According to the Chinese zodiac, this was the Year of the Dog. If you spent much time at Great American Ball Park, you know it was just a dog of a year. Every contest seemed a bark in the park, with too many games off the leash before the first time through the order, everyone howling by evening’s end. Frustration reached a boiling point. A mere fortnight and a half into it, everyone was done with a season rudely stamped and all-too familiarly stained, attention turning instead to what must be done to make 2019 watchable.
I still have a hard time understanding why so many think the Reds should have turned this around in short order. I’ll say it once more: the losing may have begun in 2014, but The Rebuild didn’t begin until Bob Castellini waved the white flag shortly after Todd Frazier hoisted the Home Run Derby trophy. The Phillies and Braves have been held up as organizations that are doing it faster and better than the Reds and narratives have a way of quickly curing into concrete, entombing the truth below. The long season finally exposed the Phillies, leaving them with a seventh straight losing season. The Braves have sped up their 45 rebuild to 78, with youngsters that played surprisingly well, aided by impact players that stayed remarkably healthy. 95% of their plate appearances were accounted for by 12 players. Their top three starters made 92 starts. Health matters.
But, I digress.
Perception distorts reality, the deformity of a misshapen season enlarged in the funhouse mirror. True or not, a perception of the Reds plight is shouted from the parapets, demanding action: get demonstrably better or lose a generation of baseball fans as the local entertainment dollars head up the hill to Clifton, where kickball has captured a city’s imagination. Whether we agree that The Rebuild is continuing apace or woefully behind schedule, we can agree the Reds need to do much more than simple improvement over the last two seasons as measured by wins and losses. They desperately need a winning record to put before the paying public. That means the pitching must improve not incrementally, but dramatically. They still need to be patient with their young, developing hurlers, for sure. In the meantime, though, outside help is a foregone conclusion.
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Bob Castellini’s latest tête-à-tête with Paul Daugherty of the Enquirer was, uh, concerning. Again.
“We’ll have the highest payroll we’ve ever had.”
Not great, Bob.
The $115M payroll for the 2015 team put them below league average. Just to keep pace with the rest of the league in 2019, the Reds would need to increase payroll to about $130M. If the organization is really serious about pouring resources at the termination point of this whole enterprise—at field level, the Reds would realistically have to approach league average in payroll, about $140M. Topping out at a handful of ducats above a previous high from four years ago won’t get it done.
It is a game of Russian Roulette, this free agency. Dallas Keuchel will be 31 on Opening Day. His agent is Scott Boras. He will cost a ransom and then some. He’s a soft thrower—falling closer to the Bronson Arroyo end of the velo spectrum than the Stephen Strasburg end. That makes him somewhat less of an injury risk—if there is such a thing with a pitcher.
There are others out there: Patrick Corbin, Carlos Carrasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu. But each of them violates the freshly-minted cardinal rule of paying older players big money for past performance, with their decline years just a bus stop away. Plus, every moneyed organization that came up short this year (looking at you, Yankees, Cubs and Phillies) will be all in on a small pool of free agents who can move the needle.
If valuable free agent pitching is expensive, scarce and fraught with risk, dipping into the farm system, takes from a different account, provides a wider pool of talent to choose from and affords at least the possibility of less risk.
Nevertheless, cashing in the farm system has its own serious drawback, as it very likely shortens the competitive window of the next good Reds team. Our Redlegs have what is generally recognized as a top ten farm system based on the strength of their top 3 prospects, Nick Senzel, Hunter Greene and Taylor Trammell. There are few scenarios that don’t have the Reds surrendering two of those three in order to get the kind of front-line pitching that will make a difference. Trammell would almost certainly be one of the three to go. Including Senzel in any package would be waving goodbye to youthful talent with maximum team control for what might amount to a narrow, two-year window.
Let’s be clear: parting with Senzel defeats the entire purpose of the rebuild. I suppose the Reds could get away with only losing Trammell, but the cost would likely be some combination of a majority of the rest of the top ten (Tony Santillan, Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson for starters), or some combination of otherwise established major-leaguers (Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano and/or Amir Garrett). As Bryan Price once famously asked, “How is that good for the Reds?”
Even with the Reds arriving ahead of schedule in 2010, the window had closed by the end of the 2014 season. Injuries and a lack of depth narrowed that window to essentially two years, 2012-13. Cashing in the farm system now could vastly improve the immediate future, but can the Reds and their fans survive another long, fallow period?
So, if free agency is full of cost and risk, and heading for the teller window with prospect chips in hand is a small-window moonshot, then what is a reasonable path forward?
The solution may lie in doing both, while being smart about it, taking a chunk from the ownership group’s money clip and adding to that from the prospect pocket to mitigate the cost to each balance sheet. There is no safe, easy route going forward. Free agent money will have to be spent and a fair amount of risk taken to get one starter capable of pitching at a high level and giving something approaching 200 valuable innings. And prospects will have to be spent. It costs something to get something. The cash is already there, no matter the dissembling by Castellini; and the pain of surrendering prospects can be minimized by … wait for it … trading Scooter Gennett and Raisel Iglesias.
The 2018 Phillies had the worst defense as defined by Defensive Runs Saved since they began using this metric in 2003, at -146. By comparison, the Diamondbacks were baseball’s best at +157. Some of that inclement leather was the result of players moved out-of-position in an effort by the Phillies to add offense. By re-signing Gennett and moving infielder Nick Senzel to the outfield, the Reds might be making a similar mistake. Senzel helps the team most by playing on the dirt. People take for granted the defense that played behind the 2012 Reds pitching staff. Scott Rolen, Zack Cozart, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs (if you can remember before Billy) could all go get most anything put into the field of play. The Reds need plus fielding now more than ever, especially behind a fledgling pitching staff—and the Reds are giving them just the opposite with Gennett at the keystone with that yard sale glove of his. As if that weren’t enough, money spent on Scooter is money NOT spent on pitching.
