The Cincinnati Reds are going to make the playoffs in 2018. You heard it here first. (In fact, you might only hear it here.)
I’ll give you a moment to pick yourself up off the floor. After all, the Reds have averaged 93 losses per season since the last time they qualified for the playoffs, which seems like it was around the time of the Italian Renaissance, even though it was actually—and you can look this up—only four full seasons ago. No, really!
I know you’re skeptical, and I get that. Cincinnati has finished in last place in the National League for the last three seasons, and they’ve lost at least 94 games in each of those seasons, including a 68-94 record in 2017. While mired in the gloomy, shadowy depths of the rebuilding process, the Reds have been really bad the last few years, and you’d have to be out of your mind to expect a playoff appearance on the heels of what we’ve witnessed over the last 1,639 days.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s going to happen. Or, at least, it’s more likely than the Bengals winning a playoff game. (Too soon?) Or X or the Bearcats making a Final Four. (Ok, definitely too soon.)
Just hear me out. When I’m talking about playoffs, I’m essentially talking about the Wild Card. There are a lot of good teams in the NL Central, and even on my most optimistic days, I don’t expect the Reds to beat out all of them for a division championship. (All bets are off for next year’s season-opening column, however.) So the question is whether or not the 2018 Cincinnati Reds can capture one of the two precious Wild Card slots.
What will it take to get there? Well, last year’s Minnesota Twins did it with a 85-77 record. That’s our baseline, as it’s the lowest win total of any playoff team in the six seasons since the second Wild Card slot was added. During that time, the average win total required to qualify for the playoffs has been 90-72. In addition to the 85-win Twins, there has been one 86-win team, four 87-win teams, and four 88-win teams. (Not to mention, in two of those six seasons, an 88-win team has won one of the division championships.) But 85 wins is our number. Will the Reds make the playoffs with an 85-77 record? Obviously, I can’t say that, but it will certainly have the Reds in the conversation until September. And if the Reds don’t make the playoffs, but are playing meaningful baseball late in the season? I’ll take it.
In order for the Reds to reach 85 wins, they have to win 17 more games than they won in 2017. That’s a tall order, certainly. But impossible? Hardly. Let’s look back to last year’s Twins, who were certainly an anomaly, but did improve by 26 wins over their 2016 record (59 to 85) to reach the playoffs. And again, that was just the wild card. By my count, 13 teams have actually gone from worst to first since 1991:
2016 Boston Red Sox —improved from 78 to 93 wins
2015 Texas Rangers—improved from 67 to 88 wins
2013 Boston Red Sox —improved from 69 to 97 wins in one season
2011 Arizona Diamondbacks—improved from 65 to 94 wins
2008 Tampa Bay Rays—improved from 66 to 97 wins
2007 Arizona Diamondbacks—improved from 76 to 90 wins
2007 Chicago Cubs—improved from 66 to 90 wins
1999 Arizona Diamondbacks—improved from 65 to 100 wins
1998 San Diego Padres—improved from 76 to 98 wins
1997 San Francisco Giants—improved from 68 to 90 wins
1993 Philadelphia Phillies—improved from 70 to 97 wins
1991 Atlanta Braves—improved from 65 to 94 wins
1991 Minnesota Twins—improved from 74 to 95 wins
(A special shout-out to the Diamondbacks for being worst-to-first All-Stars)
I’m not suggesting the Reds will go “worst to first,” since that’s largely dependent on other teams in the division. But I am saying that a large improvement in win total year to year—like what the Reds would need to get into the playoff picture—isn’t particularly rare. Certainly, it doesn’t happen every year, but it’s more likely in the Wild Card era than ever before. It’s even happened in this franchise’s history. You probably remember the “out-of-nowhere” 1999 Reds, as they are called in a fun chapter in a brand new book about Reds history that was written by a brilliant author (I helped too). Those Reds improved by 19 wins over their 1998 record, surging to 96 wins and very nearly a playoff spot. (Screw you, Al Leiter.)
