This is turning into a habit. Last season, after stumbling around for 46 games in a pandemic-shortened 60-game season, the Cincinnati Reds were six games under .500, in fourth place in the National League’s Central division, and six and a half games behind the division-leading Cubs. The Redlegs proceeded to go on a tear, winning 11 of their last 14 games and sneaking into the playoffs with a record that was two games above .500. (I don’t remember what happened in the playoffs, and neither do you.)
Fast forward to 2021. After 50 games, the Reds were six games under .500, in fourth place, seven games behind the division-leading Cardinals. And if you’ve been paying attention lately, you know that the Reds just won 11 of their last 14 games, and after treading water all season (and threatening to sink a few times) Cincinnati now stands in third place, two games above .500.
It’s a little early to project that this Reds team will sneak into the playoffs like their 2020 counterparts, but we’re nearly 40 percent of the way through the season, so it seems like a good time to assess where we are and what we’ve learned about this club. And, sure, we can make a prediction or two about the Reds playoff hopes.
If we can hearken back to my season preview here in the magazine’s digital pages, you’ll remember that I was pretty bullish about Cincinnati’s position players. There was one notable exception, of course: shortstop. Cincinnati management steadfastly refused to acquire an actual big leaguer to man that particularly important position, and backed into a corner, manager David Bell decided to let third baseman Eugenio Suarez try his hand at the position in which he began his professional career.
It’s not an overstatement to say that the experiment was an abject disaster. Even if we ignore Suarez’ poor hitting (.172/.248/.381), he was clearly out of his element at shortstop. If you want to be optimistic, you might say that he just needs more reps at short; after all, he hadn’t played the position with any regularity since 2015, when Suarez was a tender 23 years of age. But if you want to be realistic, you have to admit that there was never a moment that he looked capable of playing the position in the 30 games he started there this season, before an injury to Mike Moustakas opened up a return to the position at which he’s most comfortable.
Before the season, everyone on this wonderful planet—well, everyone other than Reds owner Bob Castellini, who put his fingers in his ears and ignored anything that might cost him money—knew that the Reds had an impending disaster at shortstop. By pretty much every metric, Cincinnati’s shortstops have been far worse than any other National League club.
I fear the Suarez-to-shortstop experiment may not be over. With Moustakas just beginning a rehab assignment, the Reds will need to find a spot for him soon. Given Jonathan India’s resurgence of late (an on-base-percentage of .371 looks pretty good at the top of the lineup), it’s hard to imagine Bell benching him in favor of Moustakas at second base.
The result of Cincinnati’s refusal to employ a proper major league shortstop has been that the team’s defense has been horrendous, among the worst in either league. On the other hand, the offense has been as good or better than anyone truly expected. It’s difficult to make the case that the Reds lineup has been as good as the Dodgers, but they’ve been better than pretty much everyone else in the National League.
Much of the credit for that has to go to the Dynamic Duo, Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker. Castellanos (.357/.412/.626, 13 HR) and Winker (.342/.417/.631) just keep assaulting NL leaderboards night after night. People are starting to notice; in the first update of the voting for this summer’s All-Star Game, both are in the top three among NL outfielders. If that holds, both would be starters for the National League. Pretty impressive for two guys who have never actually made an All-Star team before.
The Reds have been able to paper over their deficiencies at shortstop with a booming offense. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the pitching side of the ball. With the exception of Luis Castillo, Cincinnati’s starting pitching has been fine. Tyler Mahle and Wade Miley, in particular, have been exceptional.
The bullpen, on the other hand, yikes. We knew it was going to be bad when Castellini forced management to jettison two quality relievers (Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley) for literally nothing, just to save a dollar or three. (If you’re wondering, Iglesias and Bradley have been above-average relievers for their current clubs, the Angels and Phillies, respectively. I’m not sure anyone knew it would be this bad: a collective 5.73 ERA for the Reds bullpen, and that’s including (recently-injured) Tejay Antone’s dazzling 1.41 ERA in 32 innings. Of Cincinnati relievers who have pitched in at least 10 innings, only Antone and Lucas Sims have been anything approaching competent, though we’re starting to see signs from Amir Garrett and Sean Doolittle has had his moments.
In my season preview, I concluded thusly:
Are the Reds a World Series contender? I’m not willing to go that far, but Cincinnati does have one more thing going for them: The NL Central will likely be the worst division in baseball this season. Most of the nerdy computer projection systems show the Reds bunched up with the Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals near the top of the Central. The good guys will have a real chance to win the division, and if you can qualify for the playoffs you have a shot at winning the crown.
Unless, of course, you don’t score any runs in the playoffs. But that can’t happen in two consecutive years, right? Right?
Let’s be optimistic. Baseball is back, and the Reds should be in the mix for a playoff spot. I’ve been waiting for this feeling for a long time.
Those nerdy projection systems still give the Reds decent odds of making the playoffs. As I see it, there are really only two things that will prevent the Reds from hanging around the playoff race for the rest of this season: injuries and the bullpen. The injury bug has been one of the primary culprits for the club’s uneven play to this point. Fortunately, Joey Votto and Aristides Aquino just returned to the active roster, and Moustakas will be back soon. On the pitching side, there is every reason to believe that Sonny Gray (groin), Tejay Antone (right forearm inflammation), and Michael Lorenzen (right shoulder strain) will be back sooner rather than later. Perhaps the Reds are getting healthy at the right time.
The bullpen, on the other hand, will continue to be this team’s Achilles heel until ownership gets serious about upgrading the arms out there. Frankly, it’s difficult to see the Reds making a real run at a division title as long as you have to bite your nails throughout the final three innings of every single game. Getting Antone and Lorenzen back will help, but it won’t be enough without some creativity on the part of management to acquire relief help.
But, hey, the Reds are in the mix! After all the disastrous seasons fans have endured over the last three decades, just being able to watch a team with some personality and some actual talent seems like a pleasure that we haven’t enjoyed in a long time. Sure, ownership couldn’t care less about whether you’re having fun, but you must admit that watching these Rowdy Reds has been a joy more often than not in recent days.
What the heck, I’m going to let my optimism get the best of me. Here’s my prediction: Cincinnati will sneak into the final Wild Card spot once the dust settles in October. And here’s a bonus prediction for you: The Redlegs will score more runs this postseason than they scored last year. Take it to the bank.
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.