Getty Images

This was supposed to be the year the Cincinnati Reds returned to contention. A year ago, the Reds graduated many of their touted prospects to the big leagues and almost all of them performed right away. The result was an 82-80 record, a modest showing that nonetheless represented a 20-win improvement from 2022. More importantly, there was high-end youth up and down the roster.

"Everyone is working incredibly hard to put the best team on the field that we can," Reds manager David Bell said in January (via "We're adding to a really great group of guys that have shown they're talented enough but do other things really well. That adds up to success."

Rather than take that expected step forward, the Reds entered play Tuesday in the NL Central cellar at 19-28. Their minus-7 run differential suggests they've played better than their record indicates, but, at the end of the day, wins and losses matter, not run differential. The Reds were 14-10 at one point too. Since April 25, they are 5-18, the game's worst record.

The 19-28 start has done real damage to Cincinnati's postseason odds. SportsLine's model says their postseason odds have dipped from 22.4% on Opening Day to 6.8% now. FanGraphs is in agreement: 25.9% before the season to 7.3% now. There is still more than four months to play, so the season isn't over, but the Reds are now facing an uphill climb.

Here's a look at what's gone wrong for the Reds this season and in particular during their ugly 5-18 stretch.

1. Bad luck injuries

Injuries are part of the game and no one feels sorry for the Reds. The Milwaukee Brewers haven't had Devin Williams and Brandon Woodruff all year. The Chicago Cubs lost Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki simultaneously. On and on we could go. Every team has injuries and so do the Reds, though in Cincinnati's case, their most significant injuries were straight up bad luck.

On March 18, Matt McLain hurt his shoulder diving for a ball during a spring workout and eventually required surgery to repair his labrum. The team is hopeful he will play again this season but it is not certain. McLain was Cincinnati's best all-around player as a rookie last year and he'll miss the majority of this season because he dove for a ball on a backfield. Rough.

Two days before McLain hurt his shoulder, 2023 breakout center fielder TJ Friedl broke his wrist diving for a ball. He healed up, rejoined the team on May 7, then five days later he was hit by a pitch that broke his left thumb. Friedl is expected to miss 4-5 weeks, meaning he will miss most of the first half with fluky injuries on common baseball plays.

A year ago Friedl (3.8 WAR) and McLain (3.7 WAR) were two of the 25-ish best position players in the National League. Both provided big impact at the plate, in the field, and on the bases (Friedl is the game's best bunt-for-a-hit guy). But, sometimes you land the wrong way, and it takes you out of action for weeks. Tough breaks for the Reds.

2. Marte's suspension

Noelvi Marte, the centerpiece of the Luis Castillo trade with the Seattle Mariners, made his MLB debut last August and was so impressive, hitting .316/.366/.456 with three home runs in 35 games. He played a solid third base and paired above-average contact rates with high-end exit velocities. Marte was one of the organization's top prospects and it was evident watching him play.

Then Marte was suspended 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug in March. He is eligible to return in Cincinnati's 81st game on June 26 but will not be eligible to play in the postseason, should the Reds qualify. The Reds lost their starting third baseman to suspension. Add in McLain's injury, and the Reds were down half their infield even before Opening Day.

What does the suspension mean for Marte? The truth is no one knows. How much did PEDs improve his performance, if they even did? Did he used the banned substance intentionally? How long was he using it? Marte, like all players who get busted for PEDs, will be looked at harshly in the court of public opinion, and that's just something he'll have to live with. It's the way these things go.

Before the suspension Marte looked like a budding star who was set to pair with McLain and Elly De La Cruz to give the Reds one of the best and most exciting infields in the game. Now there is a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding Marte. What kind of player will he be after the suspension, how will the layoff affect him, etc. The Reds clearly miss him on the field. That much is obvious.

3. Young hitters not taking a step forward

Christian Encarnacion-Strand
CIN • 1B • #33
View Profile

The single biggest reason the Reds have crashed these last few weeks is their offense, or lack thereof. During their promising 14-10 start, the Reds averaged 5.29 runs scored per game and 4.29 runs allowed per game, both better than average rates. Since then they're averaging only 2.96 runs scored (!) per game while allowing 4.30 runs. The run prevention is OK. It's the offense.

