The ol’ Redlegs are playing out the final few games of yet another season in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs. It should be noted, as I write this, that they still haven’t been mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, but by the time you read this column there’s a good chance that “Turn Out the Lights (The Party’s Over)” will be echoing through the empty stands of Great American Ball Park. Now that we’re approaching the end of the road (perhaps that song is also on the off-season GABP playlist?) it’s only natural to ask the question: How will the 2021 Cincinnati Reds be remembered by their fans?
Their late-season collapse could very well be the enduring dominant narrative surrounding this club. After all, on August 22, the Reds were 12 games above .500 and in control of the second National League Wild Card spot. They proceeded to lose 18 of their next 27 games, fading from playoff contention in the process. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, mostly thanks to a poorly constructed roster with very little depth to sustain a rash of injuries.
That’s one way to look at the 2021 Reds—an incomplete roster, thanks to management’s bumbling and penny-pinching, who collapsed in typical Cincinnati sports fashion. It’s a tale we’ve seen year after year here in the Queen City, in every sport.
But there’s another way to look at this club, and I think it’s the way most fans will choose to remember the 2021 Redlegs. This team has a lot of fun players who were easy to root for, and ultimately they gave us a ride that often brought moments of joy for the die-hard fan. That’s something, right?
Yesterday afternoon, the Reds won their 82nd game of the season, meaning Cincinnati will finish a full season with a winning record for the first time since 2013. What a time to be alive! Sure, that would be a pretty disgraceful track record for most franchises, but we’re Cincinnati sports fans here. We’ll take what we can get!
OK, I hear you. I’ll lay off the sarcasm and stop throwing shade at the Castellini family for a moment. The 2021 Reds have had their share of highlights. At the top of that list would have to be Joey Votto, who proved that the fountain of youth does exist. (It’s in Canada, evidently. Who knew?) With five games remaining, Votto has 35 homers and 96 runs batted in, totals he hasn’t approached since 2017, when he finished second in MVP voting. His slash line is .270/.380/.570 (that 950 OPS is higher than his career OPS), and his wRC+ (144) and wOBA (.396) numbers put him in the top five of all NL hitters. Oh, by the way, Votto is 38 years old! This is a rarity in baseball history, and his performance this year has been a joy to watch.
Almost as much fun has been the performance of Cincinnati’s rookies all season long. Second baseman Jonathan India stormed his way into the conversation this spring and is likely to finish the campaign with a Rookie of the Year trophy. Tyler Stephenson has been an above average hitter at the plate (.283/.367/.431 with 10 homers and a 104 OPS+ in 384 plate appearances) and proved he’s Cincinnati’s catcher of the future and almost certainly a future All-Star (in my estimation, anyway).
Let’s not forget Vladimir Gutierrez, who surprised most observers by stabilizing the back of the starting rotation. At just 25, his future is bright. We also got glimpses of future contributors like shortstop Jose Barrero and reliever Dauri Moreta, players who should play a key role on next year’s team. Sure, the Reds didn’t let either of those guys play as much as they probably should have, and we didn’t get to see big-time prospects like Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo at GABP, but if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about the future there is ample evidence.
This season also brought us the Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker show, as both smashed baseballs on their way to a first All-Star appearance for each. For a while, it appeared as if Castellanos and Winker were going to fight each other for the MVP award. Injuries kept them off the field at various times in the second half, but the stats posted by the Dynamic Duo are still gorgeous to look at. Castellanos is hitting .310/.363/.576 with 33 home runs and 94 RBI; Winker’s line is .305/.394/.556 with 24 homers and 77 RBI. By almost any metric, these guys are among the top 10 hitters in the league. Combined with Votto, the 2021 Reds had a trio of sluggers that stacks up with any in recent club history.
And if we’re talking about big moments this season, we can’t forget Wade Miley’s throwback no-hitter. He faded down the stretch, but he was a rock for the Reds rotation when they really needed it for most of the season.
There are a handful of games remaining, and if the Reds can win more than they lose the rest of the way they might help push the narrative away from their September collapse. If the Reds go just 3-2 in their last five games (three of which are against the Pirates), they’d finish with a record of 85-77. That’s higher than what most predicted before the season, and I can’t remember the last time the Cincinnati Reds actually punched above their weight.
Importantly, it’s been a long time since Reds fans had the opportunity to enjoy meaningful baseball in September, especially into the final week of the campaign. And when we look at this season in the rearview mirror, I expect we’ll see it as less of a collapse, given the ridiculous performance of the Cardinals, who have won 16 straight games to sweep into the final playoff spot. Then again, that’s probably the most Cincinnati way to lose: Have your best season in years only to see St. Louis sneak up from behind to steal the post-season berth that rightfully should have belonged to the home team.
Ultimately, I expect that the 2021 Reds will be remembered as a good team—with an incredibly fun roster of rowdy Reds—that could have been great if ownership and management hadn’t completely abandoned them, giving away good relievers for free and abjectly refusing to fill the roster’s obvious holes. In retrospect, with only a little help from ownership and the front office, this team could have been a division winner and we’d be talking about World Series chances right now.
Alas, in the coming years, I fear this season might be remembered as the last fun team before ownership killed the franchise for yet another generation. Time will tell, but at least we did have some good times along the way. As Cincinnati sports fans, that’s cause for celebration, right?
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.