Some prefer cake. I’m a pie guy. You can have your chocolate layer, cheese, even fruit cake. Give me pie every time.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about our rebuilding preferences. And I’ve been thinking about how we arrive at them. Everyone from the national media on down weighs in on what is going on at the offices of the ballpark sitting snug against the Ohio River. I’m not talking here about the Nick Senzel service time conundrum—I’m contemplating more far-reaching matters.
I’m ruminating on the near miss of J.T. Realmuto and what that tells us about how the new regime values such things as youth, upside and future cost-control. We don’t hear much lately about long-range plans because of the urgency to get better right now. Yet, everything the Reds do now will have impact years down the road. And ultimately on how long the next window remains open.
“Are they searching for mediocrity? To get to that .500 level. I think if you’re a Cincinnati Reds fan at this point, I’ll take that.”
That comment by a national TV guy sums up where many outside area code 513 think the Reds are heading—down to a cul de sac on Mediocrity Place, thrust yet again into the shadow of Cub and Cardinal mansions up the street. Then, there was this from Scott Braun at MLB Network:
“Are they [the Reds] disrupting the process, though. Because other teams have had this model, the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and it takes six-ish years and they’re not there yet. Is that a problem?”
Make no mistake, the cost has already been real. Yes, Jeter Downs was blocked. And yes, Josiah Gray was a long way from a major league ballpark. Yes, if Alex Wood and Yasiel Puig play well enough to earn and turn down the qualifying offers the Reds would offer, those prospects might be replenished. Still, depth was surrendered. And if Senzel were to somehow stick in centerfield and Scooter Gennett were to be traded or let go at the end of the season, suddenly Downs isn’t so blocked. But these moves were necessary to push this rebuild forward.
I get it. For those of you who are tired of the losing, who want relevancy, some good old Charlie Sheen “winning,” making another big move would have been icing on this cake. The Reds have been bleeding season ticket sales. They’ve been watching the walk-up window dwindle. All of us at the Twitter water cooler falling back on Big Red Machine reminisces in lieu of future dreaming. With the infusion of talent from Chavez Ravine and a reborn Sonny Gray, the hope is that those ticket lines turn into something resembling Black Friday at Best Buy and the dreaming is all sugar plums and Wild Card in August.
Up until recently, the clamoring came in the form of Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber. One requires only money. The other—only the Reds’ future. As a charter member of the You Can’t Have Too Much Pitching Club, a part of me would love to see the bearded Keuchel swapping one throwback uniform for another every home start, a lion king atop the infield hill. As of today, Keuchel and his agent remain at sea. They’re still waiting for a tugboat of an offer to pull them to shore. With the acquisition and extension of Sonny Gray, rumors of suspect medical records and the dearth of available center fielders, the Reds pivoted in a surprising direction; and as a GM’s eyes are made to look, the collective gaze of the front office turned to Jacob Tyler Realmuto.
. . .
Like an egg slipping off a plate, conjecture sits precariously on rumor’s tongue, ready to drop as truth into the conversation with all the stealth of the evening sun surreptitiously dropping over the horizon. So, it was no surprise to me a rival executive would plant seeds of discontent into a trade discussion involving Jonathan India. As Ken Rosenthal reported in The Athletic:
“A rival executive notes India was a bit of a disappointment in his professional debut, adding the Reds have been quietly shopping him all offseason.
When asked what ‘quietly shopping’ meant, the exec said the Reds started the offseason saying they were willing to move prospects. When rival clubs inquired, the Reds would steer the conversation to India… A top-five college selection normally is expected to dominate Low A, but India batted a mere .229 with a .735 OPS in 112 plate appearances in the Midwest League, perhaps giving the Reds pause.
‘For him to be available all winter is telling,’ the rival exec said.”
The only thing that is “telling” about Jonathan India is that he was the Reds’ No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. The Reds surely wouldn’t have drafted him if they could so easily be soured by 112 plate appearances. While a possible trade of the Reds’ newest first round pick and then some for the new, shiny catcher filled some with excitement, it filled me with angst.
. . .
