Heading into this past weekend’s series in San Diego, the Reds were flying high, winning 13 of their previous 16 games and finding themselves four games above .500 and just two games out of first place. After a sweep of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, the optimism among Reds fans was sky-high.
Game one in San Diego on Thursday night saw Reds starter Wade Miley toss seven strong innings, allowing just two runs on four hits. When the Reds came to bat in the top of the ninth inning, those two runs were the difference. But then the Cincinnati offense came alive, as we’ve seen them do so many times already in this strange season.
Joey Votto led off with a single to center. One out later, Tucker Barnhart doubled, sending Votto to third. Kyle Farmer then grounded out, as he is wont to do, but Votto scored and reserve Scott Heineman (who was pinch-running for Barnhart) moved over to third base with two outs. Rookie catcher Tyler Stephenson followed with a game-tying single and, all of a sudden, we had a new ballgame.
When fellow rookie Jonathan India blasted his sixth home run of the season, the Reds had grabbed a 4–2 lead. This team’s march up the standings was beginning to look inevitable. Cincinnati stood just three outs away from their 14th win in 17 games, almost inconceivable after the largely disappointing start to the season.
Ryan Hendrix took the mound in the bottom half of the ninth to nail down the save. If that’s not a statement you thought you’d read this year, you’re not alone. After all, he’s a 26-year-old rookie who was drafted out of Texas A&M in the 17th round back in 2013 and hasn’t particularly stood out in his introduction to big league pitching so far this season.
Why in the name of all that is good and pure would manager David Bell entrust this important moment to an untested rookie who had pitched a grand total of 19.1 innings above Class-A before this year? Well, Cincinnati’s best reliever, Tejay Antone, is currently on the injured list. The only other consistently reliable reliever, Lucas Sims, had pitched in the series-clinching victory over Milwaukee one night prior. And Cincinnati almost literally has no other relievers worth mentioning. In other words, Bell’s options were extremely limited.
Of course, the predictable happened. Hendrix walked the first San Diego hitter on four pitches, struck out the next hitter, then served up a two-run homer to Eric Hosmer that tied the game. Bell then chose to bring in Amir Garrett in an attempt to stem the bleeding. Unfortunately, Garrett—who had been showing real signs of returning to form in recent weeks—promptly allowed a single and a walk-off homer.
What should have been a certain win for any team that had an actual big league bullpen turned into a loss that ended up being Act I of a Padres four-game sweep that stunted any and all momentum the Reds had been building. To be sure, I’m not blaming Hendrix. He was placed in a really tough spot for a pitcher of his limited experience. I’m also not placing the blame on the manager who put him in that spot. Again, what was Bell supposed to do?
Back in April, the Reds scored 11 runs in a game against the hapless Arizona Diamondbacks. Unfortunately, the bullpen gave up 12 runs that day (including six runs in the 10h inning!) and the good guys lost 14–11 in a game that could have put Cincinnati above .500. I was sitting in an airport, waiting to board my first flight in 15 months, and pretty frustrated over a completely avoidable loss I feared we were going to see over and over again.
At the time, I predicted that Reds fans were going to be tempted to blame individual relievers when a bullpen meltdown happened throughout the season. Or maybe they’d want to blame Bell for putting in the wrong pitcher. Here’s what I urged: “Resist the temptation. The state of the bullpen is 100% the fault of owner Bob Castellini.”
Sadly, I’ve had to revisit this sentiment often in the two months since, as Cincinnati’s bullpen—even with the brilliance of Antone figured in—has been embarrassingly bad, probably the worst in either league. It’s been a disaster, and a completely avoidable one at that. Here we are, approaching the season’s midpoint, and it’s looking increasingly likely that the bullpen is the one thing that stands between the Reds being mediocre and the Reds being a legitimate playoff contender.
Remember in the off-season, when Castellini steadfastly refused to improve the team? Much digital ink has been spilled over the fact that the Reds literally don’t have a shortstop on their big league roster. While that’s been a huge problem (Reds “shortstops” have been the worst in the league offensively), the damage to the team has been mitigated by the rest of the offense, which rates among the very best in the National League.
No such luck with this bullpen. When Castellini ordered GM Nick Krall to jettison two established relievers this winter (Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley) for no other reason than the amount of money they’d be paid, the die was cast for Cincinnati’s relief corps. The Reds didn’t even get a bag of magic beans for Iglesias (who ended up with the Angels) or Bradley (Philadelphia); Krall was forced to give them away for free. It was cynical, even for noted penny-pincher Bob Castellini.
In order to put together a bullpen for 2021, Krall was forced to shop in the bargain bins. He signed guys like Brad Brach (who had previously been released by the Mets and Cubs); Michael Feliz (waived by Pirates); Ashton Goudeau (waived by Rockies, Dodgers, Orioles, Giants, Pirates); Carson Fulmer (waived by Pirates, Orioles, Tigers, White Sox); and Art Warren (waived by Mariners, sold by Rangers). Krall also called up from the minors Cionel Perez (8.31 ERA) and Jose DeLeon (8.35), with little success. And backup infielder Alex Blandino has been called on to pitch four times already!
It really has been an unmitigated disaster, and I place precisely zero blame on any of the pitchers mentioned in the paragraph above, some of whom have had really nice moments on the mound for the Reds. They’ve all been put in an impossible spot, forced to pitch high-leverage innings that should have gone to Iglesias, Bradley, or a more-reliable Garrett. The entirety of the blame goes on Castellini, who continues to laugh all the way to the bank while failing to deliver on his promises to you, the Reds fan.
But there’s good news, I promise! The Reds are magically still hovering at .500, almost in spite of ownership’s indifference. The offense has been great, and the starting rotation has been even better than expected, even with Luis Castillo struggling until recently. While the defense has been bad, this is not a bad team. It’s looking more and more like an average bullpen would be the one thing between the Reds and a playoff spot. With just more than a month to the trade deadline, the Reds have an opportunity to obtain help.
Of course, even if we can imagine Castellini giving Krall a green light to find actual relief help before the trading deadline, it’s going to be harder to fix the bullpen now than it would have been this past winter. Every contending team wants to pick up another good reliever or three. If the past is any indicator, the Reds will cross their fingers and hope they can keep things together with band-aids and chicken wire until former first-round picks Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo are ready later this season to bolster the pitching staff depth.
Greene and Lodolo are future big-leaguers, to be sure. I had visions in my mind of Greene bringing that 104-mph fastball to Cincinnati in September, dazzling everyone just like Aroldis Chapman did as a rookie for the 2010 division champs. But unless the Reds fix the bullpen problems soon, I fear they’ll continue to tread water and never seriously contend for the division title in a watered-down NL Central.
It’s a team with talent and a bunch of guys who are fun to root for. They just need some relievers. Cincinnati’s ability—or Castellini’s willingness—to improve the team in this area over the next six weeks may well tell the tale of the season.
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.