Since I wrote nearly three weeks ago that the Reds “shouldn’t be sellers in 2019, not now, not ever,” the team has gone 8-9. It’s not horribly, but it’s not exactly inspiring the “this team can contend” sentiment I would have hoped for. And to make things worse, the Reds grace period is closing fast.
Over the next two weeks, the Reds will play 12 straight games against teams over .500. They have the Indians, then the Rangers, Astros, and Brewers. Between now and the trade deadline, the Reds will play 33 of their 42 games against teams currently over .500. Of the nine games against supposed “weak” competition, four are against the Cardinals and three against the Pirates, both teams ahead of the Reds in the standings.
This next month and a half is the crucible for the 2019 Cincinnati Reds. It’s a gauntlet of put up or shut up, an opportunity for the club to show our early season optimism wasn’t misplaced. And if the Reds are to avoid the fate of being sellers at the trade deadline, the next two weeks are the most crucial. Between now and the start of the two-game Angels series, the Reds must prove their contender status. Nothing short of 9-3 will cut it.
Of course, there are causes for optimism. Just as Derek Dietrich is slowing down, Scooter Gennett is scheduled to return from injury, shipping off to Arizona today to start getting at-bats. Alex Wood has finally thrown a baseball without a subsequent setback, so the Reds rotation might see some reinforcements soon as well. And more than anything, Joey Votto has heated up, hitting .412/.446/.529 since May 24th.
But the Reds need more than just Votto, and neither Gennett nor Wood will touch the major league field in the next two weeks. Whether we like it or not, three Reds will define the next two weeks for the Reds, and subsequently, the tone for the rest of the season.
First and most obviously, Yasiel Puig. The Reds most high-profile offseason acquisition just hasn’t panned out so far in Cincinnati. The right fielder has a 60 wRC+ at the moment and his .630 OPS sits over 200 points below his prior career average. Last week, David Bell supported the right fielder, saying Puig is and still will be a big part of the Reds lineup. “He’s definitely shown signs and had some stretches where you think that could happen and it will,” Bell told the Enquirer. “I think he is a hot streak away from being right where he needs to be.”
What more opportune time for a hot streak than the most important part of the schedule for the Reds playoff hopes. If Puig can start hitting like himself or, even better, like Votto for the next couple of weeks, the Reds might just go on a tear.
Second, until Alex Wood can begin making starts, Tyler Mahle’s role remains absolutely critical. Other than a tough start against the Cubs a couple weeks back in which he gave up six runs, Mahle has been phenomenal this year. He’s more than halved his walk rate per nine innings, and his groundball rate has increased nearly six percentage points over last year. In a league where home runs have become disproportionately the main method of scoring, that second shift becomes all the more important.
The Reds shouldn’t have to worry about Sonny Gray or Luis Castillo, and Tanner Roark and Anthony DeSclafani have been just about what they’ve always been this year, so much of the pressure on the rotation over the next two weeks falls to Mahle. He’s the young guy in danger of losing his spot once Wood comes back, so two, maybe three, starts of lights out baseball would go a long way toward helping his case.
Finally, I’m going to cheat a little bit with a two-fer, but Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali. Barnhart, the Reds primary backstop, has started 41 games behind the plate and recorded a 62 wRC+. Meanwhile, Casali has started 23 games behind the plate and recorded a 110 wRC+. Maybe the importance here actually comes down to David Bell’s decision making, but Curt Casali should be playing more over the next 12 games. And when Tucker does play, he needs to start hitting.
It’s incredible how much less menacing the Reds lineup looks in the games where Barnhart starts and Dietrich and Jesse Winker sit. Instead of the team’s one through seven hitters challenging the pitcher with displayed hitting prowess, Bell has Jose Iglesias batting in the five hole and it only gets worse from there. So much of the rest of the Reds season depends on Tucker proving he’s not a defense-first catcher who isn’t really that great defensively by the advanced metrics. For the next two weeks though, the Reds season rides on Bell starting the hot-hand in Casali over the supposed first man up in Barnhart.
Puig, Mahle, and Casali: Not the names you thought would end up needing to prove their mettle for the Reds to convincingly contend. The time for the Reds to prove this season is meaningfully different from the last four is the next 12 games. After all, if you can hang with big boys in the regular season, who’s to stop you from doing it in October too?