The 2021 Cincinnati Reds bullpen, for the first three months of the season, was bad.
Not just bad, but historically bad. The two best relief pitchers were Lucas Sims and Tejay Antone without a doubt.
But the Reds just came off a three-game sweep over this last weekend and all were one-run wins and they moved into second place thanks to relievers Brad Brach, Art Warren and Heath Hembree.
Those three did their best imitation of The Nasty Boys, who need no introduction to Reds fans. That’s one point of view. The other is that they were facing the Cubs, an underachieving team on a 7-game losing streak waiting to be blown up at the trade deadline.
So— to steal a famous line from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-– who are those guys?
Brach, Warren and Hembree— heck, throw in Jose Osich too— are all relatively new to the Reds organization. And with Sims, Antone and Mike Lorenzen all injured, those three guys were a big part in surging Cincinnati into second place over the weekend.
I know a little about who these guys are but not that much.
Brach is a 6’ 6”, 35-year-old reliever who has been in the majors since 2011 and was an All-Star in 2016 for Baltimore. I know Hembree is 32 and had his best season for the Red Sox in 2016. And I know Warren was drafted in the 23rd round by Seattle, is from Defiance, Ohio and has been up and down with the Reds and the Louisville Bats most of the season.
I omit Amir Garrett because he has plummeted from the projected closer in three months. I like Amir. I had hoped he would be a shutdown reliever. He’s lefthanded, has the size and a live arm. He’s a fighter. Sure, he induced a game ending double play on Sunday but man– he was wild and your pulse was racing if you were watching the game when Garrett pitched.
But, back to history: when the Reds failed to win the NL West in 1969, it led to the firing of Dave Bristol, who now is justifiably in the Reds Hall of Fame. Cincinnati finished just 4 games behind Atlanta that season with an 89-73 record and the lack of pitching led to that finish.
Jim Merritt and Jim Maloney were reliable starters but Gary Nolan was injured, Tony Cloninger lost 17 games and fifth starter Gerry Arrigo was 4-7. It was also Maloney’s last full season with the Reds and he wasn’t the Jim Maloney of 1965. The bullpen had two reliable hurlers in Wayne Granger (90 games, 9-6, 27 saves, 2.80 ERA) and Clay Carroll (12-6, 3.52 ERA and 7 saves).
But their 10-man pitching staff (that’s what they used back then, not 12 or 13 pitchers) couldn’t give Bristol enough quality innings.
Sparky Anderson got a taste of that in the 1970 World Series. Merritt had a bad elbow after winning 20 games, Wayne Simpson’s shoulder blew up after a 14-1 start and Jim McGlothlin fought injuries after June. Sparky’s best pitchers in that Series were a 19-year-old reliever (Don Gullett) and Milt Wilcox against the powerful Baltimore Orioles.
And the Reds front office of 2021 has been incredibly dormant in seeking relief help. They have littered the landscape with multiple, low-risk signings but that’s it.
If Warren, Brach and Hembree can keep this up (even on a semi-regular basis) the Reds can cause some problems for other teams down the stretch, especially with Antone and Sims coming back. Lorenzen? I’m not counting on him at all. If the Reds get anything from him, it’s a plus.
Historically, the Reds have had solid bullpens in the last 50 years. You can rattle off the names— Franco, Brantley, The Hawk, Eastwick, The Nasties, The Lone Granger, Gravy, Hume, Borbon and Cordero.
I don’t expect Brach, Hembree and Warren to turn into any of those guys. But if they can hold their own and get back Sims and Antone, the Reds could be back in business, stay over the .500 mark and create some havoc in the National League.