Every spring, as baseball’s Opening Day approaches, all begins to seem right with the world. Daffodils bloom. Bumblebees buzz around searching for nectar. Birds provide a soundtrack to our mornings. Butterflies flitter about. And Reds fans get irrationally excited about their team’s chances of returning to the summit.
This year, finally, something different is afoot. Fans are going to have a substantially improved team to obsess over, and while a World Series probably isn’t destined for the 2019 Reds, they should be a lot of fun. After what we’ve endured in recent years, I’ll take fun.
After all, for half a decade, fun has been in short supply in Cincinnati. The Reds have been also-rans in the National League Central Division since the day in October 2013 that Johnny Cueto dropped a baseball in Pittsburgh on the way to a Wild Card loss. Each of the past four seasons have ended in last place, with the Reds losing at least 94 games every year, the most inept stretch of Reds baseball since the Great Depression.
You can’t really quantify “fun,” though. So the real question as the season begins is this: Just how good can these Reds be?
You know that, over the winter, the Reds made great strides in improving the club in a number of different ways, as I discussed last week in my offseason review. In fact, pretty much all of the established projection systems see the Reds as a .500 team. Here, for example, is a composite of some of the mathematical projection systems that predicts an 81-81 record for Cincinnati. Fangraphs and Clay Davenport each have the Reds somewhere in the middle of the pack with a .500 record.
Yes, I know that bringing math into the conversation dampens the fun for many, so I won’t linger here except to say that it’s not just our lyin’ eyes that tell us Cincinnati’s roster is vastly improved. The data geeks agree with us.
But, I hear you saying: Only 81 wins? They ain’t making the playoffs with 81 wins! Well, that’s true, of course. But if you’re looking to be optimistic—and it’s spring in Cincinnati, you should be looking to be optimistic!—the fact that the Reds appear to have constructed a competitive roster allows us to dream a bit and enjoy some not-so-irrational excitement.
First, I have to go back to the numbers again. Every one of the projection systems sees the NL Central as the tightest division in baseball. Davenport projects first and last place in the Central to be separated by just five wins (with the Reds tied for second place). Baseball Prospectus sees a six-game separation, while Fangraphs projects a nine-game difference between the division’s best and worst teams. One model has the Cubs in first place, another has them in last place. Essentially, the division is a crapshoot, which means the Reds will be right in the thick of things.
And here’s where we leave the math behind us once again. You don’t have to squint very hard to see things going well for the Reds, permitting the club to exceed that 81-win projection. What if Luis Castillo becomes the ace we’ve all been dreaming about? What if Sonny Gray is the pitcher we saw during his years in Oakland? What if Joey Votto shows that last year was just a momentary blip on the radar of his brilliant career?
None of those things—along with a dozen other what-ifs—are unreasonable. Imagine that the Reds get just a whiff of good luck, as opposed to the miserable luck of the last few years. How many wins could we see under that scenario: 84? 88? 92?
If you’re a .500 team, it takes just a couple of things to fall your way to turn the club into a winner. And if the Reds can sneak above .500, things begin to get very interesting. By my count, over the last seven seasons (since the playoff system expanded to include a second Wild Card team), 12 teams have made the playoffs with a win total between 85 and 88 games.
Will the Reds make the playoffs? I’m not ready to predict that, especially since the club has indicated—by sending top prospect Nick Senzel to the minors (where he promptly got hurt) in a cynical ploy to save ownership some money in 2025—that they’re unwilling to go all-out in a bid to win as many games as possible in 2019.
But the current team is certainly much better than the one that stumbled to the finish line last October. There’s been an infusion of new talent that’s going to be completely entertaining, at the very least. Think about it: We get to see Yasiel Puig doing his thing in red and white at Great American Ball Park, licking bats and flipping them after home runs. That’s fun!
We may get to see Castillo mature into a dominant starting pitcher. Perhaps we’ll get to see Michael Lorenzen strike out the side, hit a homer, and then finish the game playing center field. At some point, we’ll see Senzel finally run out of the dugout as a big leaguer. We will definitely get to witness the greatness that is Votto working daily at his craft. That’s fun!
Moreso, even if the Reds are “only” a .500 team this year, that will still mean they’ll be playing meaningful baseball games deep into the season. I’m eager for a mid-September game that actually means something for a change.
Did the Reds go all-in to put a playoff team on the field this year? No, they did not. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have a heckuva good time watching this club. Cincinnati has a revitalized roster with some unique talents and maybe, just maybe, the parts to make a playoff run.
It’s very likely to be the most enjoyable season we’ve seen since 2012. Playoffs or not, I’ll take that. For now.
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.