“If I have ventured wrongly, very well, life corrects me with a penalty. But if I haven’t ventured at all, who can help me then?” —Kierkegaard
The philosopher in all of us is crying out for Walt Jocketty to do something—anything—to deliver us from the evil of another Cardinal coronation come October. Pay any price. Sacrifice any prospect. Just get it done, Walt.
We’re all Kierkegaardians, now. Some of us more than others.
It should come as no surprise that we all think we know the ins-and-outs of this GM stuff. After all, we’ve mastered the art of setting our 2010 MVP straight on the vagaries of plate discipline. We’ve shown him a thing or two about expanding the zone, yeah? After that, managing a baseball team is child’s play. Anybody with a cell phone, a big league rolodex and a prescription for AndroGel can get the job done. Not a believer? Just ask us.
My guy Lance McAlister weighed in last week, insisting Jocketty MUST make a trade; that to STAND DOWN—as Lance put it in his feisty “you need me on that wall” manner—was not an option. As Mr. McAlister is fond of telling his listeners, “teams don’t choose the year they contend, the Baseball Gods choose them.” And 1 1/2 games out at the All Star break was a divine sign from above signaling this was the Reds’ year. And because anything could happen next year, as Lance kept repeating (although it’s hard to see how things could possibly go worse in upcoming seasons than they have this year) you simply can’t pass when you’re this close with nearly 70 games left.
Make a move, big guy.
And yet, if the Baseball Gods were saying anything to Lance, acting as proxy for the Cincinnati Reds, surely they were hinting this is NOT “the” year, assuming, of course, that gods engage in such subtleties. If a hospital ward’s worth of injuries, enough to test the resolve of Marcus Welby, Hawkeye Pierce and Bones McCoy combined weren’t enough, if LEFT DISTAL MVP QUAD wasn’t the river card dealt by Beelzebunt himself, surely the cruel on-field smote-ing from above of Brandon Phillips on the very day it was revealed that Darth Molina was likely done for the regular season, well… wasn’t that a message from on high that 2014 is perhaps just not the year?
The real truth lies amongst the rich platelets injected deep into the soft tissue of Joey Votto’s left quadriceps. The 2010 MVP surely won’t be able to come back 100% in 2014, that much we know. But should he come back and give the team real value at the plate, the offense might be bolstered enough to partner with this wonderful pitching staff and perhaps carry the Reds to the playoffs and who knows where.
That’s assuming the Reds can hold the fort until the cavalry comes and add the kind of bat that can improve the offense above what it was when Joey was here. But without Votto’s return down the road, who believes the Reds have enough juice to run with St. Louis and/or Milwaukee in September?
“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” —Kierkegaard
After six straight losses, and a scout telling him that making a bad trade could be catastrophic in ways he admits he hadn’t considered, it appears Lance has folded his ALL IN hand for the moment. And truth be told, this was never going to be a slam dunk decision simply because the Brewers were faltering and the Cardinals were stuck in neutral. It is and always was going to be a seller’s market after all. The extra wild card almost guarantees more teams will play the role of buyer, with even those knowing hope is all but lost still refusing to sell for fear of seeing the turnstiles slow to a crawl in August and September, choosing to carry on as if in the hunt—leaving everyone fighting over a handful of make-a-difference players for a two-month sprint to the finish. So, the buyers with the winning bids will almost certainly overpay. Can the Reds afford to part with Stephenson? Or Lively? Or Lorenzen? Or Winker? Or more? When parting with cheap, good starting pitching would surely mean jettisoning the future? For what? For Ben Zobrist?
As if to complicate matters further, the Reds probably won’t give up on this season with the All Star Game in Cincinnati now just a handful of calendar pages away. Bob Castellini isn’t going to allow this club to look like the Little Engine that Couldn’t in front of all of America. Which means selling off chunks of the team would seem to be out of the question. And the Reds need to keep the revenue flowing. Like the wheels on the bus, the Reds need the aforementioned turnstiles to keep going round-and-round.
The Danish philosopher’s words fairly ring in the ears:
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.”
Jocketty finds himself in a situation he cannot win. For the narrative portraying Jocketty as a “do-nothing” executive has reached herd-mentality status. Perform his due diligence, wait for Votto, decide that Godot isn’t coming, choose to hold his cards—and a fan base goes berserk.
” It would be unwise for both Lettuce Bob and Wally Jockstrap to underestimate the intelligence of their new fan base, should they decide to fiddle once again while Rome burns.”
“If you want to be loathsome to God, just run with the herd.”
