Over the last three years, the Cincinnati Reds have fallen out of the National League Central race early. The 2017 Reds held serve much longer than the teams of the two previous years, but still fell below .500 in the middle of a seven-game losing streak on May 17 and never saw a winning record again.
The hapless Reds never saw a winning month until a 15-14 August, when Cincinnati still failed to string together more than three wins in a row despite the month’s offensive outburst of 165 runs, a season high. Offensive output was the stronger point of attack for the Reds as first baseman and NL MVP runner-up Joey Votto carried the club with a .320 batting average, 1.032 OPS, 36 home runs, 34 doubles, 100 RBIs and 134 walks. Votto started all 162 games for the Reds and reached base safely in 150 of them for an astounding on-base percentage of .454.
Unfortunately for him, Votto was an outlier on a woefully average offense. While the Reds did well to hit for power in home runs and utilize speed for triples, doubles were elusive. The Reds shook out at 13th in the NL in doubles, which makes it tough to drive in runs. With such a predicament, Cincinnati was forced to put runners in scoring position other ways, including stealing bases. With 120 stolen bases on the season, the Reds finished second in the NL in swipes, but center fielder Billy Hamilton carried a heavy part of the load with 59 stolen bases.
Problems came as the pitching staff never gave the offense a chance to stay in games as the Reds had the worst pitching in the NL. Reds pitchers combined for a team ERA of 5.17, the only other team in the NL north of 5.00 was the New York Mets at 5.01. An allowance of 5.36 runs per game was too much for an offense that mustered just 4.65 runs per game.
The Reds have been in the cellar of the NL Central for the last three years. It’s going to take a lot for them to get anywhere near the level required to compete in the division. The best chance they have is to build through their farm system.
Currently the 13th-ranked prospect in the Reds organization by MLB.com, right-hander Antonio Santillan is their number-two pitching prospect. He spent 2017 in Single-A ball with the Dayton Dragons, where he tossed a 3.38 ERA and 128 strike outs in 25 games. I saw Santillan with the Billings Mustangs in the Pioneer League in 2016, and he is a flamethrower with a fastball that tops out around 100 mph with a wicked slider that dives away from bats. Scouting reports say he needs to work on his stamina, but overall he appears to have the makings to be a solid starting pitcher.
Even if Santillan makes his major league debut in the next few years, Votto will likely be past his prime. In which case, Hamilton and company will need to hit better than .250 for the Reds to stay in games and compete in the division.
Photo by Brigham Berthold