Hope Springs Eternal in Redsland, but Hope Gets Really Boring

The Reds officially ended their season Sept. 28 with a fivegame losing streak. They unofficially ended their season with a five-game losing streak at the end of July. It seemed like the Reds were always on a five-game losing streak this year. At least we

Oct 1, 2008 at 2:06 pm

The Reds officially ended their season Sept. 28 with a fivegame losing streak. They unofficially ended their season with a five-game losing streak at the end of July. It seemed like the Reds were always on a five-game losing streak this year.

At least we know where they stand. Since the end of last season, the Reds hired Dusty Baker as their field manager, signed Coco Cordero to close out their bullpen, traded Josh Hamilton for Edinson Volquez, fired General Manager Wayne Krivsky in favor of Walt Jocketty and traded away Junior Griffey and Adam Dunn. At the end of all that, the Reds finished 74-88, two whole games ahead of their 72-90 effort in 2007.

The Red finished solidly in fifth place in the National League Central, way behind St. Louis and way ahead of Pittsburgh. They’re so far out of contention we can’t even see it from here.

Within the NL Central alone, the Chicago Cubs are well on the path to new seriousness under Lou Piniella, and the Milwaukee Brewers put the finishing touches on their maturing club by firing high-strung manager Ned Yost with 12 games left in the season.

At the very best, the Reds are a third place club for the next year or two, and that’s only if patchworks in St. Louis and Houston come apart at the seams. After eight straight years of losing, the Reds are completely an afterthought in baseball.

The Pirates have been worse for longer, but no one else has lost more consistently than the Reds during the 21st century. Even the Tampa Bay Rays have escaped from losing. When will that happen for the Reds?

For the last several years at various times, we’ve all sketched out scenarios in which the Reds might return to the playoffs. Every scenario includes a measure of hope.

Between the Reds and Bengals, all the local fans can do is hope. It is said that hope is eternal, but we know too well the unspoken truth about hope: Hope is boring.

Hope is a game the fans play with themselves because the real game they’re watching is hopeless. When hope becomes hopeless, the ball club really is in trouble. The Reds are headed that way, if they’re not there already.

If you still have hope, it’s because you see the raw ingredients of a pitching staff. The emergence of players like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce is nice, but the Reds have produced hitters for more than a decade with nothing to show for it, mostly because they haven’t also developed pitchers. But we’re starting to see young pitching come through Great American Ball Park, and maybe that’s why your hope today is different from your hope a year ago.

Volquez is 32 starts older when the Reds open 2009, and Johnny Cueto will be 31 starts older. The two horses at the start of this season, Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, both struggled at times this year. If Harang can return to being an ace level pitcher, Volquez can remain an ace level pitcher, Cueto improves and Arroyo is a little bit better, the Reds have a chance to win.

A year and a half after Reds fans put out the call for Homer Bailey, the kid is 22 with a 4-8 major league record. Do you trade him? Of course not. He’s a No. 1 draft choice.

If that investment means anything, the Reds need to give him his chance to put it all together. Yet he needs to be putting it together next year at the major league level. If the Reds are still seasoning Bailey in 2009, they might have cause for concern.

But there’s more to pitching than pitching. The adage, of course, is that defense is 75 percent of baseball and pitching is 75 percent of defense. And when you walked away from a Reds game for the last several years, it probably was over a galling defensive misplay.

So long as the Reds can’t catch it or throw it, it won’t matter how well they pitch it because too many batted balls bring the circus to town and turn good enough pitching into big innings.

At no position does one examine the Reds and see a satisfactory situation defensively, except for Brandon Phillips at second base, and he’s not a gold glover either. If, as expected, Alex Gonzalez returns from injury to play shortstop next year, he’ll upgrade their middle defense. But their defense at the infield corners lacks range and, especially with Edwin Encarnacion at third base, they can’t be sure what’s going to happen even when they field the ball.

The notion of moving Encarnacion to first base and putting Votto in the outfield appears to have gained advocates. It’s a bad idea. Given a choice between hiding a defensive liability at third base or first base, the smart money is on third base. Better to just leave Encarnacion at third and hope he hits more while next year’s shortstop relieves some of the defensive pressure.

The outfield is wide open, depending on how the club decides to use Bruce, which likely will depend on who they can acquire by other means. Bruce gives them the flexibility to put him in center field, though he didn’t set the world on fire this year as a glove man. Along with the need for two outfielders, the Reds also need offensive tools to go with those positions, especially a right-handed power hitter and a reliable leadoff man.

With all their young pitchers, the Reds particularly need a catcher who understands the National League and might kick in with a big hit now and then. If they can’t find an NL veteran, they might be smart to swing a deal with the Texas Rangers, who have an abundance of catching prospects.

Jocketty certainly is in for a busy winter, because the Reds ended their season unsettled at catcher, shortstop and two outfield positions. Reds fans can only hope. But if the front office doesn’t get busy, that’s likely to end, too.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]