That would be Bob Castellini. Owner. The man in charge. The Boss. The top dog. The big cheese. The head honcho.
If that fact’s been forgotten of late, it was driven home once more by Walt Jocketty shortly after the 4:00pm draft deadline passed the other day. No matter what is expected of the Reds’ GM—and let’s face it, everything is expected—lost in the discussion has been that Jocketty makes decisions at the behest of a man who is not only the owner, but also first and foremost a committed fan who has his own ideas about how this team should be constructed.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m tied to the whipping post.” —Allman Brothers Band
Around these parts, the discussion of late has dissolved into a pie fight. Those who suggest the game has passed Jocketty by—or who foolishly intone a perceived inability to value players properly, as if he droolingly stumbled upon Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon and Shin-Soo Choo and Aroldis Chapman and Brayan Pena and on and on, who draw the paint-by-numbers outline of Jocketty as aging lone wolf making decisions in an echo chamber of one—are attempting to pass off a crudely drawn stick figure as master portrait.
Walt Jocketty was hired to execute a plan. A plan conceived by a new owner who pledged to, among other things, bring championship baseball back to Cincinnati. A plan that has been built foremost upon two pillars: (1) a core group of reliable, fan-friendly players and (2) run prevention. The core part of the construction has put the Reds into a somewhat of a money constraint, mostly because of the contracts handed to Joey Votto, which was necessary in my opinion; Brandon Phillips, which was not; and Homer Bailey, which, given the escalating pitching salaries around the league, was necessary if the Reds hoped to contend in 2014. Keep in mind that at least two of these three contracts were owner-driven.
If we can dial back the rhetoric for a moment, set aside our perfectly understandable disappointment that there has been no white knight added to the roster as August burns away and we wait for Left Distal Quad to resolve itself; and instead examine what went on at the trade deadline, we can perhaps realistically begin to understand WHY no moves were made—but more importantly, what single decision COULD be made—that might change this franchise’s fortunes significantly in 2015.
But in order to have a meaningful discussion, we all have to agree on a foundational baseball truth:
Pitching is the dominant currency of the game
Strikeouts are up. Dingers are down. Steroids are in the rear view mirror. Velocity is king. Starting pitchers throw harder than ever for six innings, then hand the ball to a conga line of high velocity relievers who prefer heat over deception. Whether the name is Jumbo Diaz, who—at 30 years old—feels like he stepped out of the Tomb of the Unknown Reliever, or the high wire circus act that is the Cuban Missile, Aroldis Chapman, the song remains the same in the late innings: The Heat is On. Despite the fact that some of the biggest stars taking the mound—Harvey, Fernandez, Tanaka, Strasburg and, Matt Cain just the other day—are blowing out their elbows at a record rate, pitching finds a way to dominate. Batting average is down to .252 in major league baseball, the lowest it’s been since 1972. Add to that the fact that for all the lip service to plate discipline, far too many players in the game swing with impunity and view strikeouts as an acceptable cost of doing business at the plate—and you have a perfect storm for pitcher dominance.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that trades are enormously difficult to pull off. Sure, the Reds could have gone after Martin Prado, but how much does a player who was league average over the past two years really help a team, and who wants to pay him $22M for the next two years besides the New York Yankees’ accountants?
Deals often get made because there’s a gap in the value of a player between competing GMs—where each values the same player differently. Now, the proliferation of information, the availability of video, and the easy access to all of it means that exploiting that market inefficiency has become much tougher as interested observers begin to see the same things in a player and miss less.
Here are the deals that went down before 4:00 pm on July 31st:
A couple of trends stick out. One is the demand for pitching. St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak was the envy of Baseball, strutting around at the winter meetings with a stable of explosive arms soon to be unleashed upon the National League, looking like that guy who enters a room with the tall, blond trophy wife at his elbow.
Then, something unexpected happened. In the blink of an eye, injuries and sub-par performances had torn asunder all that depth, forcing St. Louis to do what nobody in baseball dreamed the Cardinals would be doing in July—trade for more pitching. For a team that has plated fewer runs than any team in Baseball not making its home in San Diego, that is a revealing development.
