The National League Central has, in general, been what we expected. Three of the five teams are flirting with .500, the Pittsburgh Pirates are very bad, and only the Milwaukee Brewers have been able to separate themselves thanks to an absolutely torrid run in June and into July.
For the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, the remainder of 2021 could very well be a moot point. The Cardinals have simply too many injuries to their pitching staff to recover from the first three months of the year, while the Cubs’ start to the year was very clearly a mirage on their way to not only losing their grip on the division lead but falling well into third place.
It’s possible the Brewers are the class of the division. They’ve got a trio of frontline starters, a deep bullpen, and enough offense to sustain them while those arms do the majority of the work. But perhaps the most interesting club within the division is the Cincinnati Reds. As we quickly barrel toward the end of July, the Reds are among the more intriguing teams to monitor during the impending trade rumor frenzy.
Because the Reds aren’t bad. They’re a little farther off from their role as offseason darlings between 2019 and 2020, but they have enough potency at the plate that they’ve been able to hang around in both the race for the division and the wild card. As of this writing, they’re six games out of the Central, but only four-and-a-half games out of one of the pair of wild card spots. In terms of the division, that six-game lead looks more difficult to overcome. However, they kick off a four-game set with the Brewers this weekend and immediately face them for three more straight out of the All-Star break. They’ll get another three later in the year.
So, ultimately, that stretch could very well indicate what the Reds will do. If they’re able to make up some ground against Milwaukee—a potentially easier feat given that the teams they are chasing in the wild card race are the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres—they could fall on the “buy” side of things before we get too close to the end of the month.
But wondering as to what the Reds should do poses an entirely different kind of question.
As an offense, Cincinnati actually represents the class of the division. Their 103 wRC+ ranks fourth in the NL and leads Milwaukee by a fairly wide margin (90). Only Los Angeles has scored more runs than the Reds’ 423, while also being the only team to outpace Cincy’s .330 team on-base percentage. They also rank fifth in ISO (.170).
It certainly helps to have a pair of All-Star starters buoying the offense, in Nick Castellanos (3.4 fWAR) and Jesse Winker (2.5). Castellanos ranks sixth in wRC+ among all qualifying hitters (159), while Winker ranks 11th (152). Jonathan India, Tyler Stephenson, and, less surprisingly, Joey Votto all have wRC+ figures of at least 120. So they have upper-tier performances and a few quality outputs from some of their secondary hitters. This strong offensive output comes even with Eugenio Suárez mired in an awful 2021 and both Mike Moustakas & Nick Senzel experiencing longer-term health issues. While hope might be lost for Suárez in his worst offensive season since 2016, one imagines that the respective returns of Moustakas and Senzel could potentially be a boon for a high-functioning offense.
The Reds very likely have an offense that can stand up to anyone in the NL. Especially when healthy. If you looked at just that side of the ball in a vacuum, you might be talking about a serious contender out of the Senior Circuit. And from a standpoint where you’re trying to determine what to do at the trade deadline, it becomes that much more difficult to ascertain a direction when you know you can hang with your counterparts throughout the National League.
But, of course, the different phases of a roster don’t compete in a vacuum. And it’s the pitching that has really halted any opportunity for sustainable success for the Reds in 2021. The only teams with a higher staff ERA than the Reds’ 4.49 mark are Arizona, Colorado, and Pittsburgh. Not ideal company for anything. Their walk rate ( is the second-highest, behind only St. Louis, while their hard-hit rate against is fifth-highest in the NL (32.1). When you focus on just the relievers, those three figures leap to 5.19 (second-worst behind only Colorado), 4.88 (still second-worst), and 36.3 percent (also second-worst). Ultimately, the only team with a potentially worse bullpen resides at Coors Field. When you talk about contention, that’s kind of one of the first things you need to get there.
An interesting wrinkle to the pitching is that their starting staff has largely been able to maintain some semblance of consistency. Luis Castillo has quietly bounced back after an April that saw his ERA over eight. Sonny Gray has been his characteristically solid self. Even the starters they’ve had to cobble together in the wake of so many injuries—primarily Vladimir Gutierrez & Jeff Hoffman—have done enough to stabilize them out of the gate and allow for the offense to keep them in games. Until, you know, the bullpen is activated.
That’s a very generalized overview of where the Reds stand. Great on offense, with the potential to get better once they’re a touch healthier, and a capable starting rotation that has managed to survive even with their own health woes. The bullpen on this team remains the only legitimate concern, on paper. This is fixable, given that the majority of the time you talk about the trade deadline, you’re likely scrolling through relief pitchers that might be available ad nauseam.
From a simple standpoint, it might behoove the Reds just to remain in a sort of holding pattern at the marquee positions and shore up the bullpen in hopes that you can catch Milwaukee. But it’s not necessarily a black-and-white situation like, say, the Chicago Cubs. With their division rivals, you’re looking at a slew of players set to hit the free-agent market and an owner hellbent on saving every possible cent at the expense of the on-field product. While the latter comment may describe a majority of Major League Baseball’s ownership group, what separates the Reds from the Cubs is in the certainty of their contracts moving forward.
Unlike the Cubs, who could see Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Joc Pederson, Zach Davies, and a handful of currently rostered relievers walk at the end of the year, Cincinnati’s roster situation actually muddles the situation for them.
Votto, Moustakas, and Castellanos all have three guaranteed years remaining on their contracts after 2021. Suárez has four. Gray has one. Castillo, Winker, and Tyler Mahle have a pair of arbitration years after this season. Guys like Senzel or Stephenson or India are locked in for much longer. There’s a lot of certainty with this roster, which actually leaves them to operate in the gray area, as far as the deadline is concerned, much more so than some of the other teams caught in the same weird middle ground. And it makes them fascinating.
FanGraphs gives the Reds a 17.5 percent chance of reaching the postseason, including a 10.1 shot at the division. That has a chance to become a more inspiring figure depending on the weekend’s (and next week’s) outcomes against Milwaukee. Or it could go entirely the other way. But at a time of year when we’d like to find that black or white and classify teams as purely buyers or purely sellers, the Reds could very well be a bit of both and operate entirely in shades of gray.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.