Like a pot of water under a slow flame, you don’t notice the window closing until the moment reaches full boil. Yet, along the way, there are clues, small bubbles forming below, wisps of steam that announce a full roil is not far off. Such was the temperature of Mat Latos on a beautiful fall day on the Ohio River:
“[Baker] sent Price to the mound with an impossible task—put out the fire currently consuming Mat Vesuvius. Latos just stood there the whole visit, unflinching, shaking his head and grinning like a madman, repeatedly mouthing to Price the words, “I’m fine, man.”
Pablo Sandoval stroked a single. Bases loaded. National League MVP Buster Posey stepped in for the Giants, and Latos had nowhere to put him. Latos continued to overthrow his pitches, but battled the MVP to a 2–2 count. Here was the moment. The 45,000 in attendance were anxiously subdued, probably remembering the rocket Posey had launched into the seats on the first pitch he saw from Latos back in Game 1.
If Dusty Baker remembered it, he wasn’t acknowledging it. One pitch later, history repeated itself as the Giants’ superstar relocated a 94 mph Latos’ fastball to the left field seats. Almost as soon as the ball left the barrel of Posey’s bat, Mat walked off the mound without turning to witness the ball’s trajectory. If he flinched, the television camera from center field never caught it. Game over. Series over.”
The window didn’t close on that day. Perhaps it closed a year later in that forgettable Wild Card game, the moment the baseball dropped distractedly from Johnny Cueto’s hand onto the receiving earth as PNC Park vibrated, coming to full boil.
If not then, it surely slammed shut nine months later as Joey Votto limped back to Cincinnati from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, his Double-A rehab stint from a bum quadricep turned proof of concept failure.
If it seems all too painful to revisit, well, too bad. The manner in which the 2012-13 seasons were extinguished is a cold and callous reminder that the Reds must now stretch their bright future as far to the horizon as possible. Just as the Reds cannot afford to have another lost season—and make no mistake, they must get demonstrably better RIGHT NOW—neither can they afford to forfeit the future in an effort to take a giant step in 2019, getting a fan base’s hopes up, only to slide prematurely into another protracted rebuild. The pieces must be moved with considerable care, Jenga-like, lest the entire rebuild come tumbling down upon itself.
Make no mistake. This would be a disaster.
Get the Pitching is owner Castellini’s incantation, a clarion call to action. It may be. It is almost certainly doing double duty as a public-relations tool, meant to slow the growing freight train of criticism on the airwaves, on social media, in watering holes across the street, echoing off the cold Crosley Terrace concrete. But for the moment, let the imagination fly and believe that minority owners such as car salesman Jeff Wyler willfully acknowledge that pitchers, like eggs, are not cheaper in the country —that several inches of dollar bills are going to be spent and big moves are going to be made.
There are two avenues that lead to Get The Pitching Boulevard: free agent cash and prospect treasure. The problem with heading down Prospect Avenue is the steep price it will cost to get a a rotation difference-maker, a Kluber or Greinke. It would begin with one of the Reds’ top three prospects—likely two—and definitely would include a supporting cast of prospects that would deplete the system and force the Reds down another narrow path before the team would once again have to sell off assets and start over. For while the Reds have a considerable depth to their farm system, it shouldn’t be confused with the elite systems, such as the San Diego Padres. Yes, the Reds can cash in now, but is this an ALL IN moment?
I reject that plan. I hope the new regime does, too.
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Any fantasy baseball trade imagining specific players has a miniscule chance of actually coming to fruition, but such mischief offers breadcrumbs for finding the way home. And home is multiple deep runs into the postseason. Here is one such path:
Noah Syndergaard is the talk of the hot stove season—and for good reason. A dominating and downright frightful presence on the mound, the Viking God of the Fastball is available not because the Mets are tearing it down, but rather because their new GM is going for it and needs to fix a glaring need for offense in the here and now. A dismal 23 rd in MLB in runs scored, 29 th in batting average, the lack of Met offense is best illustrated by Jacob deGrom’s historic Cy Young season, his 1.70 ERA garnering only 10 wins, due to the pittance of run support his teammates provided.
So here comes Brodie Van Wagenen, who no, is not a character from Animal House, but rather the new GM desperate to remind the Mets what it feels like to reach third base. Van Wagenen needs upgrades at catcher, second base, centerfield and the bullpen. It’s why—as of this writing—only Robinson Cano’s physicals stand in the way of a trade that delivers him and bullpen magician Edwin Diaz to Flushing, Queens. Some feel Cano is on the downside of his career, fresh off a PED suspension and dragging behind him a large and foolish contract courtesy of some ghost of GMs past. The Mariners seem desperate enough to pay down $20M of the remaining $120M on that contract, but the Mets will still have to shoulder a sizable chunk for a player who will be approaching 37 years old when the playoffs next roll around, not to mention surrender their third best prospect and their best pitching prospect, among other assets.
