Today, the Cincinnati Reds won their 90th game of the 2010 season, marking the first time they have won at least 90 games since the 1999 campaign 11 years ago.
Ah, the 1999 Reds. You may not remember the 1999 Reds, but I certainly remember them. As a team that was almost great.
The 1999 Reds had so many things going for them. Boy could they mash. Altogether 10 different players hit at least 10 home runs, and 4 players hit at least 21, led by slugger Greg Vaughn, who blasted 45 dingers in his last monster year before sinking into obscurity with the Devil Rays. The 1999 squad also had tremendous team speed, with three players stealing at least 30 bases, and 164 bags stolen overall.
Indeed, the Reds were a threat up and down the lineup, with no holes 1 through 8. In addition to Vaughn, an aging Barry Larkin played his last great season, appearing in a career-high 161 games, playing dazzling defense, posting a .390 OBP, and swiping 30 bases. Veteran catcher Eddie Taubensee batted .311, cranked 21 homers, and had a career high .874 OPS. And 24-year old first baseman Sean Casey also had a career year in his sophomore campaign, batting a career high .332 and uncharacteristically smashing 25 home runs, another figure he would never match again.
Another career year was had by second baseman Pokey Reese, who in his finest campaign, played a career high 141 games, posted a career high .747 OPS, and played astounding defense, providing an astonishing 29 runs above replacement with his glove alone, according to Fangraphs.
Indeed, defense was another strength of the whole team. The outfield was patrolled by the fleet-footed Michael Tucker in right, legendary glove-man Mike Cameron in his youthful glory days in center, and left fielder Vaughn, who although not remembered for his glove was quite a decent defender in his prime, worth 7 runs above replacement defensively that season according to Fangraphs. The team also had gold-glovers up the middle in Larkin and Reese, and Casey, Taubensee, and third baseman Aaron Boone all also had well-deserved reputations for playing good defense.
But the greatest strength of all for this squad was their incredible, unstoppable bullpen. Scott Williamson threw a ridiculous 93 innings in relief, posted a 2.40 ERA, struck out 107 batters, and had 12 relief wins, but was still only the third most valuable relief pitcher on the team! That was because closer Danny Graves threw and insane 111 outstanding innings of relief, and Scott Sullivan threw a mind-exploding 113.2!
Now you are probably wondering why these relievers had the chance to throw so many innings, and also why if this team was so great, nobody remembers them. Well, the answer is that this team had one weakness, which was that it’s entire rotation consisted of journeymen.
Let’s look at the names: Pete Harnisch. Steve Parris. Ron Villone. Denny Neagle. Brett Tomko.
Yep. That was the starting 5 for the 1999 Cincinnati Reds. If you were looking for a picture to put next to the word “journeyman” in the dictionary, you couldn’t go too wrong picking any of those guys. Some people ask if God can make a rock so heavy even he can’t move it, but I simply ask if even God can count how many teams Ron Villone or Brett Tomko has been on in their careers.
In fact, these 5 guys were so full of journeymanishness, less than two years later, by the end of the 2001 season, not a single one was still on the Reds.
Now, it’s not that any of these guys was terrible in 1999, exactly, and as a group they finished in the middle of the pack in most pitching categories. But it’s just hard to be a truly great team when your rotation consists of five No. 4 starters. They pitched okay, but none of them could go deep into games, which put an incredible toll on the bullpen. To be a truly great team, you need to have an ace, or at least a couple of pseudo-aces who can give you quality innings and allow you to win some games even if your offense has an off-day once in a while. But the 1999 Reds didn’t have that.
All told the 1999 Cincinnati team won an outstanding 96 games, but had the misfortune of being barely edged out by 1 game in both the NL Central, to the 97-win Astros, and in the wild card, to the 97-win Mets, and thus did not even make the playoffs. And it’s hard to win a spot on Memory Lane if you can’t even make it to the pony show.