CINCINNATI -- The Reds hoped that in their 2017 season they would transition out of their rebuilding phase and into one where the club was more competitive and taking significant steps forward.
Ultimately, the organization learned it still has a ways to go before it will once again be a contender in the National League Central. The young pitching talent remains promising, and the lineup did its part, finishing in the top half of the Majors in runs, homers, on-base percentage and stolen bases. But this season also underscored the importance of depth and experience when an injury arises or a young player does not meet performance expectations and the club struggles to fill many of those gaps throughout the season.
All that said, there were still many things worth remembering from the 2017 campaign. Here are five of them:
1. Vottoreminds MLB he's an elite hitter
Following 2015-16 seasons where he had monster second halves, Joey Votto put together his best and most consistent year since he was the '10 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner. And he did it in his age-33 season, when many players start declining.
Votto didn't just display power, he also showed again that he knows the strike zone better than anyone else. Votto was one of only a few qualified Major League hitters with more walks (134) than strikeouts (83) for the season, and his walk-to-strikeout ratio was the best in the big leagues since Barry Bonds in 2004. Naturally, he led the Majors in on-base percentage (.454) and reached base over 300 times for the third time in his career. Meanwhile, he set a good example that his teammates tried to emulate.
How much was Votto's hitting skill respected this season? On Aug. 14, at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon shifted his defense to have four outfielders. Votto simply worked around the issue by pulling a double to right field.
Not only was Votto's hitting the best reason to watch the Reds this season, his first-base defense also returned to Gold Glove Award form after a few years on the decline. And he showed a different personality this year -- he had fun on the field with his teammates, and he was gracious to fans. A couple of times, he gave his game-worn jersey to young fans.
2. Four-homer game, surprising season for Gennett Scooter Gennett provided the Reds with their most exciting moment this season on June 6 vs. the Cardinals, when he slugged four home runs in one game. Gennett became just the 17th Major League player to accomplish the feat, which is less frequent than seeing a pitcher throw a perfect game.
Gennett, who was claimed off of waivers from Milwaukee on March 28, didn't just catch lightning in a bottle in that one game. He was also one of six Reds to slug more than 20 homers as he set a career high while becoming one of the biggest surprise success stories of 2017. Cincinnati elevated Gennett as the everyday second baseman in July, while Jose Peraza went to the bench.
"He was a utility player on Opening Day. And 48 hours before that, he was a Brewer. He's come a long way," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "He's exceeded our expectations beyond any place I ever fathomed."
Gennett, 27, is arbitration-eligible with two years of club control remaining. While the Reds could opt to buy low and sell high with him, they have a bind at the position. Peraza will likely become the shortstop in 2018 and Dilson Herrera, who is out of options, has been plagued by shoulder injuries the past two seasons. Gennett has also become a clubhouse favorite and stabilizing presence.
3. Cozart becomes a first-time All-Star
Shortstop Zack Cozart had a career year at exactly the right time -- the season before entering free agency. Despite missing time with a right quad injury, the 32-year-old was among the top NL shortstops in batting average (.297), homers (24), slugging percentage (.548) and OPS (.933). Fans took notice and elected Cozart to be a starter at his first All-Star Game in Miami. To reward a promise made earlier in the year, Votto bought Cozart a pet donkey, his favorite animal.
Cozart credited a new approach and seeing more pitches as one of the reasons for his success.
"I feel like the biggest difference for me this year is I'm not chasing hits," Cozart said. "I'm up there trying to put a good swing on a good pitch, and if I don't get a hit, I don't get a hit."
4. Hamilton's glove game
Center fielder Billy Hamilton's ability to make show-stopping catches is always enticing, and he had several memorable plays in 2017. One in particular came vs. the Padres on Aug. 8 when Hamilton raced back before robbing Carlos Asuaje of an extra-base hit.
During an in-flight adjustment, Hamilton made a leaping basket catch as he crashed face-first into the wall. He couldn't help laughing about what he did as he was lying flat on his back on the warning track.
September injuries each of the past four seasons have likely not only cost Hamilton stolen-base titles, but perhaps also more consideration from managers and coaches for an NL Gold Glove Award. He's hoping this is the year he gets recognized.
"I got the call last year that I didn't get it; I was kind of surprised," Hamilton said. "I definitely want it to happen."
5. Finally, some pitching promise?
The Reds' rotation spent most of the season with the worst ERA in the Major Leagues, but it finally found signs of hope late in the second half from its collection of rookies.
Before he was shut down with an innings limit, 24-year-old Luis Castillo posted a 3.12 ERA in 15 big league starts. That came after a midseason promotion from Double-A Pensacola. Robert Stephenson struggled in Spring Training, then as a long reliever early in the season and even in Triple-A Louisville. But he found his footing down the stretch with some stellar outings. The Reds recalled Sal Romano from Triple-A in July, and he came on strong in the final month. Romano turned in eight scoreless innings in his best outing on Sept. 16 vs. the Pirates.
"There's a starting five that could definitely be able to pitch better than we have this season," catcher Tucker Barnhart said.
Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.