A Jolt to the System: Cincinnati Reds Strike Early in 2017 Campaign

Well, who saw this coming? Here we sit with seven games completed in the 2017 campaign, and the Cincinnati Reds sit atop the NL Central with a record of 5-2.

Now hold on a minute.

You might be thinking you read that wrong. But you didn’t. That’s a true statement.

Let me run that back one more time.

Here we sit with seven games completed in the 2017 campaign, and the Cincinnati Reds sit atop the NL Central with a record of 5-2.

Yeah, it looks weird to me too. To say that anyone who follows the Reds is pleasantly surpsised by this start to the season would be an understatement. Finding $20 in the pocket of your pants that you had forgotten about while folding laundry is a pleasant surprise. Finding gas in the $2.10s is a pleasant surprise. Finding out that your favorite musician or band released a new single out of the blue is a pleasant surprise.

This is an early shock to the system for Reds fans.

Monday night’s game in Pittsburgh began the third series of the season for the Reds. Despite opening the season with likely the top 2 members of the starting rotation on the 60 day Disabled List with Homer Bailey still recovering from shoulder surgery and Anthony DeSclafani dealing with a UCL sprain, the Reds have managed to piece together a rotation that is keeping them in games.

Scott Feldman started the season as the Reds opening day starter. You’d be forgiven if that name doesn’t conjure too many instant memories or feelings of content.

Feldman has been a veteran journeyman for most of his career, posting a 71-77 record with a 4.00+ ERA in his twelve prior big league seasons. His 2009 season was by far his best where with the Rangers he posted a 17-8 record with a 4.03 ERA in 31 starts. Since that season, Feldman has hit double-digits in wins only once when he split a season of 12 wins between the Cubs and Orioles. When the Reds signed the free agent away from Toronto in the offseason, some expected him to make the roster as a veteran presence. I doubt anyone would be telling you the truth if they saw him as the #1 starter in the rotation come opening day.

If they did, ask them for the lottery numbers. They clearly are better at soothsaying than the rest of us.

Brandon Finnegan proved he was a capable starter last year for Cincinnati, where he managed a 10-11 record with a 3.98 ERA in 31 starts. Not too shabby for what was essentially the first full season for the then 22 year-old, but Finnegan was expected to make the rotation as a solid third or fourth man. Due to injuries, he’s suddenly become the key cog to a Reds rotation in the early season.

Behind Feldman and Finnegan are two rookies manning the fort. Amir Garrett is featured heavily in marketing for the local AAA affiliate Louisville Bats for a reason: although the lefty is one of the Reds top prospects, he was expected to develop in AAA for at least a good portion of this season. Injuries in the rotation haven’t just excelled that clock but reset it completey. The aptly-named Rookie Davis also finds himself thrust into the major leagues likely sooner than expected.
Davis struggled in his first outing, lasting only 3 innings while allowing 4 runs with 2 walks and 4 strikeouts versus the Phillies. Garrett turned heads with his debut versus the Cardinals on the road, where he carried the Reds through 6 shutout innings, also notching 4 strikeouts.

The light can’t be any greener for these two. Bailey and DeSclafani both are weeks to months away from returning. If Davis and Garrett can manage to adapt quickly to major league hitters, they may not only secure spots in the rotation for years to come, but also lead the Reds to a surprising contention run. But they are just rookies, with a total of 9 innings combined between the pair.

The Reds chances in 2017 of turning this week into something more than just a fluke hang upon the two rookies’ shoulders.

Oh, and let’s not forget old Key West himself. Rumors had been swirling for months, but the Reds finally brought back Bronson Arroyo in the offseason to add what has turned out to be invaluable depth to the rotation and veteran leadership and mentorship to the young pitchers. But Arroyo hasn’t pitched in a major league game since June of 2014 for the Diamondbacks, and his first start on Saturday showed the rust. 4 innings of 6 run baseball with 2 homers allowed isn’t going to keep the Reds in many games. The Reds have to hope Arroyo returns to some semblance of his 2006-2013 form for this return trip to work. We all hope it does, but how long can the 40 year-old leg-kicker extraordinaire keep things together?

If the above ramble doesn’t convey things well enough, the Reds rotation isn’t pretty right now. It’s a stitchwork of rookies too young for the moment, one young pitcher trying to turn a good year into two and two veterans who are being asked to shoulder more of a burden than they’ve carried in years.

Cueto, Leake and Latos are gone. Bailey is still here, as weird as that feels to type, but Christian Bale and Disco-fever are a ways out.

Oh, and we haven’t even covered the fact that starting catcher Devin Mesoraco is still on a rehab assignment for the club.

And yet the Reds are 5-2 one week in.

Let’s review what has gone right in the first 7 games so far:

1. The Reds are scoring 4.86 runs so far in the season.

2. The hodgepodge staff has recorded 3 shutouts already this season for the club, 2 of which occured on the road at Busch Stadium in St. Louis over the weekend.