The ringing in Derek Jeter’s ears, once solely the echoes of adoring fans reflected off the concrete edifice of Yankee Stadium, were replaced by the kind of jeers unaccustomed to the beloved Numbah Two. You only need to rewind back to December of 2017 to hear the sound of writers accusing the Marlins of ripping up their team “by the roots to trade Stanton,” while receiving “only two underwhelming prospects in return.” After Jeter shipped Christian Yelich to the Milwaukee Brewers for Lewis Brinson and some backup singers, the word most closely associated with Jeter was the word “fleeced.”
All of which must have made things tough for Dick Williams and company. The Marlin’s CEO, who surely had the words of an iconic Who song rattling around in his head, could not afford to appear to be taken to the woodshed a third time, not with his catcher representing the last pearl on a once coveted strand, hence the reason Realmuto languished in Miami so late in the off-season: they won’t get fooled again.
Dick Williams, unwilling to have the word “fleeced” stuck to him like some humid August Ohio valley afternoon, stood fast. And now, according to Michael Baumann at The Ringer, the word “fleeced” has taken up residence inside the GM’s office in Citizens Bank Park.
“Seeing a trade like this, in which a fringe contender pays through the nose for a marginal upgrade, in which one side so entirely fleeces the other, sends a tingle of nostalgia down my spine.”
You don’t have to be Branch Rickey to understand why the Reds had their fingers in every pie since the winter meetings commenced. But Nick Senzel and Taylor Trammell were off the table. That left Jonathan India’s name on everyone’s lips. We can now see what Philadelphia gave up and guess what “the ask” was for the Reds. With Sixto Sanchez coming in ranked at #23 by Baseball Prospectus, the closest available Red was India at #35. Adding Tony Santillan or worse, Hunter Greene, would have given Miami the high-ceiling pitching prospect they so obviously coveted in Sanchez. Everyday catcher Barnhart and one-time top 100 prospect Jorge Alfaro matching up reasonably well on that side of the deal. That Philadelphia offered more in the form of another marginal left-handed pitching prospect, plus $250,000 in international bonus dollar bills, explains why the Reds held off taking the hook long enough for the Phillies to swim away with Realmuto.
. . .
With Buster Posey 32-years old and Yadier Molina a tough old bird approaching 37, Realmuto has become a darling of major league baseball, his value inflated by the dearth of receivers. Steamer projects Realmuto for 3.9 WAR in 2019. ZiPS is in the same ballpark. Steamer and ZiPS have Barnhart at 2.0 and 2.4, respectively. Talk in some circles elevating Realmuto to possible MVP candidate based on the move away from Marlins Park to Citizens Bank is emblematic of the hype, warranted or not. Ask Giancarlo Stanton what the move to Yankee Stadium did for his home run total at home in 2018.
Despite the hype, you could understand the excitement if Realmuto had the kind of team control fellow Marlin Yelich did when he was whisked away to safe harbor by the Brewers. But the Marlins catcher offers no such thing.
Two years away from free agency, Realmuto was never going to sign the kind of extension that would have left the Reds with the kind of financial flexibility to do the kinds of things that may lie on the horizon. That could include extending Alex Wood and/or tucking Nick Senzel away firmly into the fold. The Cubs would love to sign Javier Báez and Kris Bryant to extensions. Mookie Betts won a $20M arbitration award not because the Red Sox don’t want to extend him, but because he’s betting on himself. And when you’re already making millions in arbitration, the risk/reward tilts decisively in favor of the player. Have your cake and eat it, too. It’s as American as apple pie. Pitchers on the other hand — particularly ones like Gray and recently Aaron Nola and Luis Severino, see the value in eliminating injury risk and/or protecting against future lost value. Position players? Eh, not so much.
. . .
Looking back at those years when the Reds were beginning to flex their muscle on the National League Central, you could see how strong the farm was at the top, but how quickly the talent fell away as you went down the list. Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey gave the Reds their winning core and a handful of players would come along to push the Reds into contention: Mike Leake, Todd Frazier, Arolid Chapman, Zack Cozart. Some of the remaining quality depth in the form of Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger, and Yasmani Grandal would leave to acquire more frontline pitching. What we discovered was that the competitive window is a fragile thing. That 2010 – 2014 opening, crippled by injuries at inopportune times and a lack of organizational depth, reduced seasons of hard developmental work to a heartbreaking week in October 2012 and a horror of a night in Pittsburgh in 2013.
Two games in San Francisco. Three more in Cincinnati. One in Pittsburgh. The Reds last window was effectively six games long.
