Cincinnati Reds 2021 Recap and Outlook

Taking a look at the up and down 2021 season for the Cincinnati Reds and their outlook moving forward.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 01: Nick Castellanos #2 and Mike Moustakas #9 of the Cincinnati Reds celebrate after Castellanos scored a run in the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during game one of a doubleheader at Great American Ball Park on September 01, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

It was an up-and-down season for the Cincinnati Reds, who saw themselves in position for a postseason berth as late as September 4th. The Reds hit a wall down the final stretch, going 10-15 and finishing with 83 wins. Three months of over .500 baseball and three months of under .500 baseball was indicative of what this team was…about average.

With October baseball having been within reach down the stretch, this year feels a bit like a failure for the Reds. The team exceeded their projected win total of 81.5 by most sports books and analysts, but you don’t get any hardware for that. Yet while it ended early, the 2021 season still gave us plenty to cheer about and kept us coming back night after night with meaningful baseball into the final month.

Reds fans, especially on Twitter, leaned into the emotional rollercoaster that was the April Reds. Cincinnati blew a lead on Opening Day, only to rattle off six wins in a row.

Castellanos flexed over the Cardinals and pumped life into this team, that is, until they faced the juggernaut known as the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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Shortly after, the Reds dropped five of six against the lowly Diamondbacks, which brought the “same old Reds” narratives back to the forefront not even a month into the year.

May was highlighted by a Wade Miley no-hitter, four walk-off wins, and slightly under .500 baseball. A 17-3 home loss to Philadelphia on June 1st brought the team to 24-29. As we saw numerous times all season, the Reds would bounce back. Winning 11 of their next 13, including a sweep at Milwaukee. Then of course came the backslide, as the Reds closed the month with a five-game losing streak, ending June with a 39-40 record.

July started with one of the best games of the season, a 5-4 win in San Diego thanks to Tyler Stephenson’s two-out single, leading to a five-game winning streak. The Reds finished the first half taking three of four against Milwaukee and eying a chance to take the division lead, only to be swept a few days later by the eventual NL Central champs.

At the deadline, the Reds added a few bullpen arms for the stretch run, but it wasn’t enough. The team needed a bat and depth. The fans knew it, the team knew it, and ownership knew it. August was successful, but September ruined the season. Series losses to the Tigers, Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates (X2), Dodgers, and White Sox doomed their playoff hopes.

Unable to capitalize on their favorable schedule, the Reds went 9-11 against sub .500 teams in September, ending the year 83-79. That record was good for a third place NL Central finish.

I have many different feelings about this year, so let’s lay them out here.

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The Positives

Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos were in a legit MVP race early in the season. The back-and-forth entertainment that provided was something none of us Reds fans will soon forget. They cooled off a bit and dealt with some injuries, which brought the spotlight to future Hall of Famer, Joey Votto.

A Votto power surge resulting in 36 home runs, included one stretch of hitting homers in seven-straight games that shocked the baseball world. Votto tied his career-high in homers at age 38. His .938 OPS gives hope to Reds fans who previously wrote him off as an old expensive waste of a roster spot.

On the other end of the spectrum though, how about those rookies?

I never expected Jonathan India to crack the Opening Day roster, let alone win Rookie of the Year. India is the most important player going forward for Cincinnati. A team that’s lacked a good leadoff hitter for a decade, India stepped in and showed patience and an ability to get on base (.376 OBP).

Add 34 doubles and 21 home runs to his rookie resume and you have a building block to future Reds teams. Tyler Stephenson slashed .286/.366/.441 with 10 bombs and 21 doubles. Likely to take over the everyday catching duties, I expect those numbers to go up. A few good moments sprinkled in from Vlad Gutierrez, Art Warren, Jose Barrero, and TJ Friedl make it fair to say the rookies impressed.

The Negatives

Which third basemen do we want to talk about first?

