Season Summary: Incremental Progress

Despite another last place finish, the Reds actually improved this season—but fan patience is hanging by a thread.

If you’re like me—and I know I am—you’re asking yourself one question as we approach the final days of the 2018 baseball season: Will the Bengals ever lose another game? Also, you may be wondering whether we learned anything at all about the Cincinnati Reds during this disaster of a season.

I’m here to tell you that the Redlegs have made tangible progress over the last six months. Sure, on the surface, 2018 looks suspiciously similar to previous seasons in this never-ending mess of a rebuilding process. The Reds will finish in last place for the fourth consecutive season. Even worse, if they go 4-7 over the final 11 games, they’ll finish with a 68-94 record for the third straight year.

While that is an impressive level of consistency, you’re forgiven if you fail to be awed. After all, the point of a rebuilding process is to build the organization back into a winner, right?

Certainly, the Reds have made plenty of missteps on the road to recovery and the process has been much slower than anyone hoped or expected, but I’ve seen real progress over the course of this season. For example: Yes, the Reds are going to lose 90 games again, but these aren’t the same ol’ miserable Redlegs. Remember that 3-18 start to the season? How could you forget, right? Well, that terrible stretch of play, caused primarily by untimely injuries and the front office’s complete and utter refusal to put the franchise’s best 25 players on the big league roster (Nick Senzel, anyone?), masked what should have been a pretty good team.

In the three-plus months after that terrible start, through the end of July, the Reds were 45-41. We can’t just ignore all the other games, but that makes me pretty optimistic. For more than half the season, once the team was (mostly) healthy they were pretty good. In fact, if they had won at that pace for the entire season, the Reds would have finished with an 85-77 record. And if you’ll permit me to quietly toot my own horn for a moment, dear reader, that’s exactly the record I thought the Reds could reach when I started talking playoffs before the season began.

But the season isn’t played in 86 game increments, because that would just be weird. Still, even taking the entire season into account, there are plenty of reasons to be excited. Let’s start with the offense, which spent much of the season as one of the top lineups in the league, though they’ve cooled recently with the extraordinary number of injuries to key hitters over the last few months. Almost everywhere around the diamond, there are positives.

Eugenio Suarez has become “Baseball’s Most Anonymous Great Player.” After signing a sweet seven-year contract extension in the off-season—now there’s a move in this rebuild the front office smacked out of the park—Suarez has become a top-five hitter in the National League by almost any measure. He’s posted a slash line of .287/.372/.537 with 32 home runs and 101 RBI; that RBI total puts him within two of the NL lead, despite the fact that he missed 16 games with injury. Suarez is a certified star.

Scooter Gennett is on his way to winning the NL batting title; his average currently sits at .318. He proved that last year wasn’t a fluke, as he’s posted a wRC+ of 130 (topping last year’s 123) and he’s been worth 4.6 wins. Sure, he can’t play defense very well, but he’s been valuable nonetheless. There is reason to believe that (a) he will continue to be a productive player, at least for the near future, and (b) Reds owner Bob Castellini will make a push to sign him to a contract past next season.

Jose Peraza had a breakout season at age 24, hitting .293/.322/.419. Currently, he’s fourth in the NL in hits (Gennett is first) and he’s even collected a dozen home runs. Defensively, he has a ton of room for improvement, but a 24-year-old shortstop with a 101 OPS+ (very slightly above league average) is a huge asset for a team.

The Reds found their corner outfielders, at least for the near future. Jesse Winker’s injury-shortened rookie season was a big success, as he posted a stat line of .299/.405/.431. Scott Schebler was nearly as good, hitting .271/.346/.474 with 17 home runs in 96 games to date. Now Cincinnati just has to figure out how to keep these two guys healthy, because when they’re on the field they produce.

Joey Votto is still a great player. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.

Even better, the Reds can expect to add Senzel (finally!) to that lineup in 2019, perhaps in the outfield. After this long rebuild, the offense is in pretty good shape. Which brings us to the pitching….

You may be surprised to learn that there have actually been two bright spots for the Reds in the starting rotation. Luis Castillo, after a simply hideous start to the season, has been almost exactly the pitcher we hoped he’d be this year at age 25. Since April, he’s 9-9 with a 3.80 ERA; since the beginning of July, his ERA has been 2.93, as noted by Joel Luckhaupt. Castillo’s ERA in September is 1.93. The kid just keeps getting better and better. Let’s not let his early struggles outshine a season in which Castillo has made strides.

I’ve been pretty encouraged by what we’ve seen from Anthony DeSclafani, too. After missing nearly two full seasons to injury, Disco has been on a bit of a rollercoaster. Until his last couple of starts (which have been rough), he had been 4-3 over 10 previous starts, with a 3.95 ERA, striking out 50 while walking 13. When he’s gotten locked in, DeSclafani has been very tough, and often dominating. If healthy—and that’s a huge “if” for the 28-year-old—he will be a valuable member of this pitching staff going forward.

The only other bit of good news we saw with the Reds rotation is Matt Harvey, who came over in a mid-season trade and has been roughly a league-average pitcher (with two starts still remaining in his season). He’s not the Dark Knight of years past, but Harvey is 7-6 with a 4.13 ERA. If he can do that over a full season—another big “if,” since Harvey had a 5.78 ERA over the two previous seasons combined—he could be a decent contributor to someone’s rotation. Whether that will be the Reds remains to be seen; Harvey is a free agent at the end of this campaign.

And that’s all the good news, I’m afraid. The inability to acquire and/or develop quality starting pitchers over the last four-plus years is a massive failure of the front office’s rebuilding project. There’s no other way to analyze it. The Reds are no closer to having a quality rotation than they were at the beginning of the rebuild. And that depresses me.

Wick Terrell of Red Reporter summed up the situation that faces the Reds very well in a piece this week:

For now, though, it would appear that all the 2018 season has shown the Cincinnati front office is that a full 3/5ths of their rotation is a question mark heading into year 5 of the rebuild, if not more. The answers for those spots could very well still be in-house, but the need for yet another year for them to figure that out now seems necessary should they stick to that plan. Mahle, Sims, Reed, Stephenson, Finnegan, Romano, or even Lorenzen could still certainly emerge. Frankly, though, I’m just not sure how much more patience the fans are going to have with hearing that’s the plan for yet another season.

I’ll tell you how much patience I’m going to have for the Reds front office if they don’t make drastic moves to improve the rotation in the off-season: none. Zero patience. But we’ll talk about that more as we move into the off-season.

When you think back on the 2018 season … well, on second thought, maybe you should just try to forget this year even happened. But if you happen to think about the season, try to think of it in terms of incremental progress. No, the front office didn’t go all-in to win, and there were some curious decisions, perhaps as a result of ownership meddling. But the Reds did make some progress in the rebuild, despite what the final record will say. And we got answers to a few key questions.

Mostly, what we learned in 2018 is that the Reds actually aren’t very far from being a competitive team. The offense is good, the bullpen is somewhat reliable, and they have a strong minor league system. The rebuild is working, though very slowly, and you are permitted to have real hope for 2019.

On the other hand, 2018 better be the last season I ever write the phrase “incremental progress.” The time for the Reds to make drastic moves to improve this team is upon us. I hope it isn’t too late.

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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