On pace for 126 losses? What it would take for the Cincinnati Reds to be the worst team in MLB history

On pace for 126 losses? What it would take for the Cincinnati Reds to be the worst team in MLB history post thumbnail image

Four games into the season, it didn’t seem likely that this would be a season for the ages in Cincinnati, for all the wrong reasons. Top prospect Hunter Greene — the 22-year-old right-hander with a 100 mph fastball — made his Reds debut and over five exhilarating innings he flashed triple digits on an incredible 20 pitches against the Atlanta Braves, plus another 16 fastballs that rounded up to 100. He struck out two batters in each of the first three innings, five of those on swinging strikes, including three on fastballs. While he tired in the fifth inning, serving up two home runs, Greene finished with seven strikeouts and picked up the win in Cincinnati’s 6-3 victory.

The Reds had gone 2-2 in that opening series against the defending World Series champions and after a controversial whirlwind of deals following the end of the MLB lockout — when the franchise traded away Sonny Gray, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez, officially lost Nick Castellanos in free agency, then acquired veteran left-handed starter Mike Minor and signed outfielder Tommy Pham — it was reasonable to think maybe the Reds weren’t going to be so bad after all. Probably not a playoff team, but in the National League Central? Hey, anything can happen.

Indeed, they still had Joey Votto, two quality starting pitchers in Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo, reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jonathan India and second-year catcher Tyler Stephenson, who had finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting. Nick Lodolo, another prized pitching prospect, would make his first major league start a few days after Greene’s debut.

That was the plan: Hope the young pitching developed quickly enough to give the Reds a playoff-caliber rotation, hope Votto had another big year in him and hope some of the young bats would improve.

The plan has not worked. The Reds are bad … potentially historically bad. After that 2-2 start, they lost 19 of their next 20 games. Only one of those 19 losses came by one run; seven of them came by at least five runs. In his fifth major league start, Greene tied a franchise record when he allowed five home runs. He’s now 1-5 with a 7.62 ERA and has served up 11 home runs in just 26 innings. Through Wednesday, the team’s ERA was 6.61, which would rank second worst since 1900 behind only the 1930 Phillies (of note, the entire NL hit .303 that year compared to .236 this year).

Despite the team’s .500 start in Atlanta, there was already tension brewing in Cincinnati about the front office’s post-lockout moves ahead of the April 11 home opener. Team president Phil Castellini, son of the owner, was asked on local radio why fans should remain loyal to the team after two seasons of cutting costs.

“Well, where you gonna go?” he said in an epic misfire of owner contemptuousness. “Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who? I mean, that’s the other thing. I mean, you wanna have this debate? If you wanna look at what would you have this team do to have it be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists, it would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And, so, be careful what you ask for.”

In other words: Accept the losing because you’re lucky to have a team. Castellini later apologized, but it was a public relations nightmare. Less than a month into the season, Reds fans were already showing up to the park wearing paper bags and holding signs imploring Bob Castellini to sell the team. The Reds initially responded by asking those fans to remove their bags and signs or leave the ballpark.

In a move perhaps seen as a gesture of goodwill (or desperation to lure fans to Great American Ball Park), the Reds just started offering $3 cans of Bud and Bud Light, plus $2 hot dogs and $1 ice cream, for Tuesday home games, prompting one fan on a Reds Facebook group to comment, “The Reds have become a minor league hockey team.”

Ouch.

The Reds have played a bit better of late, winning four of their past six games to improve to 7-24, but that still gives them a 162-game pace of 36-126. Now … that’s not going to happen. That would absolutely destroy the 1962 Mets’ modern record of 120 losses. But with this start the Reds have certainly established the possibility of losing the most games in modern history.

Let’s take a look at the list of all-time worst teams they could be joining. We’ll start in 1900, which leaves off the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, a team set up for failure after its owners, who also owned the St. Louis franchise in the National League, transferred all the team’s best players to St. Louis. The Spiders finished 20-134, played most of the season on the road and then folded after the season.

The five worst teams since 1900 based on winning percentage:

1. 1916 Athletics: 36-117, .235

2. 1935 Braves: 38-115, .248

3. 1962 Mets: 40-120, .250

4. 1904 Senators: 38-113, .252

5. 1919 Athletics: 36-104, .257

The economics and team-building aspects of the game were so vastly different back in the early decades of last century, however, that it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to compare the 2022 Reds to those teams. So let’s fast forward to the worst teams of the expansion era, which began in 1961:

1. 1962 Mets: 40-120, .250

2. 2003 Tigers: 43-119, .265

3. 2018 Orioles: 47-115, .290

4. 2019 Tigers: 47-114, .292

5. 1961 Phillies: 47-107, .305

The Mets have now held that record of 120 losses for 60 years. The 2003 Tigers looked like they would beat it but improbably rallied with five wins in their final six games.

