The thought after the crushing defeat in a one-game Wild Card with the Pittsburgh Pirates: Reds need to improve. They aren't there. Perhaps they're a powerful right-handed bat short of finally getting off the dreaded "cusp," that they've seemingly been perched on since 2010.
The loss of lead-off extraordinaire Shin Soo-Choo was pretty devastating, but not unexpected. The narrative surrounding Choo for the entire 2013 season was that he was a one-year rental player. And with his exodus comes a familiar black hole atop the lineup, one Cincinnati fans haven't witnessed since, well, just two seasons ago.
Two seasons ago, in 2012, the team won 97 games—the most wins the organization had amassed since 1976. They did this with Drew Stubbs leading off for most of the season. They did it with an everyday Scott Rolen, who appeared brittle by the time he took the last Reds' swing and miss in the NLDS.
The Reds won 97 games in a year where its former MVP and highest paid guy in uniform played in just 111 games.
Perhaps it's pretty obvious what I'm alluding to. The Reds have not improved its offense, which was a primary objective in the hearts of every Reds fan, writer or general observer. But it's impossible to dismiss this team because frankly, it's never been a team that has relied solely on its offense to win 90-plus games.
This is a pitching team. And in a league where pitching is irrefutably the most important and coveted asset, the Reds still remain one of the toughest teams in the NL Central, if not all of baseball.
Woah. Pretty contrary to nearly every single article we've read through this offseason, huh? But the proof is so overwhelming that the second or third place narrative surrounding the Reds this offseason becomes nothing more than a fairy tale.
The Reds have won 90-plus games in three of the last four seasons. Check the team's offensive rank compared to its pitching rank and let's revisit what truly matters:
2010: Offense (runs scored): No. 4 / Pitching (ERA): No. 12 - Reds swept in NLDS
2011: Offense: No. 7 / Pitching: No. 20 - Reds miss playoffs
2012: Offense: No. 21 / Pitching: No. 4 - Reds lose in Game 5 of NLDS
2013: Offense: No. 12 / Pitching: No. 4 - Reds lose one game Wild Card
Some notes above the above data: 2010 should be the quintessential example for why pitching matters so much more. The Reds were No. 4 in all of baseball in runs scored, not just the NL. That's an incredible feat for an NL team to accomplish. But we all witnessed what happens when a juggernaut offense meets a shut down pitching rotation and a little cold weather.
2011 is obvious. A top-10 offense can do very little with a cumulative team ERA well above four.
2012 would be the furthest this Reds team has come. And as luck in Cincinnati always has it, the Reds would lose its Cy Young vote-getting ace in Johnny Cueto, just a few pitches into Game 1 of the NLDS. Cueto had the No. 5 ERA in all of baseball that season.
2013 would follow an eerily similar narrative. The Reds felt comfortable putting its No. 4 ERA up against anyone. Unfortunately, they were met with baseball's No. 3 ERA in the Wild Card game. While they did have their ace Johnny Cueto this time, it was Cueto's first start off the DL and it couldn't have come at a more stressful time.
Unless you recall Johnny Cueto literally dropping the ball on the pitcher's mound or getting chased after four innings of work on more than one occasion. Nothing was right about that start for him.
So the Reds stand seemingly stuck on a cusp, somewhere in between great and pretty good. Few people in Cincinnati are happy regarding the state of the city's professional baseball team. You can almost feel the collective sighs of Reds fans everywhere following each acquisition this offseason, which has included prestigious names like:
Chien-Ming Wang, Skip Schumaker, Brayan Pena, David Holmberg, Jeff Francis and Chris Nelson to name a few.
But if the numbers above demonstrate, it's that the Reds won't be relying on its bats to take them to the next step. Similar to the three Reds teams that have recently won 90-plus games, the team will rely heavily on a staff that routinely finishes in the upper echelon of baseball rotations.
The counter to this is that the Reds have yet to advance in the playoffs using this model of dominant pitching, mediocre offense. True. But the Reds have also yet to enter the playoffs with the same healthy staff that attributed to the tremendous regular season success.