The masses have already spoken. What comes next is a roar:
“Sleeping is the height of genius.”
“He’s an asleep at the switch baseball suit.”
“Here’s hoping I didn’t wake up Jocketty from his 162-game nap.”
“Walt will not be making any trades. You can bank on that.”
“The fan base is getting restless. I’m balking at buying tickets at this point, and I know there’s thousands of people out there just like me. I like supporting the team, ABSOLUTELY…..but I can’t spend $50 to see Pena play first, Santiago anywhere but 9th inning defense, and even Skip playing everyday.”
Release the hounds on an old guy who didn’t make enough moves to satisfy a growing fan base frustrated with decades of losing. And should he give up the future while watching just one more unforeseen injury tip the scales towards catastrophe in September and Jocketty never escapes the local media gallows and their comment section minions.
If you are younger than 42 years old, you haven’t seen the Reds in the World Series since you’ve come of age as an adult. That’s more than 3,800 games. Since that outlier season of 1995, the Reds have not so much as won a single playoff series. Frustration in 1999, losing a play-in game to the Mets. Frustration in the form of a lost decade until Jocketty’s efforts, laid upon the foundation Wayne Krivsky built, brought Cincinnati back to prominence.
Joey Votto’s glittering MVP season and Jay Bruce’s clinching home run would both portend the return of the franchise to the national stage and leave and a fan base hungry for more. But the setback season of 2011 left many feeling betrayed—a promise reneged as it were. The GM didn’t do enough to push the franchise over the top in the off-season. The following year, a cost-controlled Latos for blocked and over-valued prospects, two of whom have long since been abandoned by the team they were traded to—not good enough. The best lead-off hitter in a generation at a cost of a center fielder who never developed despite years of coddling, plus a backup shortstop—not good enough. Scott Rolen, Jonathon Broxton, Aroldis Chapman, J.J. Hoover, Sean Marshall, all players who at one time or another helped the Reds win 91, 97 and 90 games between 2010 and 2013—simply not good enough. Successful draft after successful draft that added Mike Leake, Yonder Alonso, Billy Hamilton, and Robert Stephenson, while avoiding the draft mistakes of past administrations, the Chad Mottolas and the Ty Howingtons—not enough, Mr. Jocketty.
Walt Jocketty builds a lousy bench, the herd says. The stark reality of the game—that bench players are by definition players that cannot hit, but rather provide value almost exclusively with their gloves—is lost on the frustrated Reds fan who ignore the baseball truism “the bat plays.” The NY Met Daniel Murphy is a player who looks like he got his glove at a junk yard. The Mets organization spent untold hours agonizing over where they could put Murphy in the field to get his bat into the lineup while compromising the defense the least. Bottom line: Daniel Murphy could hit. Bats don’t sit.
Baseball’s version of a Park Avenue ATM—the NY Yankees—have had to live with an infield made from tin, not gold. They’ve had to rely on players like unknown 26-year-old rookie, Yangervis Solarte (.500 OPS in June) and cast-offs like Dean Anna (.136/.200/.318) and Brendan Ryan (.235/.273/.255). Brian Roberts and his slash line of .244/.307/.373 has gotten over 300 ABs this season playing next to Derek Jeter for goodness sakes.
The best team in Baseball this year, the Oakland A’s, has Eric Sogard dragging around a 40 OPS+ in 175 plate appearances like a broken wagon, Jed Lowrie is sporting an 88 OPS+ as an everyday player with a leaky glove; and don’t forget Nick Punto (209/.303/.288).
The defending world champions—the Red Sox—have an outfield that as late as June had the second lowest OPS of any team since 1974, and according to Peter Gammons have been looking all season for outfield help. Jackie Bradley, Jr., Jonny Gomes and Grady Sizemore—the player that got Jocketty unfairly ripped for being unable to seal the deal to bring him to the Reds—well, they’ve all been underachievers this year. Sizemore can no longer see the Green Monster from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.
In short, the best team last year, the best team this year and the team with a silver spoon in its organizational mouth—all could use help in the infield or outfield—and for the most part cannot find it. Yet Jocketty is brutalized because he didn’t build a bench to carry a team that has been strafed with injuries to its key players month-after-bloody-month.
“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.”
