven games are against two teams that are a combined 52 games under .500. Cincinnati took the first one last night, a 6-0 shutout over Colorado. If the Redlegs can sweep all seven, they’ll be .500 at the All-Star break. Just like Nick Krall planned it.

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

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