Batter Up! Who Will the Cincinnati Reds Put on the Field at Great American Ball Park in 2022?

After a nail-biter of a lockout, baseball is finally back. But what does that mean for frustrated Reds fans?

click to enlarge Great American Ball Park is once again ready to welcome Cincinnati Reds fans. - photo: provided by the Cincinnati Reds
photo: provided by the Cincinnati Reds
Great American Ball Park is once again ready to welcome Cincinnati Reds fans.

Editor’s note: This story is based upon team and league information that was accurate as of press time. As hot-stove season continues, players may find themselves on other teams by the time you read this.

It’s a strange time to be a Cincinnati sports fan — as neglected and win-hungry a group as any in the fandom universe.

The Bengals, long criticized for their inept ownership and cheap, antiquated ways, made a surprise run to the Super Bowl behind emergent quarterback Joe Burrow and a bevy of uncommonly savvy organizational moves. The rabid fan response to the Bengals’ success, which included the team’s first playoff win in more than 30 years and its first Super Bowl appearance since the 1988 season, proved what old heads have long known — Cincinnati and the surrounding Tri-State region is home to one of most passionate and involved fan bases in sports.

We’ll support a winner as robustly as anyone. But winning — at least consistently and at the highest level — has been elusive over the last three decades. An entire generation of fans has yet to gather at Fountain Square to spray Hudy Delight into the air while celebrating a title. Cincinnati’s last major sports championship occurred in 1990, as the Reds swept their way to a World Series win back when George H.W. Bush called the White House home, the Internet was barely a whisper and I was a freshman in college.

While the Bengals were making their historic worst-to-nearly-first Super Bowl run this year, the Reds were one of 30 Major League Baseball teams involved in the sport’s first work stoppage since the 1994-1995 players’ strike, which, coincidently, is the last time the Reds won a playoff series. Mercifully, after a 99-day lockout, MLB owners and the MLB Players Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement on March 10, clearing the way for a full 162-game schedule (the games that MLB had previously said were canceled now will be made up as double headers).

Baseball’s back! But what’s up with our Cincinnati Reds?

Despite coming off consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2013, the Reds appear to be in a precarious place. The front office has made a number of puzzling moves since the end of the 2021 season, leading fans to worry that a rebuild is in the works. In November, the Reds traded longtime catcher Tucker Barnhart to the Detroit Tigers. Soon thereafter the team let go of Wade Miley, one of the most effective starting pitchers last year, for essentially nothing.

And after the lookout ended this month, the Reds traded Sonny Gray, another established starting pitcher, to the Minnesota Twins for a young prospect. A day later, they jettisoned a pair of fan favorites, third baseman Eugenio Suárez and outfielder Jesse Winker, to the Seattle Mariners in return for what experts have deemed a mixed bag.

Then there’s Winker’s fellow All-Star outfield compadre Nick Castellanos, who opted out of his remaining two contract years to become a free agent. Castellanos said he was open to returning, but it’s clear the Reds have no interest in bringing him back in what would be a longer-term, bigger-money deal; Reds general manager Nick Krall said March 12 that the team had “not been engaged with his representatives.” (Right before press time, Castellanos joined the Philadelphia Phillies.)

What additional moves loom for the Reds before opening day on April 7? We’re not sure, but fan reaction to the situation has been strong and unrelenting, yielding the hashtag #SellTheTeamBob, a reference to Reds CEO Bob Castellini. In response to questions about the team’s direction going forward, Krall said in a press release, “We must align our payroll to our resources and continue focusing on scouting and developing young talent from within our system.”

In a vacuum, that’s a reasonable response, given the Reds' status as a small-market team, but many of the guys they’ve moved were on relatively team-friendly contracts and were well liked in the clubhouse and beyond. A recent report in The Los Angeles Times indicated that Castellini has the smallest net worth ($400 million) of any owner in the league (for context, two thirds of MLB owners are worth north of $1 billion). Whether that’s accurate or not, the Reds’ ownership has shown a commitment to winning in the past. For proof, see the 2019 offseason — the Reds spent as never before to grab free agents like Castellanos and Miley as well infielder Mike Moustakas and outfielder Shogo Akiyama in an effort to, as the organization said at the time, “bring a championship to Cincinnati.”

The diverging front-office approach between 2019 and the present day is enough to cause whiplash. Yet none other than Reds icon and Cincinnati native Pete Rose, a guy who knows a thing or two about winning and the allocation of finances, backed Castellini in recent years.

“I know the guy who owns the Reds, Mr. Castellini,” Rose said in an interview I did with him for CityBeat in 2017. “He’s got a long pocketbook. He’s put a lot of money into the team without results, so it’s not the owner’s fault by any stretch of the imagination.”

“If you told Mr. Castellini, ‘You go do this, you go do that, and we’ll win,’ he would go do that and do this. So, it’s up to the people who are putting this team together to get off their ass and make things happen. It’s all about knowing personnel and knowing what the team needs,” Rose continued.

So where does this leave baseball’s oldest professional franchise as we look ahead to the 2022 season? Has the pandemic, which hit right after the team’s largest free-agent expenditure ever, affected the team’s bottom line more than fans realize? Is this the beginning of a rebuild, or is it just a reset?

A born and bred Cincinnatian, the 80-year-old Castellini no doubt knows how much the Reds mean to generations of fans. But will he ever deliver what has been so elusive in the 16 years since he took the organizational reins?

Roots of a Reds junkie

I grew up on the West Side of Cincinnati in the afterglow of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, which means the Cincinnati Reds have been a part of my life as far back as I can remember.

