This offseason is a critical one. The Reds, as you know, are coming off of a 5 year stretch with mixed results. They lost in the NLDS in 2010, finished 3rd in the NL Central in 2011, lost in the NLDS again in 2012, lost in the Wild Card play-in game in 2013, and finished 4th in the NL Central in 2014.

Despite the healthy dose of cynicism amongst Reds fans, this period has been marked by some glorious highs — Bruce with his fist in the air against the Astros to clinch, running out to a 2-0 lead against the Giants — a modicum of success — 3 postseason appearances in 5 years, all 90+ win teams — and a very talented core — Votto, Bruce, Cueto, Latos, Bailey, Chapman, Frazier, Mesoraco, Phillips, etc..

Of course, it has also been disappointing (2011, 2014), soul crushing (Roy Halladay, Buster Posey), unlucky (Chapman hit in the face, Votto/Bruce/Latos injuries), and puzzling at times (near radio silence at trade deadlines, multi-year contracts given to middle relievers and utility players e.g. Broxton, Hannahan, Schumaker). Along the way a manager was fired, some star players have had major issues with the front office, and at times the team has shown the mental toughness and body language of Andy Murray.

So we rightfully wonder, what direction are the Reds going, and is the window closing? If yes, should the Reds be breaking the team down, or should they be trying to prolong the window? If no, why are they not doing more to maximize the chances of winning it all during this window where so much talent broke right for the Reds?

It comes down to organizational philosophy – Who do the Reds want to be, and how do they propose to get there?

This message is not communicated very well to fans, to the extent that the organization even knows. Let’s look at other teams that have much clearer organizational philosophies and see what path the Reds might model.  Of course all teams have different budget constraints, advantages, and disadvantages compared to the Reds, and obviously we can’t leave budget off completely and become the Dodgers, but the comparison is designed to illustrate what the Reds could do.

6 teams have played in the World Series the last 5 years, so perhaps they offer a good starting point for what the Reds could be doing.

  • Boston
  • Detroit
  • Kansas City
  • San Francisco
  • St Louis
  • Texas

Kansas City – “Pushing the Chips In” – Of all the teams on that list, perhaps the one that is most similar in team makeup and constraints to the Reds is Kansas City.  Like Cincinnati, Kansas City is a mid-market team in the Midwest with some long stretches of being painfully mediocre, and working within budget constraints.

Of course these are not one-to-one comparisons in terms of talent/career and I’m not saying these players are equal by any means, rather that they have similar assets as the Reds. They have a rising young catcher (Salvador Perez : Devin Mesoraco), an above average corner outfielder (Alex Gordon : Jay Bruce), a speedy defensive CF (Lorenzo Cain : Billy Hamilton), a 1B anchor (Hosmer : Votto), a young 3B (Moustakas : Frazier), and a shutdown closer (Holland : Chapman).

Their major weakness was starting pitching, so they shipped off their top prospect (Will Myers) for James Shields and Wade Davis. That move was widely panned at the time as short sighted and trading 6 years of control for just 2 of Shields, but both Shields and Davis were important parts of their 2014 run and propelled them to the WS.

Following the KC model would be to act as if this window is closing, and trade a top prospect (Stephenson/Winker) to shore up the position that we most need (LF), and play for this year. The downside to this of course is that the outcome shouldn’t necessarily justify the process – the Royals got exceptionally lucky in terms of the players they got, and throughout the playoffs where they could have easily lost the wild card game to Oakland and never made that run. And now they’re going to lose Shields. So if the Reds did this, they would have to get the right player and bank on bounceback seasons for Votto, Bruce, Latos, etc.

San Francisco – “Elite Starting Pitching and the Rest of it Will Fall into Line” – I think in many ways this is the philosophy that the Reds front office wants to have, they’re just not as good at executing it as SF.

On paper SF looks again rather similar to the Reds – MVP Candidate (Posey), Above Average RF (Pence), glove guys at short (Crawford) and OF (Pagan, Blanco), power from the corners (Sandoval, Morse, Belt). Their pitching you know about too, Bumgarner, Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner again because he’s that good, Vogelsong, and Hudson.

For this philosophy to work the Reds SP have to get back to elite levels like during 2012 (no missed starts, a ton of quality starts). A full embrace of the San Francisco approach might be to heed the Mancuso drumbeat, to put a Lefty Fireballer (Chapman) into the rotation. Chapman, Cueto, Latos, Bailey, and Leake could be the eliteness that patches up deficiencies elsewhere.  Sure SF park dimensions are much different than the Reds, but that’s how they built it and also their team – there were not afraid to spend big on Zito, Lincecum, Cain, soon Bumgarner, and rumors of a big deal for Jon Lester to get that elite staff.  The Reds have Bailey locked up and can do one of Cueto/Latos, but even with Stephenson coming on they would need to do more to match the SF model, which got them 3 titles in 5 years.

