The Chicago Cubs weren’t the only noteworthy marker the Reds blew by during their dramatic, winning home stand. They also passed the mid-way point of the 2021 season. The 43-40 Reds are closer to the postseason than their Opening Day. It’s a great time to figure out what we’ve learned about the team in the first half of the season.
We know David Bell’s players aren’t going to quit. Game after game, they have rallied to find ways to win: 15-9 in one-run games and 8-3 in extra innings. Even in games they’ve lost, the Reds put up a fight until the last pitch.
Evidence of the team’s passion and resilience is everywhere. Nick Castellanos flexing. 37-year-old Joey Votto still banging. The waiver-filled bullpen overcoming skepticism and injuries to its leaders. Two rookies having impact in big moments. The third-string catcher playing a rock-solid shortstop. Veteran starting pitchers getting healthy and back to form. Or exceeding it. Jesse Winker, the other starting All-Star outfielder, crying.
As a fan, you can’t help but be swept away by this team’s determination. As local sports radio host Mo Egger pointed out yesterday, this team was worth investing in.
The second lesson from these past three months is that all the teams in the NL Central have flaws. We suspected this in March and it has proven true. The Pirates, Cardinals and Cubs have struggled and are now looking up at the Reds in the standings. The Brewers did rattle off ten consecutive wins before losing today, but those games were largely against teams at the bottom of the standings or heading down. To be sure, Milwaukee has tremendous starting pitching and a tough back end of the bullpen, but its offense ranks toward the bottom of the NL in batting average, hitting for power and strikeouts.
Moreover, the Reds are 22-12 against the NL Central and have winning records against every team in the division: Cubs (6-3), Brewers (5-4), Cardinals (6-4) and Pirates (5-1). In the first half of the season, the Reds have proven they can catch the Brewers and win the title for the first time since 2012.
So, the team is willing and able to win. That leaves one vital question unanswered: Will the Reds owners and front office be as good at its team?
The Castellini family made the conservative decision — one chosen by more than half of major league teams — to cut payroll after playing the 2020 season without fans due to COVID-19 regulations. Ownership aborted the plan Dick Williams had put in place over the 2019 (get the pitching) and 2020 (get the hitting) off-seasons to slingshot that spending into 2021 and beyond. Both Bob and son Phil Castellini have said the payroll cuts were due to lingering uncertainty about the effects of the virus on 2021 attendance revenues, namely when would fans be allowed back into Great American Ball Park and would they show up when the gates opened?
Those doubts have been allayed. Fans were permitted back into America’s baseball stadiums sooner than most in the industry had expected. Reds fans have returned. More than 100,000 packed GABP for each of the past two weekend series. Whether you believed ownership had a legitimate cause for taking a financial step back, that excuse is past its expiration date and soon will reek.
Indeed, the front office has been busy selling fans that the next few weeks would let everyone know how good the team is. Truth is, we already know the answer to that. Instead, the next few weeks will tell us how good the front office and owners are. Unlike the team, who we see putting out max effort every game, we’ve witnessed precious little evidence of that virtue from the owner’s box and executive suites on Joe Nuxhall Way.
It’s not a given they’re up to the challenge.
For whatever reason, possibly a leadership transition, ownership has lacked visibility the past few months. It has failed to make a clear statement to fans about its intentions to field a winning team in 2021. We’ve received cryptic and abbreviated statements and scripted interviews. A sentence here, a garbled, qualified cliche there. Our intelligence been subjected to the ridiculous and insulting statement about a strategy of “waiting to get healthy to figure how best to go.”
The Reds do have roster issues that need fixed. But they need to do it in a smart way, going after the right players and not overpaying. Failing is a real risk in the context of an overwhelmed general manager and massive ownership meddling based on outdated advice.
Nick Krall is the guy tasked with figuring out the next steps and selling them to the Castellini family. We’re about to find out if he’s up to it. Yes, ownership underfunded Krall’s 2021 roster. And they left him alone in the foxhole by not hiring a replacement for Dick Williams when the former president of baseball ops quit at the end of 2020.
But those excuses for Krall only go so far. Even if you ignore his nonsensical answers to press questions, he hasn’t done much to inspire confidence.
Krall whiffed in the off-season in achieving his top priority. He failed to acquire a shortstop when everyone — including Krall and the Castellinis — acknowledges they tried. A little more than a month ago, he let SS Willy Adames slip to the Brewers. Adames has hit .292/.374/.542 and played impeccable defense for Milwaukee, leading their recent surge. A couple weeks after that, Krall let Tampa Bay beat him to former Reds reliever Matt Wisler. In Wisler’s 10 appearances with the Rays, he’s struck out 12 and walked one in 9.2 innings.
Just because ownership is worthy of blame doesn’t mean Krall is good at his job. What if he’s not? We’ll have an answer by July 30, the non-waiver trade deadline.
Meanwhile, you should have no doubt the Brewers will do everything they can to win. Their president of baseball operations, David Stearns, is still just 36 despite being in that job for six years. Under his leadership, the Brewers have made the postseason three years in a row (2018-20) for the first time in franchise history. He’s already acquired Adames; a big, early move. And Milwaukee is doing it while spending $30 million less on players than the Reds. Payroll matters, but it’s not all about payroll. The Brewers front office has proven smart, aggressive and timely.
As you bask in the glow of the weekend sweep of the Cubs and start to consider how well the second-place Reds match up with the first-place Brewers, it’s not Corbin Burnes vs. Nick Castellanos, or Christian Yelich against Sonny Gray, that should concern you as much as Nick Krall vs. David Stearns.
The Reds have managed to overcome a slew of important injuries to produce a winning record. By the end of July, they should have back Tejay Antone, Lucas Sims, Michael Lorenzen, Nick Senzel and Mike Moustakas. Those are five important names David Bell can add to his 26-man roster.
The cavalry is coming. Reds fans have to hope it isn’t too late. It would have been nice for the front office to secure reinforcements before the upcoming stretch of seven games against the Milwaukee.
With the talent and relentless resolve on this team, the front office goal should be more than just sneaking ahead of the Brewers. I can assure you that’s not the players’ full aspiration. If the front office is successful between now and the trade deadline, it could assemble a Reds team capable of making a deep run in the postseason. As Reds statistician Joel Luckhaupt pointed out, with the possibility Nick Castellanos opts out of his Reds contract and isn’t back next year and with Joey Votto turning 38, the 2021 season is an opportunity team executives shouldn’t miss.
Wouldn’t it be great to wake up tomorrow morning to this statement by the Reds owners (and have them mean it)?
“We’ve been impressed with the team this year and how hard they are playing. We absolutely believe they not only can win the NL Central but can challenge through the length of the postseason. With revenues from the strong attendance — better than we projected — we will restore the payroll cuts and do even if more if that’s what it takes to support this team to the level it so clearly deserves.
In addition, to secure the future, we will commit the resources to sign our core young players like Jesse Winker, Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo to extensions. We will strengthen our offer to get Nick Castellanos to stay through his four-year contract. As of today, we will pick up David Bell’s option for 2022 and hope to negotiate a longer tenure for him and his coaching staff. And we will rebuild our front office by hiring a strong top executive from outside the organization.”
Reds fans sense this team can catch Milwaukee and do even more. You can be damned sure the team’s players, manager and coaches feel that way. Apparently, the only people who aren’t convinced are the Castellini family and the team’s general manager.