It’s an early August Sunday afternoon and the Cincinnati Reds are attempting to sweep their new rivals to the throne, the surprising Pirates. The Elias Sports Bureau says that Cincinnati’s 22 wins in 25 games is a hot streak of historic proportions, one that even Johnny, Tony, Joe & Pete never crafted, a run not seen since Bid McPhee was catching balls barehanded in 1890.
1890? Are you kidding me?
As if that’s not enough, all of this is being done while the Reds franchise player, Joey Votto, sits on the bench, rehabbing from an injury that sounds suspiciously like something found in my backyard—a torn hibiscus, or something close to that. Not entirely sure.
It was supposed to be a time to circle the wagons, play .500 ball and hang with the newly minted Buccos and the ever present Cardinals until Joey Hero got healthy. That was Plan A. Who knew that Plan B would be so much more fun? Who knew guys would start raising their game like Don Draper when a blond walks into the room? Phillips, Frazier and Ludwick all took turns imitating Votto for a day or more. Scott Rolen somehow got up out of his wheelchair and performed miracles. And pray tell, who knew Drew Stubbs, feeling the hot breath of trade talk on the back of his neck, would find his stride and lift his game—if only momentarily.
Much maligned manager Baker suddenly started hearing huzzahs in certain circles. Rightly or wrongly, managers are judged on wins and losses and little in between. When the subject is the Reds’ clubhouse, the discussion invariably turns to chemistry. By all accounts, the Redlegs have it. Ryan Ludwick is having the time of his life, he says. Scott Rolen sits royally in the dugout, keeping the peace, surveying all that he owns. No way you find any Zambrano-like behavior flattening the fizz in the Reds’ drink. So, all hail Johnny Lee Baker, right? Render unto Dusty what is rightfully his, yeah?
Well, a storm of controversy has been building regarding Baker’s true and accurate contribution to what is the best record in baseball (81-52) so far, and how much questionable lineup construction and game management threatens a deep run into the playoffs. Amidst the sound and fury of the blogosphere and the 140 slings and arrows fired nightly on Twitter, a larger story has been missed.
For some reason, it’s the guy in the Ray-Bans—not guy in the wrist bands—who has been left out of what should have been this summer’s magical equation:
$ + (MVP/miniscus) x Walt2 = 81 + Sept-Oct
Walt Jocketty has remade this franchise into his own image—short on flash, long on substance; a steady hand to go along with a vision that stretches beyond any one year, a long lens that has refused to sacrifice future seasons for short term gains. What looks to be a historic 2012 season was built on a foundation begun in January 2008, when the cornerstone was laid by the hiring of Jocketty as special advisor to owner Bob Castellini.
Walt’s first substantial move was trading for Scott Rolen in 2009, with the team a non-factor in the Central Division race. The trade, which some sportswriters and many fans openly questioned, was probably worth it for what Scott would do for clubhouse leadership alone and for the younger players he influenced over the course of the last three years, particularly Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. Even a lost season in 2011 has been mitigated to some extent by Rolen’s resurrection since Votto went on the DL. There’s even the possibility that he could yet be pivotal in one more post-season if his body holds up and he gets sufficient rest.
Rolen, as it would turn out, was merely Jocketty’s opening act. The acquisition of the Cuban Missile shocked the baseball world. The small market Reds weren’t big game hunters for players like the Cuban phenom, yet Jocketty boldly went out and navigated around eight other interested teams to land Aroldis Chapman, who, oh by the way, hasn’t really done much—just become the most exciting pitcher in the game today. At the time, the understated GM was quoted as saying, “We felt this was a very significant move.”
When fans took to berating him for failing to make a major move after the Reds were swept from the playoffs in 2010, he ignored the criticism and focused on nailing down contracts for Bruce, Cueto & Votto. The Bruce deal locked up one of the linchpins of the franchise at an affordable price. The Votto extension brought some temporary relief to a nail-biting fan base, and the Cueto signing brought some fiscal certainty to an organization that is arbitration adverse. The Cueto contract is looking particularly good these days, as Johnny may yet hoist the Cy Young award before all is said and done, if the New York media doesn’t steal the award for R.A. Dickey first.
Under Jocketty’s direction, the development of the minor leagues has taken a dramatic step forward. Scouting has improved. International operations have seen the Reds more involved with Dominican players. Since Walt arrived, first round draft picks Yonder Alonso (2008), Mike Leake (2009) and Yasmani Grandal (2010) have all yielded dividends either with the team or as trade bling.
When fans were pleading for Zack Cozart to move up from AAA Louisville, Jocketty patiently waited until he was sure the kid was ready for the majors, a move that has paid off handsomely, based on the poise Zack has shown, refusing to let his struggles at the top of the order carry over to his fielding, which has been superb.