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Mike Moustakas battled injuries all year, leading to underwhelming .208/.282/.372 line that makes his $18 million next year not only ugly, but nearly impossible to move. Eugenio Suarez had 31 home runs, but still ended the year as a negative WAR player. Suarez hit .198/.286/.428 and 171 K’s, combined with abysmal defense that lead to a frustrating and disappointing season.

Coming into the season, the Reds rotation was top-notch on paper. Fast forward a few months, and we all have a bunch of questions. WADE MILEY and his 6.0 WAR season helped the rotation immensely. We all saw that coming right?

Tyler Mahle was mostly good, but his struggles at home and short outings often left a bad taste in fan’s mouths. Sonny Gray was never fully healthy which caused his struggles, leading to the question of if he will be back next year.

The supposed ace of the staff, Luis Castillo, had a miserable first two months resulting in an ERA over 7.00. He bounced back and was solid for the rest of the season, with August being the only month down the stretch where his ERA was over 2.50.

The lack of a solid depth at back-end of the rotation showed at times. Vladimir Gutierrez had some great games but plenty of growing pains to go along with it.

Despite a cycle of veterans like Mike Freeman, Delino DeShields, Asdrubal Cabrera, Scott Heineman, Mark Payton and so on, depth was always an issue for the Reds. Utility man Kyle Farmer was bumped into the starting line up and the trickle-down effect hurt the Reds. Farmer had his best season, but he’s more of a bench bat than a starter. Shogo Akiyama and Aristides Aquino were both, again, disappointing.

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Too often the lineup was top-heavy with the first four batters, before dropping off as a Triple-A team slotted in the rest of the order. With injuries up this year, depth has never been more important.

Outlook for Next Year

The Reds are in a “contending” window. However, the talent doesn’t exactly match up with the top contenders. Unlikely to add much payroll, the front office will need to get creative with moves and smart signings to improve the team. Here’s a check list to help create space and money:

  • Decline Tucker Barnhart’s option ($7 mil). Stephenson plays every day, sign a veteran to a one-year deal. Preferable one that hits LHP well, allowing Stephenson to play first and moving Votto to the bench against southpaws.
  • Move one of Suarez ($11 mil) /Moose ($18 mil). It’s not likely someone would take Moose on, and Suarez looked good in September. At the end of the day, you can’t have two struggling expensive third basemen with poor defense.
  • Trade at least one of: Mahle (arb)/Miley (team option $10 mil) /Gray ($10 mil). Miley was incredible, but his career numbers are far less impressive and getting a good return for a 35-year-old starter is smart baseball. Gray has battled injuries and maybe moving him a year early instead of a year late will pay off. Mahle brings the largest return of the three.

Here are some of the several flaws that need to be addressed:

  • Target a legit CF. The Reds continue to roll out players who aren’t centerfielders and it hasn’t been pretty. Corner outfield defense has been a disaster too, so adding a legit centerfielder could go a long way
  • Address the hitting LHP problems with platoons. Winker and Votto are fantastic players who simply cannot hit LHP. Bring in a couple of veterans who have proved they can hit lefties. Winker is often injured and Votto is older, giving them plenty of time off can’t hurt.
  • Add a starter and a high-leverage bullpen arm. I know I mentioned trading a starter but bringing in a vet on a one-year deal can help bridge the gap until Nick Lodolo and Hunter Greene are ready. Finding a cheaper option than Gray/Miley would allow you to bring back a return for one of those players. The Reds don’t need a closer. They close by committee. They need a veteran who has had success as a 7th, 8th, or 9th inning guy. Spend money on the bullpen.

Although it wasn’t the season we hoped for, this team is far from broken. Even though Castellanos likely leaves, I think they can spread that money out and improve the team as a whole. It’s not typical of the Reds, but they need to make some high-risk high-reward trades and signings to take them to the next level.

It is time to roll the dice while the Cubs and Pirates are rebuilding and the NL Central is wide-open.