The Road-Weary Reds Hit Rock Bottom

Sunday’s loss to the Dodgers was a microcosm of the season so far: decent starting pitching, struggling offense, poor relief.
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On Sunday afternoon at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, the Reds had a chance to split a series against the Dodgers, arguably the best team in baseball. It had been a rough road trip to that point, as we’ve chronicled in this space, but it was an opportunity to salvage something from a miserable couple of weeks for the club. The game seemed to begin pretty well.

Starter Hunter Greene continued his recent run of ace-adjacent pitching, going 6.1 innings, surrendering just two runs on four hits while striking out eight. Cincinnati’s offense was, well, Cincinnati’s offense, but they scratched out a couple of runs to tie the game. Neither club could score in the eighth or ninth, so the teams headed to extra innings.

The Reds got a bit of a break to start the extra frame. Under the current (very dumb) rules of Major League Baseball, clubs get to start extra innings with a ghost runner on second. Well, that’s what we called them when we were playing wiffle ball in the backyard. And in this particular extra inning, Cincinnati’s best baserunner, Elly De La Cruz, was the runner at second base. Even better, the Reds had their No. 3 hitter at the plate to lead off!

Alas, that No. 3 hitter was a player named Mike Ford (slash line: .156/.174/.267), who was just signed a week and a half ago for the third time in three months. He’s mashed baseballs occasionally in the minors and seems like a perfectly nice guy, but Ford is 31 years old and has played 246 games for six teams in six years. Cincinnati had released him just two days before the most recent signing. And somehow a guy who wasn’t good enough for the big league club two weeks ago was now hitting third in the Reds lineup. He struck out.

Jeimer Candelario, Cincinnati’s only off-season offensive addition of note, grounded weakly to third, and Jake Fraley grounded out to the first baseman. Unable to get the ball out of the infield and score Elly, Cincinnati pinned its hopes on closer Alexis Diaz to shut down the Dodgers in the bottom half of the 10th.

It didn’t go well, as Diaz surrendered the game-winning hit to Shohei Ohtani. Cincinnati’s closer, an All-Star just one season ago, has given up nine runs in only 4.2 innings this month (including five in his last 2.1 innings). He’s now 1-3 with a 7.02 ERA. This isn’t good.

The Reds finished the road trip a dismal 3-7, and they’ve lost 18 of their last 23 games. The Enquirer’s description of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad road trip was as good as any:

The Cincinnati Reds traveled 4,956 miles, spent 10 nights in hotels in three different cities, played 92 innings of road baseball, and all they brought home were three lousy wins, at least two more guys on the injured list and a last-place team.

Yikes. Yes, the Reds, who started the season with so many hopes, are now trailing even the hapless Pirates and Cardinals in the NL Central race. Only two teams in the National League, Colorado and Miami, have worse records. Cincinnati is in a free fall, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason for optimism that things will change in the near future.

The starting pitching continues to be good, despite Nick Lodolo’s recent trip to the injured list. The problem, as anyone with eyes can see, has been and continues to be the offense’s abysmal output on a daily basis. Over the last 30 days, Reds hitters have been dead last among all MLB clubs in pretty much every stat, some familiar (batting average, slugging percentage, OPS) and some of the nerdy alphabet soup variety (ISO, wRC+, wOBA, fWAR).

My buddy Wick Terrell summed it up thusly:

This Reds team cannot hit. This Reds team, unlike last year’s, has no ready-made alternatives waiting at AAA who can at least reset the clock on the frustration. This is what they have, who they have, and they’re just going to be forced to figure it out for another few weeks until they can maybe, maybe get a couple of reinforcements back into their lineup.

The question now becomes whether the Reds can survive long enough for reinforcements to return from injury. Second baseman Matt McLain could return to the lineup as soon as August, if things go well. And we need to hope that things go well, because current second baseman Jonathan India has been really, really bad so far in 2024 (.219/.327/.295).

Third baseman Noelvi Marte could be back on the big league roster as soon as one month from today, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. After serving an 80-game suspension for a PED violation, he’ll require some time in the minors before he’s ready to join the Reds. We’re talking about a guy with talent, yes, but with just 114 career at-bats at the big league level. Temper your expectations, though he could hardly be worse than the .175/.240/.295 production from Cincinnati 3Bs so far this year.

TJ Friedl? He was arguably Cincinnati’s best hitter last year but missed six weeks at the start of this season with a fractured wrist. Only six games into his return, he broke his thumb. No timeline has been established for his return, so for now we’ll have to be satisfied with his replacement, someone named Jacob Hurtubise.

Is this rock bottom for the Redlegs? We can hope, but with Ford hitting third in the order and Santiago Espinal (a career .265/.323/.359 hitter) batting fifth, as he has three times, I can’t recommend that you muster up great expectations. The offense is just bad, and Reds management didn’t do enough over the winter to accumulate depth to withstand the injuries and poor performances we’ve seen.

But, hey, Elly is on pace to steal 103 bases, so we have something to watch and root for, right? Right?

Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.

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