How Do We Survive Another Slow Start from the Reds?

Patience is in short supply among the Cincinnati Reds’ faithful fan base, and righfully so.
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Here we go again. One year ago, nine games into the season, your Cincinnati Reds were 2-7 and already mired in last place in the National League’s Central Division, five games out of first place. This year, after a winter that saw a flurry of activity intended to draw the Reds ever closer to contention, the Reds won in exciting fashion on Opening Day … and then proceeded to lose eight games in a row.

 

Yep, the Reds stood at 1-8 after nine games, once again in last place, but this time the club was 6.5 games out of first. Same old Reds, right? No, this year it hurts much more, precisely because the Reds tried to convince us that they were ready to turn the corner on the rebuilding process.

Let’s begin with this premise: The Cincinnati Reds never intended to do everything they could to maximize the number of wins the 2019 team was capable of achieving. I know, they fooled me, too. Over the off-season, Reds President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams said, “We feel like we’re entering that window of competitiveness.” The club followed that up with a number of trades and signings calculated to improve the team for 2019, and they certainly accomplished that goal. After five consecutive last place finishes, fans were justifiably excited when Williams declared, “I anticipate putting the best team out there that we can [for Opening Day].”

Sounds like a team that was ready to do everything they could to win as many games as possible, right? Wrong. The Reds, in fact, pointedly refused to put “the best team out there” for Opening Day, sending top prospect Nick Senzel to the minor leagues—even after an injury to Scooter Gennett opened a big hole in the Reds lineup—in a cynical ploy to save ownership some money in 2025. I understand why the club decided to play service time games with Senzel, and there are good arguments in favor of the path the Reds chose to take, but it was immediate evidence that some things were more important than winning in 2019.

The Reds followed that up by losing eight of their first nine games through a combination of bad performance and bad luck. The timing of this bad start could not have been worse from the team’s perspective. Despite recent seasons of 90-plus losses, fans were ready to embrace this Reds team. But sending Senzel to the minors and following that up with a 1-8 start is a recipe for apathy within a fan base that was already on the verge of abandoning ship.

Remember what I wrote last fall, as the Reds stumbled to the 2018 finish line?

But I have never seen this fan base as apathetic as it is now, because that’s the fan base the Reds have cultivated by being mostly awful for an entire generation. If the Reds don’t put a winner on the field—and soon—there may not be quite as many fans left and, before you know it, we’ll be describing downtown celebrations in blue and orange terms (or orange and black, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

For half a decade, the Reds have been attempting to rebuild the team on the field. Rebuilding the fractured relationship with their fan base may be a much taller order.

Yes, it was a very good off-season for Reds management, but after 17 losing seasons in the last 22 years, don’t be surprised if Reds fans aren’t going to be particularly patient. And who can blame them? In just the third home game of the season, the Reds drew 7,789 in paid attendance, the lowest mark in the history of Great American Ball Park that came on the heels of the 2018 Reds drawing fewer fans through the turnstiles than any Cincinnati team since 1984.

It’s also fair to note that the Reds posted this abysmal attendance total just two weeks after FC Cincinnati drew more than 32,000 for its inaugural MLS home match against Portland. The Reds aren’t necessarily competing with the soccer upstart—both can co-exist very successfully, and I hope they will—but the difference in excitement level around the two franchises is palpable across town.

What is dismaying is that the Reds are genuinely a better team than last year’s club that started in a similarly slow fashion. The 2018 Reds had Homer Bailey and Kevin Quackenbush losing games early; this year’s club has seen outstanding pitching from Luis Castillo and new acquisition Sonny Gray. Last year, we saw Cliff Pennington and Phillip Gosselin taking up at-bats early in the season; in 2019, we have Yasiel Puig and the home run-mashing of Derek Dietrich, among other new names.

Listen, I stand behind every single thing I wrote two weeks ago about the Reds. They’re much improved from top to bottom (even if they aren’t the strongest possible team the franchise could have fielded), and they’re going to be fun to watch. Obviously, the offense has been simply dreadful, but it’s a good group that all decided to go cold at the same time. There is no chance they will continue to hit so poorly—and they may have already broken out of that slump with Tuesday’s slugfest against Miami.

Ultimately, every objective measure still leads me to believe the Reds are a slightly above-average team. But these early games do count. Even if the Reds play at a .500 level the rest of the season—and it’s not unreasonable to believe they can do so—they’ll finish with a record of 78-84. That’s better than we’ve seen in recent years, but I wouldn’t exactly correlate that with entering a “window of competitiveness.”

More interesting to me will be the reaction of this apathetic fan base. Should Reds fans be patient right now? I think so, for the reasons stated above.

But I’m also not going to give a hard time to fans who refuse to give the Reds the benefit of the doubt this year. This franchise certainly hasn’t earned it.

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.

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