One week ago in this space, I recommended that Reds fans should try to enjoy the moment during this playoff run. And it’s still good advice! Cincinnati is seven games over .500 and just one game out of a Wild Card spot. It’s not often we have a team in the mix during the final month of the season, and we don’t know when or if it will happen again. The next few weeks stand a chance of being very fun indeed.
For those of you who insist on being pessimistic, on the theory that Cincinnati sports teams will always break your heart in the end, well, I feel your pain. Indeed, the Reds have now lost four consecutive series during a stretch when they can’t afford to be dropping games. Same ol’ Redlegs?
Not so fast. Every time the Reds faced adversity this season, someone surprising has always seemed to step up. Often it has been guys like Wade Miley, Jonathan India, and Tyler Stephenson—players with recognized talent and pedigrees who have played larger roles than anyone expected on the club.
I’m not talking about players like that. I’m talking about true unsung heroes who (thanks to ownership’s steadfast refusal to field a complete big league roster this season) have been forced into essential roles. I’m talking about Tyler Naquin, Vladimir Gutierrez, and Kyle Farmer. Without those three, there’s a very real chance that Reds fans have no moment to enjoy right now.
Let’s begin with the 30-year-old Naquin, who was signed by the Reds to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training back in February. He’d spent the last five seasons with Cleveland, where he was occasionally productive but only once played more than 90 games in a season. That was back in his rookie year (2016), when Naquin finished third in Rookie of the Year voting.
As this season began, Naquin’s role for the Reds was expected to be the fourth or fifth outfielder. He started the second game of the season in center field (he moved to right field later in the game), an opportunity provided by Shogo Akiyama’s injury, and responded with two runs batted in. The following day, Naquin led off as the left fielder and hit his first home run of the campaign. After seven games, he had five homers and 14 RBI, both league-leading totals, and he had forced his way into the lineup on a regular basis.
Through May 10, Naquin was hitting a robust .278/.365/.578 with eight home runs and 24 RBI. Those numbers could not have come at a better time for the Reds, as they were struggling to tread water in the division standings and injuries had sidelined both Akiyama and Aristides Aquino, who had figured to fill that backup outfielder role in which Naquin had performed so brilliantly. Then, one week later, a Nick Senzel injury meant that Naquin was the de facto starting center fielder. Not bad for a guy signed to a minor league contract.
Then, in August, Naquin stepped up once again just when the Reds needed him most. When All-Star Jesse Winker went down with injury, Naquin went into orbit. Since Winker last played, Naquin has hit .414/.469/.828 with five homers. Even better, he was honored with his first career National League Player of the Week award during that span. When the guy is hot, the guy is scorching hot.
Gutierrez, another of Cincinnati’s dandy rookies, made his first big league start at the end of May, giving up one run on two hits in five innings at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Prior to that date, the Reds had gotten precious little production from the back end of the starting rotation, with Jeff Hoffman and Jose DeLeon appearing clearly ill-suited to the role.
Gutierrez, a 25-year-old from Cuba, was never a top prospect and had seen some success in the minors, but nothing spectacular. For the Reds this year, however, he’s been a revelation, seemingly improving in every start, and when the Reds made their push to the top of the Wild Card standings in August Gutierrez was as important as any other pitcher on the roster. In his first five starts of August, he went 4-1, posting a 1.67 ERA, striking out 31 and walking just seven in 32.1 innings. All of a sudden, he’s looking like a potential rotation mainstay for years to come.
And then there’s Farmer, forced to be a starting shortstop for the Reds because (a) Cincinnati management decided not to sign an actual big league SS over the offseason, and (b) the desperation decision to move Eugenio Suarez to the position blew up in their faces. For most of the season, Farmer was exactly what we expected, with one exception: Yes, he continues to be a (very) light-hitting infielder, but his defense, while not Gold Glove-level perhaps, has been far better than anyone could have expected.
Oh yeah, and there was also that one month when Farmer decided he wanted to be the best shortstop in Reds history. From July 6 to August 8, a stretch when the Reds improved from 3 games over .500 to a healthy 10 games above the break-even mark, Farmer hit .396/.442/.646 with four homers and 14 RBI. It came out of nowhere and was incredible to watch, but it was also extremely important to Cincinnati’s chances. After all, with Suarez (poor performance) and Mike Moustakas (poor performance, lack of health) being no help at all for the entire 2021 season, Farmer’s hot month is the only production the Reds have gotten out of the left side of the infield all year long.
Let’s not pretend that any of these three have been as valuable as Nick Castellanos, Joey Votto, Tyler Mahle, Winker, or Miley. Naquin, Gutierrez, and Farmer aren’t stars. Between his hot streaks, Naquin hit a paltry .227/.287/.354 with just five homers over 72 games. Gutierrez has experienced what every rookie pitcher deals with—inconsistent performances—and failed to get out of the fourth inning in either of his last two starts. And Farmer, even including that hot month or so, has an OPS+ of 83 (roughly 17% worse than league average) and he is, at best, the ninth-best NL shortstop out of the 12 who qualify.
Sure, all these guys are flawed players. We knew that when the season began. But if Farmer, Gutierrez, and Naquin hadn’t stepped up when they were called upon, it’s easy to envision the Reds being also-rans in this playoff race. Instead, we’re still enjoying the moment, 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.