Six. Who wants to do that again?
Take a hard look at the list of players who never made an impact on the big league club, leaving the Reds relying on the scrappiest of scraps in Skip Schumaker:
Yorman Rodriguez. Juan Francisco. Neftali Soto. Kyle Lotzkar. Ismael Guillon. Juan Duran. Junior Arias. Ryan LaMarre. Chris Valaika. Daniel Dorn. Matt Maloney. Jared Burton. Josh Roenicke.
Prospects fail. Most of them do. That’s why quantity is so important. It’s why you don’t dismiss Robert Stephenson with a wave of the hand because you don’t like his attitude and out-of-options status. Arms like his don’t grow on … well, most pitching prospects. And some just need longer in the oven before they come out all hot and fresh. Think Orioles fans wish they hadn’t given up on Jake Arrieta? Think the Mets are glad they’ve stuck with Zack Wheeler when other teams came dangling their wares?
None of this means you hang on to prospects forever, only that you trade them when the time is right and you can reasonably be sure you have reinforcements to fill in the holes created.
. . .
I mean, seriously. What has this remarkable remaking of the organization from top to bottom been about, if not to do things in a radically different manner? In Jeff Pickler, you have something brand new, a game planning/outfield coach. In former Red Caleb Cotham they have added sophisticated analytics, development, and training to their toolkit. You may soon be discussing equipment you never heard of before. The Reds now use things like Edgertronic, FlightScope and Rapsodo. There are new minor league wellness and nutrition coordinators. And, of course, everyone is aware of Derek Johnson and Turner Ward. Both are highly regarded. And both stolen from their previous gigs as pitching and hitting coaches with the very two teams who met in the 2018 National League Championship Series.
Finally, there is David Bell himself. He joined the Giants last offseason as the club’s vice president of player development and took on the task of revamping the franchise’s farm system. With talk that he could have replaced Bobby Evans as the Giants head of baseball operations. Bell’s future with an organization that has won 3 world championships in the last decade wasn’t just bright, it was incandescent. And yet he left all that to come to the Reds. Surely, he didn’t leave just to oversee another small market window followed by another protracted rebuild? Surely he and all the others he lobbied hard with over the phone and in person came to build a much bigger and invigorating future than that. Right?
Take a long look at the chart above. Who could have foreseen the list above back in 2010?
The Reds must now trust in their new wonders. Just as the Cubs followed their first wave of position player stars like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell with a second wave of Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras, Cincinnati must do the same. Trading away Jonathan India and Tony Santillan for two pie-in-the-sky years of J.T. Realmuto is not part of the new analytical thinking the Reds have already toiled so hard to assemble.
The prevailing wisdom is that the owner has taken a back seat lately and let the young guys steer. Still, just as the 2015 All Star Game drove disastrous roster decisions, Mr. Castellini and his staff cannot afford to have the ghost of Harry Wright looming over their collective shoulder whispering about the horrors of another losing season on the 150th anniversary of baseball’s oldest professional franchise. Stay the course.
As Sam Grossman said, “we like our young pitchers a lot.” The front office needs to proceed that way. As success drains the farm system as it inevitably does, they will need to be creative. When the time comes, that will mean resisting the urge to fall in love with players like like they once did. Trading Eugenio Suarez when he has two or even three years left of control for valuable prospects will be tough. But waiting to say goodbye to Jay Bruce until he had almost no value turned out to be much tougher in the end. It will mean turning the roster. It will mean tilling the soil between harvests. And it will mean staying very young. Not under-30 young, but 23, 24 and 25-year old young. None of this will be a piece of cake. That’s why these smart, young guys were brought here in the first place, right? Please tell me it was.
The acquisition of J.T. Realmuto—and the future it would have cost—would have signaled the Reds were pushing the window open now. That certainly would have been a breath of fresh air for all of us weary travelers. Those who have trod a five-year muddy and losing path from parking lot to our moon deck seats. But the price might be a precarious window. A window that seems wide open for the moment, only to descend like the curtain on a Broadway show that doesn’t survive a few bad reviews.
Reds fans don’t need another slice of that kind of humble pie. It’s time for something new, not just on the field, but everywhere from training room to training table. From Billings, Montana to Joe Nuxhall Way and everywhere in-between.