The Reds Try to Survive a TBD Pitching Staff

Injuries and COVID toss plenty of curveballs at Cincinnati’s playoff push. Can they hang on?
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In my years both covering baseball and watching from afar as a fan, there have been seasons that defy logic … and then there are the 2023 Cincinnati Reds. After tumbling through a disastrous 100-loss season just a year ago, the Reds—against all conventional wisdom—remain within arm’s length of the postseason. And they’ve done it in a manner that’s as bewildering as it is commendable.

Now, entering the business end of September, the Reds remain miraculously tied for the final National League Wild Card spot at 72-68. And while the underdog narrative that we’ve chronicled all season long remains tempting, the real story lies in the turbulent seas they’ve navigated to get here.

To stretch this metaphor far past its breaking point, the pitching rotation is the ship’s engine. For the Reds, that engine is currently patched together with duct tape and hope. A quick glance at Cincinnati’s schedule over the weekend painted an almost laughable picture: “To Be Determined” stared back as the listed starting pitcher for game after game.

A perfect storm of injuries and a COVID outbreak eviscerated four-fifths of the Reds rotation over a single weekend. You’d expect such turmoil to bury any team, but these Redlegs are nothing if not unpredictable. They managed to split the key series against the Cubs, even with an improvisational rotation that featured a reliever from Double-A making his big league debut.

After winning one and losing one during a Friday doubleheader—the win coming courtesy of a Noelvi Marte walk-off—young Andrew Abbott provided a shimmer of hope. He delivered a commendable 6 1/3-inning start on Saturday, yielding just a lone run in a narrow 2-1 triumph over Chicago. Given the circumstances, such starts are the lifeline Cincinnati so desperately needs.

But, as is often the case in baseball, for every high there’s a sobering dip. Sunday against the Cubs saw manager David Bell grasping at straws. The void left by three COVID-stricken starting pitchers (Hunter Greene, Brandon Williamson, Ben Lively) meant the Reds were frantically piecing together a viable pitching staff. Carson Spiers, an undrafted free agent out of Clemson who began the season in the Double-A Chattanooga bullpen, stepped up. His performance, considering the backdrop, was commendable, but the game was a laugher. The Reds succumbed 15-7, with the Cubs running riot in the eighth inning.

No worries. I’m probably being unnecessarily romantic about the game and about this particular team, but the very essence of this Reds team seems to be drawing strength from adversity. When rosters seemed paper-thin, when every pundit (myself included) wagered they’d crumble, this squad found ways to win. It’s as if the less we expected the more they delivered.

We’ll see if that continues. At the moment, not a single member of the Reds’ Opening Day rotation graces the roster in this playoff push. The cruel hand of fate keeps dealing blow after blow; in addition to Greene, Williamson, and Lively, Graham Ashcraft landed on the IL with a toe injury. And the Reds found out last week that Nick Lodolo is likely out for the year. (Ashcraft may be as well.) Yet, as doors close, windows open. The likes of Spiers, Connor Phillips, Lyon Richardson, and Brett Kennedy are now under the spotlight. Try to contain your excitement.

The most intriguing of those names is Phillips, the No. 4 prospect for the Reds and No. 70 overall according to MLB Pipeline. The fastball merchant is a promising talent who’s set to make his big league debut against his former organization, the Mariners, on Tuesday night, providing yet another twist in this saga.

Richardson has a live arm and a decent prospect pedigree, but he began the season in Single-A. Kennedy, on the other hand, began the campaign with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. He likely would have gotten a start or two this week, but since he had to pitch two innings in Sunday’s rout he was dispatched to Triple-A. He will be back at some point.

We’ve seen unexpected heroes rise. Relievers stepping up to start, Triple-A call-ups thrust into high-leverage situations, and somehow, despite it all, the Reds have managed not just to survive but to confound. The essence of baseball is its unpredictability, and Cincinnati this year embodies that in every sense.

Tejay Antone’s start (two innings pitched, three strikeouts) in game one of the series with Seattle, a team with its own compelling narrative in 2023, summarizes the wild roller coaster the Reds are currently riding. A reliever, he’s making his comeback from not one but two Tommy John surgeries. How is it possible that the Reds are still contenders with a depleted staff like this?

Here’s the point in this story where I should hammer General Manager Nick Krall and Reds management for botching things so badly on the pitching front. I should point out that, if Krall had paid any attention to acquiring starters over the winter or even as recently as the trade deadline, Cincinnati could be in a commanding position in the NL playoff hunt. That’s what I should do.

But I won’t. Because I kinda love this team despite the obvious flaws that seem to pile up by the day. Maybe it’s the clubhouse atmosphere, a group of players rallying around each other with an “us against the world” mentality. Or perhaps it’s the sheer drive and hunger of those who are getting their first shot at the big leagues, making the most of the opportunities thrust upon them.

Fangraphs gives the Reds a 20.2% chance to clinch a playoff berth. With 17 of their final 20 games against sub-.500 teams, the stage is set for a grand climax. Sure, relying on a patchwork rotation seems like a recipe for heartbreak. But if there’s one thing the 2023 Reds have taught us, it’s to expect the unexpected. And remember: That 20.2% chance of making the playoffs is infinitely higher than the 0% chance the Reds have had during recent Septembers.

This unpredictable season for the Cincinnati Reds serves as a reminder of why we love this game. It isn’t always about powerhouses and sure bets. Sometimes it’s about the underdog, fighting against the odds (and incompetent ownership), driven by pure grit, passion, and a bit of baseball magic.

Or maybe I’m just getting sentimental about this dumb game again. It’s what I do. Here’s to another week on baseball’s wildest ride.

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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