Walt Jocketty overspends on his bullpen. Grossly. That’s the charge, Your Honor. And there’s some merit to it. They paid too much money to Jonathan Broxton to be a setup man some say—omitting the not insignificant fact that he was supposed to be the heir apparent to the closer role once Aroldis Chapman moved to the rotation—a move that had to be scuttled when Dusty Baker howled to the moon and the local media in objection. Even highly thought of GM Billy Beane spent $10M for a year of closer Jim Johnson, while the big brains in Tampa spent $12M for two years of Grant Balfour. By June, Balfour and his 6.46 ERA were no longer closing for the Rays, while Johnson found himself being shopped around by the A’s.
Yet Jocketty sees no reprieve from ridicule for investing in 2 years of Logan Ondrusek for $1.25M per year.
Even noted seam head Russell Carleton suggests that traditional reliever metrics don’t accurately measure a pitcher’s worth; and that investing in relievers may be a small market way of managing risk while still providing an avenue to hitting the jackpot:
“Betting on relievers is most certainly risky, but the point of risk isn’t to avoid it. The point is to properly manage it. The starters on the WPA leaders list make (or will eventually make) much more than the relievers on the list will, but the starters are also a safer bet to get the kind of performance that produces that sort of WPA year after year. It’s a lower cost, high-risk, high-reward bet, but when you live in a “small market,” sometimes those are the only bets you can afford.”
Other organizations, noted for the sharp and clear-eyed stewardship of their franchises, have made sizable mistakes steering their ships. Dave Dombrowski may have ultimately driven his Tigers onto the rocks by shipping Doug Fister off in a trade widely panned by baseball watchers everywhere. The Atlanta Braves, long praised for their wildly successful front office moves and decades of success, whiffed to the tune of 5 years/$62M on Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton’s 5-years/$72.5M contract has rewarded the Braves with a two-year OPS+ average of 62. Now that’s uggla.
Fans look toward Louisville and lament the lack of reinforcements available, another sign from the herd that Walt has mismanaged the organization. They point—as always—to the St. Louis Cardinals and their always on spigot of talent flowing to the top. But, the Reds, like all organizations have different situations and differing considerations. The Cardinals have always had the extra money flowing from a fan base that fills up the park night after night. They’ve been able to spend on free agents and fill holes, leaving the farm system alone long enough to bloom. The Reds by contrast have had to eschew the free agent market and continue to rely on the farm system to produce most of the players you see at Great American Ball Park or trade them to fill holes, as they did in obtaining Choo. As the Cardinals rely more and more on their system for players, their farm system will too fall back, just as the Reds has. As St. Louis Director of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz has said, “Look, let’s be realistic. Once we graduate guys to the big leagues, we’re not going to always be perceived as one of the top farm systems. We’ll regress to the mean.” It’s the way the business works. This is simply where the Reds are in the development cycle.
None of this is to suggest Walt Jocketty hasn’t made missteps. He gave Brandon Phillips money for what he’d done in the past, not what he’s going to do in the future. The Jack Hannahan contract is a loser. Clearly, Jocketty is in love with pitching and players who can defend at multiple positions; sometimes to excess. But, 2-year/$4M contracts don’t cripple clubs. Players haven’t panned out, like Ryan Ludwick. But Ludwick, like almost all of Jocketty’s failures, have been the victim of untimely injuries. The moves that brought Ryan Madsen and Sean Marshall to the Reds would all be seen in a different light had their arms not imploded. I don’t blame Walt Jocketty for that any more than I blamed Bob Howsam—who also left the Cardinals organization under a cloud—for the injuries to Jim Merritt or Gary Nolan.
Fans shouldn’t either. For ultimately, when second-guessing GMs for the moves they do or do not make, we are largely in the dark about the motives, consequences and unseen obstacles that make these decisions good, bad or impossible to make at all.
Like Sergeant Schultz in that old TV series Hogan’s Heroes, “We know nothing.”
Well, we know this much:
We know Jocketty rebuilt an Oakland A’s farm system that would produce Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss, then go on to win three straight AL pennants. We know that within three years of taking over the job in St. Louis, he returned the Cardinals to the post-season for the first time in 9 years in 1996. We know he rebuilt the Cardinals again to win the division in 2000. When St. Louis won 105 games in 2004, Jocketty was named Executive of the Year by The Sporting News—for the second time. We know that two years later, the organization he built won the World Series. A quick Google search will tell you that Walt Jocketty was one of the founders of the Arizona Rookie League, a venue for the development of Latin and high school baseball players. And we know that the last Reds team to win at least 90 games in three out of four seasons before Walt Jocketty came on the scene had a nickname:
The Big Red Machine.
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk.”
And now we know that Kierkegaard was a huge Joey Votto fan.