But everything GM Jocketty had done in the first 3 years has been prologue to this wonderful, magical, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds type of season, one where the man upstairs has made one right move after another. Your Honor, I submit the following into evidence:
The Trade—Latos for Alonso, Grandal, Volquez & Boxberger—was the blockbuster everyone had been clamoring for since the disappointing end of the 2010 season. The final verdict on which GM won this swap may not be known for years, but right now, Mat Latos looks like a winning investment, a player who has proven he can flourish in tiny Great American Ballpark and who is under team control through 2016. He could very well complete the 1-2 starting pitching punch the Reds lacked in Citizens Bank Park two years ago. Meanwhile, Alonso’s slash line? .274/.343/.395/.737 (7HRs, 32DBs). Grandal? .284/.368/.529/.897 (6HR) in only 32 games. Edinson Volquez has posted a 4.10 ERA to go along with a 1.40 WHIP. And with a 150/91 K/BB rate, it appears he has yet to tame the control issues that have plagued him since TJ surgery in 2009.
Ryan Ludwick was widely panned by the Reds’ faithful as another one of Jocketty’s endless St. Louis fascinations, but today, Ryan and Walt are both singing a rather unlikely version of “How Ya Like Me Now.”
The acquisition of Ryan Madson was savvy and unexpected, even if injury prevented it from paying off. That fact that he was able to get Madson without giving away a first-round compensation pick, was further proof that Walt doesn’t miss the details.
The trade for Sean Marshall and subsequent signing to a 3-year deal, mitigated the loss of Madson and cost the Reds Travis Wood, who has posted a disappointing 4.71 ERA and a WHIP of 1.23.
Jocketty’s second signing of Joey Votto stunned the baseball world. No one thought the Reds would keep him and a handful of big market teams were salivating at the thought of getting their hands on one of the best players in the game today. Make no mistake, owner Castellini’s wallet made the deal possible, but at a time when many thought the best move was to keep Alonso and cash in Votto and his MVP trophy for multiple player booty, the GM knew the importance of keeping the young superstar in the fold and the important signal it sent to a fan base who now have a franchise player to cherish for a generation. Had Cincinnati fans been forced to witness Votto wearing a Texas Ranger uniform alongside Josh Hamilton, I’m not sure there would have been enough therapist couches in the tri-state area.
When the Reds needed to scramble after a mysterious shoulder soreness sent Nick Masset adrift at the end of Spring Training, Jocketty reached into his bag of tricks and plucked Alfredo Simon off waivers. When Juan Francisco showed up in the spring out of shape, Jocketty wasted no time cutting his losses and making a trade for J.J. Hoover, who bided his time in Louisville until Bill Bray went to the DL with a groin injury, making Jocketty once again look prescient. Hoover has been one of the bright spots nobody outside of Cincinnati knows about. A product of the pitching factory otherwise known as the Atlanta Braves—Hoover could very well turn out to be a mainstay of the staff down the road. He showed the guts of a bomb squad technician the other night in Philly and has that Atlanta pitcher’s pedigree that made the Braves the envy of baseball in the 1990s.
At the trading deadline, when rival GMs attempted to fleece Jocketty, knowing he was desperate for a leadoff hitter, he played it cool and instead made an insurance move for the bullpen, obtaining Jonathan Broxton to setup for Chapman and close when Mr. 106 is unavailable. The best bullpen in the league suddenly got better just at a time when many around baseball are wearing down. Armed with a lead in the post-season, playoff games may have just gotten an inning shorter for Dusty Baker.
To be certain, the GM has had his misses. As GMs are fond of saying, “If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t making moves.” The Brandon Phillips contract could easily end up being costly down the road, as DatDude gets older and slower. Willie Harris was a regrettable idea. Wilson Valdez hasn’t been the player we would have hoped for. But, harping on these shortcomings is like criticizing Megan Fox because she burned the soufflé.
Let it go.
Jocketty’s latest coup came with a light-hitting bench staring him directly in the face. Taking advantage of a clause in Xavier Paul’s Washington contract, Paul slipped away from the Nationals and into the Reds’ waiting arms, where he has been a welcome contributor. I have a Billy Bates kinda feeling about Xavier Paul. But that’s just me.
It’s a shame Walt Jocketty gets so little love. Let’s face it: the old baseball meme that Players Win Games exists for a reason. But who farms the land for those players? I like to think of a baseball organization as a farm and the players the crop. Every year, the size of the harvest differs. Drought/Injuries mean fewer wins, while rain/good drafts mean the promise of more victories and a greater yield. It’s a manager’s job to get the most out of the harvest, to squeeze the delicious juice of hits and runs and transform them into the sweet taste of wins—to leave no ground unplowed.
Farmer Walt has done his part. It’s up to Dusty and the team to bring in a big October crop.
The defense rests. Check that. The defense never rests. Not while Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen wear Red.