One Step Up, Two Steps Back for the Reds

Relief pitching help was obtained at the trade deadline, but the teams Cincinnati is chasing for a playoff spot got better too, with higher-profile additions.

As the baseball season enters the dog days of August, your beloved Cincinnati Reds find themselves in unfamiliar territory. It’s true, my friends: The Reds are actually in a playoff race, though time is running out fast.

With just two months to go, the Redlegs are six games over .500 and in second place in their division, seven games behind Milwaukee. They also stand in third place in the NL Wild Card standings; the top two will qualify for the playoffs, and the Reds are four games behind the San Diego Padres for the second spot.

With the clock ticking on the July 31 trade deadline, Cincinnati’s front office surprised everyone by proving they weren’t completely asleep at the wheel. First, a late-night trade with the Yankees netted two relief pitchers, RHP Luis Cessa and LHP Justin Wilson, in exchange for the ever-popular “player to be named later.” Hours after that deal, the Reds sent two minor league pitchers to Colorado for RHP Mychal Givens.

Within a few hours, Reds General Manager Nick Krall accomplished what we’d been begging him to do for months—improve the team’s abysmal bullpen. Cessa and Givens, in particular, should figure prominently in the late innings over the final two months. Cessa, 29, has been outstanding this season, posting a 2.75 ERA over 31 appearances. He’s really come into his own since moving to the Yankees bullpen full-time in 2019. Better yet, he will remain under team control for at least two more seasons beyond this one.

Givens also figures to be a substantial upgrade, as he’s been mostly solid for the entirety of his seven years in the big leagues. In 340 appearances, mostly with Baltimore—and all out of the bullpen—he has a 3.33 ERA. For the Rockies this season, his ERA was 2.73, and he’s allowed only one hit and no runs since joining the Reds. Plus Givens has been a Red once before.

Lefty Justin Wilson was the other addition, and he’s been pretty bad this year: a 7.50 ERA in 21 appearances for New York. He does, however, have a track record of success. This is his ninth full season in MLB, and his career ERA is 3.43. I’m not going to bet the ranch on Wilson returning to form, especially since he’ll turn 34 in a couple of weeks, but there is some reason for hope.

Even if that doesn’t happen, Cessa and Givens are solid, somewhat-above-average relievers. The fact that these guys are replacing Josh Osich, Ryan Hendrix, and Ashton Goudeau in the Reds bullpen means that the team definitely improved in the days before the trade deadline. That, unquestionably, is a good thing.

Unfortunately, Krall and company did nothing to improve the team further. The teams Cincinnati will be fighting in the playoff race, on the other hand, were far more aggressive about improving their teams. For their part, the Brewers added All-Star 3B Eduardo Escobar and two relief pitchers. And I won’t go into detail on the trade deadline arms race between the two teams just ahead of Cincinnati in the Wild Card race, but suffice it to say that the Padres and Dodgers demonstrated that they’re serious, even desperate, about winning. (It’s an interesting concept. Someone should wake up Reds owner Bob Castellini and explain it to him.)

Yes, the Reds are a better team now, but so is the competition. Not to worry, say the Reds! Krall has assured us the team has a number of players due to come back from injury in the coming weeks. That’s kinda like making a trade for good players!

It’s true the Reds have some talent on the injured list right now. Mike Moustakas, Nick Senzel, Lucas Sims, and Tejay Antone have all been shelved for quite some time now, and they’ll hopefully return to the active roster soon. Without question, all should help. Moustakas might bump Eugenio Suarez to the bench and Senzel can hopefully provide more production in center field than Tyler Naquin, who has hit just .237/.293/.382 since his torrid April. Sims and Antone, along with the recently activated Michael Lorenzen, will improve the bullpen even further. And we haven’t even mentioned Nick Castellanos, whose MVP-caliber bat has been on the 10-day IL.

Krall’s focus on the return of rehabbing players fails to take a couple of things into account. First, every single team, including the Brewers and Padres, are dealing with similar issues. Second, there’s no reason to think that the Reds are going to be healthy the rest of the way. They certainly haven’t been healthy to this point. Hoping for players to get healthy and stay healthy seems like a ridiculous strategy, but that’s where we are since Reds management failed at putting together a full roster over the winter.

There’s that word again, “hope.” While hope should not be a strategy for Krall and Castellini, there are reasons for Reds fans to have high hopes about the rest of this season. The schedule, as we’ve noted before, really favors the Reds over the final two months. Cincinnati won’t go back to the West Coast, and they play only three games against Los Angeles (at GABP) and zero against San Diego or NL West-leading San Francisco the rest of the way.

Further, the Reds get to play a bunch of games against some pretty bad teams. Thirty-two of Cincinnati’s remaining 56 games will be against the Pirates, Marlins, Twins, Cubs, and Nationals. The Pirates, Marlins, and Twins are all in last place, collectively 52 games out of first. The Cubs and Nationals just completed fire sales, dumping the core of their teams and leaving both rosters depleted.

Then again, if the Reds aren’t able to make progress in the standings soon, the math begins to become a problem. If the Brewers keep up their current pace for the rest of the season (a .594 winning percentage), the Reds would need to go 40-16 the rest of the way just to catch them. If Milwaukee plays just .500 ball the rest of the way, the Reds would need to go 35-21.

What about the Wild Card? As noted, the Reds are four games out of the final spot. If San Diego wins at their current rate (.565) the rest of the way, Cincinnati could catch them by winning 35 of their final 56 games. In truth, the Reds need one of the teams ahead of them to stumble a bit if they hope to make up ground.

And that’s a lot to ask, especially given that those teams have worked harder to improve their teams throughout the season than have the Reds. One wonders how tight this race might have been had Cincinnati made these deals to improve the bullpen a couple of months ago, or even (gasp!) during the off-season. What if they hadn’t given away a pitcher who was just named the AL Reliever of the Month simply because the owner didn’t want to pay him? What if a better bullpen had preserved a few of the early-season leads that ended up in losses?

I fear that these recent deals may be too little, too late. Cincinnati’s trade deadline activity represented little more than half-measures, while their competitors pulled out all the stops to win. But then half-measures have been the hallmark of Castellini’s reign of terror at the helm of the Good Ship Redlegs.

On the other hand, the Reds have a really fun team. Joey Votto is doing things few other 37-year-olds have ever done, Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson continue to dazzle, and Kyle Farmer suddenly looks like the second coming of Barry Larkin. Plus, the rowdiest Red of them all, Castellanos, should soon return to his place in the outfield across from fellow All-Star Jesse Winker. The players on the field constitute an exciting team that never quits, and they’re deserving of your love and support.

The Reds will need a little luck and a lot of good baseball, but you don’t have to squint very hard to see a thrilling September on the horizon for the home team. Who knows? Maybe there’s even an October surprise around the bend.

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.

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