July is a make-or-break month for The Rebuild.
The Reds front office will confront many decisions that will have a profound impact on the club and its future success. It wouldn’t be a shocker to learn that “July 2016” is the thickest section of the Rebuild Binder, filled with scratch outs, post-it notes and revisions.
That would present as a high-wire situation in normal circumstances. But the Reds have also chosen this time to change the front office guard. You’d expect decision-making to already be shifting from Walt Jocketty to Dick Williams. It is Williams now who will live with each choice on the back of his baseball card. It’s hard to imagine anything of importance being decided against his opinion. But who knows? Even at best, the transition has to be an organizational challenge. Don’t buy the inevitable PR spin that all the key players see things the same way. In fact, pray that they don’t.
Yet decisions loom in July that can’t and shouldn’t be put off.
So because I’m a helpful guy, I thought I’d offer them unsolicited advice.
These are the steps I would take over the next few months if I were in charge. Turns out there are thirteen of them. Just one guy’s opinion, mind you.
To be clear, this is about getting July right. We’ll leave the subsequent offseason and long-term for later. And if it isn’t already obvious, these suggestions aren’t what I think the Reds necessarily will do (although a fella can dream, right?), but rather what the club should do.
I’ll happily stipulate there is a mountain of internal information we don’t have. That knowledge likely invalidates many of these suggestions. But as Henry James wrote (and Hunter Thompson appropriated):
“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
Here we go!
Trade Jay Bruce for Bradley Zimmer
A month or so ago, it might have made sense for the Reds to talk to Bruce about a modest, 3-year extension. But the Reds right fielder followed the Johnny Cueto path. Bruce has played so well he’s priced himself out of what makes sense for the Reds to pay.
Just to the north a few hundred miles, Cleveland is in first place. The AL Central is competitive, including the defending World Series champions. The Royals recipe of adding key players at the deadline is out there for the world to see. The Cleveland baseball team must be eager, if not desperate, to repeat the success of the Cleveland basketball team. The Reds should take full advantage of that hunger.
The front office should do whatever necessary, including adding money to the deal, to acquire Bradley Zimmer. He’s a great outfielder who can play center. He has power, speed and a good batting eye. Zimmer (23) already has 10 homers and stolen 27 bases at AA this year. Zimmer is close to major-league ready. 2017 is a reasonable promotion goal. 2018 at the latest.
[Right here I’m going to interrupt and present a new Reds Hitter Acquisition Rule: No building block players should be acquired who do not have excellent plate discipline. Period. A 10 percent walk-rate in the minor leagues is a decent threshold. No exceptions. BTW, Zimmer has a 14.8% walk-rate.]
There were reports that the Reds asked for Zimmer during the Todd Frazier negotiations. Does that prove Cleveland won’t trade him? No. There are a few huge differences. First, Cleveland is now in first place and drafting off the confetti-soaked intoxication from LeBron & Co. Second, you can make a case that Bruce has more value right now than Todd Frazier did last offseason. Bruce is left-handed. Frazier was coming off a couple terrible months of hitting that raised questions. Bruce has had a consistent and excellent three months. In the abstract, third basemen may be more scarce. But teams need what they need. And Cleveland needs an OF.
Of course, the Reds could have taken Bradley Zimmer in the 2014 draft. But the front office had its “can’t have too much pitching” thumb on the “best available player” scale. So, instead they chose Nick Howard with the #19 pick, a relief pitcher with plans to convert him into a starter. Cleveland took Zimmer two picks later.
Bruce wouldn’t be a rental for Cleveland. His contract comes with a $13 million option for 2017 attached. Bruce is on pace for a 3+ WAR offensive season. 3 WAR is worth $24 million on the open market.
One holdup might be that Bruce put Cleveland on his no-trade list this year. That gives him added leverage if he chooses to use it. Once it becomes clear he’s going to be moved, Bruce might be willing to go with a team in first place. Cleveland was just added to his list this year, so it’s not like Bruce has a life-long aversion to northern Ohio.
Talk to Zack Cozart about a cheap extension
Zack Cozart may agree to a 3-year deal (it would include 2017, his final year of arbitration), which would take him through his age-32 season. He might like the security. If the Reds offered $23 million over three years, Cozart might do it. The gamble for Cozart is if he starts slumping at the plate, he won’t find a multi-year deal when he becomes a free agent. That amount wouldn’t be a bad price for the Reds to lock up a reliable shortstop through the 2019 season.