3. Those 2 shutouts helped the Reds claim their 4th series win in St. Louis in 13 years. 4 series. In 13 years. Yeah, that’s a rarity, and even with a Cardinals club looking older this season is still quite an accomplishment for any Reds team.

4. Monday’s win featured 7 innings of scoreless baseball out of the bullpen for the Reds after Brandon Finnegan struggled, lasting only 2 innings. Between the likes of Michael Lorenzen, Cody Reed and Wandy Peralta, the Reds retired 21 straight batters in order to end the game.

5. The bullpen is obviously improved for the Reds, with Raisel Iglesias, Tony Cingrani, Drew Storen and Michael Lorenzen all sliding well into late-game roles, despite the long-relief from Lorenzen in Monday’s affair.

6. Bryan Price is showing some guts early. It’s easy to leave a pitcher in when your team has a 5-0 lead. Not as easy when he’s struggling with control and has loaded the bases in the 3rd inning with nobody out. Conventional wisdom says leave the starter in, let the lead cushion any damage that might be surrendered. Yet Price went with the quick hook and Lorenzen shut a wide-open door to keep the lead and yank any momentum away from the Pirates. Does Price make that move any previous season? Not that I can remember.

What does all of this mean for the 2017 Cincinnati Reds? It’s hard to say.

It’s early, but the Reds are off to a far better start than in 2016. The bullpen looks better, the bench is seeing some production finally with the addition of Scooter Gennett and Bryan Price is learning to make some gutsy decisions.

The bench still needs to find some production, particularly from the backup outfielders. The team HAS TO, HAS TO, HAS TO have at least 4 of the 5 starters pitch competitively until Bailey and DeSclafani return. If the rotation starts to flounder as Finnegan did Monday night or Davis and Arroyo did in their openers, the bullpen will be overly-worked and flounder. There is little to no margin for error. Joey Votto has hit two homers already, but if he struggles with his average early on as he did through May of last season, the Reds offense will be non-existent.

It’s weird to cite any of these issues as major when no one expected the Reds to compete this year. It was supposed to be a rebuild season. The team is years away from contention. For the Reds, it’s about developing and evaluating the young talent. Who can the team move forward with and who needs more time to hone their craft?

Many still don’t expect the team to compete. To be honest, I’m not sure I do. It’s one week into the season, for crying out loud.

But hey, I’ve never seen the Reds win a playoff series in my life. Nor the Bengals a playoff game. I’m a die-hard Cincinnati fan, and I expected this season to be a slog of mediocrity, sadness and shots from Andy Sweeney. The best I could hope for was to share my sadness with Jason Anderson and his aging-Royals while ducking Patrick Murphy from sales and Josh Hawkins on night shifts as they expounded on how glorious the Cubs are this season; how young and talented they’ll be for years to come.

I expected the contracts of Votto and Bailey to continue to hang around my neck like the proverbial dead albatross.

I mean, with Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman all gone, who do you know or root for on this team other than Joey “Canadian Bacon” Votto? I have no player jerseys or shirseys of any player left on the roster. Everyone is gone. Votto is literally the Reds only good player.

Or so we all thought.

Yet here I am, one week into the season, with something I never expected to have this year: hope. Pride. Excitement.

My dad came down to a Bats game with me over the weekend, and we’re planning to go to Reds games later this Spring. He’s going to be 70 in May with knee problems, and those outings are coming fewer and farther between. Time catches up with all of us, and I miss going to games with him and my mom.

Yeah, I’m getting a bit sappy here.

One summer my dad and I visited over 8 different MLB parks. Another we attended nearly 30 Reds home games without being season ticket holders. Last year was the first year since 2004 where we didn’t go to a single game together. We will this season.

My mom and dad are both talking to me on the phone about the Reds with enthusiasm. They say I even sound more chipper than usual. I feel it, too.

It may only be a week atop the standings, or a month, or a few months.

But this is fun. Why not imagine the possibilities? Why not hope and dream for a little while?

Maybe this team pulls off some miracle run and competes for the division.

Unlikely, but hey, the Cubs won the whole thing and Cleveland overcame and blew a 3-1 lead in two different professional sports finals.

Gonzaga made it to the finals of the Men’s Basketball tournament while the UCONN women lost in the semifinals.

A Louisville player won the Heisman running away (ha, it’s funny because Lamar is fast).

Jason Anderson has let Nick Valvano have hockey questions in Sports or Leisure.
Nick Valvano, Brian Hall and myself have a 6-7pm show Thursday evenings on 680 & 105.7 (shameless plug, I know).

A lot of seemingly impossible things have happened over the past year or so.

So why can’t the Reds compete in 2017? Why not this year? Why not have fun with it?