s this the year the Cincinnati Reds finally break through and give long-suffering local sports fans something to get excited about?
The Reds have made the postseason three of the last four years, winning 90 or more games each time, but it’s been nearly two decades since baseball’s oldest franchise has won a playoff series. And they’ve not just lost in recent postseasons, they’ve been humiliated: no-hit and swept in 2010; a home-field collapse in 2012; and routed by none other than the Pittsburgh Pirates in last year’s NL wild card game.
By contrast, our hated division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, have won two World Series championships and made it as far as the NLCS a staggering nine times since the Reds last claimed a postseason success, a sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1995 NL Division Series, back when Marge Schott still held the ownership reins and Billy Hamilton was in preschool.
Current Reds’ owner Bob Castellini is determined to reverse the tide. He’s raised the payroll from $60 million when he took over in 2006 to almost $107 million last year, and in just the last 11 months the organization has signed a trio of players (Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Homer Bailey) to contracts worth $382 million. He’s clearly committed to winning now and in the future.
Probably just as important, it seems regular season success is no longer good enough, which brings us to the biggest change this offseason: Pitching coach Bryan Price has replaced Dusty Baker as manager, a promotion that was as sensible as it was unimaginative.
There’s no denying Price has done good things with the pitching staff during his tenure, which includes the development of current staff staples Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani, Alfredo Simon, J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Manny Parra and Aroldis Chapman. The deep, still-evolving group — plus on-the-mend veterans Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall — is the strength of this Reds club, the best and most convincing reason we could be celebrating on Fountain Square come October.
They’ll be backed by a stellar defense that had MLB’s best Defensive Efficiency Ratio in 2013, an illuminating statistic that should only improve with the fleet-footed Hamilton taking over for the out-of-position Shin-Shoo Choo in centerfield. (Speaking of sabermetrics, Price will likely embrace the new-school data much more openly and effectively than Baker, an old-school guy who sometimes went with his gut when logic might have been more prudent.)
Yet a large, Twitter-enabled swath of Reds Country complained that the team did little to improve during the offseason, a sentiment that’s understandable — if not entirely fair.
The Reds did lose Choo’s potent bat and rotation mainstay Bronson Arroyo to free agency, and their various pickups (utility man Skip Schumaker, outfielder Roger Bernadina and catcher Brayan Pena) aren’t exactly game-changers. Then there’s the fact that, despite grabbing one of the wild card spots, they finished 2013 third in the division behind St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
But few are taking into account that they won 90 games despite suffering several key injuries that would have demoralized lesser teams: staff ace Cueto missed two-thirds of the season; cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick injured his shoulder on opening day and missed more than four months; and valuable (and well paid) setup men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton pitched only 41 combined innings, about a third of what was expected.
Castellini rightly brought up the injuries in a curious, overly defensive interview with The Enquirer a few weeks back, during which he blamed the media for the perception that the team’s lack of significant offseason moves was a bad thing.
“Personally, I get a little ticked off,” Castellini said. “That’s life. But it’s the franchise. (Chief Operating Officer) Phil (Castellini) and his guys are out there trying to sell 20-game packages. It hurts when (the media is obsessed with money). It came at the wrong time with the wrong emphasis. That hurts us. If you’re going to write that we didn’t sign anybody, at least write that we had (Johnny) Cueto, (Ryan) Ludwick and all these other guys hurt.”
Perhaps the most curious source of consternation is Votto’s so-called lack of production. “We’re paying the guy a quarter of a billion dollars! The least he could do is give us more than 73 RBI!” argued the typically aggrieved Reds fan.
Let’s look at the facts: Votto was second in MLB with a .435 on-base percentage, which in turn allowed him to finish fourth (first in the NL) in the all-important statistic of Runs Created. Yeah, we’re employing another newfangled sabermetric argument, but, last we checked, the team with the most runs wins the game. It’s no coincidence the two players hitting directly behind him, Phillips and Jay Bruce, each drove in more than 100 runs — the first time a pair of Reds have hit the century mark in the same season since Johnny Bench and George Foster in 1977.
Votto is the least of the Reds worries. Likewise, Bruce has emerged as one of the most underrated players in baseball, a Gold Glove caliber right fielder whose in-season streakiness belies his consistent power totals (he’s averaged 32 home runs and 102 RBI over the last three seasons). And say what you will about Phillips’ off-field antics — the guy remains one of the game’s best-fielding second basemen, and his ability to hit wherever he’s needed in the lineup is an under-appreciated aspect of his team-first approach.
As has been noted far and wide, the biggest question going into Opening Day 2014 is whether Hamilton can be an effective leadoff hitter. If last year’s brief call-up and this spring’s output is any indication, the answer is yes. He doesn’t need to wield a Rickey Henderson-like bat; he just needs to cause havoc with his legs, which is all but assured barring a total collapse at the plate.
The real key to the Reds’ chances of postseason success lies with two guys who, for one reason or another, are coming off disappointing seasons: Ludwick and third baseman Todd Frazier, who carried the team in 2012 when Votto was out with injury. If they can stabilize the Reds’ often inconsistent offensive output, a deep run in October is not out of the question.
That’s a big if, but it’s the best we got. Well, that and one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.
OPENING DAY is Monday, March 31. The Findlay Market Opening Day Parade leaves Over-the-Rhine at noon, and the Reds take on the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park at 4:10 p.m.