If you were busy with something else in 2015 and didn’t have a chance to read the 1,000+ posts about the Cincinnati Reds at Redleg Nation, here’s what happened and how we wrote about it.
Off-Season Signings and Acquisitions
In late January, the Reds signed a 4-year deal worth $28 million with Devin Mesoraco covering his three arbitration seasons and one year of his free agency. This spurred an argument about whether the catcher should get more playing time. Boy, did that turn out to be irrelevant.
Early February, the Reds reached a deal with Todd Frazier covering the first two of the third baseman’s three arbitration years, through 2016.
Brandon Phillips implicitly criticized his teammate Joey Votto for focusing on the on-base percentage statistic.
The Reds began signing spare pieces to minor league contracts. We were introduced to Paul Maholm, Jason Marquis, Dylan Axelrod, Jason Bourgeois, and Kevin Gregg among others. As organizational filler, these acquisitions made sense. But it became a real liability when several made the Opening Day roster, creating early concerns about the lack of quality depth.
Spring Training Developments
Just as the players were gathering in Goodyear, the Reds organization and clubhouse was sucker-punched by an accusation about the Reds locker room leadership from Mat Latos. Reactions from Reds players, especially Joey Votto, came swift and strong. Latos ended up having a terrible season. Karma is a September DFA.
The Reds won their first spring training game 10-0 against Cleveland. An early injury to Jason Bourgeois exposed the Reds lack of depth in the outfield, but calls to sign another major league outfielder went unheeded. Manager Bryan Price named Raisel Iglesias the fifth starter, joining Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Anthony DeSclafani and Jason Marquis in the rotation.
An early positive report on Joey Votto’s health brought excited predictions of another MVP-caliber season. He didn’t play the first few games of spring training, but soon proved he was fully operational, spurring more optimistic projections. Come on now.
Ongoing concern with how the Reds used closer Aroldis Chapman spurred creative proposals to model the use of the pen after The Nasty Boys and a plan to use Chapman more in the eighth inning of any close game. Chapman was also the subject of our clever April Fool’s joke. They say humor is the truth wrapped in a smile.
Instead, the Reds signed Burke Badenhop, the opposite of a nasty boy. In mid-March, Bryan Price announced Tony Cingrani would start the year in long-relief in the bullpen, where he struggled with consistency. In their final spring training cut, the Reds made the surprising move to send Sam LeCure to Louisville.
Opening Day and the Fast Start
Opening Day, a de facto civic holiday in Cincinnati, arrived amidst many questions about the team. Yet, if you looked hard enough through your Pete Rose-colored glasses, you could find undue optimism. The season begin with the Reds overcoming the first of several awful performances by Kevin Gregg to beat the Pirates on a Todd Frazier 432-foot home run. Marlon Byrd struck out in his first three at bats. The Reds went on to sweep three games with the Pirates and began the season 4-0 after beating the Cardinals. You can’t go undefeated without winning the first four games.
Chad Dotson made his glorious return to our Titanic Struggle Recaps, hailing the Reds undefeated juggernaut, tongue planted firmly in cheek. The Reds were still in first place at the end of week one, generating more unwarranted positive feelings. We even found an iota of evidence that Bryan Price’s bullpen management had come around.
Foreshadowing a tremendous season, Joey Votto got off to a great start, hitting .353/.463/.735 the first two weeks. In late April he hit career home run #170, moving him into the top 400 HR hitters of all time.
The Terrible, Horrible Last Two Weeks of April
The quick start proved as reliable as a hoverboard. Two weeks later, the Reds had been swept by the Cardinals in St. Louis and were 3.5 games out of first place. Billy Hamilton was once again struggling, producing new calls to move him out of the lead-off spot.
We had written about Jay Bruce’s 2014 season with hope he would bounce back. Bruce got off to a bad start, but his underlying numbers provided hints that he would rebound. We had also warned about Marlon Byrd’s age, defense and strikeouts and questioned Walt Jocketty’s absurd comparisons of Byrd’s role to Scott Rolen. Unfortunately, Byrd got off to a terrible start hitting .169/.188/.273 in April.
Brandon Phillips, who was batting clean-up, still didn’t have an extra-base hit. The Reds titanic struggle had become more iceberg than Greek god. The Reds won three straight in Milwaukee, providing a temporary brake to their decline.
And the Reds were about to take two hits below the waterline that would sink whatever slim hope they had of contending.
On April 23, we broke the story that Devin Mesoraco was done catching for the rest of the season. A hip impingement would prevent him from squatting without pain. Season-ending surgery was the only realistic remedy.
