Season in review: Reds better but still not good enough in 2021

Bell, Votto excited about the future after team falls short of playoffs

In the final days of the 2021 season, Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell started to look ahead to 2022 because that was the direction of the questioning in his final press conferences with local media.

The expectations have risen and fallen for Bell’s teams in his first three seasons: low in 2019 as he took over a franchise that had finished last four straight seasons; high in 2020 because of a series of high-profile free-agent signings in the offseason; and low again in 2021 as the Reds trimmed payroll in the winter.

In four months, when the Reds report for spring training in Goodyear, Ariz., the Reds won’t be anyone’s favorite in the National League Central Division, but they did deliver their best regular-season performance in a 162-game season in eight years in 2021. Even if the final month of the season resulted in disappointment, Bell saw progress this season.

“We’ve gotten better,” Bell said. “We came up short of our goal. The only goal was to win a championship, so from that standpoint, it wasn’t a success. But keep it in perspective by realizing that we continue to get better, we continue to improve and we’ve made a lot of progress. We have a lot to build on. It’s very encouraging. It’s very inspirational. I love the group of players we have. It wasn’t a success because we came up short of the championship, but I can’t wait ‘til 2022 and hope that we have most, if not all, of the same guys on this team.”

The Reds beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-3 on the road Sunday to close the regular season with an 83-79 record. That’s their best record in a 162-game season since they finished 90-72 in 2013.

The Reds would have had to win 90 games this season to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for the second wild card. The Cardinals won 26 of their last 36 games, winning 17 games in a row at one point. They will play on the road against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the wild-card game at 8:10 p.m. Wednesday.

The Cardinals’ hot streak coincided with the collapse of the Reds, who lost 10 of their last 11 series and were 14-22 after Aug. 24. If the Reds had won 21 of their last 36 games, they would have tied the Cardinals.

Instead, the Reds settled for the minor accomplishment of posting winning records in back-to-back seasons, a feat that comes with an asterisk because the first winning record (31-29) came in a 60-game season. It’s the first time since 2012-13, the Reds have finished above .500 in consecutive seasons and the second time this century.

The Reds still have not won a playoff series since 1995. They have not played in or won the World Series in 31 years. That’s the second-longest drought in franchise history. The Reds did not win the first 15 World Series played before winning their first in 1919. They won their second championship 21 years later and their third 35 years after that in 1975. Then it was a 14-year drought between their fourth, in 1976, and fifth championship, in 1990.

Even if the Reds had won the second wild card, they would have been a big underdog against the Dodgers, who won 106 games, and an even bigger underdog in the next round against the San Francisco Giants, who won 107 games, if they had somehow upset the Dodgers.

Instead of playing in the postseason for the second straight year, the Reds head to the offseason focusing on the positives. There were a number of impressive individual performances that provide hope for the future:

Joey Votto, at 37 years old, hit 36 home runs, his highest total since 2017. He set a Reds record with home runs in seven straight games in July.

• Right fielder Nick Castellanos, whose decision on whether to stay with the Reds or opt out of his contract and become a free agent will be the biggest question mark this offseason, tied for fourth in the National League with a .309 average.

• Jesse Winker joined Castellanos as a first-time all-star and hit .305, though an injury derailed his season in the second half.

• Jonathan India turned in a performance that likely will lead to the National League Rookie of the Year award, hitting .269 with 21 home runs and 69 RBIs.

• Another rookie, catcher Tyler Stephenson, was almost as impressive as India, hitting .286 with 10 home runs and 45 RBIs.

• Kyle Farmer and Tyler Naquin enjoyed career years, combining for 37 home runs.

• Starting pitchers Tyler Mahle, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray posted sub-4.00 ERAs. Mahle ranked ninth in the league with 210 strikeouts, the 15th-best total in Reds history.

“From the beginning of spring training, all the way through the end of the year,” Bell said, “guys gave everything they had. To get through a major-league season and have the amount of success that individual players on our team had to put ourselves in the position that we did, every single guy on our team should be very proud of that. We have a lot to look forward, a lot to build on. Even though we’re already looking forward to that, it’s time to get away now and to rest and recover and spend time with family. We’ll get back after it when the time’s right.”

While there were many bright spots, other individual performances contributed to the Reds falling short.

• The Reds bullpen finished 27th in baseball with a 4.99 ERA. Amir Garrett had a 6.04 ERA in 63 games. Garrett took the loss Friday in his second-to-last appearance by giving up two earned runs in one third of a inning.

“This sums up my season,” Garrett wrote on Instagram. “Didn’t pitch to my potential this year, and I sincerely apologize, but I did give it my all each and every single time I was out there, but unfortunately things didn’t go as I planned. I will work hard to come back to dominant form next year. I promise ... to the fans who stayed true. I love you. To the fans who switched up. I love you guys, too. I’d go to war for this city of Cincinnati. When I say I’m coming back with a Vengeance, please believe me.”

• Eugenio Suarez ranked third on the Reds with 31 home runs but hit a career-worst .198. Of the players who qualified for the league leaders, that was the worst average in baseball. Only one other player, New York Yankees left fielder Joey Gallo (.199), hit worse than .200.

• Mike Moustakas was limited to 62 games by injuries and hit a career-worst .208.

As a team, the Reds were much improved at the plate, hitting .249, the second-best average in the league, while scoring the fourth most runs (786). The pitching staff, however, ranked 10th out of 15 teams with a 4.40 ERA. On the defensive side, the Reds committed 90 errors, the 20th most in baseball.

Ultimately, the Reds were better than they have been in any recent 162-game season but were still far from good enough to make the playoffs or advance.

“It’s been impressive seeing some of the young players get better,” Votto said Saturday. “I’m excited about the future. I’m not sure how many wins we’re going to finish off at, but it’s really hard to make the playoffs with 80-85 wins, so we’re going to have to play better next year. The long winning streak by the Cardinals notwithstanding, we still have, we still have to be closer to 90 wins to expect to make the playoffs. We’ve got to play better next year, and I’m hopeful that we will.”

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