It’s hard to recall now, but the 2014 Cincinnati Reds were just a game and a half out of first place at the All-Star Break. It wasn’t until the second half of the season that things fell completely off the rails. Joey Votto was injured, Billy Hamilton struggled to get on base, the rotation started to wear down in spots, the bullpen ceased to function at all, etc, etc. The second half of last season fell somewhere between unfortunate and unbearable, save for watching Johnny Cueto reach the 20-win mark, despite not a single shred of support from an offense that finished in the bottom three in team batting average (.238) and runs (595).
With all of last season’s issues in mind, it’s hard not to wonder if this season could get just as ugly, even quicker, as the Reds (10-11) have already run into so many of the same problems less than one full month into the 2015 campaign.
In 2014, the rotation (which consisted mostly of Cueto, Mike Leake, Alfredo Simon, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos) threw more innings (1,023.2) and allowed a lower opponent batting average (.236) than any other in the majors, while finishing third in rotation ERA (3.37). It was undoubtedly the best season-long performance by a Reds starting five in the past two decades … and that team finished 76-86. The Reds failure to capitalize on last year’s starting pitching should be one of the great disappointments in recent Cincinnati sporting history.
This should be very frightening for fans in 2015, given that the Reds rotation came into the season with apparent downgrades at two of the five rotation spots (Jason Marquis for Mat Latos, and Anthony DeSclafani for Alfredo Simon), and now Homer Bailey’s long-term injury leaves the Reds with only two members of their strongest unit from last season. Like last season, the Reds rotation currently ranks in the top five in all of baseball in ERA (3.25), innings pitched (130), and opponent batting average (.222), but those numbers hinge upon the performance of 23-year-old Michael Lorenzen (Bailey’s current replacement, who gave up eight hits and three home runs in his debut Wednesday), and whether or not DeSclafani (2-1, 1.04) can continue his impressive showing in the three spot. They’ll have to, as the Reds offense and bullpen have shown no real signs of improvement from last season.
One of the Reds only All-Stars and arguably their most powerful bat, catcher Devin Mesoraco, is currently missing time with a mysterious injury that he could ‘theoretically’ play with, but isn’t for precautionary reasons. And 77 f***ing words later, neither Reds manager Bryan Price nor Mesoraco is really saying anything about it.
Does that sound familiar? Last year it was Joey Votto’s knee, this year it’s Mesoraco’s hip impingement. (Impingement is just a fancy way of saying “We don’t really know what’s wrong, and it could be very serious, or it could be not that serious at all.”) Either way, Mesoraco is only playing as an occasional/ineffective pinch hitter, and that unfortunately negates some of the production that’s come with the return of Joey Votto to the lineup. Mesoraco notched 25 homers and 80 RBI in 2014 in just 381 at bats, which would’ve put ranked him among the top five in the league in both home runs and RBI per at bat if he’d reached the 400 at-bat qualifying mark. It was Votto’s bat that was missing last year, and the rolls have seemingly been reversed.
While Zack Cozart (.282) is having the best opening month of his career, there are major concerns elsewhere in the infield. Todd Frazier’s power (6 HR, 15 RBI) seems to have carried over from last season, but his average is way down at .240 and he’s popping out at a rate reminiscent of his forgettable 2013 campaign. Meanwhile, Brandon Phillips (.275) has just two extra base hits in 21 games, and appears to have lost a lot of pop, not to mention yet another step on the base paths. More concerning yet, he’s already committed more errors (3), all of which were on relatively easy plays, than he did all of last season when he helped the Reds lead the Majors in fielding percentage (.988).
The following is an actual exchange between my father and I while driving back to Cincinnati from Hell (also known as Wichita, Kansas) two weeks ago. The Reds trailed the St. Louis Cardinals 4-1. Two defensive lapses had led to a bases clearing double for Yadier Molina, and the end of Cueto’s night, in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Dad: Cueto has to be the unluckiest pitcher in the league, and here comes the bullpen to make it worse.
Me: At least they have J.J. Hoover working, he’s probably their best option.
Dad: That’s sad to think.
Me: Jesus, two years ago I literally wrote a post somewhat dedicated to the curse of J.J. Hoover. Now he’s the Reds best relief option. Where’s Danny Graves when you need him?
Hoover gave up two runs in that inning, and four runs in his next outing, and he’s still the team’s best middle relief option. It’s hard to fathom, but the Reds bullpen is somehow worse than it was last year. Yes, this year’s group is worse than the one that lost 31 games last year despite throwing the fewest innings of any bullpen in all of baseball. Not counting any of Aroldis Chapman’s 10.2 scoreless innings, the rest of the Reds pen has allowed 41 runs in just 44.1 innings pitched. There are multiple contributing factors–Jumbo Diaz not maintaining the same form as last year, and Sam LeCure failing to be part of the equation at all come to mind. But it can’t be understated that Kevin Gregg and Burke Badenhop–the two offseason additions that were supposed to significantly improve the bullpen–have allowed 20 (!!) of the 41 runs given up by Reds relievers this season. Sadly, conventional baseball wisdom says that Chapman or Cueto will be gone after the All-Star Break if the Reds, and especially the bullpen, aren’t back on track by then.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment/concern for the Reds through the first month of the season is the production of their outfielders, who have a combined average .190. The Reds win if Billy Hamilton gets on base, as he did in the first half of last season. But he’s just sixth on the team with an OBP of .282 right now, and his average has dropped to .218. It’s hard to keep him in the leadoff spot with those numbers, but it’s even harder to remove his speed from the top of the order. And who would the Reds put in his place? Cozart’s numbers are already dropping after his move from the eight spot to the two spot, and there isn’t really another option. In left field, Marlon Byrd is looking like one of the team’s worst trades in recent history, having produced just 8 RBI to go along with 24 strikeouts and a .162 average. The outlook in right is no better, with Jay Bruce struggling even more than he did last year at .188 with 25 K’s. Bruce historically fairs poorly in April before leveling out in May, but he’ll have to do more work than usual next month.
The complaints from Reds fans all offseason long wasn’t that the Reds didn’t do enough to improve for the 2015 season. It was that the Reds didn’t do anything to improve for the 2015 season except try to get healthy. Through the first month of the season, you can tell.
Joshua A. Miller is a Nuxhall Way and Cincinnati Magazine contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @_J_A_Miller.