One wonders what the Reds could have offered to get Thor. The Reds have a second baseman they could easily move. Gennett would be an instant upgrade offensively for the Mets. He carries none of Cano’s Yankee reputation as a hitter, but he’s every bit as good right now, doesn’t burden the frugal Mets’ spreadsheet, and his expiration date could be farther off. Raisel Iglesias isn’t Diaz, but he isn’t far off; and pitching in Citi Field would drop a Home Run/Fly Ball rate that dings his FIP. His reworked contract offers cost-certainty. Add in a Curt Casali and/or Robert Stephenson. Would that have gotten it done?
Of course, the chances of any of this happening are now as good as Birnam Wood coming to high Dunsinane Hill. That’s not the point.
The players in this fantasy deal don’t measurably impact the future the way parting with Nick Senzel or Taylor Trammell would, particularly if the Reds were to continue to make moves—and by trading for a top-of-the-rotation starter, there would remain plenty of $$ to fill other holes. Now that center field is in play with the non-tender of Billy Hamilton, how about signing Andrew McCutchen to a modest two-year deal to hold down the fort until the cavalry arrives in the form of Jose Siri or Trammell? Yes, Cutch is 32 and will never make us forget Hamilton defensively, but he could still manage Great American Small Park’s cozy acreage without too much downside. With a 2018 OBP of .368 and a 118 OPS+, the Reds could not just live with that, they could thrive.
Dallas Keuchel remains an intriguing possibility. He may very well wait until another coveted pitcher like Patrick Corbin or Nathan Eovaldi sets the bar with one of the Park Avenue franchises. But, a ground ball pitcher needs a solid defense behind him, all the more reason Gennett should be gone and the young Senzel kept at second base. However, should the Reds come up short in their quest for a dominant starter, they could pivot away from the obvious and build a pitching staff in a different way in two steps.
Pair Amir Garrett and Cody Reed with a four-inning target for each. Pair Michael Lorenzen with Sal Romano. Employing tandem starters with the last two rotation spots would allow the young Reds pitching prospects to continue to develop without the stress of going the dreaded “third time” through the lineup or amass innings totals that would require them to be shut down at the end of the year. Yes, that approach puts considerable stress on Castillo and Mahle to keep improving while pitching in a traditional role, but doesn’t that need to happen anyway?
Build an Uber Bullpen
Make it bulletproof. Carry 13 pitchers on the 25-man roster. Spend the bulk of the free agent money on relievers. Target Adam Ottavino, David Robertson, Zach Britton and maybe even Joe Kelly or Cody Allen. Sign two. Spread free agent pitcher risk around instead of lumping it all into one great hope. Imagine the following bullpen:
Could you keep Anthony DeSclafani healthy if you never ask him to go more than five innings? Could BobSteve’s career as a starter be reborn by having him tandem start if Romano or Garrett proves ineffective as starters?
Yes, these ideas are outside the box, perhaps even outside the imagination of the new front office. But so was the Opener before Tampa Bay began showing the way as they are wont to do. Maybe with newly empowered leadership at the top and on the field, the Cincinnati Reds are ready to join the Rays at the vanguard of baseball thought. Wasn’t that the reason for hiring David Bell to begin with? To dramatically rethink how baseball is done in Cincinnati?
The Reds—like many smaller market organizations—have spent a lifetime paddling in the deep end of the pool, thrashing about, keeping their heads above water, while the Giants, Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees paddle by in style, papering over their mistakes with checkbooks as full as a tick.
Me? I heard the window close when, with Mat Latos hurt, the Reds rushed Johnny Cueto back from injury, first with a 60 pitch start, then 80, before declaring him ready for the 2013 Wild Card game. He wasn’t. But the Reds were thin as a Paris runway model by then. Even getting past the Pirates on that night would have left them threadbare, still as midnight, with nowhere to go.
I don’t want to watch that happen again for a long time. If it be a sin to covet prospects, I am the most offending fan alive. So forgive me if I hold close Nick Senzel, Taylor Trammell and Jonathan India. Forgive me if I put my hope in the unpredictable, but magical appendages of Hunter Greene and Tony Santillan. Prospects are just that: prospects. They’ve done nothing yet. But the payment for all the sodden rain-delay drives home from the ballpark, hearts plucked from the chest, the nightly opposing dugout celebrations and all the emotional weight of those 90-loss seasons has been the kind of draft position where the next Kris Bryant, Alex Bregman and Andrew Benintendi are found. Somewhere there lies the next Reds core to go along with Castillo, Winker and Eugenio Suarez. There may even be a coaching staff and front office in place now that knows what to do with it.
The Reds may be embarking on the baseball version of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Can the Reds and their fans delay gratification just long enough to finally build lasting success?