The last time the Cincinnati Reds qualified for the National League playoffs was 2013 when Dusty Baker was manager.
Since the exile of Baker (who is now managing the Houston Astros), the Reds finished 76-86, 64-98, 68-94, 68-94, 67-95 and 75-87. The records look like a list of being on the losing end of college basketball scores.
Still, as Cincinnati completes its summer training camp in preparation for a season-opening Friday night game at Great American Ball Park against the Detroit Tigers, the viewpoint is different.
This may be the weirdest of all possible baseball seasons with just 60 regular-season games and the country partially paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Reds’ offseason was one of the most committed, expensive and above all focused on transformation since Joey Votto was still too young to shave.
The longtime slugger, now 36, is still a Red, but up until recently, he did not know many of his teammates. The front office invested $166 million on free agents to bolster the roster and boost the odds of becoming contenders.
If Cincinnati had done all of its shopping at Neiman Marcus, the famous department store would not have declared bankruptcy. But the Reds spread their wealth, hiring second baseman Mike Moustakas, pitcher Wade Miley, Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama, power hitter Nick Castellanos and reliever Pedro Strop.
The Reds created a handful of multimillionaires, and now, they want payback in production to supplement their holdovers.
During prep time, after regrouping for Spring Training II, manager David Bell looked around, studied the talent and recognized that if an ownership group was going to spend so many million dollars at once, it was going to have expectations.
“We put ourselves in a position to succeed, and that’s all you can ask for,” Bell said. “We feel the support within the organization. We feel the support in the city.”
Given that fans will not be allowed to buy tickets to games, feeling the support of the city may be a more virtual than real-life experience.
No one will argue the Reds failed to upgrade at several positions with the buying spree, but it is still a leap of faith for the 75-win returners to mix with the new guys and manufacture magic.
Votto, the face of the franchise, is at a crossroads after two declining years. Slugging third baseman Eugenio Suarez is coming off shoulder surgery.
There are young hitters who could break out, including Tucker Barnhart, Jose Peraza, Jose Iglesias, Jesse Winker and Nick Senzel. Freddy Galvis owns shortstop, but young prospect Jose Garcia, a Cuban defector, was impressing people.
The front office decided those are guys with major upsides who will still mature into better players and also be aided by some established players added to the mix.
The Central Division also looks winnable because Reds rivals did not make such drastic moves. They were more in stand-pat mode, which may leave them vulnerable to a Reds surge.
Besides Miley, who has played for six teams, the Reds’ rotation features Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani and Sonny Gray. Gray went 11-8 with a 2.87 earned run average last year, and early on, Bell chose him to start on opening day.
Gray has not allowed more than six hits in his last 33 big-league starts, an indicator he may be at the top of his game. He seems to recognize that in this year of the pandemic, playing baseball at all is an achievement, and no matter how long these players play, they may never again see anything like this summer.
“Baseball will be back,” Gray said of this weekend, “and it will be back in some of the weirdest and craziest circumstances. When you look back on this in 20 or 30 years, everybody will remember 2020.”