Magic Number: 90

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“Somebody’s gotta win and somebody’s gotta lose and I believe in letting the other guy lose.” —Pete Rose

Even if the Cincinnati Reds 2015 season turns out to be a sequel to the Godfather III-esque abomination that was the 2014 campaign, there will still be sufficient pomp and circumstance this summer. Before you question my intelligence, remember that on July 14 the All-Star Game—incredibly, the winning league in this exhibitionest of exhibition games is still rewarded with homefield advantage in the World Series—returns to the Queen City for the first time since 1988. (Two of the three Reds selected to the Mid-Summer Classic that season were Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo. If you can name the third, the grand prize is one of Marge Schott’s stuffed Saint Bernards. The answer lies at the end of this article.)

For the Reds, 2015 also signifies a connection to the accomplishments of yesteryear:

  • Forty years since the Big Red Machine leapt over the championship hump—the Reds suffered through World Series defeats in 1970 and 1972—and into eventual baseball lore by claiming the first of what would be back-to-back world titles.
  • Twenty-five years since the 1990 Wire-to-Wire Reds shocked the baseball world, remaining in first place of the National League West every day of the regular season and sweeping the favored Oakland Athletics in the World Series.
  • Twenty years since the club’s last playoff series win, a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
  • Five years since the breakthrough of 2010, when the Reds seized their first division crown and qualified for the postseason for the first time in 15 years.

Those anniversaries, however, are mainly of interest only to the Reds public relations and marketing arms. As far as the ballclub is concerned, there’s more than enough internal and external pressure for the on-field product to regain the form of the squads that prevailed 91 times in 2010, 97 times in 2012 and 90 times in 2013. Add to that pressure cooker the very real possibility that Johnny Cueto—the best starting pitcher to develop through Cincinnati’s farm system since Mario Soto—will become too expensive to re-sign next offseason. (In light of the contracts bestowed upon Joey Votto (10 years, $225 million), Homer Bailey (6 years, $105 million), and Brandon Phillips (6 years, $72.5 million) in recent years, if Reds owner Bob Castellini ponies up $150-200 million to re-sign Cueto, I for one will question whether the spirit of George Steinbrenner has overtaken Castellini’s mind, body, and soul.) If the performance of the Redlegs descends into hopelessness by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, Cueto could be dealt out of town. A similar fate could await Marlon Byrd—as well as Reds mainstays Brandon Phillips, Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake, and Jay Bruce—if the organization decides to shift its focus to 2016 and beyond.

There is a way the Reds can avoid that doomsday scenario, and the solution is to win 90 games, which would put Cincinnati squarely in the race for the National League wild-card game. Below are the win totals for the clubs to play in the NL wild-card game since the introduction of the single-elimination playoff tilt in 2012. Winners are in bold.

2012: Braves 94, Cardinals 88
2013: Pirates 94, Reds 90
2014: Giants 88, Pirates 88

The average win total for those six teams? 90.3. With a win in the NL wild-card game, anything can happen: the 2012 Cardinals made the NLCS (and probably should’ve advanced the World Series, considering the Redbirds led the Giants three games to one); the 2013 Pirates blew a 2-1 NLCS lead over the Cardinals; the 2014 Giants won the World Series.

Easier said than done, obviously. Personally, I’m betting (figuratively speaking) on the Reds crossing the 77.5-win threshold that one sportsbook established for the team, as well as the 77-win forecast by Fangraphs.com and the 79-win projection by Baseball Prospectus. But how do the Reds blow past that to reach the Promised Land of 90 wins? By fulfilling this eight-step process.

1) Flip fortunes in one-run games
When the Reds finished 97-65 in 2012, they posted a 31-21 record in one-run games. When the Reds were 90-72 in 2013, they were 27-22 in one-run tilts. The 2014 Reds reversed that formula, finishing the season at 76-86 overall and 22-38 in one-run games—the worst such record in the majors. If Cincinnati had simply split their one-run losses last year, the club’s record would’ve been 84-78.

2) 2014’s Career Year Guys avoid severe regressionitis
I’m looking at you, Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto, and Devin Mesoraco.

3) 2014’s Injured Guys stay on the field and perform near their career averages
I’m looking at you, Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, and Joey Votto.