Back in 1985, the Reds improved from 70 wins to 89, and a second place finish in the old NL West division; that was the first full season after Pete Rose returned to Cincinnati as player-manager. Even more successful was the 1961 “Ragamuffin” Reds, who won 93 games and the National League pennant just one season after finishing 67-87. The 1938 and 1919 (World Series champion) Reds improved by 26 and 28 games, respectively, over the previous season. More recently, both the 1990 Reds (you may remember that team) and the 1992 club improved by 16 wins, year over year.
So, again, it’s unlikely…but it’s not impossible for the Reds to improve enough to find themselves in the Wild Card picture. And I think there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Reds will be substantially better in 2018 than they were in 2017.
First of all, the pitching is going to be substantially better. Granted, I felt better about this prediction a few weeks ago, before recent injuries to Anthony DeSclafani (again), Brandon Finnegan, and Michael Lorenzen. All three may begin the season on the disabled list, but Finnegan is already pitching again; while he is staying behind in Arizona as the team heads east, he was effective in a three-inning stint over the weekend and will hopefully be ready by the time the Reds need a fifth starter for the first time. Of the three, DeSclafani is the biggest concern, since he’s missed most of the last two seasons and the Reds are hinting that we may not see him with the club until June.
But here’s the difference between this year and last year, when injuries decimated the pitching staff: there are no Scott Feldmans or Bronson Arroyos in this year’s Opening Day rotation. Here is a partial list of names of pitchers who started more than one game for the 2017 Cincinnati Reds: Lisalverto Bonilla (4 starts), Asher Wojciechowski (8 starts), Arroyo (14 starts), Tim Adleman (20 starts), Feldman (21 starts). All were below average pitchers, and only Feldman was (barely) above replacement level.
That’s 67 starts—fully 41 percent of the team’s games—given to pitchers who were, collectively, worth -3.1 wins above replacement. That’s negative 3.1 WAR.
All of those starts this year will be going to guys like Tyler Mahle and Sal Romano, Amir Garrett and Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson. No guys on the tail end of their career, or just trying to hang on for a few more days on a big league roster. Those starts will be going to pitchers with real upside. The 2018 Reds almost can’t help being substantially better, just because they won’t be running has-been or never-was types out there 41% of the time.
The offense was pretty good last year; they were tenth in all of baseball by WAR, which is an admittedly blunt tool by which to judge offense, but the Reds were also sixth in the NL in runs scored. And there is reason to believe that we will see improvement from the lineup, too.
First of all, Jesse Winker is going to be with the Reds all season, and all that guy does is hit and get on base; you’ll be calling him Diet Joey Votto by the end of 2018. Also, uber-prospect Nick Senzel—the club’s best hitting prospect since Jay Bruce or Votto himself—will likely be wearing a Reds uniform before June begins. Add his bat to the lineup and suddenly, things start to get interesting.
With those two guys firmly ensconced in the lineup like George Costanza in his velvet, the Reds should be able to score even more runs. Plus, did you see manager Bryan Price’s lineup against the Rangers on Monday night? Winker and Eugenio Suarez were hitting 1-2 (and Billy Hamilton had been dropped to the bottom of the order). If Winker and Suarez (and/or Senzel, when he arrives) are hitting in front of Votto all season long, the Reds won’t be able to help scoring more runs than last year.
And there’s one more thing: aren’t Cincinnati sports fans due for some good luck? This rebuilding process has been one setback after another, it seems, and last year—when the Reds should have been able to make real strides over the previous season—injuries ripped through the pitching staff like the Night King and his army tearing across Westeros. Even if the Reds are better situated to withstand those injuries this time around, that can’t happen again, right? Maybe the Reds will even get some good luck: Senzel and DeSclafani return to Cincinnati in May, Winker leads off all season, the young pitchers make real progress, and Votto keeps doing his thing.
Will that result in 17 more wins? There’s no way to know, obviously, but you don’t have to squint very hard to believe that the Reds could win 13 more games and get to 81-81. Of course, this is spring, and I’m feeling optimistic, so I’m going to step out on a limb here: the 2018 Cincinnati Reds will improve by 20 wins, finish 88-64, and win one of the NL Wild Card spots.
And once the Reds are in the playoffs, hey, the World Series is just around the corner.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Cincinnati Reds” is available now, in bookstores and online.