Homer Bailey had undergone surgery on the flexor mass muscle in his right elbow in September 2014, which put him behind schedule by a couple weeks for the 2015 season. He returned on April 18. But after two starts, it was obvious that something was not right. On May 1, the Reds announced that their pitcher would need season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Then Bryan Price put the “f” in frustration, 77 times.
By the end of April, it had become obvious that the Reds bullpen had once again become a game of chance. Burke Badenhop, among others, was terrible. It turns out Badenhop didn’t just have a bad April, either. The running “hopper” joke in the Reds radio broadcast wasn’t funny the first time, let alone the subsequent fifty. Might have been different if The Hopper wasn’t putting up an xFIP of 4.67 and sporting the league’s lowest strikeout-rate.
“What Potent Blood Hath Modest May”
The starting rotation performed as expected. Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake cruised into May. Anthony DeSclafani was up and down, but there were early positive signs. Jason Marquis was horrible. The decision to put Marquis in the rotation reminded us of the SNL skit about bad idea jeans. By his second start, there were calls to demote Marquis in favor of Michael Lorenzen.
Lorenzen, who debuted on April 28 in place of Homer Bailey, not Marquis, generated much excitement but suffered typical rookie struggles. Kevin Gregg was DFA’d on May 11. Even Aroldis Chapman went through a rough patch (by his lofty standard) in late May-early June.
At the plate, MLB’s new batted-ball data showed Reds hitters were doing about how one would expect. Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Marlon Byrd were hitting it hard. Byrd rallied at the plate a little in May. Frazier got off to a good start in April then really heated up in May, poised to have a monster season.
But it was also in may May that Joey Votto, for no apparent reason, plunged into a month-long slump – a process he said was like losing and finding one’s wallet. He’s got a career OPS of .957, so we’ll take his word for it.
Zack Cozart was having a surprising and heartwarming year. Bryan Peña, Billy Hamilton and Brandon Phillips were not hitting well. In the off-season, we offered warnings concerning Phillips’ age and by mid-May, BP had become a singles hitter – with only two extra base hits six weeks into the season. As such, his value rested on a narrow ledge.
By May 18, Kris Negron had played every defensive position but pitcher and catcher.
Speaking of catcher, the Reds fought the inevitability of surgery for Devin Mesoraco, at least publicly, for two months. The delay made sense as long as the Reds were still in the race for the division and Mesoraco could help. It’s not like there was a great hitter in Louisville who was blocked by Mesoraco using up a bench space waiting to pinch hit. There was plenty of time for Mesoraco to have the surgery, rehab and be 100% by spring training.
In May, the Reds had several series in AL parks. The thinking was Mesoraco could pinch hit until then and DH in those games. For some reason, the Reds chose to test his hip squatting just before those games, aggravating his condition. Instead of 20 plate appearances over five games in AL parks, Mesoraco had six. Yet that was not the end of Mesoraco’s strange and sad saga.
For a month, the Reds bobbed around the .500 mark. As late as May 14, they were 18-17, after beating the defending World Series champion Giants in the first game of a four-game series in Cincinnati. However, the next night, Jason Marquis gave up six runs in three innings. The Giants won the last three games of the series. The Reds continued to play poorly, including a Griswold Family-like 0-5 road trip through Kansas City and Cleveland.
By May 25, the losing streak had reached 9 games and the Reds were 10.5 games out of first place.
That losing streak settled the Reds fate for 2015 and inspired an Open Letter to Mr. Castellini – our most-read post of the season. It called for the Reds to modernize their thinking about winning baseball games, to take full advantage of Big Data, to fight for inches and miles per hour, starting with fundamental changes in leadership on the baseball side of the operation. The organization was showing little sign of modern baseball on the field. They were still wasting Aroldis Chapman, using meaningless hitter-pitcher histories to make lineup decisions and mismanaging their roster.
The Reds finished May on a high note, somehow sweeping three games against the first-place Washington Nationals.
The Dead Cat Bounce
From May 29 to Jun 25, the Reds went 16-10, including a three-game sweep of Philadelphia and series wins over the Detroit Tigers and Pirates. They earned their first win over Cole Hamels and had a victory over Pirates ace Gerrit Cole. Votto, Bruce and Frazier were pounding the ball. Though the Reds were just three games below .500 (34-37) they had fallen 13.5 games out of first place.
Johnny Cueto was having another great year. There were calls for him to be traded as early as January. By mid-June, with Cueto’s fate as a Red was sealed, every one of Cueto’s starts was savored as though it might be his last. Mike Leake had gotten off to a great start, but by early June he had returned to career norms, mostly but not entirely, due to changes in variables related to luck.
