When last we heard from the Cincinnati Reds – you remember them, right? – they were playing spring-training games, working to put together what promised to be the most exciting Reds team in a decade or so.
But then they had to pack up their bats and gloves and go home because of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the opening of the baseball season to be canceled, the same fate as suffered by the NCAA Tournament, the Masters golf tournament and the Kentucky Derby.
A few weeks ago, you may have read in this space the hope that the baseball season could be salvaged, even if the games were played in near-empty stadiums, for the sake of the nation’s morale. At least sports fans would be able to watch the games on TV or listen on the radio, giving them a badly-needed break from the coronavirus and all the cable news shows, where lying and finger-pointing have been elevated to depressing levels.
Of all the professional team sports, only baseball can be played while observing the recommended measures to avoid the coronavirus. The players can generally practice social distancing and wash their hands every inning. They wouldn’t have to touch each other. Heck, if they have to wear face masks, it would even curtail all that spitting.
So it was almost with ecstasy that many of us received the news that major-league baseball might play a half-season of 82 games, beginning on July 4. Even with the stadiums empty, the TV ratings would be off the charts. So many businesses would want to buy commercials that it would enable the game and the TV networks to recoup a least a bit of their financial losses.
The opening of the season still isn’t official, but Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office and the players union are working on a compromise that will placate both sides. In every major-league city, teams are gearing back up amid hopes there will be a half-season.
No team has more potential – or more questions – than the Reds, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013. The franchise was busy during the off-season, signing their first player from Japan and acquiring two big bats in outfielder Nick Castellanos, who hit .289 with 27 homers for the Cubs last season, and third baseman Mike Moustakas, who clubbed 33 homers with 87 RBI for Milwaukee.
Of the projected starting eight, only catcher Tucker Barnhart, first baseman Joey Votto, and third baseman Eugenio Suarez, are assured of places in the starting lineup. The other five positions all are rife with both potential and concerns.
The Reds are going to ask Moustakas, a career-long third baseman, to play second. If it doesn’t work and the team has to go with somebody like Nick Senzel at second, what’s going to happen to Moustakas? He surely will not replace Suarez, who hit 49 homers with 103 RBI for last year’s team.
At shortstop, the Reds are hoping Freddie Galvis will be an adequate replacement for Julio Iglesias, who hit .289 last season while playing defense as well as anybody in the league. For some reason, the Reds let Iglesias go without even offering him a contract. After breaking in with the Phillies in 2012, Galvis sustained an injury and eventually tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He made the majors for good in 2015 and is known more for his defense than his shaky hitting.
In the outfield, the Reds would like to start Aristides Aquino, last-season’s home-run prodigy in left; Shogo Akiyama, who has never played professional outside Japan in center; and Castellanos in right. But what if Aquino, who hit 19 homers with 47 RBI after being called up from AAA Louisville in late summer, proves to be a one-season wonder? What if Akiyama isn’t ready for prime time? The Reds have Senzel, Jesse Winker, Phillip Ervin, and others waiting to see.
The team has an abundance of pitching.
Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Anthony DeSciafani, and Sonny Gray give them a solid starting rotation, and Amir Garrett, Raisel Iglesias, and Michael Lorenzen head up a formidable bullpen. There will be a dogfight for the other five spots on the staff, with the likes of Cody Reed, Tyler Mahle, Robert Stephenson, Lucas Sims, and Matt Bowman competing for the spot starter/middle relief/bullpen backup roles.
All the options and questions will be the biggest challenge Manager David Bell has ever faced. But he’ll get plenty of advice from general manager Nick Krall and the front office.
The owners have agreed to pay the players’ salaries on a pro-rated basis, and I’d guess the owners and players’ union would take out an insurance policy against the coronavirus. Still, it would be a fragile and precarious proposition. A couple of players already have said they won’t play, no matter what. If even one player comes down with the virus, the sport probably would have to shut down for the rest of the season.
Still, I hope the owners and players’ union agree to give it shot. America needs some relief from its misery, and baseball could provide that better than any other sport. I look forward to the cry of “Play Ball!” in a near-empty Great American Ball Park. Trust me, it will be heard loud and clear throughout Reds Country.
Billy Reed is a nationally known award-winning columnist.