One of the first books I read as a kid was Pete Rose’s Winning Baseball, a guide about how to play the game like a big-leaguer. My grandmother’s house was less than a mile from Rose’s Bridgetown home as well as from the batting cage he used to frequent near Ron’s Roost in the 1980s. My dad once beat the big-leaguer in a game of pinball, a result Rose didn’t take too well; he immediately demanded a rematch.

click to enlarge The Cincinnati Reds are baseball's oldest professional franchise. - Photo: Allison Babka
Photo: Allison Babka
The Cincinnati Reds are baseball's oldest professional franchise.

Johnny Bench’s Home Plate restaurant near Northgate Mall was a short drive away. Bench’s nationally syndicated TV show The Baseball Bunch was a Saturday-morning staple in the early 1980s (I would one day, years later, end up painting the gutters on Bench’s home, which is a story for another time).

Reds-related talk and paraphernalia were everywhere, and not only in Cincinnati. It’s hard to underestimate — or to properly convey to those who weren’t there — just how ubiquitous the Reds’ reach was in those days.

I once asked Bill Maher during a phone interview what he knew about Cincinnati. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing?” I replied. “Well, I loved the Big Red Machine,” he said.

For those of a certain age, similar affection abounds.

The 1982 season was the first I remember following from start to finish. The voices of longtime Reds broadcasters Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall, which emanated from my old transistor radio, provided the soundtrack to our neighborhood Wiffle ball games. The 1982 season was also the first and only time in Reds history the team would finish with 100 or more losses (101, to be exact), which is kind of amazing given the fact that they’ve been around since the 1880s.

That was a rude awakening for a franchise coming off a decade-plus run that would cement the Big Red Machine as one of the greatest assemblages of talent in MLB history. But the losing season didn’t matter to my young, baseball-obsessed self. Long-forgotten names like Eddie Milner, Paul Householder, Bruce Berenyi, Wayne Krenchicki and Alex Trevino — in addition to better-known figures like Bench, Mario Soto, Ron Oester, Tom Hume and Dave Concepcion — will forever live on as Reds legends in my mind.

Of course, the team wasn’t down for long. After five years away, Rose came back to Cincinnati in 1984 as a player-manager, breaking the all-time MLB hits record in 1985, leading the Reds to four straight winning seasons from ’85 through ’88 and leaving a talented roster for Lou Piniella, who would guide the team to a World Series title in 1990 — a year after Rose was banned for betting on baseball.

Decades later, for better or worse, Rose remains synonymous with Cincinnati and the Reds.

'We haven't done enough winning'

The Reds will open the 2022 season on the road (April 7, against the Atlanta Braves) for the first time in 32 years — which, coincidentally, is the last time they won the World Series (the Opening Day parade, postponed the last two years due to the pandemic, reportedly will return for the home opener April 12 against the Cleveland Guardians).

The roster is obviously in flux, but one thing seems clear amid the current organizational turbulence: Joey Votto, the best Reds player of his generation and a likely lock for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, is not going anywhere. The beloved first baseman, who has long said he wants to remain a lifetime Redleg, has a no-trade clause in his contract and can veto any move out of Cincinnati. He also is due $57 million over the next two years (with a $20 million club option in 2024), which is a massive sum for possible trade partners to consider for a 38-year-old.

click to enlarge Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto is the team’s elder statesman. - photo: provided by the Cincinnati Reds
photo: provided by the Cincinnati Reds
Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto is the team’s elder statesman.

Elsewhere, the pieces for the Reds to at least compete are there, but a lot has to go right. Young catcher Tyler Stephenson looks like a future All-Star if he can take another step forward as the full-time starter. Second baseman Jonathan India, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, seems nowhere near his ceiling. Promising youngster José Barrero will battle versatile veteran Kyle Farmer for the shortstop spot. The oft-injured veteran Moustakas will take over as the everyday third baseman, which is concerning.

With Winker and Castellanos gone, the outfield is the biggest question mark. Former top prospect Nick Senzel has to stay healthy and productive, which might be a pipe dream. Tyler Naquin was a nice surprise last year, but can he do it again? Akiyama has been a disappointment at the plate in his first two years after coming over from Japan, but he remains the team’s best glove in the outfield. And who knows what to make of Aristides Aquino?

Barring additional roster subtractions, the ever-mysterious Luis Castillo — who has Cy Young stuff if he can command his pitches more consistently — and Tyler Mahle — who keeps getting better — will anchor the starting rotation. Vladimir Gutirréz showed flashes last year; he’ll need to be better in 2022. Top prospects Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo should make their MLB debuts, but what kind of innings loads will they be allowed to take on? The bullpen is likely to find the dynamic Lucas Sims in the closer role, with a number of solid if not exactly inspiring options behind him.

Want a prediction? A .500 record and a third-place finish in the NL Central seems optimistic, but that could be enough to earn a playoff berth in the newly expanded playoff structure (now six teams from each league rather than five).

Votto recently spoke with Mark Sheldon of about concerns that he might not be around to help deliver the team’s first playoff success in a generation.

“It would be a shame for the last clinching game of my career to be in an empty stadium in Minnesota (when the Reds nabbed a postseason berth in a battle with the Twins on Sept. 26, 2020),” Votto said. “I’m grateful for that moment but I have higher expectations to be part of other large Major League moments. That’s without question concerning to me. I’ve been in the same uniform my entire career. We haven’t done enough winning.

We agree, Joey.

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