The Reds Navigate Choppy Waters After a Weekend Thrashing

The offense disappeared in a three-game sweep by Baltimore. Can TJ Friedl’s return help right the ship?
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Well, that was a disastrous weekend for the ol’ Redlegs. The hometown nine posted just two runs and 11 hits in three games against Baltimore. They’ve lost five in a row and eight of their last 10. For the first time in nearly a full calendar year, Cincinnati’s record sits below .500, at 16-18. The Reds are just a game out of last place in the National League Central. So, Reds fans, is it time to panic?

The quick answer is obviously no. It’s only the first week of May, and there are still 128 baseball games to play before playoff spots are secured. This time last year, the Reds were six games below water and turned things around. And this year’s club has something last year’s team didn’t have: quality starting pitching and a bullpen good enough that they can evidently afford to demote a reliever who hadn’t given up a run in his last 25 outings. With Opening Day starter Frankie Montas set to return this week, the pitching should be even better.

On the other hand, if you’re the type who is inclined to panic, I’ll concede that you have plenty of evidence to support your anxiety. Cincinnati’s offense has been nothing short of horrific. During this five-game skid, they’ve scored a grand total of eight runs. By pretty much every measure, Reds hitters have been among the five-worst groups in the game. Only three hitters on the club (Elly De La Cruz, Spencer Steer, and Jake Fraley) have produced above-average numbers, and Fraley has been limited to 65 at-bats thanks to injury. Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Stuart Fairchild, and Nick Martini have been among the very worst hitters in either league to get regular playing time.

It doesn’t appear offensive reinforcements will be on the way particularly soon, either. Center fielder TJ Friedl, last year’s team leader in wins above replacement, is on the verge of returning, which will provide a boost. But shortstop Matt McLain (shoulder surgery) and third baseman Noelvi Marte (suspension) are still a couple of months away from joining the club under the most optimistic of scenarios.

Perhaps Reds President of Baseball Operations Nick Krall will engineer a trade or two to improve the team’s depth, as the San Diego Padres did last week. Krall certainly seemed to suggest that was a possibility in his latest vague comments to the local scribes. I would suggest you take his comments with a hefty grain of salt. After all, he refused to improve the team at last year’s trade deadline, and that unwillingness to act almost certainly cost the Reds a shot at the playoffs. Over the winter, Krall did acquire Jeimer Candelario (now hitting .190/.274/.360) but declined to pursue a right-handed outfielder despite everyone on Earth knowing that was the lineup’s biggest weakness.

If you expect management to display any urgency to improve the roster, you must not have been watching over the last three decades. On the other hand, what has really changed since the preseason that would cause you to reevaluate what you thought this team would be? I guess we expected Encarnacion-Strand to be a reasonable facsimile of a big league slugger, and he hasn’t been, but no other hitter is drastically under-performing the back of his baseball card. All but the most delusional fans knew the lineup lacked depth and injuries could wreak havoc. That’s precisely what has happened.

I know we were all optimistic—and I still am!—but as I noted in my season preview, most objective predictions didn’t completely trust Cincinnati’s emerging young core just yet. FanGraphs projected a fourth-place finish and a 79-83 record (just four games out of first). Baseball Prospectus felt similarly. Vegas had the Reds over-under at 81.5 wins.

Maybe they were on to something. So how can I still be (somewhat) optimistic about this team? Despite the injuries and poor performances, the Reds did get off to the club’s best start in more than a decade. They’re now in the middle of a brutal 38-game stretch, including nine games against last year’s World Series teams and another 11 against the Dodgers and Phillies. The first couple of weeks of that stretch have been the worst of the season, it’s true, and yet Cincinnati is only two games under .500.

The offense likely hit its low-water mark over the weekend. Simply replacing Fairchild with Friedl should provide an immediate jolt of energy. It’s not unreasonable to believe that Candelario will improve; his track record indicates that, anyway. Same for CES, though his own track record on the big league level is woefully thin.

Mostly, however, I remain somewhat hopeful because the NL’s Central division is just so weak. Only five and a half games separate first place from last place, and I just don’t see any team running away with this division. If you believed that the Reds were a good bet to finish high in the Central before the season, there is no reason whatsoever to have changed your mind just because they had a bad couple of weeks. Especially with 128 games remaining.

The truth is that this club is what we knew it was: a flawed but interesting team that was probably destined to be just slightly above average, all things considered. Buckle up and try to endure the next couple of weeks, because the waters are likely to be choppy. But don’t lose hope. There’s a lot of baseball left to be played.

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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