Wait, what just happened? The last time we got together here at the Cincinnati Magazine website, the Cincinnati Reds had just polished off a fourth consecutive season of 90-plus losses, and things were pretty grim for Queen City baseball fans. Barely six months ago, I lamented that the Reds were on the verge of losing an entire generation of fans:
There are 30-year-olds who don’t remember the last time the Reds won a playoff series. To the average twentysomething wearing blue and orange, singing and tossing smoke bombs in The Bailey at FC Cincinnati games, the wire-to-wire 1990 Reds are ancient history. The Big Red Machine is something Grandpa rambles on about during holiday dinners. For the younger fans baseball needs to engage in order to grow, the Reds are just that team down by the river that’s suffered through losing seasons in 17 of the last 22 years.
All of a sudden, this seems like a pivotal moment for the team that’s defined this city for so many decades and that will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Redlegs squad next year. It has generally been assumed that winning would cure everything and, to an extent, that’s true. Though they clearly aren’t coming out for the craft beer or the new food options, fans will likely return to GABP to watch a winner. Certainly I will be there, because I’m a hopeless romantic about Cincinnati Reds baseball.
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).
What a difference a few months can make. With Cincinnati baseball arguably at its lowest point in nearly eight decades, Reds management set out to reshape the roster and supercharge the never-ending rebuilding process. In doing so, they charted a unique path, a “nonconformist rebuild” that has been described as one of baseball’s coolest experiments. And things are about to get a lot more fun around here.
Just when we least expected it, the Reds went about systematically improving the club this winter. Those improvements are seen most clearly in three important areas, all of which were in dire need of upgrades.
The Reds first hired David Bell as their new on-field manager. The son and grandson of former Reds players, he was greeted with groans of nepotism from many corners, as the most cynical of fans took it as a sign of business as usual for the Reds.
Bell quickly assuaged those concerns, demonstrating an open mind and a sincere interest in using every analytical tool available to improve the club he puts on the field. He took an office not far from GM Nick Krall and President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams, and immediately began putting his stamp on the organization top to bottom.
Among those stamps: convincing Derek Johnson, regarded as one of the brightest young pitching coaches in the game, to leave Milwaukee, where he’d shaped an odd assortment of pitchers into NL Central division champs. Soon after, the Reds hired Turner Ward as hitting coach on the heels of Ward’s successful run coaching Dodgers hitters to back-to-back National League pennants.
Cincinnati also went outside the box to completely revamp the rest of the staff, retaining only one coach. They even created new positions; ever heard of a Game Planning Coach before? It remains to be seen whether this completely new staff will do things any differently than the previous crew, but the early returns leave me optimistic.
The Reds return an infield that includes three members of the 2018 NL All-Star team—Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett, and Eugenio Suarez—and a 25-year-old shortstop who made huge strides last year. As the Reds entered the off-season, however, questions about the outfield were numerous.
One of the first indications that Reds management was committed to a new direction occurred in late November, when word leaked that the Reds would not offer arbitration to mainstay Billy Hamilton, effectively making him a free agent; he would ultimately wind up in Kansas City. That left a comic book superhero-sized hole in center field, but presented an opportunity to upgrade from Hamilton’s anemic offensive performance. Then, just before Christmas, came the trade that rocked the Queen City. Cincinnati acquired outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, pitcher Alex Wood, and utility guy Kyle Farmer from Los Angeles in exhange for—wait for it—Homer Bailey and two prospects. Suddenly, the Reds were the talk of baseball.
With top prospect Nick Senzel looking very much like an everyday center fielder this spring, the Reds now find themselves with too many good outfielders. That, my friends, is a great problem to have. A likely scenario would feature Senzel, Jesse Winker, and Puig in the outfield, which means that Scott Schebler (with 47 homers over the last two seasons) and Kemp (an All-Star last year) might find themselves as power bats off the bench.
In a few short months, Cincinnati’s outfield has become a strength rather than a weakness, and the Reds lineup seems almost guaranteed to be among the best in the league. Did you get chills reading that sentence?
At the media event announcing plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of baseball in Cincinnati during the 2019 season, owner Bob Castellini famously promised that the Reds were going to “get the pitching.” And while they didn’t really go all-in, Cincinnati certainly improved the starting pitching depth and the quality.
First, they traded an expendable minor prospect to Washington for Tanner Roark, the very definition of a workhorse pitcher. Roark has been a roughly league-average pitcher while throwing 180-plus innings for nearly every season of his career. He won’t be the ace we all wanted, but a reliable starting pitcher—even if just reliably average—is a valuable player in my book, and Roark improved the rotation immediately upon his arrival.
Then came the Dodgers trade and the acquisition of Wood, a talented 28-year-old lefty who’s often been brilliant over the course of his career with Atlanta and Los Angeles. As recently as 2017, Wood went 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA, but he’s always had trouble staying healthy. Back issues are causing him problems currently, but when Wood is on the mound he’s a huge upgrade over most of the names trotted out there by Reds teams in the recent past.
Just before spring training, the Reds also acquired 29-year-old Sonny Gray from the New York Yankees in exchange for Shed Long, an interesting but not particularly highly-rated prospect. Gray is the most intriguing of Cincinnati’s pitching acquisitions, a former ace who completely fell apart upon moving to Gotham. As part of the trade, Gray agreed to a three-year contract extension and was reunited with Johnson, his old college pitching coach at Vanderbilt. Take spring stats for what they’re worth (almost nothing), but Gray has been nearly unhittable since donning the wishbone-C. Let’s hope that carries over to the regular season.
No one expects the Reds to have the best pitching staff in baseball, but a group of Luis Castillo, Gray, Wood, Roark, Anthony DeSclafani, and Tyler Mahle represents the Reds’ most dependable group of starters since 2012.
There are still questions about this team going forward, especially given the fact that many of the new acquisitions aren’t under contract past this season. But what Reds management did over the winter is nothing short of remarkable. They improved the club immediately—most projection systems believe this is an above .500 team already—without trading any of their top eight prospects or signing any insane free agent deals. That’s incredible to me. Cincinnati essentially has complete flexibility and plenty of assets to make a run at improving the squad further, perhaps even as soon as the July trade deadline.
And they did it by being aggressive, something that’s been in short supply here in recent years. What we’ve seen the last six months represents as big a change in philosophy and execution as you’re ever likely to see in a single off-season. Is this a playoff team? I don’t know. But I know that the Reds are going to be fun to watch.
At a pivotal moment, with the Cincinnati Reds in danger of alienating an entire generation (or two) of fans, management took a huge first step toward rebuilding the trust they’d squandered over the last 25 years. There remains work to do to convince an apathetic fan base to return to the fold, but it’s hard to believe that the Reds could have done more to change the narrative in just a few short months.
If nothing else, the Reds have given us hope, and that’s an important thing for this beleaguered fan base. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I’m starting to believe. Let the games begin!
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.