Thursday saw Richard Fitch explain why an All-In strategy for the Cincinnati Reds could be a losing one. If you missed it, you will probably want to go back and read that one first. Today’s piece is not going to be a break down countering his points. In fact, I am typing this before reading his piece so that I am not coming at it with a shred of an idea to “attack” points that he made. I’m simply aware of the premise of his article, and of course, the title.
The Cincinnati Reds have done a whole heck of a lot of losing since 2014 began. After winning 90 games in 2013, the Cincinnati Reds haven’t come close to sniffing the .500 mark in a season since. Six straight losing seasons, with them only reaching the 70-win mark twice in those six seasons. It’s been painful to watch. The Reds have gone 418-554 over that stretch. They had arguably the worst rotation of all time in two different seasons in there.
There’s money out there to be spent by the Reds. While they aren’t talking about exactly how much is available, there seems to be somewhere around at least $35M available, and it could be even more depending on how the non-tenders go combined with just how much the team will be adding to the payroll.
The Reds have stated that their goal for 2020 is the playoffs, not just another step forward. And that should be the goal every year. While it certainly feels like team owners are doing more and more to maximize profits over winning these days, I don’t know a single person rooting for the owners bank account over the number in the win column – at least among fans.
Building for the future is a great idea. In life we are all trying to do that aren’t we? While we probably don’t all have a 401K, or investments, or savings – we’d like to (or if we do, we’d like to have more in there). Baseball teams are hoping to win in the future, too. But winning now helps win in the future. Hear me out.
Going all-in doesn’t exactly make sense for the Cincinnati Reds right now. They aren’t a 90-win team looking to get that final piece to put them over the top and become a 100-win team. So going out and trading every single piece of the farm system to acquire one or two players for only 2020 is a bad idea. But shooting for being an 87-90 win team won’t require the trading of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Jose Garcia, Tyler Stephenson, Tony Santillan, and Jonathan India, either.
But sort of going for it and trying to fight for the playoffs rather than simply being slightly above .500 might require the trade of a big prospect or two. It won’t empty the farm system. The system isn’t what it used to be – the depth isn’t quite there. But you can argue that the top six players are all Top 100 caliber prospects, too. Trading prospects of that caliber doesn’t feel great – but if the Reds were to move two of them in a deal, they would still have four very good prospects remaining. And they’d also have landed a guy that’s a star (they aren’t trading two of those guys for a non-star caliber player).
The Cincinnati Reds in 2020 have a solid base to start with. ZiPS projects the team as currently constructed to be in the 82-85 win range. That’s before they spend any of the money previously mentioned to add players. It’s before they try to make some trades to add players. The base is solid. At least on paper. You never know until you start playing games – but you can’t build around that – you build your team based on the expectations and the expectations are and hope that it works out once the games start. If not, you can attempt to adjust that plan by making roster moves in season.
The rotation looks pretty good as it stands right now. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray were National League All-Stars in 2019. Trevor Bauer was a Cy Young contender two years ago, and last season and the several years prior to 2018 was a solid middle of the rotation option who could flat out dominate at times. And Anthony DeSclafani is coming off of a strong year with an ERA of 3.89 with a 1.20 WHIP. The final spot in the rotation could still be up for grabs between Tyler Mahle and someone not currently with the organization. But even if it’s Mahle, that’s a strong 1-5.
Likewise, the bullpen has the makings of a strong group. Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson are locks if healthy. Behind them you’ve got Lucas Sims, Matt Bowman, Sal Romano, Joel Kuhnel, Cody Reed, and plenty of options out there in free agency.
It’s the offense that needs the most work. Where that comes from is certainly up in the air. Catcher seems to be where most believe the Reds could make waves. Everyone believes they will go after Yasmani Grandal, with multiple outlets believing they’ll land his services. Shortstop is another area that most believe that Cincinnati will look at upgrading. And then there’s second base or the outfield, where Nick Senzel’s position flexibility lets the team look at both spots since he can slide from one to the other.
All of that to say that the team, on paper, has some pieces in place. It’s not perfect, and there need to be upgrades – but winning isn’t hard to see with a few additions. Ideally, the team could make the additions by simply spending the money on hand. Signing a Yasmani Grandal and a Didi Gregorius – while hoping Gregorius returns to the 2017-2018 version – probably puts the Reds where they want to be. And they wouldn’t have to necessarily “go all in” to make that happen. But what if they can only get one of those guys? And what if that guy is Gregorius, who is a lot less certain than Grandal? Then maybe you have to make a trade, and give up, in theory, “a part of the future”. A guy like Mookie Betts could be available. He’d do the trick, but wouldn’t come cheaply – both in terms of money, or in terms of what you’d have to give up to acquire him.
That’s the thing at hand, here. How much of “the future” are you willing to “give up” to win now? And is that worth it? I decided to go through the archives and take a look at every single Cincinnati Reds Top 10 Prospect from 2010-2019. In total, 47 players made the Top 10 list in that span (plenty of guys graced the Top 10 multiple times). Of those 47 players only two of them were traded away while still prospects and went on to post more than 6.0 WAR for their career to this point: Yasmani Grandal and Didi Gregorius. The players they got back in the trades they went sent away in? Mat Latos and Shin-Soo Choo. Those two players came to Cincinnati and took the team to the next level.
