On Monday afternoon, the beginning of the Reds-Giants game was delayed for nearly 20 minutes when a swarm of bees descended on Great American Ball Park. Fortunately, a couple of amateur beekeepers happened to be on hand and the bees were relocated, permitting the game to start.
But the buzz around the Cincinnati Reds remains.
Yikes, I’m really sorry for that pun—but it’s true! The Reds have finally gotten serious about winning baseball games (more on that in a moment) and the next five months should be very interesting indeed.
A few weeks ago, in my season preview here at Cincinnati Magazine, I promised you fun, fun, fun. Then the Reds lost eight of their first nine games, thanks partly to bad luck and partly to management’s refusal to put the best 25 players on the roster in order to save ownership a few bucks. The fan base responded predictably by either falling deeper into a half-decade long funk or just checking out entirely.
Secretly, however, the Reds have been very nearly as fun as we expected them to be. Whether it’s Jesse Winker playing around with Mets fans, Winker and Joey Votto celebrating with a trust fall, or the continuing antics of the most delightful new Reds player, Derek Dietrich, the Reds have been entertaining—even if the play on the field has often been less than stellar. And even that hasn’t been all bad; for example, the starting pitching has been magnificent, with five guys performing at an above-average rate and two (Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray) among the very best in the National League.
If you’re a baseball fan because you like the entertainment and don’t take it too seriously, the 2019 Cincinnati Reds have been a breath of fresh air. However, for many fans who have endured five consecutive last-place finishes, fun (justifiably) isn’t enough. Fortunately, the lineup just got an upgrade and the Reds may be poised to make a move in the National League Central division.
Last weekend, Reds management finally made the moves that should have been made weeks ago. Top prospect Nick Senzel was promoted to the big leagues, followed by his roommate Josh VanMeter, a slugging 24-year-old infielder who has more home runs than anyone in Triple-A this season. The kids replaced Scott Schebler, an ideal fourth outfielder who’s seemed to be pressing all season long (.123/.253/.222) while hearing Senzel’s footsteps behind him, and Matt Kemp, who was summarily released.
Senzel immediately went about proving that he should have been in Cincinnati long ago. In his debut game, he collected his first big league hit and worked the count like an old pro, drawing two bases on balls. The next day, he hit his first home run, an opposite-field blast (after being robbed of one earlier in the game). Two days later, Senzel hit two home runs, giving the kid more homers through his first four games than any Reds player in the last 111 years; he’s also the only Red ever to have a multi-homer game within his first four career games. Yep, it’s fair to say that Senzel was ready for prime time.
For the first time all year, the Reds offense got into gear over those four games as well. Cincinnati scored 37 runs, hammered 15 homers, and hit .280 collectively. You can’t credit Senzel entirely for the offensive explosion, of course, though he helped—this was a lineup that was too good to continue scuffling for much longer.
Finally, after five-plus weeks, the Reds have something approximating the best 25 players on their big league roster. And when Scooter Gennett returns next month, the lineup will be even stronger. Senzel isn’t a savior—he’s a rookie who will experience ups and downs like every other 24-year-old—but his presence on the club makes the team better. Management’s willingness to eat the millions of dollars owed Kemp showed that they could make a tough choice in the service of improving the roster.
So why did the Reds wait so long? It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Cincinnati’s best outfield this year would be Winker, Senzel, and Yasiel Puig; I’m just a dumb guy writing on the interwebs, and I’ve been beating that particular drum for weeks. Meanwhile, despite promises to the contrary before the season, the Reds spent more than a month running Schebler and Kemp (.200/.210/.283) out there in the heart of the lineup every day, at least until Kemp was injured.
Essentially, the Reds wasted more than a month of our lives deliberately putting an inferior product on the field. As a result, they’re back in last place for the sixth consecutive season, and fans have good reason to be frustrated. After all, Cincinnati is 5-11 in one-run games this year; imagine if the Reds had put their best offense on the field* and had been able to go, say, 8-8 in those one-run games instead. Not inconceivable, right? Well, that would have put the Reds above .500 and just three games out of first place.
*To be fair, the sub-par lineup isn’t the only culprit here. Raisel Iglesias, expected to be the best pitcher in a pretty good bullpen, has been at least partially responsible for six of those 11 one-run losses.
And think about this: If the Reds had gone 11-5 in those games, they’d have the second-best record in the National League right now. Yes, this makes my head hurt.
But the flip side of that coin is that there is every reason to believe this team will be competitive for the rest of the season. Let’s be conservative and imagine a world in which the Reds win just six out of every 11 games for the remainder of the 2019 season. That’s just 6-5 every 11 games the rest of the way. If that were to happen, Cincinnati would finish the year with an 84-78 record. How happy would you be with that?
So yes, the Reds intentionally spun their wheels for a little while, but all is not lost. I’m pretty optimistic, as this looks like a team that’s poised to make a bit of a run. Whether they can climb above .500 or not, it’s safe to say that you can settle in for a fun ride the rest of the way.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.