4) Develop an effective pre-Chapman sequence in the bullpen
I’m firmly in the anti-closer camp, but the entrenched managing ideology of a ninth-inning stopper isn’t going anywhere. Chapman will capably man the ninth, but who will pitch before him? Bullpen guys prefer to know their roles, so the sooner manager Bryan Price can sort out an effective pre-Chapman sequence, the better. Maybe it’s Jumbo Diaz and Burke Badenhop pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. Maybe it’s Manny Parra and Cuban import Raisel Iglesias. Remember, despite Chapman’s historically-dominant campaign, the Reds’ 2014 bullpen ranked 14th out of 15 National League ball clubs.

5) Get something out of the back end of the rotation
Price said in late January that Tony Cingrani and Anthony DeSclafani were the favorites to land the spots in the rotation vacated by Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. Cingrani (173 total major league innings) and DeSclafani (33)—whose nickname, Disco, is a marketing employee’s dream—have limited big-league experience, and the third guy in the race for a rotation spot (Iglesias) has only pitched in the Arizona Fall League. Whoever wins those last two spots doesn’t need to go all Jose Fernandez on the National League for the Reds to win games. They simply need to be in the realm of average.

6) Don’t get too high or too low in April
The Reds play their first 22 games against National League Central foes. If the Reds go 16-6, let’s not go shopping for champagne. If the Reds go 6-16, let’s not start waving white towels and turning our attention to the Purveyors of Playoff Suckitude in Paul Brown Stadium.

7) Know luck is (likely, hopefully) on the Reds side
Position player-wise, Votto played 62 games in 2014. Bruce and Phillips played hurt. Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton have nowhere to go but up at the plate. The Reds can’t afford another round of injuries to this group, especially because the bench is so thin. Pitching-wise, Bailey made 23 starts but pitched hurt. Cingrani only threw 63.1 innings in the big leagues last year. Latos’ first start was June 14 and and his last start was Sept. 7. In spite of their awful 2014 season, the Reds’ bullpen is a talented collection of relievers, and talented bullpens typically aren’t woeful two years in a row.

8) Use the “lack of leadership” narrative to unite the team
Questions about the Reds’ “leadership” surrounded the club even before Latos publicly teed-off on some of his former teammates and the Reds medical staff in late February. The Reds immediately went on the offensive, with Price, Bailey, Bruce, Mesoraco, Votto, Brayan Pena, Skip Schumaker, Marlon Byrd (who wasn’t even with the Reds last season!), and general manager Walt Jocketty delivering strong rebukes to Latos’ comments. Look, the big-money position players on the Reds—Votto, Phillips, and Bruce—appear to be nice guys who are dedicated to their craft. But they aren’t the prototypical, Scott Rolen leader types. Votto can wax poetic about leadership in the Reds’ clubhouse being collaborative effort, yet there’s a reason these “lack of leadership” stories haven’t gone away for two years. For my money, Frazier and Mesoraco need to put more of their stamp on the team. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Frazier (2 years, $12 million) and Mesoraco (4 years, $28 million) felt they needed to “earn their keep”—or in modern terms, “get paid”—before starting to speak up. Well, their bank accounts have spoken. It’s a harsh truth, but money should lend Frazier and Mesoraco more of a platform in the clubhouse. It also seems like Byrd, who offered himself up to The Cincinnati Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans in the aftermath of Latos’ comments and pulled no punches, will have a tangible impact on the clubhouse atmosphere.

I’m expecting Price will also render more of an influence on the Reds during his second year. Being a rookie manager is not unlike being a high school freshman or the new guy in an office—conflict avoidance is high on the priority list. The fact that the Reds are coming off a disappointing season should only fuel Price’s desire to prove himself as a capable major-league manager.

I think Latos was half-correct when he talked about the Reds’ leadership. Leadership is tough to measure in professional sports, especially in baseball, which is often an individual venture masquerading as a team endeavor. But there is a place for leadership, supervision, or governance on a pro baseball team. The Reds are a club that faltered down the stretch in 2013—a cave-in that essentially cost Dusty Baker his job—and fizzled in the weeks after the All-Star Break last July. When things like that happen, it suggests something beyond bad breaks and injuries. Hopefully the 2015 Reds will stick to my formula instead.

 

*The third Reds All-Star in 1988 was Danny Jackson.


Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan and also contributes to Redleg Nation. He can be reached on Twitter or via email at gfreking@gmail.com.

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