It’s worth remembering just how many flights of stairs the Reds fell down after they decided to fully rebuild. They traded Todd Frazier in an offseason that was overstuffed with third basemen, not the previous trade deadline, when he was an all-star on pace to hit 45 or 50 homers. They traded Johnny Cueto when he had a couple of months left on his contract, not a year-plus, when he would have netted all of the prospects. Brandon Phillips rejected trades that would have helped. And, of course, they traded Aroldis Chapman in the two-month window when teams pretended to care about his domestic violence case, which meant they got a modest return. If they had waited a few more months, they could have received one of the best prospects in baseball.
Compare what they received for their best players to what the White Sox did, and it almost seems unfair. The Reds had players who were just as talented, and they ended up with Scott Schebler and Brandon Finnegan, give or take. This is how their rebuild started. It was a mess.
Somehow, though, the Reds weren’t set back 10 years. They quietly pilfered young talent from other teams and through their own system. Luis Castillo was gifted to them for Dan Straily, which almost makes up for any missteps in that opening paragraph. They started to develop an almost — dare I say it? — Cardinals-like ability to mold young hitters into something worthwhile. Adam Duvall became an unlikely all-star, Scooter Gennett morphed into someone who could hit a ball way farther than anyone named Scooter should, Eugenio Suarez went from a moderately intriguing organizational player to someone with star potential. Or star realization. It’s hard to tell.
So even though they whiffed on a lot of their rebuilding trades, the rebuild is still going strong. They’ve used their screw-it freedom wisely, introducing the world to players like Jesse Winker and other auto-generated names from MLB: The Show. They’ve done so much right. They’ve done so very much right.
And they’re still kinda screwed.
Which is a bit of a cautionary tale.
The Reds fired manager Bryan Price and pitching coach Mack Jenkins on Thursday, which seems just a touch unfair. What, they weren’t competent when they were 3-15, even though they were expected to be something like 7-11? That seems like a gross overreaction to a small sample. If the ENTIRE OFFSEASON was spent thinking that Price and Jenkins were the right crew to lead the rebuild, 18 games shouldn’t change that.
Still, now that we’ve talked about what the Reds have done right, it’s time to talk about what hasn’t gone right.
[unfurls scroll that hits the floor with a thud and rolls and rolls and rolls down a very long hallway]
Mm-hmm, yes, it would appear that the Reds are still struggling to figure out how to baseball. Specifically, how to prevent runs.
The Reds are dead last when it comes to adjusted OPS, and they’re just four runs away from dead last in runs scored. They’re barely ahead of the Giants, who play in a moat of pudding with restrictor bolts jammed into their necks, which is a stark contrast to the homer-friendly Great American Ball Park. But I wouldn’t worry about that. That’s not Bryan Price’s fault. The Suarez and Schebler injuries have hurt, but it’s possible — possible — that Joey Votto won’t hit like Mat Latos for the entire year, and the rest of the lineup should shape up with enough at-bats. They were an above-average lineup last year; they should be an above-average lineup this year, too. They’re young enough to be even better.
It’s the pitching that would worry me if I were a Reds fan, and it’s not like this is a state secret. They gave up 248 FREAKING HOME RUNS LAST YEAR, which was actually an improvement on the 258 FREAKING HOME RUNS THE YEAR BEFORE, ARE YOU SERIOUS, HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN. And as of right now, it would appear the Reds are still unclear about how to keep baseballs from flying into the ionosphere. The lead the league in home runs allowed, and, friends, it’s possible that this will not change.
The Reds, then, are an example of what happens when a team gets half of the rebuild right. That is, nothing happens. Nothing good, at least. Not without money. The Cubs also got half of a rebuild right, with their last outstanding homegrown pitcher being Kerry Wood, give or take. But they spent and spent and looked under rocks and dusted some thrift-store finds off, and it got them their first championship in 7,000 years. They were capable of augmenting their inherent advantages with money and creativity.
This is a template for the Reds if they so choose. They’ll need to be even better at developing their hitters (turning Nick Senzel into an MVP candidate, for example), but they’ll need to prove that they can harness the raw power of Luis Castillo, that they can turn Amir Garrett from a basketball player into a pitcher, that they can keep any of their pitchers healthy long enough to make a difference.
That they can develop pitchers who won’t give up so many freaking home runs.
I don’t know what Price and Jenkins had to do with these problems. You could convince me of “not a whole bunch” or “everything” with one 10-minute conversation. But right now the Reds are like a golfer with consistent, straight 300-yard drives getting up to the green and realizing they have a loaf of sourdough bread instead of a putter. This is how more than half of the rebuilds in baseball will go over the next five years. This is the logical conclusion of a widespread effort to win through youth.
The good news is what the Reds have done right. The bad news is what the Reds have done wrong. The really bad news is that they don’t have to do better just because they’re young. They knew the long road that was ahead of them. They just hoped that long road wasn’t going to be that long. Who could have guessed?
Perhaps a new pitching coach and manager will help. More likely, though, the Reds will need to figure out how to acquire or develop better pitchers. It turns out that all 30 teams are trying to do the same thing, and it’s really, really hard.
Really, really, really hard. Just ask Mack Jenkins.