Players like Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Cozart, and Billy Hamilton all provided more than 10 WAR in their career (including time since leaving the Reds). And a few guys are still around that have a chance to make some impact (or have already but are early in their careers). Here’s the list:
Now, there is absolutely a point that plenty of players on this list haven’t been around long enough to rack up WAR. But take a look at that list. A lot of the players on it are never going to rack it up. And those were the top 10 guys in the system. 12 of the players on that list who have reached the Major Leagues and have less than 5 career WAR were Top 100 prospects in all of baseball.
WAR isn’t everything. I’m a believer that pitching WAR is kind of garbage as a stat and misses plenty of information regardless of whether you favor the Fangraphs or Baseball Reference version of it. I believe it undervalues relievers more than starters – but even with starters it can really miss out on some things. Still, it’s a decent guide to what we’re trying to figure out here – and that’s value.
Had the Cincinnati Reds traded away most of these prospects and in turn landed proven big league talent, it’s hard to see where they wouldn’t have come out ahead. Prospects aren’t just for the future of the franchise that originally acquired them. Sometimes they can be traded away to improve the team. You do need to be careful in which ones you move away, and for who. Everyone can think of a trade or ten off of the top of their head where twenty years, thirty year, forty years ago a Hall of Famer was traded for a deadline starter with a few months left on their deal. But by and large, that doesn’t happen.
The chances are that you might trade away a useful player, but you aren’t likely to be trading away a future star. The future you think of with a player probably isn’t likely to happen. Sometimes it does. Sometimes you are right that Yasmani Grandal is going to become Yasmani Grandal. But sometimes Devin Mesoraco’s get injured and it never truly comes to fruition. Sometimes a Luis Castillo, who was a good, but never elite prospect turns into Luis Castillo – Cy Young contender.
There’s more than one way to build a baseball team. There’s more than one way to win baseball games, too. What you need is good baseball players. It doesn’t matter if they came through your farm system. And it doesn’t matter if they came in via trades or free agency. What matters is that they are there.
Winning brings more winning. Winning brings in more money. Let’s go back a few decades at this point and look at what happened between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. Both teams made a similar type of move. For one franchise it altered their future. For the other, well, it didn’t. The Cardinals traded for a superstar slugger in Mark McGwire. And they were able to turn his chase for the home run record, and ultimately the home run record itself, into a huge season ticket base. That in turn led to a big uptick in revenue, which they then used to continue to add good players, and keep winning. Over and over this kept happening.
The Cincinnati Reds made a similar attempt at this in 2000 when they traded for Ken Griffey Jr. Unfortunately he couldn’t stay healthy, the winning never happened (not just because of his injuries – the organization as a whole was an absolute mess). Unlike the Cardinals, the Reds never built up that season ticket base. It’s led to them chasing the Cardinals, and much of baseball in terms of the ability to spend and they’ve always been trying to play catch up when it comes to having money to spend.
Today the money coming in has less to do with what happens at the front gate of the ballpark than it ever has before. Media deals – the television, radio, and online viewing bring in a big chunk of the teams money. But having sold a lot of tickets isn’t nothing. And people will actually show up to the game to watch a winner. They stay at home and watch or listen when the team is a loser.
The Cincinnati Reds are the only team that exists who has their all-time record for attendance that came prior to 1990. The Reds set their record in 1976. And while The Big Red Machine was indeed a truly great set of teams, that’s embarrassing. The next team on the list if the 1990 Oakland Athletics. Since Great American Ballpark opened in 2003 the highest season the team has had in terms of tickets sold was in 2013 and 2014 – after sustained winning, when they were just over 2,475,000. Neither ranks in the top 4 spots all time for the organization.
But let’s just use that as a base line for what to shoot for. Heck, let’s just round it up to a nice and even 2.5M tickets sold. You’re going to have to win to get there. And you’re going to have to show the fans that you are trying to win to even think about getting near there. In 2019 the Reds had all of 1,808,685 fans buy tickets. The difference between the 2019 attendance and 2.5M in attendance, at the 2019 average price of a ticket would mean an additional $16M. And that doesn’t account for a single penny spent on anything besides the ticket. No parking revenue. No merchandise revenue. Nothing spent on food. No future advertising sales in the ballpark because more people are going to see the ads – none of that. Pure ticket sales alone would be the going rate of a very good player.
But if you don’t win, you can’t grow that revenue stream very easily. There are only so many bars you can open up to get people to show up. Even for the high rollers to get a bar so fancy that they can have their own locker for wine is only going to do so much if you aren’t winning and no one wants to actually come down to the field and watch the team play.
It takes sustained winning to build up consistently good ticket sales. In some places that’s not enough – though places like Cleveland, Oakland, and Tampa are dealing with other issues, too. But Cincinnati has shown that they’ll support a winner. The problem is they simply haven’t had much of one for the better part of the last three decades.
Going all-in isn’t the best idea. At some point the Reds are going to have to rely on some prospects. But at some point the Reds need to actually try to win now. The future rarely comes otherwise. Last season saw Cincinnati sort of go for it, too. It didn’t work out. Alex Wood got hurt. Yasiel Puig had the lowest OPS+ of his career before he was traded away. The plan made sense. But it simply didn’t work.
There’s got to be some trust handed to the Reds front office to go with a plan of going all in or a plan to build for the future while not trying to win now. Both plans require faith that the people in charge can make more right decisions than wrong ones. If you’ve got faith that they can do that – then why would you not try to win now? If you don’t have faith that they can make the right decisions, well – none of this matters.