Gennett by himself doesn’t bring a ton in return. Package him with Iglesias and the haul has the potential to increase by a significant factor. It might seem counterintuitive to trade pitching to get pitching, but at 76 innings, Iglesias is that rare player who has substantial value in trade, but significantly less as used by the Reds. Trading those two for prospects further deepens the farm system, allowing the Reds to trade prospects for impact starting pitching while hopefully preserving the future, keeping the window open longer, perhaps by several years. Trade partners can be hard to come by, but the Reds need to find ways to get better and I’m more-and-more convinced that reasonable roster churn is part of the answer.
But you, fair reader, are far ahead of me. Really, how likely are the Reds to part with Gennett or Iglesias, much less both?
“We believe in our position players.”
Not great, Bob.
Not great because it sounds like the owner is moving ahead with that plan to sign Gennett to a multi-year deal. Less money available for a stagnant rotation while offering substandard infield defense to boot. It’s a lose/lose plan. It’s choosing offense at the expense of run prevention.
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From its infancy, baseball has been first and foremost a contest of run-prevention. We desperately want all our games to be about offense. The Stephen Curry three from downtown, the deep route to A.J. Green in the end zone. We have more nicknames for a home run than the Duggar Family has children. Mostly, we construct a world of false equivalency for the comfort it provides. We like symmetry in all things. In symmetry there’s beauty. But look at the rules. The rules of any sport will tell you where and how to marshal your resources. The rules say fie on your beautiful balance. Baseball is one of the few games where the defense has the ball. Find a way to succeed with a piece of round ash three times out of ten and they’ll have a day in your honor, render your likeness in in clay before casting it in bronze, finally asking you to stand in a field in upstate New York on a sweltering summer day to tell the whole world just how you did it.
“We relied too much on pitchers to excel.”
Not great, Bob.
During the mid-19th century, a game called “Town Ball” treated pitchers as mere “feeders” of the ball to the batter, who was allowed unlimited offerings before choosing which delivery to strike. By the time the game moved to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey, it underwent a very American transformation. A game that had once resembled the British, child-like Rounders and the stately cricket, was now much more challenging for the batter, the field defined with foul lines for the first time. It became a faster game that reflected a young country’s sensibilities. Batters now were limited to three offerings that if struck at and missed with the last one caught was now deemed a “hand out.”
In 1867, the first curveball was thrown, causing batters to throw down their sticks in disgust. Such was the domination of pitching, that purists saw it as grossly unfair—downright dishonest, even.
“I heard that this year we at Harvard won the baseball championship because we have a pitcher who has a fine curveball. I was further instructed that the purpose of the curveball is to deliberately deceive the batter. Harvard is not in the business of teaching deception.” — Charles Eliot, President, Harvard College.
But, the game is always fluid and so are the rules. We’ve seen how steroids changed the game and its aftermath. Three decades before, expansion also tilted the scales, this time in favor of the offense.
In 1962, the New York Yankees set a season record for home runs. In response, commissioner Ford Frick convinced the owners to widen the strike zone, once again altering the balance of the game in favor of the pitchers. The rules, man.
In 1968, one out of every five games played was a shutout. Bob Gibson led the majors with a 1.12 ERA. Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average. Again, the rules were changed, this time because run prevention simply held too much sway. The bump was lowered from 15 to 10 inches, and the strike zone shrunk at the top from the shoulders to the armpit and upward to the very top of the knees.
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If all of this feels like an exercise in “What If,” as the prevailing opinion is that Castellini wants Gennett badly and all that remains is the dotting of the “I’s” and crossing of the “T’s” on a new contract—well, it is.
And yet …
David Michael Bell has just been hired as the new manager of the Reds. Dick Williams and Co. won the day and in doing so, perhaps sent a message: WE ARE CHARTING A NEW PATH. The Reds got an experienced baseball guy and more importantly, a younger leader who promises a new way of thinking—Beyond the Bunt, if you will.
Perhaps this leads to a willingness to churn the roster, to pivot away from Scooter-mania; or the urge to wait forever for Billy Hamilton to learn to hit. David Bell surely has ideas about what to do with the Reds burgeoning system. The hire of the former farm director of the San Francisco Giants surely means a tighter connection between management, manager and those at the lower levels of development.
The Yankees boosted their farm system by trading their closer for prospects, then signing him back in free agency. The Reds could do something vaguely similar, even if it’s on a smaller scale, trading Iglesias and other assets for prospects, while using free agent $$$ to sign a closer like Adam Ottavino. Perhaps the Reds should settle for one starter and spend assets rebuilding the bullpen into something that can play the kind of game that baseball is moving toward: a rejection of the “third time through the order” starter that has become a rarity on pitching staffs throughout the game. Maybe chasing the Verlanders and the Scherzers is best left to those willing to snuggle up to the luxury tax and all the implications that go with it.
I can’t help but wonder if the hire of David Bell has given the owner what he wanted all along: a Cincinnati legacy hire; the cozy familiarity of Bell Family baseball, Gus, Buddy and all the grainy, woolen history that goes with it. Perhaps he sees a managerial hire of his liking as his own personal stamp on the franchise, a move that soothes the ego, allowing him to finally loosen the reigns on the front office so they can quietly let slip the dogs of analytic war.
That would be good, Bob. Very good.
Father. Iowa born, Kentucky raised, NYC finished. I write about baseball. I wonder what Willie Shakespeare would have written had he met Willie Mays. Richard resides in protective custody at an undisclosed location in New Jersey.