The A’s already had a solid rotation to go along with far and away the most productive offense in baseball, but understandably wanted to bulletproof it as they make their run. But, why did the Marlins, who are weak in position players, trade the few they had to bolster an already strong starting pitching lineup?
The currency of the game at work again—pitching.
The second trend of the trading deadline was the number of current major leaguers traded—or should I say “contracts”—because GMs don’t trade players anymore, GMs trade contracts. To one extent or another, players like Allen Craig, Gerardo Parra and the aforementioned Martin Prado were moved to dump salary. Craig, who has seen his offensive numbers go into free-fall after a foot injury last year, still put up a 136 OPS+ the prior three years. You’d think the Cardinals wouldn’t want sell low on Craig, but when faced with the choice of shedding money or shedding prospects—guess what they chose?
Which brings me to the third trading deadline trend: prospects. More than ever, teams are hanging on to their cost-controlled future. There’s no question the Red Sox would have loved to have gotten their hands on Oscar Taveras instead of Craig. That was never happening. The Dodgers were never letting go of Joc Pederson or Corey Seager, even for the great David Price. Instead, a few lesser minor leaguers were moved, but mostly marginal major league names like Emilio Bonifacio (89 wRC+), Sam Fuld (101 wRC+), Jonny Gomes (91 wRC+) and Kelly Johnson (89 wRC+). The fact that three years after the Reds gave up on Gomes—whose value today is strictly as a platoon player—teams are still interested in him in spite of his below average season, should give you some idea of the state of this trade market for hitting.
Walt Jocketty’s pocket aces at the trade deadline were his pitching, both at the major and minor league levels. If you wanted the Reds to be sellers at the trade deadline, you were asking the Reds to give up on 2015—a consideration I don’t believe Bob Castellini would ever give the green light for in a million years. Even if he would have signed off on a rebuild, the Reds need prospects, and as we’ve seen, serious prospects are not being parted with, even if the pitcher is named Jon Lester or David Price. If you wanted the Reds to make a meaningful move for the stretch run, that would surely have meant parting ways with a major prospect or two. Which prompts another question: what are prospects really worth?
While we tend to value prospects as if they are a sure thing, the reality is something else entirely. Take a look at the prospects the Reds have parted ways with over the past six years:
Now ask yourself: is there a single player on this list that you are pulling your hair out over being gone? I get that some people have fond memories of Travis Wood, but Wood is no Mike Leake. Is there a single player on this list that would be a difference-maker on this baseball team today? Alonso? He’s been a bit above league average since leaving the Reds, but he’s not nearly the player the Padres thought they were getting when they traded away their erstwhile future first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
If you wanted the Reds to make small incremental moves, like replacing Cozart with Stephen Drew, you would just be helping the Red Sox dump salary, trading the best fielding SS in baseball for a .176/.255/.328 hitter. If you wanted to go get Gerardo Parra and his 86 OPS+ for the remainder of his $4.9M salary, while having to face arbitration next year—well, that’s just the sort of deal that’s had the Jocketty critics howling for years in the first place.
For those wanting to trade Alfredo Simon while his value was “high,” please understand he had none of the value some fans assumed he had. The kind of player that could have really helped the Reds—Austin Jackson, Nick Franklin, Yoenis Cespedes—were all tied to trading pieces with names like Price and Lester. Not Alfredo Simon and his Magical Mystery Tour of a season.
Even trading Jonathan Broxton would have required finding a partner willing to take on salary, which is the opposite of what most teams were looking to do. And look at the number of pitchers who were lefthanders. The market on July 31st didn’t love Big Brox.
For these reasons, it’s no surprise that the Reds stood pat, as did teams like the Dodgers, Giants and Blue Jays, all of whom passed at the trading deadline despite being in better position than the Reds to make the post-season.
So, where do the Reds go from here?
