Hal McCoy: How did the Cincinnati Reds become one of the worst teams in baseball?

Updated May 04, 2018
  • By Hal McCoy
  • Contributing Writer
The Reds celebrate a victory against the Cubs on Monday, April 2, 2018, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.

The downward spiral of the Cincinnati Reds began one day after they lost a 2013 National League wild card game to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

They fired Dusty Baker.

They fired the manager who had taken them to the postseason in three of the previous four seasons. They fired him after a 90-win season. They fired him with one year left on his contract.

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Why? Because in each of those three postseasons they lost in the first round.

And then they gave a quick clue as to the direction they were going to take. They hired their pitching coach, Bryan Price, to replace Baker, a man with no managerial experience.

With the team they had in place, if they were serious about continuing their pursuit of a World Series appearance they would have kept Baker or they would have hired an experienced manager with a proven resume.

If Price had known what was about to happen it is doubtful he would have taken the dead-end job.

The Reds were about to tear the team apart and try to start over. They are still trying but it is like a submarine searching for the bottom. And they have found it.

Why? How?

Some of the established players were on the cusp of free agency and big-bucks contracts. Unlikely to sign them, it was dump ‘em time for the small-market Reds.

It began on July 26, 2015. They traded Johnny Cueto to Kansas City for what they considered three top pitching prospects — Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed and John Lamb.

Cueto continues to be one of baseball’s best. Finnegan has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness when healthy. Reed can’t stay out of Triple-A. John Lamb is long gone.

One of Walt Jocketty’s last acts as Reds general manager was to swap the team’s best starting pitcher, Johnny Cueto (left), to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals for three prospects. David Jablonski/Staff

They traded Mike Leake to San Francisco for Adam Duvall and pitcher Keury Mella. While Duvall has shown power and better-than-average defense, he is in a massive struggle this season. Mella, 24, was 4-10 with a 4.30 earned run average last season at Class AA Pensacola. He is still at Pensacola and off to a great start this year, 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA in five starts.

There’s also been some bad luck. After trading Cueto and Leake, the Reds identified Homer Bailey as the keeper and signed him to a $105 million contract. What followed was three surgeries and little return on the investment.

They also signed catcher Devin Mesoraco to a multi-year $27 million contract that also led to three surgeries and no playing time. He is in the last year of his contract, making $13 million as a backup to Tucker Barnhart.

They traded outfielder Jay Bruce to the New York Mets for pitcher Max Wotell, already gone, and infielder Dillson Herrera, injury-prone and no longer a prospect to take over second base.

Then they traded All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier in a three-team deal that brought them Jose Peraza, Scott Schebler and first baseman Brandon Dixon.

That deal brought them two regulars in exchange for one as Peraza is Cincinnati’s regular fast-improving shortstop and Schebler is a power-hitter trapped in the team’s four-man outfield rotation. Dixon is a power-hiting first baseman trapped behind Joey Votto with no place to go.

The biggest giveaway of all was the trade of closer Aroldis Chapman to the New York Yankees. They received four bodies in return — pitcher Rookie Davis, a solid prospect who is on the disabled list, infielder Tony Renda, already gone, pitcher Caleb Cotham, already gone, and infielder Eric Jagielo, already gone.

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman stuck out all three batters he faced during the 86th All-Star game held at Great American Ballpark, Tuesday, July 14, 2015. GREG LYNCH / STAFF

And while the fan base awaits the arrivals of the team’s No. 1 draft picks the last two seasons, Nick Senzel and Hunter Greene, there have been some disappointments with recent No. 1 picks.

For a team like the Reds, which doesn’t deal in high profile free agents or make trades for established stars, the farm system must feed it plentiful talent. It hasn’t happened.

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Two highly touted No. 1 draft picks, Nick Travieso and Robert Stephenson, have been busts. Outfielder Phillip Ervin, drafted No. 1 in 2013, has had some successful spring trainings, but it hasn’t transferred to the majors. He spent some time with the Reds this season as a bench player and fifth outfielder, but is back with Class AAA Louisville.

The Reds drafted pitcher Nick Howard with their No. 1 pick in 2014 and he is in his fourth year in Class A, working as a closer. So far this year with the Daytona Beach Tortugas he is 0-2 with an 11.57 ERA in nine appearances.

The No. 1 picks in 2008 (Yonder Alonso), 2009 (Mike Leake) and 2010 (Yasmani Grandal) were all traded and playing in the majors for other teams. The only No. 1 pick in the last decade to stick with the Reds is Mesoraco (2007).

The thrust for most of the trades and high draft picks has been pitching because baseball begins and ends with pitching, pitching, pitching.

How has that worked? Over the past three seasons the Reds have had a stream of pitchers trudging to the mound longer than the Macy’s Parade. It hasn’t worked yet.

The bullpen is always a problem, more of a pigpen than a bullpen. Nearly every year the Reds go outside the organization to sign veteran relief pitchers.

They wasted money on Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson, who was paid an entire year by the Reds and never threw a pitch for them. But he is back in the majors doing well. The list of failures is lengthy.

And the search for starters is never-ending. There was tremendous hype for Luis Castillo, whom they obtained from the Miami Marlins for starting pitcher Dan Straily.

It looks as if Castillo was a rush job. He pitched only 80 innings at Double-A Pensacola, skipped Triple-A entirely and is now going through the school of hard knocks.

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He was called up from Pensacola last year and was 3-7. He is 1-4 with a 7.01 earned run average in seven starts this season. He is 4-11 in 22 careers starts with a 4.21 ERA for his career.

Reds starter Luis Castillo reacts after giving up a home run to the Nationals on March 31, 2018, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. David Jablonski/Staff Photo: Staff Writer

The Reds began this season losing 24 of their first 31 games, a major league record-setting pace for losses in a season.

They fired Bryan Price after the team began the season 3-15. General Manager Dick Williams said Price was not a scapegoat. He said the entire organization must share in the team’s failures.

Failures? Three straight last-place finishes with 94 or more losses each year. They are on a straight and narrow path to another last-place finish with 100 or more defeats on the horizon.

From 2001 to 2009 they had nine straight losing seasons. Then, under Dusty Baker, they won 90 or more games three of the next four years.

Then came the Rebuilding Era and the rebuild is taking long enough to reconstruct The Great Wall of China. Fans are restless. Attendance is abysmal.

When he fired Price, Williams said, “We all have to look in the mirror.”

If they do, they won’t like what they see.