Imagine telling someone at the beginning of the MLB season that the Cincinnati Reds would be in the thick of the NL playoff hunt right now. They would probably laugh in your face and then pull up the Reds’ 18.7 percent chances of making the playoffs according to Fangraph’s MLB projections.
Fast forward to the present day and the Reds are vying to make their second consecutive postseason. I know that last year’s postseason was complex because eight teams from each league made it but this time they might not need the extra assistance of less competition.
The Reds were 48-42 at the All-Star break and they’ve gone 23-21 since. Although that is not an elite record by any means, the temporary descent of the Padres as well as the competitive but “struggling” NL East has repositioned the Reds close to the second wild card spot.
Their hot streak and winning ways was not carried by luck alone but rather was assisted by one man: Joseph Daniel Votto. He entered the All-Star break with 11 home runs and has hit a league-leading 17 since. Votto’s best stretch came in July when he hit nine home runs over seven days. In the process, he reached three significant milestones this season and has been in NL MVP talks along with the likes of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Bryce Harper for his consistent production at the plate.
Despite the vengeance of the 2010 NL MVP, he has not been the hottest hitter over the entire season. That category belongs to both Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos, two surprise sluggers who hit over .300 for most of the year. Their talent landed them both in the starting outfield for the All-Star Game alongside the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds. As of publication, both guys have 24 home runs each, a combined 143 RBIs and their career years have only been hampered by a few stints on the IL here and there.
Outside of those big three, the Reds have a young lineup. Over the course of the previous two seasons, the biggest rookie names belonged to guys like Aristedes Aquino and Nick Senzel. Neither of those guys have had the years they did back in 2019 and 2020, but in their place rises new names and possible Rookie of the Year winners.
First there’s Jonathan India, who made the Opening Day roster and has not disappointed since. In 123 games India is hitting .267 with 17 home runs on 114 hits with a team leading nine steals. His chances of winning the NL Rookie of the Year have increased like his order in the batting lineup. Once a guy who batted eighth, he is now the guy who leads off as the frontrunner to the prestigious award.
Next there is Tyler Stephenson, a catcher who hits for average more than power and finds several ways to produce both behind the plate and on the base paths. He has created a considerable duo behind the plate with the help of Tucker Barnhart, but this is going to be Stephenson’s show very soon, and he is deserving of every moment of it.
Although Tyler Naquin has not been as hot as he was in April, he should still be recognized as a key aspect of this team, especially since he was named a member of the Team of the Month for August. The Reds have an arsenal of hitters who don’t get recognized as much because they hit for average in a home run-happy league, but what about their pitching rotation and bullpen?
Over the offseason, the Reds lost Trevor Bauer to free agency where he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bauer, who won the NL Cy Young award, was the ace in a rotation that had three solid arms as the Milwaukee Brewers have right now.
The other two, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo, have not dominated as they did in 2019 but they have put up solid numbers for a rotation that was expected to face some downside this season. Castillo had an abysmal first half of the season but has slowly been working his way back towards ace form and looks like he will finish with close to 200 strikeouts this season. Gray has had to fight through injuries to be the middleman in the rotation for the time being.
If he was one of the top three pitchers last year, how could he be a middleman? That’s where Tyler Mahle comes into play. I want to focus on Mahle first because he has more big-league experience and leads the team in strikeouts with 174 and has been an incredible No. 2 guy in that rotation. Mahle, who is second on the team in innings pitched, changed his mechanics a bit and managed to fool a lot of sluggers in the process.
The rest of the rotation is above average as well. At the age of 34, Wade Miley is having a career year with an ERA of 2.97 and a no-hitter to boot. Finally, there is rookie Vladimir Gutierrez, who blew me away when he went seven innings strong on multiple occasions. He’s had several quality starts and has come from out of nowhere to be the fifth man I consider to be a top ten rotation in this league.
The only thing stopping this big red machine from reaching their true potential is the bullpen, which has been the case for several teams, especially the Phillies. Even with Sean Doolittle (now released) and Amir Garrett underperforming, minor acquisitions such as Luis Cessa, Justin Wilson and homegrown Michael Lorenzen have provided strong relief in their limited appearances. If the bullpen is fixed in the postseason, then it may be game over for anyone who goes up against the Reds.
General Manager Nick Krall and manager David Bell know what they are doing to get this team back to relevance. I would like to go out on a limb and say the Reds will make the NLCS, but the NL is loaded from coast to coast. The Atlanta Braves are finding ways to win without Acuna while the Dodgers and Giants are battling it out for first place. Even within their own division, the Brewers have dominated out of nowhere.
I will say this though: when the Reds make the playoffs, assuming they don’t dramatically collapse this month, they will score more than one run in the NL Wild Card Game.