Making Sense of the Reds’ Deadline Deals

Here’s something you haven’t heard in years: The Cincinnati Reds are in the hunt in August!
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In the classic 1972 film The Godfather, Michael Corleone—brilliantly played by a young Al Pacino—is a World War II veteran who’s just returned to the United States. He has big plans for his life, but events conspire that force Michael reluctantly to join the family business: organized crime. Eighteen years later, in a movie that is decidedly not a classic (The Godfather: Part III), Corleone is still the head of a New York crime families, but he’s conflicted. He keeps trying to “go straight,” but never seems to be able to escape the pull of family. In perhaps the only memorable moment in that execrable film, Pacino delivers this classic line: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

 

And this is where we return to the topic of this recurring series of columns here at Cincinnati Magazine: the Cincinnati Reds. As you will no doubt remember, the hometown team began the season 1-8. This on the heels of four consecutive last-place finishes in the National League Central division. Since that miserable start, the Redlegs have been on a rollercoaster, sneaking out of last place on occasion, but always following that up with a bad stretch of play.

Before baseball paused for the Midsummer Classic, Cincinnati was on a bit of a high, just 4.5 games out of first place (though still in last place). After they returned from the All-Star break, the Reds did as we should have expected: lost six of their first eight games and promptly dropped back to 9 games behind the division leaders. Most pundits were screaming that the Reds should be “sellers” at the trade deadline, apathy among the fan base began to set in, and conversation shifted to the 2020 season.

But just when I thought I was out, the Reds have pulled me back in.

First, let’s talk about the trade deadline, which passed at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. Cincinnati’s first deadline deal happened late Tuesday night, when they received Cleveland pitcher Trevor Bauer in a three-team swap; the Reds gave up outfielder Yasiel Puig and two prospects, Taylor Trammell and Scott Moss, in the transaction.

At first blush, it seemed a heavy price to pay, especially in light of the earlier Marcus Stroman trade, in which the Mets gave up a couple of not-particularly-exciting prospects for a pitcher who is arguably just as good as Bauer. The Reds, meanwhile, gave up their starting right fielder, the club’s top prospect in Trammell, and a minor league pitcher.

On the other hand—here’s where I try to look at the glass as half full—Puig was only going to be a Red for the next 57 games. (Yes, I argued strongly that the Reds should have been exploring a contract extension with Puig; after the trade, President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams said they never gained any traction in those discussions. I still think they should go all out to sign Puig to a free agent contract this winter.) And, sure, Trammell was the team’s No. 1 prospect, but reviews are mixed about his potential and he has certainly struggled in his first exposure to Double-A this season. I think he’ll likely be a big leaguer, but he’s far from a sure thing. If you look at what the Reds had to give up to get Bauer but ignore the context of the Stroman trade, it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable.

Also, and this is inarguable, the Reds absolutely improved their 2020 roster with the acquisition of Bauer, who is under contract through next season. He isn’t the ace pitcher that many think he is, despite his incredible 2018 season, but he’s a decidedly above-average hurler who should mix well with Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson (as both are analytically inclined).

The rotation for the rest of 2019 isn’t too shabby either, despite the second trade executed by the Redlegs, in which they sent Tanner Roark to Oakland for minor league outfielder Jameson Hannah. Hannah isn’t a blue-chip prospect—only ranked No. 7 in the A’s system—but he was a second-round pick just one year ago and has a bit of upside. This trade was a nice bit of business for the Cincinnati front office, who essentially got Roark for free in the off-season, got four months of good pitching from him, and then flipped him for a decent prospect. I’ll take it.

So where do the Reds stand as we look at the final two months of the season? With the addition of Bauer and a healthy Alex Wood in the mix, Cincinnati’s starting rotation is in the conversation as one of the best in baseball. The offense, unfortunately, has been the problem with this team all year, and losing Puig from the lineup sure doesn’t help. But…

A funny thing has happened since the All-Star break: The Reds finally started hitting the baseball, for the first time all season. Over the course of a less-than-stellar first half, there was a constant refrain on the Reds podcast that I host. Essentially, if Cincinnati’s lineup ever started to hit like the back of their baseball cards indicated they should, this could be a dynamite team. Given how well the pitching has progressed under new management, it seemed like even an average offense would be enough to get the Reds over .500.

Except it never really happened until now. The Reds remain in the bottom three of National League teams in runs scored. Since the break, however, we’ve seen a glimmer of hope. Cincinnati leads all NL teams in essentially every hitting category: batting average (.295), on-base percentage (.355), slugging percentage (.497), wOBA (.358), wRC+ (118), wins above replacement (4.1).

Small sample size caveats apply; we’re talking about fewer than 20 games here. But with the Reds winning three consecutive series, moving up to fourth place and just 6.5 games out, well, it gets me dreaming again. What if the offense can just do what we expected for the rest of the season? Could the Reds stay somewhere in the neighborhood of relevant in the playoff chase?

It may be more difficult without Puig (not to mention Scooter Gennett, who was traded to San Francisco for a player to be named later). On the other hand, Phillip Ervin (.353/.421/.588) and Josh VanMeter (.312/.418/.532) are going to be in the lineup more often, thanks to a less crowded outfield, and both have their charms. Plus the Reds’ catchers are returning to action, so the band-aid fixes behind the plate are behind us. (Where have you gone, Ryan Lavarnway?)

I don’t know if the offense will continue to rake or if they’ll go down the drain in the absence of two players who batted in the cleanup spot for the Reds just this week. But I’m pretty eager to find out. The team as constructed for the remainder of 2019 is, at the very least, interesting even if they’re decidedly less fun than they were with Puig.

I won’t spend much time discussing this topic, since plenty of digital ink will be spilled on the topic elsewhere, but Bauer has plenty of baggage coming with him from Cleveland. In the wake of the trade, many Reds fans expressed that they were much less excited about the Reds thanks to Bauer’s presence on the roster. Without question, there is good reason for fans to feel that way. I’m just trying to look at the deal from a baseball standpoint.

Anyway, the Reds are still hanging around the pennant race as we head into the dog days of August, which is more than we could say for the previous few versions of the club. And if the offensive resurgence is real or even if the individual hitters in this Reds lineup finally start hitting, well, this could be a fascinating second half indeed.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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