One-third of the 2017 baseball season is in the record books. To the surprise and delight of many, the Cincinnati Reds are 25-30 and within 4 games of first place in the NL Central division.
Because this has taken place alongside the glorious struggles by the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates, the Reds’ near-.500 start has caused people to wonder whether it’s realistic for the Reds to compete for the postseason in 2017. In fact, manager Bryan Price used the P word just the other day. Such unguarded optimism is a rite of baseball not confined to Opening Day.
Beyond the justified rah-rah, the team’s unexpected success could create a bit of a dilemma for the front office. The allure of winning the NL Central in 2017 raises the corresponding question of what strategy the organization should pursue in upcoming months.
If either the Reds (19-35) or Cubs (39-15) had the same record as last year the right plan for the next few months would be clear. The club would complete the rebuilding process. It isn’t quite finished. The front office would make a couple more tough decisions. The manager would allot playing time based in part on the long term.
But here are the unanticipated questions at 25-30: Should rebuilding be put on hold? Should the Reds expend meaningful 2018+ assets to bring in 2017 help? Should the front office duck additional hard choices in service of the win-loss record?
The answer to those questions is an emphatic no.
It’s fine for Bryan Price to talk about competing for the postseason instead of rebuilding. It’s fine for Dick Williams to say he wants to win even more. It’s fine for Reds broadcasters to flak the “tightly bunched division.” Statements like those may not be the best for managing fan and ownership expectations, but they play in the media and maybe the clubhouse.
Public statements are one thing. Actual internal strategy is another. Patience is crucial for a successful rebuild. Listen to people who have been through it. The Cubs and Astros stand as powerful lessons of following the break-it-down to build-it-up path to its painful completion. The Reds must avoid being thrown off course by the fool’s gold of a June win-loss record. Dick Williams surely understands this. He’s said as much.
In practice, what does finishing the job of rebuilding mean?
Here are the steps the Reds should take (and not take):
Trade Zack Cozart before the August deadline. The Reds shortstop has played his way to peak trade value, contributing mightily on offense and defense. Beyond that, Cozart is a cheap, half-year rental for a contending team. It would be tough to see him go, but sentimentality can’t play a role. If the Reds can ship off Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier, they can let Zack Cozart leave. This is one of those hard, but necessary, choices.
When Cozart is traded, call up Dilson Herrera and play him. No Gennett, no Alcantara.
Move Scott Feldman to the bullpen now then trade him. Feldman is not “this year’s Dan Straily” because Feldman is on a one-year contract and Straily offered the Marlins’ four years of control. Scott Feldman won’t return Luis Castillo and Austin Brice. But if Feldman keeps pitching OK for another month – and odds of that are improved with him in the bullpen – a major league team might offer something for him as a reliever. For the Reds, moving Feldman out of the starter rotation now is addition (of opportunity) by subtraction.
Trade Adam Duvall at the deadline or the offseason. Another tough one. Adam Duvall is the Dan Straily of 2017. As the Reds did with Straily, they should move Duvall to a team willing to pay full price for his power. Adam Duvall will be 29 by the end of the season – this is the factor that separates him from Scott Schebler, who is 26. But Duvall’s 4.5 years of team control offer large value to the right trade partner.
Trading Duvall mid-season would create important big league playing time for Jesse Winker, who then should be installed as the club’s leadoff hitter. Or keep Duvall through 2017 and continue sorting. But it would be nice to get Winker a half-year of at bats against major league pitchers.
Continue to play Jose Peraza. There’s a solid case that if the Reds wanted to maximize their wins, Scooter Gennett should see more playing time at the expense of Peraza. Peraza’s bat remains a liability. His hit tool comes nowhere near compensating for his lack of on-base skills and power. And unlike Billy Hamilton, Peraza’s base running and defense aren’t yet net positives. Gennett is only 27, but if the Reds are to get a better grasp of Peraza’s floor and ceiling, the 23-year-old needs to play every day.
Overhaul the starting rotation. The puzzling choices made by the front office and manager regarding the starting rotation have been by far the weakest aspect of the rebuilding process. Promoting Amir Garrett at the start of the season was the lone positive exception. The club should have done likewise with Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson and Michael Lorenzen. But the organization wanted to send messages and stoke nostalgia. Further, the front office saw Scott Feldman and Tim Adleman as providing value in eating innings instead of cost by eating opportunity.
But the crater left by the dreadful performance of the 2017 rotation can be seen from outer space. The starting five as a group have served neither the Rebuild nor Wins-and-Losses. Instead of stubbornly continuing on their current failed path, the Reds should commit to at least 15 starts each for Reed, Stephenson and Lorenzen before the season ends. There’s no assurance that new young guys will pitch better than the current rotation, but that’s not the point. Using a rebuilding season to give those pitchers experience is.
The return of Amir Garrett and impending arrivals of Brandon Finnegan, Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani over the next month will make that difficult. If all four return to health, finding meaningful room for several additional young arms will prove impossible. That eventuality will make plain the folly of giving 35 starts to Arroyo, Feldman, Adleman, and Lisalverto Bonilla.
Don’t trade meaningful 2018+ assets for 2017 help. The front office must resist pressure from the outside and the siren call of the June 4 standings. The 2018+ assets they now possess were hard-earned through agonizing trades, extensive scouting and careful drafting and international signings. With real daylight so close, don’t squander the built-up farm system on a false dawn.
A-plus rebuilding journeys require nerve from start to finish. The Reds began theirs, however, with hits and misses. The trades of Mat Latos for Anthony DeSclafani and Alfredo Simon for Eugenio Suarez can already judged to be big successes. The club held on to Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake until the last possible moment. Unfortunately, the front office and ownership didn’t have the fortitude to move Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman (twice) when they needed to.
But the Dan Straily trade is an example of patience and perseverance paying off. A wobbly front office would never have traded a starting pitcher that threw 191 innings, had a 14-8 record and an ERA under 4. But it was the right thing to do. So was being willing to bench a popular player like Brandon Phillips.
That was a front office making tough decisions. Going forward, they must be clear-eyed and stick to their plan.
Bottom line: The organization must place the fundamental principles of rebuilding front and center and march directly ahead. And we fans should support them doing it, even if it means in the near term watching more players leave and the team fall in the standings.