But the Reds should still shop Zack Cozart and be willing to trade him if the offer is good. Don’t move him now to clear salary next year. Cozart can always be traded in the offseason. Yes, it’s a valid concern that he may backslide at the plate before the end of the season. But I doubt other teams are convinced there’s a new, improved hitting Zack just yet. If you aren’t, why would they be? In fact, it could take a couple more months of solid production to make Cozart’s case. The Reds might get a much better return in the offseason. Cozart will be traded for his glove mostly anyhow.
Shop Dan Straily
Dan Straily is not going to be a starting pitcher long-term for the Reds. That’s not because of any inherent weakness in his game or due to the approaching regression to his career numbers (although that’s coming). In fact, it’s his credibility as a starter that makes him available to trade. Straily won’t be a starter long-term for the Reds because of the other pitchers in the organization who are better.
Any time you can trade a pitcher to another club as a starter when you are going to use him as a reliever, you should. Straily is a legit Epstein Flip candidate.
But there’s no urgency to trade Straily if the return isn’t there. He’s 27 and not eligible for arbitration until 2018. He’d be a solid, experienced arm in the bullpen. But again, relievers are worth less than starters. Trade him if another team values him as a starter. Straily has been a nice surprise, but trade him if you can.
Play Jose Peraza every day
Now we get to playing time issues. It’s really simple. The Reds have to decide if they are fully committed to rebuilding. If they are, there is simply no good excuse to not find their top infield prospect consistent playing time.
That could be at shortstop if the Reds trade Zack Cozart. Better, Peraza should be at second base. But where he plays right now isn’t crucial. That he plays every day is. Remember, we’re just getting through July. We don’t need all the answers now.
I’ll spare you the gory statistics. You know them by now. Brandon Phillips has not been good this year. In fact, he has been one of the worst offensive players in the major leagues. Phillips had been in steady decline for several years until he had a bit of a resurgence last summer. That blip seems to be in the past and Dat Dude is back on the steady downward trajectory. Nothing against him, it’s just part of aging. Father Time undefeated, yada, yada.
Phillips’ defense has become ordinary according to many defensive metrics (and my eyeball test). Sure, he makes a great play every once in a while. But you know what? So do other second basemen. I promise. Jose Peraza, who is vastly more athletic than Phillips now, would make them.
Brandon Phillips is 34. He will not be on the Reds next contending team. This off-season, he refused at least two trade offers, which was his right. But it’s also the club’s right to sit him for a yes, better player regardless of his status. If the Reds told him he was going to be benched, he might approve a trade. Although it’s hard to imagine him having positive trade value now.
Again, are the Reds serious about Rebuild or do they care more about coddling veterans?
Play Jesse Winker every day
As soon as his wrist allows, Winker should be up with the Reds taking his lumps and learning about major league pitching. If he gets through that phase in his development this year, he might be prepared to be productive at the start of 2017.
A healthy Jesse Winker should be the Reds leadoff hitter. He has great OBP skills and some pop. Winker is the perfect kind of player to give the most at bats. Reaching that conclusion will require a sea change in the Reds organizational philosophy, though.
Key Point: The Reds front office must recognize that a hitter like Jesse Winker should bat first instead of a hitter like Billy Hamilton or Jose Peraza just because they are fast. On base skills and power trump speed. The Reds just spent a weekend celebrating the career of one of the greatest lead-off hitters of all time. His hitting prowess was plainly built on getting on base and more than 1000 extra-base hits. By this decision, where they bat Winker, we’ll know if the front office gets what they’ve been missing for nearly a decade. It’ll be a revealing litmus test.
If the Reds trade Bruce, that opens a spot in the outfield. Winker could also play left field if the Reds …
Try Adam Duvall at third base
Duvall played middle infield at the University of Louisville and third base in the San Francisco system. He split time between third and first with the Giants. Even if he isn’t great at third base he’s probably better than Suarez. Duvall should split time between left field and third base.
Wait, doesn’t Nick Senzel, the Reds #1 draft pick play third base? Yes, the organization can deal with that when Senzel is major league ready in a couple years. The club knows that Duvall can move back to left field if that’s what they need. But the Reds should use Duvall at third base enough in the next few months to see if he could play there going forward.