Offenses go into funks, sometimes even for weeks at a time, but what's most troubling for the Reds is the young hitters who were so central to the team's revival last season have all backslid this season. All except De La Cruz, really. He's slumped of late, but he's been very good overall, and he might even steal 100 bases. The De La Cruz breakout is full speed ahead.

The rest of the young Reds? It's not good. Here are the numbers for three of their building block hitters entering play Tuesday:


Will Benson in 2023







Will Benson in 2024








Christian Encarnacion-Strand in 2023







Christian Encarnacion-Strand in 2024








Spencer Steer in 2023







Spencer Steer in 2024







xwOBA, or expected weighted on-base average, is a good quick and dirty measure of contact quality using exit velocity and launch angle, and in some cases sprint speed. It is scaled to on-base percentage (.400 is elite, .300 is not so good, etc.) and gives you a decent idea how well the batter is hitting the ball. The young Reds are generally making worse contact in 2024.

Steer is least worrisome because his plate discipline and contact quality is intact. He's just not getting the results you would expect with that skill set (especially lately). Encarnacion-Strand recently landed on the injured list with a broken wrist (another hit-by-pitch injury), but before that, opposing pitchers were exploiting his aggressiveness and getting him to chase their pitch.

Benson's issues are two-fold. He crushed right-handed pitchers last season (.297/.389/.549) and rarely played against lefties (only 44 plate appearances). This season Benson is not hitting righties as well (.225/.301/.450), and, because of Friedl's injury, he's had to play more against lefties than planned. He already has 49 plate appearances against southpaws, eclipsing last year's total.

The young Reds are not the only culprits. It is late May and Jonathan India is slugging under .300. Jake Fraley, like Benson, isn't hitting as well against righties. Jeimer Candelario, even while being better of late, looks more like the player who got non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers in 2022 than the player who was a coveted trade deadline piece with the Washington Nationals in 2023.

Cincinnati has started 10 different players at DH, the most in baseball, and among those 10 are defense-first backup catcher Luke Maile and journeymen Conner Capel and Mike Ford. Ford opted out of his minor league contract on May 4, the Reds let him go, then four days later they re-signed him. Ford went from being in Triple-A to being let go to batting third in the majors in four days.

De La Cruz (132 OPS+), Tyler Stephenson (131 OPS+), and Steer (101 OPS+) are the only Reds players with an OPS above league average this season, and Steer only barely makes it. There are underperformers up and down the roster. When one or two guys have a down year, then that's just baseball. When it's almost the entire roster, it suggests there's an organizational issue.

4. Late-inning trouble

Alexis Díaz
CIN • RP • #43
View Profile

Edwin Díaz is not the only Díaz brother having a hard time in 2024. Alexis Díaz, two and a half years Edwin's junior, had allowed 14 runs in 16 2/3 innings entering play Tuesday, including eight runs in 4 2/3 innings in May. Setup men Fernando Cruz, Emilio Pagán, and Lucas Sims all have inflated ERAs as well. They're all either walking too many, giving up too many homers, or both.

IPERABB%HR/9Win probability added

Fernando Cruz

19 2/3





Alexis Díaz

16 2/3





Emilio Pagán

19 1/3





Lucas Sims

14 1/3





That is 70 innings of bullpen pain right there. I guess the good news is Reds relievers have allowed only 26% of inherited runners to score, the fourth-lowest rate in baseball, though those relievers are making up for it by allowing runners of their own to score. The Reds are 20th in bullpen ERA (4.18) and 29th in ERA in the seventh inning or later (5.05). Yuck.

The recent 5-18 stretch has featured nine one-run losses and nine losses when the Reds either had the lead or the game was tied in the sixth inning or later. As much as the offense has struggled, Cincinnati has been in position to win games lately. They just haven't been able to finish the job. The bullpen doesn't deserve all the blame but it certainly deserves a chunk of it.

The good news for the Reds is it is still early and the wild-card race should be pretty wide open in the National League. The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies both figure to make the postseason. To get one of the two remaining wild-card spots, the Reds will have to beat out the likes of the New York Mets, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, etc. Not exactly powerhouses.

As ugly as the 5-18 stretch has been -- and it has been ugly, especially offensively -- the Reds still have a path to the postseason. The starting pitching has been strong. Now they just have to get their offense on track and their bullpen in order, which of course is easier said than done. The non-Elly young hitters taking a step back should worry the front office though. Those guys are the key to contention and they're moving in the wrong direction.