You learn to live with the bruises as part and parcel of supporting a smaller market team. I will never experience what it is like for Red Sox, Yankees, or Dodgers fans to salivate over the prospect of one of the game’s greats, like Freddie Freeman, joining their franchise.
In May 2021, Bat Flips and Nerds favourite Wade Miley threw a no-hitter. It was his best outing in a 163-inning campaign of 28 starts and a whopping 5.9 WAR. Look at the table below and tell me if that’s any good.
In November 2021, the Cincinnati Reds decided not to pick up the $10 million option on their best pitcher of the season and instead placed Miley on waivers. I’m not saying that the 35-year-old would have outperformed Tyle Mahle, Luis Castillo, and Sonny Gray this season, but in an era where every team is looking for solid starters, the Reds just let 160-innings walk away.
A couple of days earlier, Cincinnati indicated their offseason philosophy by dumping double Gold Glove-winning catcher Tucker Barnhart. With Tyler Stephenson looking ready to assume the top spot, the Reds were happy to give him away for nothing. No offence to Nick Quintana, who came the other way, but he doesn’t feature in the Reds Top-30 prospects.
Dynamic outfielder and all-around nice guy Nick Castellanos unsurprisingly opted out of his contract and declined the qualifying offer. Reds had only been able to sign Castellanos thanks to the opt-out clause, and the deal had been a win-win for both club and player. And although his elite production will be missed by the Great American Ballpark faithful, Reds fans simply share the frustrations of other small-market teams across the country, knowing their club cannot match the wallets of the big boys.
And so, there we have it. Reds made tough decisions to slash millions off of the payroll but looked in a solid position to compete in the winnable NL Central.
Then the lockout happened. Close on 100 days with little to speculate about other than which one of the three starters the Reds would trade and what exciting return would be obtained from the Blue Jays or Mets or Yankees.
Eventually, the lockout ended, and we had a bright new future of 30 competitive teams. And then, Reds ownership went full-on tank in the most personal, gut-wrenching way.
The Minnesota Twins were the surprising winners in the Sonny Gray lottery. The Twins finished dead last in the AL Central while the Reds, with an 83-79 record, just missed the postseason. Yet it is the Reds who are the sellers.
The return for a workhorse pitcher (68 starts for 3.49 ERA in Reds’ colours) looked underwhelming. 19-year-old Chase Petty may develop into a viable starting pitcher, but it is also possible that Reds traded away a 30-game starter for someone who Keith Law describes as “high-effort delivery with some head violence, certainly not one you typically see in a starter.”
Why do the Reds never get good returns?
And then, while sitting at the kitchen table on Monday evening, Jeff Passan ripped my heart out with this tweet that flashed up on my phone.
“Nooooooooooooooo!” My wife and daughter looked at me confused, unsure of what global catastrophe had occurred.
In 2013, I joined an exclusive fantasy baseball dynasty league. It demanded a deep knowledge of upcoming players. I was intrigued by the patience and on-base skills of 19-year-old Jesse Winker. I took him in the prospect draft, and so my fascination with Jesse Winker began.
In 2020, in one of @UKRedsMLB most interacted tweets, my bold prediction was that Jesse Winker would win MVP. I received a lot of abuse, including a memorable one of “that’s why people don’t take Brits who talk about baseball seriously.”
In the accompanying article, I argued that Winker was on the same trajectory as Cody Bellinger, who too had struggled with platoon issues but overcame them to clinch the MVP award. Winker possesses a fantastic batting eye, patience at the plate, and 40-homer power.
Although he hasn’t won the MVP, over the last two seasons combined, Winker has slashed .292/.392/.552 equating to 140 OPS+ (40% better than average).
I re-read the Passan bomb. Damn, I thought, the Mariners must have paid a huge price. No way did they let Julio Rodriguez go, but they must have offered a serious package of talent. After all, Winker is only in his second year of arbitration. He’s paid peanuts.
And then the full horror show materialised when Mark Feinsand’s tweet flashed up.
Eugenio Suarez gone as well! I’m old enough to remember when he hit 49 homers in 2019, and the baseball world talked about him as one of the game’s most underpaid players.
In the same fantasy league as mentioned above, and also in the inaugural season of 2013, I drafted Tigers infielder Eugenio Suarez.
With his bubbly personality and Venezualan charm, Suarez quickly became a fan favourite and developed from a solid 20-homer guy to one of the game’s great sluggers. I don’t know what happened in 2021, but he still hit 31 homers and finished the season as one of the hottest players in baseball with .370 AVG (1.268 OPS) in September.
Reds had traded away two players on modest contracts with five years combined team control.
In exchange, Reds got… well, there are two ways of looking at it.
Glass half empty: With a ceiling as a fourth outfielder, Jake Fraley is a career .198 AVG hitter. Last season, starting pitcher Justin Dunn hit the IL twice with shoulder issues and was restricted to 11 starts. His shoulder is currently under evaluation. If everything goes right for Brandon Williamson, he could be a fourth or fifth starter.
Glass half full: Fraley crushed in the high minors and just needs a chance of regular playing time to be an above-average outfielder. Despite the interruptions, Dunn posted a 3.75 ERA over 11 starts in 2021. 6-foot-6 and on the verge of the majors, Williamson offers tantalising potential and could debut this season.
Fortunately, C. Trent Rosecrans in The Athletic was able to articulate the sense of disbelief better than I could:
Desperate for answers, Reds fans heard from GM Nick Krall, who said, “We’re not trying to rebuild. We’re trying to be the best team we can be in 2022 and also set ourselves up for long-term success and sustainability.”
It doesn’t feel like they are trying to be the best team they can in 2022. If it looks like a rebuild, and quacks like a rebuild, then it is a rebuild. Unless it is just a no-holds-barred payroll slash with no motivation to rebuild.
It is frustrating because the Reds have a talented farm system and are coming off the back of an 83-win season. They were contenders.
I don’t know what happens now and over the next few weeks. Do Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo follow Sonny Gray out of the door? Is Mike Moustakas combo’ed with someone to get his salary off the books? Does Joey Votto leave Cincinnati?
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images