As much as we’d prefer the reality to be otherwise, baseball teams from markets the size of Cincinnati won’t compete for the division championship every year.
That’s not to say that Reds fans should have low expectations. The Castellini family has seen to that. When he bought the team, Bob Castellini promised Cincinnati and Reds fans a winner. He has boosted payroll spending – a generous increase of $30 million in just the past two seasons – to record levels. Thanks to Castellini’s commitment and, candidly, the size of his wallet, Reds fans can now expect to compete for the NL Central title as a rite that accompanies Opening Day.
But there are limits. Limits mostly related to tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles. Even though the Reds sport the highest payroll in the division, they still operate in an altogether different luxury-tax bracket from the Dodgers and Yankees. The tidal wave of injuries that began to rise even as the Reds started stretching exercises in Goodyear has washed away not only their fair-weather plans, but also swamped the emergency preparations. (The relatively inactive off-season didn’t help. But that’s, um, water under the Brent Spence bridge.)
At the All-Star break, the Reds had narrowed the gap with first-place Milwaukee and shown great resilience. It was natural for us to have hopes that they could keep the battle going until reinforcements arrived. The Reds had benefitted from way-above-norm production from a collection of replacement (or below) players. But the unavoidable truth about improbable events is that they are improbable.
The team’s recent struggles have driven home the discouraging reality that the Reds we’ve seen this week are what we’ll watch the next month. It’s time to acknowledge that the Reds don’t have a credible chance to compete for the post-season. And the acquisition of Ben Zobrist, Marlon Byrd or Alex Rios won’t change that. Those trades would waste whatever assets the Reds had to spend to achieve them.
Many will still clamor for Walt Jocketty to step on the gas and deal for fresh troops. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that deadline trades would be a fool’s errand.
So if a pedal-to-the-floor approach is pointless, should the Reds instead slam on the brakes and break up the team? Trade Jay Bruce! Trade Johnny Cueto! Trade Homer Bailey! Trade all the bad players! Trade all the good ones, too! Trade them all, twice if we can!
That sentiment is born of understandable frustration. But it is based on emotion, not clear-eyed or logical thinking. Where is the evidence that such strategies work more often than they fail? Sure, the tearing down would happen. But there’s no guarantee when or even if the team would recover. You can’t cast off your valuable pieces and expect to compete the next season or even necessarily the year after that. And I doubt ownership would put up with the wrecking-ball.
Happily, such a bloodletting isn’t necessary. For 2015, the Reds retain a strong core of four outstanding pitchers in the prime of their careers. A new and improved version Tony Cingrani could join that mix. Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco, to go with a healthy Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, give the lineup a strong foundation. Billy Hamilton and Zack Cozart provide valuable pieces up the middle. Aroldis Chapman, one of the best arms in baseball, returns as well. That collection is a great starting point.
Acquiring a significant leftfielder and making a decision about Brandon Phillips would remain the lead agenda items (sound familiar?). But the organization is not only well positioned to take those steps they surely have been disabused of the crippling complacency that they don’t need to.
Fans often use “window” analogies to discuss the obstacles their teams face. But that metaphor is too simple and too static. Homeowners – and owners of major league baseball teams – have many windows. And they also can hire remodelers. Organizations solve window problems easily, by acting – in this case, by developing, trading or signing players to extensions, and by acquiring free agents. Remember the terrifying Votto Window? The Reds can afford to continue to increase their payroll for the foreseeable future. Their future can be seen through a panoramic vista, not a window.
The next time you find yourself falling for a call for radical overhaul, ask yourself what this Reds team would have been capable of if they had just stayed reasonably healthy.
Instead of gunning the engine or throwing the team into reverse, it’s time for the Reds’ front office to tap the brakes and become limited sellers.
This isn’t a call for surrender. The 2014 roster, eventually supplemented by a healthy Brandon Phillips, and possibly a better version of Joey Votto, would still be competitive. But a strategy change toward limited selling is a recognition that the odds of success this year are too high, and the best interest of the organization is in emphasizing improvement of the 2015 team, not the current one.
The new strategy may seem like an awkward pivot for an organization which days before was focused on acquisitions that would help in 2014. But the nuanced truth is that successful general managers are nimble and always thinking about how to balance the needs of the present with the interest of the future.
The Reds have at least two players – Jonathan Broxton and Alfredo Simon – who would be highly attractive to contending teams at the deadline, worth more than they would be in the off-season. A basic rule of deal making is to sell when the value of your asset is at its peak. Broxton and Simon’s worth will never be higher than during the sellers’ market this week. The Reds should capitalize. Otherwise, they’ll miss a valuable opportunity to improve the team in 2015 and beyond.
In shopping Broxton and Simon now, the Reds should look for the best prospects they can acquire. Their smartest trades as sellers won’t be for major league players. Broxton and Simon have tremendous value to contenders. But those teams won’t give up meaningful position players while they’re trying to win this year.
They will, however, give up prospects. Trading for prospects doesn’t commit the Reds to long-term rebuilding. The front office can turn around and use those players in the off-season to acquire that much-needed impact left fielder.
Jonathan Broxton has pitched well enough in 2014 that a team could rightly consider him capable of closing games. His $9 million contract for 2015 is an outrageous overpayment for a set-up reliever anywhere but New York and Los Angeles but it’s market compensation for an established closer. Broxton doesn’t quite have the recent track record of Houston Street, who was just traded from the Padres to the Angels for four top prospects, but it’s close. Broxton would be a considerably cheaper acquisition than Jonathan Papelbon, who the Phillies are shopping. And Broxton’s fastball is better, too.
(The one circumstance where I wouldn’t trade Broxton is if the Reds decide to try Aroldis Chapman in the starting rotation.)
Alfredo Simon’s attractiveness as a trade chip comes not only from his performance in 2014, but also because of his contract. Simon earns $1.5 million this year and files for third-year arbitration next season. He would appeal to a small-market team in contention that needs a #3 or #4 starting pitcher this year and that could use Simon either in the bullpen or as a starter next year. Simon is not quite Jeff Samardzija, who was traded from the Cubs to the Oakland A’s for top prospects, but Simon and his contract are close to that, especially to organizations that can’t resist the old-school dazzle of his win-loss record and ERA.
Going all out and falling short can have significant impact beyond the near-term failure – namely the valuable missed opportunities and the sacrificed assets.
Could Walt Jocketty spit in the face of the Great Injury Deluge of 2014, step on the gas, put a comb in his mouth and try to propel the Reds toward the 2014 finish line? Sure. And he’d have plenty of Reds fans with him, lined up along the dragstrip with our headlights on and fingers crossed.
But the right strategy isn’t stubbornly going over the cliff or jumping out of the car at the last second. It’s tapping the brakes. Jim Stark might have survived the contest, but his car didn’t.
I recommend this course aware of my drawer full of yet-to-be-used season tickets for 2014. If the Reds make smart moves now for 2015 and beyond, it won’t diminish my enthusiasm for this year’s model. I’ll show up at GABP through September, excited for my team and its future, knowing it’s headed in the right direction.