Note that two of modern history’s five most horrific teams have come in recent years as the tanking era has exacerbated the records of the worst teams. Besides the 2018 Orioles and 2019 Tigers, the 2013 Astros lost 111 games, the 2021 Orioles and Diamondbacks lost 110, the 2019 Orioles lost 108 and the 2012 Astros lost 107. Those records indicate that historically bad teams are now a thing — and the Reds’ start puts them in position to challenge that type of recent ineptitude.

What’s perhaps most astonishing is the Reds had a winning record in 2021 at 83-79. If this season’s playoff format including six teams in each league had been in place last year, the Reds would have been the sixth team in the NL. That makes this misery all the more unexpected — although maybe not completely surprising given the team’s cost-cutting measures heading into the season.

Arguably no team was hurt more by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the past two seasons than the Reds. They had ramped up for 2020 by acquiring Trevor Bauer during the 2019 season and signing free agents Castellanos, Moustakas, Wade Miley and Shogo Akiyama. They had actually committed more money in free agency than they had over the entire previous decade combined and were running the payroll to what would have been a franchise record of $165 million. And, not that the Reds’ ownership deserve any praise at the moment, at times under Castellini, the Reds had run payrolls that were higher than most of their small-market brethren. While they made the expanded 2020 playoffs with a 31-29 record, they were shut out by the Braves in two games and went home. Castellini cut the payroll back to $144 million in 2021 and then down to an estimated $134 million this year.

Still, it’s highly unusual for what had been a good team to fall this hard this fast.

Since 1961, there have been 31 teams with at least 106 losses in a season. I looked at them to see how they had performed the season before — this gave us 27 teams, since four of the 31 were expansion franchises in their inaugural seasons.

Only two of the 27 teams had a winning record the previous season:

–The 1998 Marlins not only won 92 games the year before — but also won the World Series. Then came the infamous fire sale as Miami traded away Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Al Leiter, Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Robb Nen and Devon White. The Marlins then finished 54-108 in 1998.

–The 2004 Diamondbacks had finished 84-78 in 2003, despite Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both missing time with injuries. They traded away Schilling in the offseason but still had Johnson and Brandon Webb to anchor the rotation. Johnson did finish second in the Cy Young voting and Webb was solid, but the rest of the pitching was a disaster and the lineup scored the fewest runs in the league. They finished 51-111.

I’d suggest three of the other teams viewed themselves as at least semi-legitimate playoff contenders heading into the season: the 1976 Expos, who had finished 75-87 in 1975; the 2018 Orioles (75-87 in 2017); and the 2021 Diamondbacks (25-35 in the shortened 2020 season).

So where do the Reds go from here?

“As discouraging as this is, it really provides you with a pretty simple sense of direction,” former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd said on MLB Network earlier this week. “Every move you make is for 2025 and beyond. … It was just a perfect storm for them to be this bad. But you are where you are now. You have to have a vision of what you want to become.”

That vision will have to sustain Cincinnati fans through a long 2022. Those 31 teams we studied finished with an average record of 52-109 — a .323 winning percentage. Over their first 31 games, though, they averaged an 11-20 record — a .354 winning percentage. So they played worse the rest of the season than they did over their first 31 games. That doesn’t bode well for the Reds, at 7-24. The long grind of a baseball season is an even tougher slog for bad teams, as injuries and lack of depth take their toll over the summer.

Maybe that won’t happen to the Reds. Castillo just returned for his first start. Minor started the season injured as well and is now rehabbing in the minors. Mahle has a 3.51 FIP — but a 6.46 ERA. Votto, mired in a miserable slump with a .122 average and no home runs, has been on the COVID-19 injured list, but he has to play better when he returns. The injured list also currently includes India, Nick Senzel and Jake Fraley, meaning three Opening Day starters are out of the lineup, and Mike Moustakas, another Opening Day starter, only just came off the IL. On the other hand, any productive veteran could potentially be moved for prospects at the trade deadline.

The key for the future of the franchise is developing the young pitching. In Greene’s case, perhaps that means a move back to the minors. The fastball is explosive, but his secondary stuff and command need work. He had home run problems in Triple-A last season (11 allowed in 65.1 innings), so this isn’t something that has manifested just in the big leagues. The Reds also need Jose Barrero to get healthy from a spring training hamate injury to see what he can do at shortstop after he hit .303/.380/.539 in the minors last year (although he struggled with a .200 batting average in 50 at-bats with Reds). They could look to make some trades, but let’s be honest: When you’re 7-24, there isn’t much that’s attractive to other teams (maybe Mahle and Castillo if the Reds want to go that route).

And, really, they need Votto to return and start hitting. If only because most of us — perhaps even Reds fans — can live with a team that might lose 120 games, but none of us can suffer a baseball world where Joey Votto is hitting .122.



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