The Reds Season Is Already Angling Toward Apathy

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Just one week ago, right here in the pixelated pages of this esteemed publication, I had a few things to say in the wake of Eugenio Suarez’ injury:

Is this a rebuild, or isn’t it? If the Reds are serious about this rebuilding process, they will give Eugenio’s at-bats to players who might be able to contribute to the proverbial Next Good Reds Team. That means letting Blandino play until this Friday, at which time the keys to the Cincinnati hot corner should be turned over to Nick Senzel. (Playing the service time game makes plenty of sense, but playing the Super 2 game feels like a luxury the Reds can’t afford at this point.) And no one else should play that position until Suarez returns. There are no other reasonable options for a team that is looking to develop young players. Period.

But if Gosselin or Pennington are playing third this week, and then the Reds don’t call up Senzel on Friday, all bets are off. You have my permission to overreact at will. Because, at that point—on the heels of the Gallardo nonsense—everyone should be questioning the way the Reds have conducted this rebuilding process.

It’s actually exciting, if you are an obsessive fan of the Cincinnati Reds. Finally, this week, after all the losing, we’re going to have an enormous clue as to whether this Cincinnati front office has a plan, and whether they have any idea what they are doing with this rebuilding process…or if they’re just stumbling around in the dark.

You probably know what happened after this. Reds manager Bryan Price started Cliff Pennington at third base the next night, Alex Blandino the following night, then Phil Gosselin. On Friday, Nick Senzel was not called to the majors. In the eight games since the Suarez injury, Pennington or Gosselin started five of the eight games at third.

*Insert facepalm gif*

Okay, I’m not ready to panic, but I’m also rapidly losing faith. Given recent moves (or lack thereof) by the current occupants of the Cincinnati Reds front office, and in the wake of a 3-13 start to the season, it’s time to take stock of where the Reds are, and where they are going. First things first: what can we reasonably expect out of the season, given where things stand today? 

We have a number of new data points that we can use to recalibrate the expectations we had from the beginning of the season. For example, I thought the Reds had a pretty good chance to be a .500 team this season (and the best-case scenario was even rosier). And the truth of the matter is that my opinion really hasn’t changed in the first two weeks of the season. Every team goes through bad spells, and while this spell is worse than most, there are tangible reasons for the poor play—injuries, unsustainably poor hitting by Joey Votto and others—that we can reasonably assume will not last much longer.

But the 3-13 start to the season is a thing that actually happened. So even if the Reds play .500 ball for the last 146 games, they’ll end up with a record of 76-86. And after three straight seasons of 90+ losses, that’ll probably feel like significant progress.

On the other hand, my preseason optimism was primarily based upon the the assumption that (a) the Reds would play something approximating their best 25 players at any given point; (b) they would give starts to the young pitchers, rather than the also-rans of the last few seasons; and (c) the offense would continue to perform roughly as it did in 2017.

Of those, (b) has happened, (c) is going to happen eventually…but the way Cincinnati’s front office has approached (a) causes me concern about the future of this club.

It goes back to what I said last week. I’m not ready to pass judgment on the way the franchise has conducted the rebuilding process, but it’s certainly time to begin asking questions. I mean, in a season where the Reds are supposed to be inching toward the next competitive window, there is no justification for wasting precious at-bats on 30-something has-beens rather than giving those opportunities to kids who need them. Alex Blandino may not be a starter for the next good Reds team (although one analyst thinks he’s a sleeper to have a long big league career), but he might be a utility guy. Shouldn’t the Reds be using this season—when nearly no one expects them to compete—to find out what Blandino can do?

And what about Senzel? This is the club’s top prospect, and he’s big league ready by almost all accounts (despite what GM Dick Williams says). He should have been here on Friday, and he should have been in the lineup. Instead, he’s cooling his heels in Buffalo right now. And if you need more proof that the Reds front office is stumbling around in the dark, as I suggested a week ago, try this: after Suarez was injured, the Reds quickly shifted Senzel back to third base in the minors. For three games. Then they moved him back to second base, where he had been playing since Opening Day.

What’s the plan here? Were they planning to call Senzel up to play third in Cincinnati, then changed their mind because he didn’t hit in a couple of games? Did they really change their mind that quickly and, if so, what does that say about their long-term planning?

Think about it this way: after fully two-and-a-half years of this rebuild, Reds management (and Williams hasn’t been in charge long enough to take all the blame here) has utterly failed to accumulate enough assets even to be able to withstand a few injuries within the first two weeks of the season. If they were going to be unwilling to play the kids in 2018—and early returns aren’t comforting—why did Williams and company sit on their hands all winter and decline to improve the team, while feeding fans a line that they expected improvement this season?

It’s almost like the front office didn’t seem to fully grasp how far away this team was from being successful when the season started, and how thin the roster looks when you exclude guys like Senzel and Blandino. Further, what made Williams think that guys like Yovani Gallardo and Cliff Pennington and Phil Gosselin were going to do anything other than harm the team on the field? Giving 30-something guys like Gallardo and Pennington to manager Bryan Price is like giving heroin to a junkie. He can’t help himself. He’s going to use them at the worst times.

There is, however, almost inexplicably, still plenty of reason for optimism. Everything I said before the season still applies. The young pitchers are going to be better than the dreck we saw on the mound last season. The hitters are going to come around (and the opening game of the Milwaukee series brought some comfort on that front). Players are going to get healthy. And the Reds really do have a decent core.

They may even bring up Nick Senzel at some point. The team that finishes the 2018 season on the field will likely look completely different than the one we’ve seen thus far. The Reds may even get somewhere close to .500. But after the things we’ve seen in the last three weeks, I’m going to have some nagging questions about the direction of the franchise.

Listen, I like Dick Williams a lot. He’s the most forward-thinking, analytically-inclined general manager of the Reds in my lifetime. Many of the moves he’s made since taking over the GM role have been outstanding. He’s really only been in charge for sixteen months, and it’s unfair to expect him to work miracles, especially when he inherited a mess. 

But the first couple weeks of 2018 have given me real concerns. Bryan Price is clearly in way over his head, an analog manager in a digital world. Even worse, the team that Price has been given is constantly forced to play short-handed, and the roster is filled with players who have no business stealing opportunities from younger players on a team that is supposedly rebuilding. There is almost nothing to distinguish this team from the 90-loss clubs of the last three seasons, despite assurances from the front office that they expected tangible improvement.

And that is deflating. Win or lose, I never thought the Reds could make me apathetic. But here we are.

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.

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