Thank goodness for John Sadak.
The Cincinnati Reds’ new television play-by-play man on the newly-named Bally Sports Ohio has been a strong contender for rookie of the year in this early baseball season. Sadak is knowledgeable, does his homework and has a sly sense of humor. Win or lose, he sounds as if he is genuinely thrilled to be there, no small feat considering the disappointing team he covers.
The Reds were just 20-25 heading into Tuesday night’s three-game series opener at the Washington Nationals. They were coming off a disastrous 1-6 home stand in which they dropped four straight to the San Francisco Giants before losing two of three to the Milwaukee Brewers. They were outscored 50-25 at Great American Ball Park, including a 19-4 beatdown last Thursday by the Giants.
“It’s embarrassing,” said right fielder Nick Castellanos at the conclusion of the Milwaukee series.
Just think how embarrassing the Reds would be without Castellanos and fellow outfielder Jesse Winker. Castellanos leads the majors in batting average at .356. Winker is second at .355. Winker has hit 13 home runs; Castellanos 12. Winker ranks second in all of baseball in OPS (on-base average plus slugging). Castellanos is fourth.
After that, however, there’s not much to brag about on the banks of the Ohio. After a hot 6-1 start, David Bell’s club is 14-24. While Reds batters are fifth in team OPS, Reds pitchers are 29th out of 30 in team ERA. Their bullpen team ERA ranks 28th out of 30. You get the picture.
In his third season as manager, the 48-year-old Bell was 123-133 before Tuesday. After a 75-87 mark his first season, the Reds went 31-29 last season, squeezing out a (brief) pandemic playoff appearance. Roughly a quarter way through 2021, Bell and the Reds now face a couple of touch decisions: What do about Eugenio Suarez and Luis Castillo?
Suarez exhibited star power in 2019, batting .271 with 49 homers and 103 RBI. He has hit .177 since, including a barrel-bottom .148 this season. His strikeout percentage has risen from 28.6 in 2019 to 29.0 last season to 36.7 this year. In Sunday’s 9-4 loss to the Brewers, Suarez fanned with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth. No one was surprised.
A position switch might partially explain Suarez’s cliff-dive at the plate. Unable to sign a shortstop over the winter, the Reds moved Suarez from third base to shortstop during a spring training infield shuffle. Second baseman Mike Moustakas returned to third base, making room for rookie Jonathan India at second. Some believe the stress of the switch has bothered Suarez’s swing. But even with Moustakas out, and Suarez back at third, the 29-year-old is 1-for-21 over his last six games.
Castillo off to 1-7 start
Then there’s Castillo, the 28-year-old right-handed starting pitcher who has never quite validated stardom predictions. So far this year, Castillo has totally tanked, his record 1-7 with an astronomical 7.61 ERA over 10 starts. After striking out 1.27 batters per inning last year, that number is down to 0.95 this season.
“We need Luis Castillo,” Bell said after Sunday’s loss. “He knows that. A lot of great players have been through these tough times. The great thing about it is Luis Castillo is still young. He’s had success in the league; a lot of it. We know he’s going to get better going through this. That’s really our approach to it.”
There is time to right the ship, of course. Baseball is a marathon, after all. Out with a broken thumb, Joey Votto should return soon. So will a full fan attendance come June 2. By then, maybe Suarez and Castillo will come around. And the good news is that the National League Central is not teeming with powerhouses. Even at 20-25, the Reds entered Tuesday five games out of first place. The division is there for the taking.
Even if Cincinnati isn’t up to the challenge, at least Sadak is there to talk us through the struggles. So far, he’s made Reds broadcasts a much better watch.