The rebuilding process, charts and graphs or not, was almost certain to cause unrest. But the Reds recent free fall has dialed up the decibel level on calls to fire manager Bryan Price. The Atlanta Braves sacked their manager Fredi Gonzalez last week. So it’s no surprise the vultures have flown north and are circling 100 Joe Nuxhall Way. With baseball president Walt Jocketty having announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, the manager becomes a convenient target.
To be clear, the case for letting Bryan Price go at the end of the season, also the end of his contract, is pretty strong. Bringing him back to manage this year was more asking him to fall on the proverbial grenade than giving him a fair audition.
With regard to Bryan Price’s hiring as Reds manager, I’ve always been agnostic. By the end of the 2013 season, it was apparent that Dusty Baker had done all he could for that group of Reds. Yet the core of the team was strong enough they could expect to make one or two more serious runs at winning the NL Central, health willing.
I didn’t like that the Reds jumped at hiring Bryan Price. Their culture of narrowness produced only one interview in choosing Baker’s replacement. Insider favor is a perilous practice. Walt Jocketty hadn’t gone through the process of choosing a new manager in 19 seasons. And the common practice of using interviews for finalizing hiring decisions has been discredited by a raft of research.
On the other hand, the Reds had seen Price close up for several years as their pitching coach. Whether the skills that make a great coach are the same that make a great manager is an open question. But the theory that Bryan Price offered a different voice but also the needed continuity seemed plausible. Players spoke up strongly for Price.
Injuries and subsequent roster demolition have prevented Price from showing whether he’s an able manager in good times. Yet, we’ve seen more than enough over the past three seasons to conclude that Bryan Price has no special talent to keep the Reds competitive and playing well.
But whether Price should be fired at the end of the season is a different question than whether he should be fired now.
If we’re allocating blame for why the Reds are where they are right now, Bryan Price deserves no more than a tiny share. Most managers not named Joe Maddon affect wins and losses only at the margins. Half of their impact occurs in the locker room out of the public eye, not in the dugout.
Owners set payroll budgets and make roster demands. If the Reds were reluctant to make trades prior to last year’s All-Star Game, that’s on the ownership, not Bryan Price. Front offices make important decisions on trades, drafting, free agent signings and rosters. If the Reds roster is full of players with poor plate discipline, that’s on the front office, not Bryan Price. Bryan Price didn’t choose to rebuild or drag his feet on the start, making it deeper than necessary. The ownership and front office brought the situation to that point. Bryan Price didn’t choose the pitchers for the bullpen. The front office did.
Far more blame (or credit) rightly goes to owners and front offices than managers.
We second-guessed Price’s use of the bullpen for about a week. Then the extent of the horror was revealed. He didn’t have any good moves to make. Not a single pitcher in the bullpen was a reliable major league reliever. Not one. The Reds will get better when their starting rotation returns, regardless of who is managing. The Reds will get better when deserving pitchers get promoted from AAA, regardless of who is managing. The Reds will take steps back when Zack Cozart and Jay Bruce are traded in mid-season, regardless who is managing. The identity of the manager won’t determine if Jose Peraza and Jesse Winker become solid major league players.
On the other hand, if it becomes apparent that Bryan Price has lost the clubhouse in a way that discourages players like Peraza, Winker, Adam Duvall, Billy Hamilton and Eugenio Suarez from working hard to improve, that’s a reason to change leadership. Seeing improvement from young player is all that matters.
If the Reds dismiss Price, the FYRE PRICE NOW crowd will enjoy their bloodlust for a moment. The move might shake up the players for a half-second. But it won’t make the Reds better or easier to watch. Given the pool of interim replacement candidates will the new manager be a better human-whisperer? Doubt it. An interim manager will fall short of Robert Redford in the eyes of professional players.
The truth is, the trajectory of the Reds has almost nothing to do with who their manager is in 2016. It just doesn’t matter, either way. The front office has known that from the start, which is why they brought Price back in the first place.