What we should make of the 2014 Cincinnati Reds? With 60 percent of the regular season games in the scorebook, it’s a good time to assess the team and look for insight about the year.
If you’re in search for an easy narrative about a player, there’s a clubhouse full of them.
Johnny Cueto can twist without shouting in pain and have a career year at the same time. Billy Hamilton has defied expectations and the laws of nature. Devin Mesoraco has landed in the baseball world like the Incredible Hulk. The league of extraordinary gentlemen known as the best players in baseball now has Super Todd Frazier as a member. Closer Aroldis Chapman is striking out more than half the batters he faces, after being hit squarely on the head by a line drive in Spring Training. Those are a few of the compelling story lines about individual Reds players.
As a team, the Reds are 51-44. They are 1.5 games out of first place with 67 to go.
But it would be deeply misguided to evaluate this team by the performances of individual players or the most recent standings. The Cincinnati Reds’ most impressive accomplishment has been a single, yet incredibly difficult, feat.
They got up off the mat.
And considering the extreme challenges they’ve faced this year, that’s an improbable and spectacular triumph.
The injury list reads like the Spring Training role call. The Reds have played weeks without Jay Bruce, Mat Latos, Joey Votto, Aroldis Chapman, Devin Mesoraco (twice), Jonathan Broxton, Tony Cingrani and Skip Schumaker (twice). They’ve had Billy Hamilton, Brandon Phillips and Homer Bailey at less than full strength at times. I’m surely forgetting a few. You eventually get numb to it.
Magnifying the impact of these injuries was a filament-thin roster, the product of a stunningly ineffective off-season by general manager Walt Jocketty. The Reds started the season without a backup first or third baseman and no real depth in the middle infield or outfield at the minor league level. The spot starting pitchers have at various times been Jeff Francis and David Holmberg.
Misfortune and obstacles of this magnitude can end seasons. Ask Tampa Bay, Colorado and Texas, who are 9, 15 and 19 games below .500. Ask those teams if the cumulative effect of injuries can be lethal.
Yet the Reds stride into the All-Star break with a winning record.
Again, what do we make of that? It’s been said that adversity lets us judge true character, it tears off the mask so that only reality remains. If that’s the case, the Cincinnati Reds’ true nature is resilience and determination.
The 2014 Reds have been declared to be stone dead in a moment countless times. On May 27, the Reds were six games below .500. They beat Clayton Kershaw the next day. On June 10, the Reds were five games below .500. They beat the surging Dodgers twice. On June 20, the Reds blew an 8-run lead and found themselves 8.5 games out of first place. They won eight of the next nine games. On July 2, the Reds were swept by the San Diego Padres to fall to seven games out of first place. They won six of seven.
The men in the Reds’ locker room have stubbornly refused to call it quits. They’ve shown with their mid-summer run, with their three 4-run comebacks this week, that in the face of roster devastation, they haven’t let doubt or discouragement creep into their minds as it did for segments of the fan base. That reflects a clubhouse with strong character.
And I give a healthy share of credit for that to their first-year manager, who has held this team together.
The season hadn’t even started when Bryan Price’s mission statement suddenly changed from winning the NL Central to outright survival. Price has had to cope and improvise and adapt beyond all reasonable expectation.
As outsiders, we don’t know what goes behind the closed doors the locker room. We base our opinions on inference from glimpses allowed by press conferences and interviews. From all the available evidence, Bryan Price has provided valuable leadership. He’s exhibited a thoughtful and calm, but ferocious, presence. He’s expressed furor at umpires, determination toward opponents and frustration at his own players’ performance. Complacency and comfort have left the building.
And don’t make the mistake of underestimating the role of the head coach or manager. While there are certainly other leaders in that locker room, the boss is watched closely by the players. More than any other person in that private space, his bearing has an impact on the men who follow him onto the field.
Price has been resilient and kept his team moving forward against setbacks.
Of course, Bryan Price isn’t perfect. No manager (or human) is. Every skipper makes in-game decisions that fans question. That’s an inherent part of making dozens of close calls each game. Despite the open-mindedness Price has shown on his lineup at times, he’s still batting some players too high and some too low. He pays too much attention to previous match-ups. Of course we fans have complaints. That’s baseball.
But our gripes are also mostly about window dressing. Managers don’t affect many outcomes with their decisions or lineups – it’s only at the margins and only occasionally. Those margins are still worth discussing and they can be important. But any time you can point to the manager making a mistake, you can also identify dozens made by the players in that game.
The manager’s main role is personnel management through communication and leadership. It’s more than walking down the street together in tight blue jeans and leather jackets. David Foster Wallace wrote: “Real leaders are people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” The Reds’ collective success would indicate Price has excelled in this way.
As for the rest of the baseball organization, it’s (past) time for Walt Jocketty to do his job – and do it well. Jocketty needs to patch the roster holes and also keep up with the competition who will be taking steps forward. To be clear, Walt Jocketty doesn’t have to come up with an amazing, unforeseen trade acquisition. He doesn’t have to land Giancarlo Stanton. Jocketty just needs to do what effective GMs do when their team needs a player. They get one. When the Cardinals need a shortstop who can hit, John Mozeliak gets one. When the Tigers need a closer, Dave Dombrowski gets Joe Nathan.
Walt Jocketty has done this many times before, both in Cincinnati and St. Louis. But Jocketty failed at that exact task at last year’s trade deadline and during the most recent off-season. If he fumbles again in the next two weeks, it’s hard to see the Reds competing for the post-season. Friday night’s comeback may have been thrilling, but it was absurdly improbable. Decide for yourself how many times you want to rely on Ryan Ludwick, Chris Heisey, Ramon Santiago and Brayan Pena to get back-to-back-to-back-to-back hits to win a game. Or depend on Kris Negron to hit a three-run homer.
The Reds aren’t through facing hardship. In fact, the next few weeks may be the most challenging. The team is staring down the abyss of doing without Phillips and Votto for weeks, if not months. But we should have learned not to underestimate that group of men in the Reds clubhouse. They have shown to be capable of surprise, of thrills, of success against the odds.
Vince Lombardi said real glory is being knocked to your knees, getting up and then coming back. If the 2014 Cincinnati Reds continue to persevere and defy adversity, the next few months will indeed be a glorious season for them and their fans.