CINCINNATI -- After a dismal start to the season, the Cincinnati Reds improved enough in the second half to earn manager Bryan Price a one-year extension and generate a positive vibe heading into 2017.
"When you talk about evaluating the manager and coaching staff, you're looking for improvements," Price said. "If you have the same team intact you want to see improvement from the beginning to the back side of the season. I think we saw that improvement. That really needs to be a tribute to the players. You have to love to play baseball when you're in the situation."
Cincinnati (68-94) went 32-57 prior to the All-Star break and 36-37 in the second half, an increase in winning percentage which ranked second-highest in baseball.
A portion of the turnaround can be attributed to health. The Reds came out of Spring Training with two-thirds of their projected starting rotation on the disabled list.
The returns of Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen, and Raisel Iglesias, in particular, helped stabilize a bullpen that was in shambles in April and May. In July, pitching coach Mark Riggins and replaced by bullpen coach Mack Jenkins, and the staff earned run average dropped from 5.51 to 4.19 through the next 77 games.
"There was a period in time in April and May when we weren't winning many games, and these guys were playing their tails off," Price said. "We were losing in similar fashion. My concern was how the veterans respond. Nobody wants to sit through a season where you're not winning. Those guys, to their credit, stayed locked in."
The second-half improvement did little to mask the reality of the Reds' rebuilding effort, which will extend into 2017. But, there were signs this season that the process possibly could be expedited.
Recent trade acquisitions such as Adam Duvall, who entrenched himself in left field and earned a National League All-Star spot while hitting 33 home runs and driving in 103 runs, and infielder Jose Peraza, who batted .324 in 72 games despite difficulty finding regular playing time due to established depth at his natural positions of shortstop and second base. A last-place finish in the National League Central also masked a sensational season at the plate for first baseman Joey Votto, who hit .326 after batting around .200 through May.
"It was a tough first half, but everybody battled through it," said center fielder Billy Hamilton, who enjoyed his finest offensive season prior to a late-season oblique injury. "Everybody picked it up and came together. I don't think this (rebuild) will be a long process. I think next year we'll be able to compete and could be really, really good."
Price's coaching staff returns for next year as well. The first order of business is to firm up the starting rotation, led by right-hander Homer Bailey, who made only six starts this year coming off elbow surgery before being shelved again with biceps tightness.
It's possible that shortstop Zack Cozart will be traded this offseason, which would open up a spot for Peraza. Aside from that, the Reds' core of young players, mostly pitchers, will be counted on next season to take the next step in their development.
Acquiring depth in the middle of the bullpen is a critical offseason need for Cincinnati, which has money in the coffers following recent trades. The rotation is set aside from one spot, and Reds GM Dick Williams didn't rule out acquiring a veteran arm in free-agency. It's likely the Reds will shop Cozart or Brandon Phillips, since finding a spot for Peraza is a key element in their rebuild. Cincinnati won't be a player in the high-end free-agent market and most of their wheeling and dealing was done during the past year.
The way the club finished this season has bred some optimism heading into the winter.
"Our younger players need to continue to get better," Votto said. "We've all got to work harder to come together as a unit. I think we're headed in the right direction. We need to add talent. I have no timeline (on the rebuild) as long as it's done properly, like the Astros and the Cubs. The Cubs are now the best ticket in baseball."