If you reject an all out rebuilding effort—and you should since it isn’t happening with the All Star Game on the horizon—you look for ways to protect as much pitching as possible for 2015 while trying to find one more meaningful bat. Because if we’ve learned nothing from the 2014 season, we’ve learned that this team’s pitching staff has kept this team alive despite the staggering injury count. Great hitting certainly hasn’t done the same for the Colorado Rockies.
The Reds could gamble and trade Cueto or Latos, hoping that Tony Cingrani can reprise his 2013 season and the rest of the staff stays healthy.
Or they could trade Aroldis Chapman.
Here’s what I said in March of 2013:
“If that’s the case, they should trade him. Another year of watching him spit sunflower seeds in the dugout, as he quietly awaits his two-run save opportunity does not further the Reds’ short or long-term goals. He’ll be far easier to trade than Broxton. He’ll bring more in return. It’s hard not to believe there aren’t a few eager suitors in-waiting, whether they are forward thinking organizations who would love the opportunity to try to realize Chapman’s potential—or teams who are true believers in the Myth of the Closer and would love to get their hands on the next Rivera. The Mets traded R.A. Dickey and enriched their future. Dickey is no Aroldis Chapman. He’s a 37 year-old journeyman pitcher who had a dream season he’s unlikely to come close to repeating. Still, this was enough to bring GM Sandy Alderson both a stud catching and a top pitching prospect from a Blue Jay organization that sees a window of opportunity in an AL East where Boston is retooling and the Yankees are officially old and crippled. You gotta believe the Reds could command much more for A.C. than Alderson did for R.A., should they wait until say, late July, when pennant-hungry teams will swoon for the one-inning 25 year old wonder like schoolgirls after that Justin Bieber kid.
But, trading the Missile would be a bold move, and if we’ve learned anything from yesterday, it’s that the Reds still tend to eschew bold moves at critical moments.”
This has probably been the single biggest failing of Walt Jocketty’s tenure in Cincinnati. Understand, it’s an organizational failing that almost all major league teams suffer from, whether your GM’s name is Kevin Towers or Billy Beane or your manager’s name is Dusty Baker or Joe Maddon. But given the Reds’ status as a small market team with a mid-market payroll, they could probably least afford to miss the opportunity to maximize the value of the transcendental left arm of the Cuban Missile.
Yet, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Still, there’s time to save this patient. Chapman could potentially bring back a mother load of talent, either in the form of prospects or a substantial left field bat. Or, he could be used to bring back multiple MLB-ready players to fill holes at positions where the Reds have produced below league average offensive numbers. It may turn out that Alfredo’s Simon’s true value may be to remain on the roster to bolster the bullpen if Chapman were moved, while doubling as a firewall for the staff should a starter go down next year.
Can’t have too much pitching. Amirite?
Trading Chapman, however, has implications of it’s own that doesn’t make it a slam dunk decision. Three things stand out when predicting playoff success: (1) pitcher strikeout rate, (2) defense and (3) closer performance. Or as Nate Silver said in Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong, “Striking batters out, catching the ball, and having a good closer wins championships.”
But, here’s the rub. It would truly be ironic if the Reds finally got close to the World Series only to be unable to close out games because they traded one of the most dominant closers in the game today. But, trade him they must. They cannot trade Cueto or Latos going into 2015 without seriously compromising the 2015 starting staff. Robert Stephenson isn’t ready. Rushing him to the big leagues could be sheer folly. Pitchers get hurt. Ask St. Louis. In five seasons with Cincinnati, Chapman has pitched a grand total of 235 innings. Moving him to a starting role and asking him to pitch even 180 innings in 2015 would be tempting fate and essentially be baseball malpractice. Attempting to do a half season of starting, followed by a half season in the bullpen closing would be to continue to waffle on this brilliant talent and would almost assuredly end badly.
The rest of 2014 is all about waiting for Joey Votto. And to a lesser extent Brandon Phillips. But 2015? That’s about waiting for Bob & Walt to finally decide to cut bait with Aroldis Chapman.
And give this team a chance.