During that period, the Reds lost Zack Cozart to a severe knee injury, which should have been the final clue about where the season was headed. Yet, with the All-Star game a couple weeks away, that stretch to June 25 may have instead given the Reds front office false hope. A debate began among fans about whether the Reds should keep going forward, sell off a couple pieces or conduct a fire sale. Trade values were assessed.
Concerns about Marlon Byrd arose whether the Reds were playing him too much, which could trigger his automatic option for 2016.
Dismal Slog to the All-Star Game
The Reds went 5-10 from June 26 to the All-Star break, a period that clarified the Reds would not compete for the post-season. Word spread that ownership had given the green light to trading Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and possibly other Reds at the non-waiver deadline. Reds fans began to wait for the rebuilding to start.
The Reds tried a failed, but reasonable experiment of playing Mesoraco in left field. After that proved too painful, the Reds catcher finally succumbed to surgery. He used a world-renowned hip specialist, the New York surgeon who had performed the same procedure for Yankee Alex Rodriquez.
With the well hosted All-Star Game (and Home Run Derby!) in the rearview mirror, attention turned to the trade deadline and potential trade partners amidst rumors of front office change, change that never occurred.
The Trade Deadline: Opportunity Missed
By late June, Frazier was on pace to hit more than 50 home runs, making him impossible to trade. Despite reluctant calls from some quarters to capitalize and do just that, the Reds instead announced that his name was off the table in upcoming trade talks.
On July 26, the Reds (and Redleg Nation) said adios to Johnny Cueto trading three months of his services to the Kansas City Royals for 18 years of left-handed pitching: Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed. While Cueto had put himself in the conversation as being the best Reds pitcher ever, there was a lot to like about the trade.
Five days later, the club moved Mike Leake to the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Keuri Mella and 1B/OF Adam Duvall. Leake closed his time in a Cincinnati uniform with moments of brilliance, like an 8-inning, 3-hit shutout of the Marlins. Redleg Nation, young and old (sorry Chad) wished Leake a fond farewell.
By July 1, Jay Bruce had rebuilt his trade value, so the Reds were in a position to take him to market. The dilemma is that every time Bruce starts to hit, the hope returns that he could become a superstar. And you don’t want to give that Jay Bruce away.
It made sense to trade Aroldis Chapman at the deadline so the receiving team would have him for two postseasons. The Cuban lefty continued to throw a dominating fastball. According to media reports, the Reds shopped Chapman at the trade deadline, with significant offers from Arizona, Houston and the Yankees. Washington also seemed like a good fit. But either the Reds’ asking price was too high, or Chapman wasn’t really on the market. He remained with the Reds.
Rumors about trading Jay Bruce to the Mets for Zack Wheeler intensified but also never became reality.
And just like that, the trading deadline, full of opportunity, was over.
The Final, Complete Collapse
Back on the field, the Reds played .500-ball for a couple weeks after the All-Star game. They notably won a series in St. Louis, and back-to-back games under the arch for the first time in five years. In what turned out to be an ironic twist, Mike Leake’s final game for the Reds was an 8-inning shutout of the Cardinals. Anthony DeSclafani backed Leake up with another shutout performance. Jay Bruce’s solo homer was the only run scored that day. Good times.
But with Cueto and Leake now gone, injuries to Bailey, Mesoraco and Cozart, and key Reds hitters slumping at the plate, the young starting pitchers couldn’t hold on.
The Reds went 17-40 in August and September.
Marlon Byrd cleared waivers and the Reds were able to trade him to the San Francisco Giants for reliever Stephen Johnson.
Todd Frazier’s second-half slump began not after his participation in the Home Run Derby, as many suggested as the cause, but two weeks earlier. His free fall continued mostly unabated through the end of the season. It was the third consecutive year Frazier’s performance had waned in the second half, suggesting a possible conditioning issue. With two years of team control remaining, the Reds could have worked on an extension for Frazier. But the accounting was on the wall. Frazier had priced (and aged) himself out of the Reds plans. A long-term extension would have been popular with fans, but probably turn out to be a costly mistake.
The Reds were eliminated from the NL Central race on September 1.
The autopsies began in August. The injuries to Mesoraco, Bailey and Cozart, sure. 105 games started by rookies, obvious. Lack of plate discipline, of course. But the blame shouldn’t be placed on the core players. The Reds lack of depth proved an issue when the last gasp players signed by Walt Jocketty couldn’t contribute at all. For the second year in a row, the replacement players weren’t as good as replacement players. Had Billy Hamilton become Willy Taveras with a glove? Jay Bruce had paired his three good months with three poor ones.
