No Cincinnati Reds fan under the age of 60 has experienced a three-year stretch quite like the one their team finished last fall. The Reds won fewer than 70 games in 2015, 2016 and 2017 — something that hadn’t happened three seasons in a row since the early 1950s.
The Reds finished last each year after a 32-year stretch in which they never finished last. They trailed the National League Central Division leader by at least 10 games for 67.6 percent of the last three seasons. On average, they sat 15½ games back in the division at the All-Star break during that span.
These were dark days for Reds baseball, and there’s no guarantee they’re over. On the other hand, Opening Day brings hope, if not necessarily sunshine. The forecast for Thursday calls for a high of 57 and rain. However, there are plenty of reasons to head to Great American Ball Park to see the Reds open the season against the Washington Nationals — Frisch’s hot fudge cake is now being sold at the stadium for one — and to keep following them in the months ahead.
There’s the brilliance of first baseman Joey Votto, the promise of Luis Castillo’s young arm and the excitment of seeing outfielder Jesse Winker play his first full season in the big leagues. Patient fans have watched the rebuilding project with anticipation, pointing to 2018 as the year when things might start to turn. There are signs that it could happen and reasons to doubt that it will.
"It's going to be a better team if some of these young pitchers stand up and become the pitchers this organization felt they would be when they even drafted them or traded for them," Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman said during spring training on WHIO's Mike Hartsock's podcast. "Now there's always that possibility — God forbid, worst-case scenario — that none of them are, and if that's the case, then they're in real trouble."
If three or four of the young pitchers perform well, Brennaman said, “then this could be a year totally unexpected from a lot of people.”
Here are seven storylines to watch in the 2018 season:
1. Young starters: By default, the Reds starting pitching staff should be better. It can't be much worse than it was last season, especially in the first half.
At the break a year ago, the starters had a 5.91 ERA, the worst in baseball by almost a full point. The rotation improved in the second half and finished with a 5.55 ERA. Castillo (3-7, 3.12 ERA) provided the biggest spark last season and remains the brightest spot entering this season.
Sal Romano (5-8, 4.45) and Tyler Mahle (1-2, 2.70) will likely begin the season in the rotation. They have competed this spring with Amir Garrett (3-8, 7.39), Cody Reed (1-1, 5.09), Robert Stephenson (5-6, 4.68) and Michael Lorenzen (8-4, 4.45).
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2. Injury situation: Anthony DeSclafani, who didn't pitch at all in 2017, suffered another oblique injury this spring and won't be ready for Opening Day. Brandon Finnegan, limited to four starts in 2017 because of injuries, had a smaller setback but could return to the rotation in early April.
"I would be lying if I didn't say it'd be nice to have a starting rotation in tact of guys we anticipated being there," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "But we've been in this position before. We'll deal with it and hit the ground running with what we have. What we do have is good though. I like the young guys we have in the rotation."
Homer Bailey (6-9, 6.43) didn’t get his season going until June 24 last season but pitched the rest of the season and could start against the Washington Nationals on Opening Day.
» MCCOY: Mahle solidifying spot in rotation
3. Votto's excellence: Whether the Reds contend or not, fans can always tune in to see Votto, who finished second in MVP voting in a year in which he turned 34. This will be Votto's 12th season with the Reds. He played all 162 games last season and hit 36 home runs, one short of the career high he set in his MVP season of 2010.
4. New relievers: Veteran right-handers David Hernandez, 32, and Jared Hughes, 32, signed two-year deals in the offseason. Left-hander Oliver Perez, 36, is another newcomer who could find a home in the bullpen.
The star reliever remains closer Raisel Iglesias, who saved 28 games last season and posted a career-best 2.49 ERA.
5. More Scooter: The surprise last season was Scooter Gennett, who the Reds selected off waivers six days before the start of the season. He hit a career-high 27 home runs and provided the most memorable moment of the season, slugging four home runs in one game June 6 against the Cardinals. He'll start at second base as Jose Peraza, last year's Opening Day starter at second, takes over at shortstop for Zack Cozart, who's now with the Angels.
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6. Outfield rotation: The Reds plan to rotate four players in the outfield: Winker, Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Scott Schebler.
Winker debuted last season and hit .298 in 47 games. Duvall has 64 home runs in his first two full seasons with the Reds. Hamilton saw his average drop from .260 to .247 last season but remains one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. Schebler hit a career-high 30 home runs last season.
7. Year five: Price enters his fifth season with a career record of 276-372. The Reds announced last September they had exercised an option to bring him back from 2018. At that time, he admitted the team would have to show improvement soon if he wanted to keep his job.
“You should get what you earned,” he said. “Since I’ve been the manager here we haven’t been real competitive. That shouldn’t put me on sound footing as the manager. What should is that from 2017 to 2018 we make significant improvements or they’re going to have to look at the direction of the club. One thing we do is we play hard. I don’t feel like I’m getting questioned a ton about managerial decisions, bullpen usage, lineup issues, etc. The last thing I’m going to worry about is the contract, because All-Star break 2015, the baseball community had me out of here – but I’m still here, and that’s really a credit to our ownership and front office to understand what we’re doing and what’s ahead of us. You get what you earn here. Until we show signs of great improvement, I’m in exactly the position I should be in.”
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