Last spring, we entered the 2019 baseball season filled with enthusiasm. Reds management had just finished an active off-season, filling holes in the lineup and rotation. No one was guaranteeing a division title, but there was an expectation that the Reds would be substantially improved and, just as important, they would be fun:
Did the Reds go all-in to put a playoff team on the field this year? No, they did not. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have a heckuva good time watching this club. Cincinnati has a revitalized roster with some unique talents and maybe, just maybe, the parts to make a playoff run.
It’s very likely to be the most enjoyable season we’ve seen since 2012. Playoffs or not, I’ll take that. For now.
Opening Day arrived last March, and the Reds captured a come-from-behind win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, featuring a homer off the bat of Derek Dietrich and eight strikeouts by soon-to-be All-Star Luis Castillo. The win over a hated rival just cemented what we already knew: The 2019 Reds were going to be fun and probably competitive all season long. And then Cincinnati proceeded to lose their next eight games. They never recovered.
Fast forward to this spring. Another winter filled with key acquisitions (this time mostly via the free agent market) fueled levels of enthusiasm among Reds fans that we haven’t seen in years. Opening Day was obviously delayed, but when it finally arrived last week, the Reds did everything they could to justify all the excitement surrounding the team. They dispatched the Detroit Tigers with aplomb, riding Sonny Gray’s nine strikeouts and home runs from Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas to a 7-1 victory. And then Cincinnati proceeded to lose its next four games.
Deja vu? Time to panic? You better believe that the thought ran through many minds in Reds country, including my own. The Cincinnati Reds have done their level best in recent years to disappoint us in pretty much every way. All of a sudden, I was beginning to feel like Charlie Brown, with the Reds in the role of Lucy: Could they really pull the football away again?
Even worse, this lousy start was compounded by two significant factors: (1) it occurred within the context of a shorter 60-game season, and (2) infielder Matt Davidson, the starter at DH on Opening Day, tested positive for COVID-19, and two others seemed on the verge (more on that in a moment).
First, the short season. Obviously, a strong start was even more important. After all, if you struggle to a 1-8 start in a 162-game season, there is plenty of time to right the ship. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, right? But if you start 1-8 and have just 51 games ahead of you, the task becomes much more difficult.
Next, the reason for the short season. After Davidson tested positive for COVID-19, Moustakas and Nick Senzel woke up on Sunday feeling ill. When the news was released, it felt like we were on the brink of a Marlins-style outbreak. All the excitement and enthusiasm of Opening Day had almost entirely vanished within three short days.
Now, as it turns out, neither Moustakas nor Senzel ever actually tested positive, but they were unable to return to the lineup because of MLB’s testing protocols. The absence of two key cogs contributed greatly to the Reds struggles after Opening Day, as outfielder Nick Castellanos so colorfully detailed:
“If you look at our lineup, unfortunately with some of these f**king protocols, you know, Moose and Senzel both have negative tests, but they are unable to play until Thursday,” Castellanos said. “That’s obviously been a big letdown because both of them are big parts of our lineup.”
(Moustakas and Senzel actually returned on Wednesday night, after they successfully appealed to MLB to let them on the field.)
Let’s return to the question posed above. Is it time to panic? No. For as much as this year’s start has resembled the 2019 Reds, there’s no question this is a much better team in every respect. They can’t wait another couple of weeks to start winning games, obviously, and manager David Bell needs to fix his bullpen—I’m looking at you, Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias—immediately, but let’s not give up just yet.
Seriously, take a deep breath. The Reds blew the Cubs out of the water on Wednesday night, behind another gorgeous start from Gray. Both Moustakas and Senzel homered in their return to the starting lineup, joining Castellanos in the longball parade. That win means that the Reds are just two games out of first place in late July. That’s what we’re panicking about? A two-game deficit?
Ignore the doom-and-gloomers (for now) and focus your gaze instead on the brilliant pitching triumvirate of Gray, Castillo, and Trevor Bauer, who tossed gems in four of Cincinnati’s first six games.
This team is good, just as talented as I told you they were last week. Not one thing has changed. Well, actually, one thing has changed since I made my reckless prediction one week ago: MLB and the player’s association agreed to expand the playoffs in 2020 to 16 teams, increasing the chances that the Reds will be able to sneak in one way or the other.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But feel free to ask me again in two weeks.
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.