After a tremendous second half, Joey Votto, who chokes up on the bat like a Little Leaguer, finished third in the NL MVP voting. Among hitters with at least 3000 plate appearances, Votto is the top run-producer in Reds history. In his historic 2015 season, Votto was paid $14 million for a season where his production would be valued at $58 million on the open market. Despite the local, biased outrage, neither Votto, nor his contract, was to blame for the Reds season. The Reds should be so lucky to spend so little for so much in other places.
There were reasons for optimism, mostly surrounding the young pitchers. Calls for patience with the young arms were well founded. For most of the year, the kids were all right. Anthony DeSclafani sustained a higher level of performance than expected. Raisel Iglesias had a strong finish to the season, including a historic game striking out 13 batters. Brandon Finnegan shows promise in a couple possible roles, same with John Lamb. Eugenio Suarez appears likely to be a solid major league middle infielder.
If You Squint, You Can See The Front Office Changes
Despite the 64-98 record and last place finish, the Reds didn’t fire manager Bryan Price. And they didn’t fire Walt Jocketty despite the club’s win total falling from 98 > 90 > 76 > 64 the past four seasons. The front office tinkered with the coaching staff. It was the least they could do. The least.
In a quintessential Reds-style move, they announced that Dick Williams – a person with no baseball experience outside the Reds and the son and nephew of two of the Reds owners – would be running the club when Walt Jocketty retires at the end of the 2016 season, if not sooner. It was a choice demonstrating the insularity and narrowness in vision that has handicapped the organization’s thinking in recent years. Dick Williams has a lot to prove and hopefully he will. The Reds did announce two new entry-level analytics positions, which reflected more evolution than the needed revolution in their approach.
Acquiring New Players
Amidst calls for Todd Frazier to be traded at the summer deadline, the Reds instead took Frazier off the table. Then, in a trade that was widely questioned by national writers, the Reds sent Frazier to the Chicago White Sox for three players from the Los Angeles Dodgers system, a package led by IF Jose Peraza. There were upsides in the deal. Peraza is just 21. But many were surprised and disappointed that Frazier didn’t bring back a greater return. The Reds do love Jose Peraza and see left-handed OF Scott Schebler as half of a platoon in LF. Meanwhile, we said farewell to SuperTodd.
The Reds also traded Aroldis Chapman. He went to New York Yankees this week in exchange for 4 minor leaguers headlined by RH pitcher Rookie Davis and 3B/1B Eric Jagielo. The path to our clean break with Chapmania was anything but direct. Despite the glut of closers on the market, heading into the Winter Meetings, it looked like the Reds were in good shape to get a strong return for Chapman. We wrote a Redtrospective about the Cuban Missile. The Reds had Chapman traded to the Dodgers. We said so long. Then they didn’t trade him. Then we found out why, forcing the the club to regroup. Despite their denials to the contrary, the Reds ended up taking way less for Chapman in December compared to what they were asking for before. Did they misoverestimate Chapman’s value in July?
The Reds tried to trade Brandon Phillips, who reset his value with an upswing in production in 2015. The Reds had a deal worked out with the Washington Nationals, reportedly for two minor league players. But Phillips wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause, as is his right. We had to reframe the post written to say good-bye to BP.
We Wrote Article Series, Too
We not only covered the Reds’ 2015 season, we also produced article series on important baseball topics.
In the pre-season, we tackled the issue of baseball’s run environment – possible causes for the decline in runs scored (PED testing, bullpen specialization, defensive shifts, strike zone expansion, rising pitch velocity and scouting technology).
We published interviews (Nick Travieso, Rawly Eastwick, Chris Heisey, Jim Maloney, Dave Bristol, Gavin LaValley, Zack Weiss, Josh Satin, Bill Bray, Seth Varner) with a wide variety of people associated with the Reds.
We analyzed the Reds detachment from modern baseball practices (numbers game, analytics departments, a data-driven owner, the Jocketty Paradox, the need for culture change) and how other organizations (Pirates, Cubs) have done it better.
Sorry this post was so long. It was an eventful season. Plus, the plan was to break into a couple end-of-the-year posts and publishing them over the last few days of 2015. Then the Reds went and traded Aroldis Chapman.
Once again, I’d like to offer my warmest thanks to everyone who helped with Redleg Nation in 2015. We had a talented and diverse writing staff – one that was easy to work with. Our commenters are the best, even the ones I disagree with. And, of course, none of this would be possible without Chad Dotson’s decade-long commitment to this little ol’ (very) independent Reds site.
The Reds will be a new team in 2016. We’ll have to appreciate them in a different way for a while. You can count on Redleg Nation to be here for every at bat.
Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.