The pages are turning, more slowly than we may have thought. But it’s happening. The book is closing on the team that brought winning baseball back to Cincinnati. Yes, some of the players from that core remain, most notably on the position player side. But with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, and Todd Frazier gone, we are entering the final chapter of a fun and exciting time in Reds’ history. Early this season, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce have reminded us why we’ve enjoyed them so much. But in one sense, they seem out of place, with younger players waiting in the wings. Joey Votto and Homer Bailey may be the only members of the old guard that will see the next winning team in Cincinnati.
With the closing of one book comes the opportunity to write another winning story in Cincinnati, and the Reds have now revealed their plan to do so. Zach Buchanan and C. Trent Rosencrans recently published an excellent piece that details the Reds rebuilding strategy, straight from the new head story writer himself, Dick Williams.
While the goal is simple, win the World Series, the path is full of obstacles. The starting point is (was?) a team that lost 98 games last season and was devoid of young talent at the upper minors until recently. The thing that made the 2015 season so hard was the lack of hope, at least for most of the year. Raisel Iglesias, Anthony DeSclafani, and Eugenio Suarez gave us something to believe in, but we could all see the Reds needed to get younger and more talented.
Now, with an influx of youth to the roster at the major league level and right below, hope abounds once again. The plan really began at the trade deadline when the Reds received four promising pitchers in Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, Cody Reed, and Keury Mella and a likely fourth outfielder in Adam Duvall for two expiring contracts (Cueto and Leake). In the offseason, they unloaded Frazier and Chapman for additional youth, even though these trades were met with more skepticism than the deadline deals.
Looking back, we can see part one of the plan, which isn’t finished. The Reds intend to trade valuable pieces that are unlikely to be around for the next winning team. They tried to send Bruce and Phillips away but failed for various reasons. If Zack Cozart and/or Alfredo Simon play well in the first half, they may try and trade them as well.
This step is necessary for a team with payroll restrictions, but it requires tough decisions. We grow attached to the characters of a good story. When Cueto and Leake were traded last July, it was like the writers had killed off two of the best characters from my favorite TV show. Those two had given us so much and almost instantly, they were gone.
But, it’s the wise thing to do. As Steve said in his Opening Day post, we “will be falling in love with a different group of young players.” The Reds need to bring in new, talented players to eventually have a chance at that storybook ending that has eluded them since 1990: a World Series championship.
But, these new players won’t come only through trades. Part two in the plan is to “invest aggressively in the amateur market.” This step includes drafting well, as the Reds have arguably done in the past decade, and by signing international free agents, something else they have some success doing (Chapman, Iglesias).
Signing international players is risky. For every Chapman, there is a Yasmany Tomas or Rusney Castillo. The Reds have taken a conservative approach to signing international free agents in the past. But now, they have the largest pool of money in baseball to sign draft picks and international players. With the second pick in the draft, the Reds may be able to invest highly in an impact bat if available. Or, maybe they make a splash in the international market.
Part three is to create payroll flexibility. Not because the Reds intend to sign high profile free agents, but because they will need to sign young talent as it gets more expensive. They also may need reinforcements at the deadline once they begin contending again. Apparently, the money they saved from trades last season has gone into a “war chest” for the Reds to access at just the right time. As Winker, Stephenson, Peraza, and Reed begin producing, the Reds could possibly lock them in beyond their arbitration years.
So far, all parts of the plan involve acquiring, developing, and maintaining talent. For this recipe to work, the Reds must properly evaluate players both internally and externally. If the Reds fail to trade, draft, sign, and develop effective players, the next decade could look like 2000-2009, an era we’d like to forget. In modern baseball, the information available to make these decisions and improve a player’s skill set is astounding, and the Reds are taking steps to better utilize the abundance of accessible data.
Part four is to invest in other areas to better the team. The Reds have hired new scouts and an analytics team. They invested in new technologies to help scouts gather better information. In the area of player development, they did the following:
“The team is expanding its player development staff, including strength and conditioning coaches at each minor-league affiliate and an increased budget in nutrition for its minor-league affiliates. This is building better players not just through their skills on the field, but in their preparations for playing. There is new leadership training offered throughout the minors and an expanded offseason strength camp. The Reds have also invested in improvements to their academy in the Dominican Republic.”
The Reds are using sport science to try and prevent injuries and gain more advantages through medical research. In short, they are beginning to modernize their baseball operations in order to maximize their effectiveness.
And that’s it. The four-part process to making the Reds World Series champs once again. Will it work? I’ll go on record as saying the strategy is solid. They have multiple ways of acquiring new talent, have upped their investment in both scouting and analytics, and are looking for ways to improve player development. But good strategy and good execution are two entirely different things.
The Reds roster is likely far from contending and questions remain. Is Jose Peraza a franchise cornerstone or a utility infielder? Will the young pitchers develop and stay healthy? Will position prospects like Jesse Winker, Alex Blandino, and Phillip Ervin blossom into everyday players or better? The list goes on.
One thing is certain: a new story is about to be written. New characters have already been introduced and even more are coming. The plot will begin to take shape this year as players develop and foreshadow what’s to come. We will fall in love with some of the new faces and vilify others. Stories are only as good as the people crafting the narrative. Let’s hope the Reds’ new head writer, and his four-part process, will deliver a story we will all remember fondly.