The Cincinnati Reds had run the gamut during Lou Piniella’s first two years as manager. In 1990, they won a surprise World Series title. In 1991, they collapsed to 74 wins a fifth-place finish. The 1992 Cincinnati Reds returned to contention.
The organization made moves in the offseason. The Reds acquired lefthander starter Greg Swindell for a package of players that included a former All-Star pitcher in Jack Armstrong. Cincinnati traded closer Randy Myers, a hero of the championship team, to San Diego for versatile outfielder Bip Roberts.
But the biggest move of all came when they traded Eric Davis—the face of the franchise at the time—to the Dodgers in order to improve their pitching. The key acquisition was Tim Belcher, a veteran starter, who had been a key part of LA’s own title run in 1988.
Cincinnati’s offense was steady and deep. Even though a number of notable players—Hal Morris at first base, Billy Doran at second, Chris Sabo at third and Paul O’Neill in right—had ho-hum years at the plate, none of them were really bad. Indeed, the Reds’ offense had no obvious weak points.
The difference-makers were players like Reggie Sanders, a fourth outfielder who got over 400 plate appearances and finished with a stat line of .356 on-base percentage/.462 slugging percentage. Or Roberts, whose stat line was .393/.432 and he stole 44 bases.
And the biggest difference-maker of all was a shortstop who still had both an MVP season and a Hall of Fame plaque in his future. Barry Larkin was still just 28-years-old, posted a stat line .377/.454 and played excellent defense. Larkin was the key to an offense that consistently got runners on base, hit balls in the gap and finished fourth in the National League in runs scored.
The pitching had talent at the top. Belcher and Swindell joined with Jose Rijo to give the Reds three quality starting pitchers. They all worked over 200 innings and combined for 42 wins. But the rotation lacked the kind of depth the everyday lineup had. The fade of 32-year-old lefty Tom Browning was a big reason, with Browning only making 16 starts and posted a bloated 5.07 ERA.
The bullpen was similar. Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble shared the closing duties left open by the Myers trade and they were good. The lefty/righty combo combined to save 51 games and both had ERAs hovering around 3. Scott Bankhead won 10 games out of the pen and had a 2.93 ERA.
But there was nobody who was really “lock down” and over the long haul that took its toll. Cincinnati’s staff ERA ranked seventh in what was then a 12-team National League.
The Reds got off to a middling start. They were swept in San Francisco, who jumped out to the early division lead. Prior to the realignment of 1994, each league had just an East & West division with winners going straight to the League Championship Series. Cincinnati and Atlanta challenged the laws of geography in joining the Giants, Padres, Dodgers and Astros in the NL West).
A sweep of the Braves, the defending division champs, was the high point of the early season and while the Cincy record was only 22-20 on Memorial Day, they were within two games of the division lead.
They got hot in June and went 10-3 in a stretch of games against the Dodgers and Giants. San Francisco started to fade, while Atlanta joined Cincinnati in heating up for the summer months. The Reds matched up with the best the National League had to offer. They won four of seven games with the Braves. Cincinnati took five of eight from the Pirates, who were the best team in the NL East. And at the All-Star break, they were 51-35 and two games up on the Braves in what was now a two-team race.
But it didn’t stay a two-team race for long. Atlanta stayed hot, while Cincinnati stumbled in the early part of August. The Reds lost three straight in a head-to-head matchup with the Braves to start a stretch where they lost 11 of 18 games. It wasn’t a collapse by any means, but in a race with no margin for error it was enough to effectively end Cincy’s hopes of a return to the playoffs.
They were 6 ½ back on Labor Day and never got closer than that until there was a week and a half to go and it was too late. The Reds finished the year 90-72, eight games off the pace Atlanta set.
It was still a good year and proved to be a nice swan song for Piniella, who parted ways with the team after the season. Cincinnati had finished tied for the fifth-best record in baseball, a clear playoff team by the standards of today.