Friday, June 23, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, June 23, 2023 -- "Red Streak"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Red Streak
Vol. 15, No. 56
June 23, 2023

“In the short term, they’re watchable, at least on the nights Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo start.”

Coming into 2023, I tied the Reds’ story to the success of their starting rotation, and in particular the two budding aces at the front of it. So it’s funny that today, both Greene and Lodolo -- and a third young starter in Graham Ashcraft -- are on the injured list, and the Reds are the most watchable team in baseball.

After sweeping the defending champions in Houston, the Reds have won 11 straight games, and edged into first place in the NL Central at 40-35, with a 1 1/2-game lead on the Brewers. It’s the franchise’s third-longest winning streak since 1901, and they can tie the modern record of 12 tonight against the Braves, on an eight-game tear themselves.

The difference in the two winning streaks illustrates the difference in the teams. The Braves have been hammering their opponents, winning four of the eight games by at least five runs, outscoring  them, 65-27. They’ve won 15 of 17 and have pushed to within two games of the Rays for the best record in baseball. The Reds? Five of their 11 wins have come by one run, another in extra innings. They’re up 68-43 on their 11 foes in that time. The Braves are a great team doing what great teams do. The Reds are a rebuilding team on a heater, catching some breaks to turn an 8-3 stretch into 11-0.

That’s what makes it so much fun. A Cincinnati team channeling the Big Red Machine for a couple of weeks is a man-bites-dog story that no one saw coming, the kind that spices up a six-month season. A month ago today, the Reds sold 14,159 tickets to a Tuesday night loss to the Cardinals, one that dropped them into last place in the NL Central. Tonight, they’ll double that figure as people stream into Great American Ball Park to watch a first-place team try to do something no Reds team has done since 1957.

What happened? No one man changes a baseball team, but...Elly.

Elly De La Cruz has been in the majors for 17 days, and the Reds are 13-2 in that time, 12-2 when he starts. He’s hit .321/.387/.536, going a perfect 6-for-6 stealing bases. He’s 21 years old without a lot of experience above A ball, and yet he’s managing a credible 3.2-to-1 K/BB, 31% strikeout rate, and 10% walk rate. De La Cruz has been splitting time between shortstop and third base, looking like someone who has played shortstop a lot and third base not quite as much.

None of that gets at the experience of watching Elly De La Cruz play baseball. He’s calm and confident standing in the batter’s box, willing to make the pitcher come to him. When he gets the pitch he wants, he takes a powerful, controlled swing, and he’s already shown the ability to both attack in the zone and generate good contact outside of it. If he’s not the fastest player in baseball, he’s the fastest good player in baseball, applying that speed aggressively. De La Cruz is a triple waiting to happen, limited only by the size of modern ballparks.

Baseball teams do this all the time now. Adley Rutschman last year.  Wander Franco in 2021. Juan Soto in 2018. They’ll get to May or June and turn loose the colt they’ve been hiding in the barn. De, Elly, he’s already that guy...Elly has a gear those greats don’t. He has Soto’s presence, Franco’s position, Rutschman’s skill from both sides of the plate, and something extra, something Peter Gammons would call duende, the thing that makes you track a Reds game to make sure you see every one of his at-bats, and when he gets on base, stay with him to see what he does next.

It’s not possible to separate the Reds’ 11-game winning streak from Elly.

No one player wins 11 in a row, though. The Reds are winning because they’ve started putting their next good team on the field, faster than I anticipated. Elly is at .317/.378/.483 during the streak, 2020 Rookie of the Year Jonathan India is at .214/.340/.548. 2021 second-round pick Andrew Abbott started the first and most recent games of the winning streak. The Reds are 4-0 when he starts. A first-round pick from that same draft, Matt McLain, hasn’t been hitting well during the streak, after a hot start, but has been a stalwart on defense. Alexis Diaz, drafted in 2015, is the team’s best reliever. Undrafted free agent TJ Friedl has hit .300/.391/.450 during the streak, in his ninth year in the Reds’ org. Even some Canadian drafted more than 20 years ago has come back from a shoulder injury to chip in a 972 OPS in three games. I’m hoping The Athletic will find a way write about him. Behind this group, 2022 first-round pick Cam Collier is a rated prospect, and the Reds have the seventh pick in next month’s draft.

When the Reds chose to tear down a playoff contender after the 2021 season, I was livid, the decision representing much of what is wrong with modern baseball. I still think the choice was an indefensible abdication of a team’s responsibility to its fans. In defense of the front office, it did a far better job with this teardown than it had with the 2016 one in which it dealt Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, and Jay Bruce for nothing. Trade acquisitions Spencer Steer, Jake Fraley, Will Benson, and Brandon Williamson are all contributing to the streak. Pushing up from the minors are Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Noelvi Marte, Edwin Arroyo, and Chase Petty, all picked up in rebuilding deals.

There’s a big future ahead in Cincinnati, which makes it easier to be realistic about the team’s present. Their current run is more like the Pirates’ hot start than the Braves’ recent stretch, the peak performance of a flawed young roster just getting its legs under it. The Reds are starting Luke Weaver (6.47 ERA, 5.48 FIP; 5.82 ERA since 2020) tonight, returning Graham Ashcraft (6.78 ERA, 5.10 FIP) Saturday, and retread Ben Lively (4.11 ERA, 5.12 FIP in return from KBO) Sunday. The Braves might hang 30 runs on the Reds this weekend. It’s more likely this team slips under .500 in July, owing to its weak starting pitching, than that it hangs on to first place.

That doesn’t change what these last two weeks have meant. The baseball season has to be more about the journey than the destination, more than just a seven-month slog to make one team’s fans happy and 29 teams’ fans mad. The Pirates’ hot start, the A’s seven-game winning streak, the Luis Arraez chase for .400, the Marlins winning 12 one-run games in a row, and yes, the Reds being in first place in late’s all part of the ride, even if none of it lasts. There’s more to baseball than rings and parades, more to baseball fandom than winning the World Series. There’s the ride, and right now, the ride is amazing.

If you want to take something from this Reds run, it’s that it pushes up their timetable. I expected them to emerge as contenders by 2025, with a possible breakout year by 2024. They’ve accelerated that now by a year, putting the pieces in place to be a good team as soon as next season. They’ll have to get that rotation, especially Greene and Lodolo, healthy, and at some point convert the group of infielders crowding the roster into outfielders, including a true center fielder, and pitching. The Reds have moved very quickly from rebuilding to building, and can take the next step to winning as soon as next year.

To get there, though, will require a commitment from ownership. Bob Castellini, not so long ago, authorized a payroll around the league median, only to see his investment scuppered by the pandemic. With Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, and Wil Myers all coming off the payroll after 2023, the Reds’ highest-paid player is Greene at $3.3 million, and they have a projected total payroll of less than $30 million. With MLB backstopping the Reds’ TV money at 80% of its contracted value, Castellini’s risk in the Diamond Sports Group mess is capped. Given their combination of pre-arb talent, tradeable prospects, and payroll room, there’s no reason the Reds can’t add at least two starting pitchers -- Aaron Nola and Eduardo Rodriguez? -- to position themselves as the NL Central favorites in 2024.

For now, though, there’s Elly, and there’s that gorgeous ballpark in a baseball town, filled this weekend with fans proving once again that all it takes, all it ever takes, is winning.