Within the context of recent Cincinnati Reds history, the 2021 season was pretty terrific. The club finished third in the Central Division with an 83-79 record, its best full-season performance since 2013. They faded down the stretch, sure, but they had a roster filled with players who were easy to root for, and with a strong young core the opportunity was there to have a competitive team for years to come.
Certainly, there were valid concerns about whether the Reds front office was capable of executing the moves that might improve the club for the coming season, but you didn’t need to depend solely on General Manager Nick Krall and his crew. I gave them the blueprint last October!
Alas, you know the next refrain in this all-too-common song: Cincinnati ownership decided to punt on the 2022 Reds before the season has even began. It’s all about “aligning payroll to our resources,” as Krall told us. The goal was never to put a winning team on the field, but if that surprised you, you haven’t been paying attention.
I predicted after last season that how the Reds approached Nick Castellanos’ free agency would tell us a lot about how committed management and ownership were to actually fielding a competitive team in 2022. As usual, I was 100 percent correct. Why would you doubt me at this point, Dear Reader?
The Reds never tried to bring Castellanos back into the fold, but they didn’t stop there. They let pitcher Wade Miley and Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart depart simply to save a few bucks, refusing to pick up team options. They traded pitcher Sonny Gray for a bag of magic beans. They dealt outfielder Jesse Winker and third baseman Eugenio Suarez to Seattle. They didn’t try to lock up their top young players to long-term contracts. That would have cost money, actual U.S. legal tender that’s tightly ensconced in owner Bob Castellini’s wallet.
That’s two-fifths of the starting rotation and perhaps the team’s best hitter removed from the roster of a competitive team that just missed last year’s playoffs. Which might be OK if the team had an actual strategy. They don’t. The individual transactions weren’t necessarily the issue; for example, you could make the case that sending Barnhart to Detroit rather than picking up his option made sense from a roster building and financial flexibility standpoint. But Cincinnati’s flurry of off-season transactions appear to show a front office that can’t decide on a strategy or at least doesn’t have one that’s well-defined.
Case in point: After the lockout ended, Krall dealt reliever Amir Garrett to Kansas City for Mike Minor, who could be a useful pitcher. While we’ll all remember Garrett fondly, no one was saying he should be untouchable (or that he was even a good bet to be dependable in 2022). But Minor is a mid-30s lefty starter who is fairly similar to (though likely to be slightly worse than) the mid-30s lefty starter Miley—a pitcher they already had on the roster and who Krall gave away literally for free. Both pitchers were set to make $10 million this season. Why did the Reds trade away Garrett in order to replace Miley with Minor? The moves didn’t make the team any better, really.
They did, however, demonstrate the haphazard nature of Cincinnati’s flurry of transactions and laid bare any claim the team had to any actual plan. In his defense, Krall says that he does actually have a strategy:
“We’re trying to eliminate peaks and valleys, that’s where we need to go,” Krall said. “We need to figure out how to continue to build through our player pipeline, player development and scouting. That’s got to be the base of everything we do. If that’s the base, that’s how we’ll build long-term success and sustainable success.”
It would have been nice for the Reds to have actually given us a peak before they started eliminating them, right? Or was 2021 the peak? Yikes.
Listen, I’ve lost faith in Krall, who does bear some responsibility for bad trades/signings and his constant, umm, miscommunication when trying to speak to the media. But Reds fans absolutely should not pin all the blame on Cincinnati’s overwhelmed GM. The vast majority of ire should be directed at Castellini and his ownership group. They refuse to invest in their product because they just don’t care about you.
Don’t believe me? Well, here’s Castellanos after signing with Philadelphia: “At the end of the day, baseball comes down to ownership. The owner either wants to invest and cares about winning, or doesn’t.”
And he wasn’t the only former Red throwing shade at current ownership and management in recent days. “I’ve been very, very excited (since the trade to Seattle),” Winker said. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of an organization and a team that is really going after winning, really going after chasing division titles and making a run for a ring.”
Even former Reds shortstop Zack Cozart got in on the action, posting on his Instagram story: “Im sorry Reds fans! U deserve better! Unfortunately, this is how they operate…I lived through it…we always wanted to win for you guys.”
To me, Miley’s recent comments described the current situation in Cincinnati as well as any. Castellini seems to be a mini-George Steinbrenner, ruled by emotion and changing his mind about the direction of the team as often as he changes underwear. Well, a mini-Steinbrenner who won’t consistently invest in his team.
“It’s a little bit of a pattern there ever since they had that core group in ’13 or ’14,” Miley said. “After those guys left, it’s they kind of try, then they stop. Kind of try and they stop. As a player, it stinks because you want to win. Everybody is there to win. But who is to say they can’t? They have a good, young group over there. I mean, maybe they are not that far off.”
And that’s what is most frustrating to me as a Reds fan. Miley is right! There is still a strong young core on Cincinnati’s roster, from Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson to Hunter Greene and others. We’ll talk more about them in the coming weeks, and I’m excited to watch those guys develop.
But as I begin my ninth season covering the Reds in these digital pages, the team has never been on such uncertain terrain. Suddenly there is pressure from the pro football club in town, who are (gasp!) actually trying to compete. The Bengals surprised everyone with a Super Bowl run. And at the same time Krall and Co. were tearing apart the Reds roster, the Bengals were purposefully attempting to surround their leader named Joey with a championship-level supporting cast.
Meanwhile, the Reds ownership group has steadfastly squandered Joey Votto’s legendary career, along with every ounce of good will the team once had in this town. A couple of generations of potential Reds fans are probably lost forever. For those who have stayed, a revolt has already begun; witness the popularity of the #SellTheTeamBob hashtag on Twitter.
A bunch of fun players remain in Cincinnati, and there are reasons to watch the Reds in 2022. Unfortunately, “winning” isn’t likely to be one of those reasons. And that isn’t going to change until Castellini and his ownership group finally decide to exit stage left.
The regular season opens April 7, and I’ll return that week to preview the Reds’ season and catch up with developments from Spring Training.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.