Turn Eugenio Suarez into a utility player
Eugenio Suarez has had three months to learn third base. He’s no better there than he was at shortstop last year. What possible reason is there to believe Suarez will master a position that is brand new to him when he couldn’t field consistently at one he’d played forever?
I’m not saying the Reds should give up on him. He’s had nice streaks of hitting and has pop in his bat. If Suarez can play second, short and third and a passable outfield, then he’ll fill the role the Tigers (and Reds) thought he would when Suarez was acquired for Alfredo Simon – a utility player. And a nice one at that.
The Reds should work Suarez back in at shortstop if they trade Cozart and at second base once Phillips is out of the picture. Suarez could play occasionally in left field to add to his versatility. Keeping Suarez exclusively at third base the rest of the year seems like a missed opportunity more than due diligence.
Call up Robert Stephenson
Robert Stephenson should be promoted to take John Lamb’s spot in the rotation. The starting five by the end of July should be: Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed and Stephenson. If Dan Straily isn’t traded by the deadline, he should be moved to the bullpen. John Lamb should receive occasional starts where needed and be the next in line if/when starters get shut down or skipped because of innings limits.
John Lamb is hard to figure out. When I think about whether he would best be a starter or reliever I go back and forth – often during the same at bat. I could see him being an effective lefty out of the bullpen. But he may turn into a credible back-end starter. See previous comment about trading pitchers who other clubs could use as a starter when you’re going to use them in the bullpen.
Make Michael Lorenzen the closer now
Tony Cingrani hasn’t proven he can be the closer in the long-term. He’s too inconsistent. Moved out of the closer role, Cingrani would provide value in innings where lefty specialists fit. It’s good to know that he can pitch the ninth inning if necessary, so the past two months have been a valuable experiment.
But the Reds should promote either Raisel Iglesias or Michael Lorenzen to the closer role. Of those two, Lorenzen’s stuff is more dominant. Iglesias isn’t far behind. They are both better pitchers than Cingrani. Meanwhile, it’s time to start de-emphasizing guys who aren’t going to figure in the Reds future, like Ross Ohlendorf.
Trade Amir Garrett for a stud shortstop
Garrett looks promising as a lefty starter. He’s shot up top prospects lists and through the Reds organization. Major league teams covet left-handed starters. The Reds should trade him for the best shortstop they can find. The club has several other promising starting pitchers in their system, like Rookie Davis. But they don’t have a can’t-miss shortstop. At some point, the Reds need to cash in on their bounty of arms. The club should be able to find a trade partner by dangling Garrett – either an established young major league shortstop or a similar level prospect. If Jay Bruce doesn’t snag a top outfield prospect, trading Garrett for one of those would work, too. Remember the 10% walk-rate rule.
Rethink plans in the international market
I’m going to defer to Doug Gray on this one. He knows more about the international signing guys than I do. To summarize, instead of going all in on a one-dimensional shortstop (one who massively violates our rule about plate discipline), the Reds should use their big stack of international signing money on well-rounded hitters with power and big-armed pitchers.
Fire Bryan Price
No, not FYRE BRYAN PRYCE!
Price should not be let go because of the bad performance and record of the Reds. He’s been dealt three-years of terrible hands due to injury and the Rebuild. Other than the time he put the F in frustration and the subsequent non-apology apology, Price has handled the stress and adversity pretty well, at least in public.
But Price is wedded to the way things are and were. He’s assigned players roles as he sees them fitting. If Price was willing to implement the above steps, I’d keep him the rest of the year. But I doubt he would. Bryan Price doesn’t strike me as the guy looking for new ways to do things. He’s batting Brandon Phillips THIRD for goodness sakes. It may not be fair to ask him to change.
Letting him go now might actually do Price some good. It would give him time to decompress before taking on his next job. You can only watch the bullpen for which you are accountable give up so many walks and home runs before you snap. Price is starting to look like a hostage during those late innings. Think of this July step as merciful.
In his place, the Reds should hire a manager who is willing to go along with these roster and position changes. It can be an interim hire. Not old-school Jim Riggelman. Not hometown hero Barry Larkin. It should be someone with a modern, open-minded understanding of baseball. Someone who likes working with young players.
Well that’s it – my view on how the Reds can get July right. Lots of moving parts and change. I’m optimistic the Reds have a good foundation of talent for the next competitive team. They still have moves to make, though. Important and lasting ones. Let’s hope they make the right calls. The next few weeks should be mighty interesting for Reds fans.
Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.