The warning signal began flashing Wednesday night. When the Cincinnati Reds couldn’t win a game with starter Homer Bailey pitching seven innings, allowing just one hit and striking out 10, we should have all known right then they were in trouble. There is no room for mercy in the baseball playoffs. When you have a team down you put your foot on the neck and squish. None of this “We’ll get them tomorrow stuff.”
So the Reds brought home a 2-0 lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series and promptly lost three straight games at Great American Ball Park, concluding their season Thursday with a 6-4 loss. The Reds won 97 games and the NL Central Division title and aspired to more in the 2012 season. With a phenomenal pitching staff, including the best bullpen in the majors, all the Reds needed was a smattering of timely hitting. They didn’t get it in Cincinnati.
Once renowned as The Big Red Machine, this group turned into The Little Engine That Couldn’t when it mattered most. Most of the shortcomings were in the batter’s box, but the vaunted pitching wasn’t as solid as it needed to be in games four and five either. All would have been forgiven if outfielder Jay Bruce had managed one of his dramatic home runs in the ninth inning. He had the opportunity for a three-run shot that would have made him a hero for life in Cincinnati and he produced an epic at-bat, but not a miracle.
General manager Walt Jocketty had an executive-of-the-year type off-season last year and probably not as much work will be necessary before 2013 spring training. Still, the Reds have some issues to discuss.
Starting at the top, you have to wonder if Dusty Baker will continue as manager. I am sure he wants to. I am sure the Reds want him to. But after his end-of-the-season health scare he might examine his future. He is 63 and just endured an irregular heartbeat and a mini-stroke that sidelined him for a couple of weeks. I had been thinking that if this bunch won the World Series–the only achievement lacking on Baker’s managerial resume–that he might have chosen this time to retire. Now I am certain that if he is able he will return.
Back to that spectacular bullpen. Once upon a time the Reds signed free agent Ryan Madson, formerly of the Phillies, as a closer. Madson got hurt and never threw a pitch while collecting big bucks. However, Madson was supposed to be a one-year stop gap. The Reds did fine without him, mainly because Aroldis Chapman emerged as a wonder as the closer and the team also made a savvy mid-season pickup of Jonathan Broxton.
Johnny Cueto became the staff ace with 19 wins, but his oblique muscle strain while throwing to the second batter he faced in the playoffs was as costly as anything to the Reds in the post-season. Still, it’s not as if he needs Tommy John surgery, so Cueto will be expected to be as good as ever. Mat Latos was knocked around in the last game of the playoffs, but he is young and healthy. Bronson Arroyo is aging, but at the end of the season he was pitching as well as ever. And Bailey is a pitcher on the rise. In his last regular-season outing he tossed a no-hitter and he almost repeated the feat in the playoffs.
The fifth starter is Mike Leake and if the decision is made to make Chapman a 100-mph starter as was contemplated this year and use Broxton as the closer, Leake will be out of the rotation.
Scott Rolen, an eight-time All-Star at third base, committed the error that cost the Reds the Bailey one-hitter game and he struck out to end the season. With the rise of rookie Todd Frazier, Rolen, who could be contemplating retirement, may not be a starter next year anyway. The Reds overachieved when former MVP Joey Votto missed seven weeks with a knee injury, but he should be back at full strength.
The only other question about the day-to-day lineup is what to do with Drew Stubbs. He is an enigma. He is an excellent centerfielder with first-rate speed on the bases, but he can’t hit. In 2011 he struck out 205 times. A learning experience, we thought. Well, this year he struck out 166 times and his batting average dropped to .213. That’s one gigantic hole in the order.
Up until now the Reds have believed that Stubbs could be righted, but he is probably running out of chances. The disappointment of season’s end will sting and be remembered in Cincinnati for a long time, but the Reds have the potential to achieve more next year.