Detroit/Texas – “Lets Slug Our Way In and Hope the Ace Carries Us” Austin Jackson, Omar Infante, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were at the top of the 2012 Detroit lineup. Texas in 2011 trotted out Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz.  That’s a fearsome 1-6, but their rotation was CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando.

This seems the furthest from where the Reds are as a team, given how bad their offense has been, but could be a philosophy to follow if we’re willing to sacrifice pitching assets. We have well known offensive upgrade needs in LF, SS, less so but possibly at CF, 2B. Not saying this is the way the Reds are likely to go, but trading the pitching for those spots could go a long way toward patching those holes (Gattis, J. Upton, Cespedes, Kemp, etc.). Although in this world we’d have to accept a rotation that might look like Latos, Bailey, Simon, Cingrani, Holmberg and a couple prospects sent away too. This formula did get Texas to back to back WS in 2010 and 2011, and Detroit in 2012.

Red Sox – “Wheeling and Dealing – Prospects, Trades, and Free Agency” – The Boston Red Sox are in many ways the Reds antithesis (which may be one reason they match up well in a trade), but the Red Sox are constantly making moves based on contract and production, mixing young and old, trading established veterans for prospects and prospects for veterans, and making a big FA signing or three.

In 2013 when they won the WS, they had their longtime anchors (Ortiz, Pedroia, Lester), free agent signees (Victorino, Napoli, Lackey, Dempster), and developed prospects (Ellsbury, Bogaerts, Middlebrooks), all playing key roles on that team.  When they have a hole, they plug it through free agency – (Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval), or they make a trade (Lester for Cespedes). I quite admire the Red Sox front office, although they are not without their share of misses – they tried the same thing in 2010 and went out and signed Carl Crawford and Lackey, traded for Adrian Gonzalez, which didn’t work out as planned. But they move on quickly, trust the system, admit their mistakes, and 3 years later they won the World Series having shipped Crawford and Gonzalez out of town.

Its hard to see the (mostly silent and conservative) Reds front office taking this freewheeling approach (or trusting them if they did), but if they were to break the bank in free agency to fill their needs like the Red Sox it would have looked a lot like signing Hanley Ramirez at SS and Nelson Cruz for LF. That ship has now sailed, but man would It have been great. There’s a lot of action with the Red Sox FO (and obviously many more resources), but they do explore every possible avenue to improve their team, which is not something that you can always say about the Reds philosophy.

St. Louis – “Drafting a Perennial Winner” – It’s tough to write this one, trained as I am to hate the Cardinals. But if we’re thinking about organizational models, theirs is the one we’re catching.

From the organization that found Pujols in the 10,000th round, their team is largely built on a ton of homegrown talent. Starting with Yadier Molina (4th round), Jon Jay (2nd) Lance Lynn (1st), Shelby Miller (1st) Joe Kelly (3rd), Matt Carpenter (13th), Trevor Rosenthal (21st), Matt Adams (23rd), Carlos Martinez (International), Kolten Wong (1st), and Michael Wacha (1st), that’s a pretty long list of Reds killers. And yes a few of those players have been traded away, but that’s the other luxury of drafting well is the ability/confidence to lose some prospects to upgrade. Kelly turned in Lackey, Miller turned into Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden, who are going to be names that we do not like next year.  The rest of that talent is players we already do not like, coupled with Wainwright (acquired through trade with the Braves), Matt Holiday (acquired through trade with the Athletics), and Jhonny Peralta (signed in FA).

This philosophy may be the most difficult one to emulate, because its about drafting, but as good as the Reds have been at producing their own homegrown talent (Votto, Bruce, Frazier, Mesoraco, Cueto, Bailey, Leake, Hamilton), those are hits that have been spread over about 8 years now – they do not seem to have the same endless flow of SP prospects that STL has, or the longer list of positional prospects that have seen major league success (and you can add Taveras to that list had he not died tragically this offseason, RIP). Also unlike STL who signed their big OF trade asset (Holliday) to an extension, the Reds let their big OF trade asset (Choo) leave without replacing the assets or the production.  So this one is a bit weirder to say, but if the Reds want to be STL there is no easy fix to model, rather they have to start drafting better and make better decisions with regard to trading those prospects and (re)signing players.

I almost hate to write this, but it should illustrate the stakes of what we’re talking about here. Perhaps the best comp to the Reds philosophy right now isn’t a World Series winning team, but another one in our division. It’s the Brewers.

After some really bad teams in the late 90’s-mid 2000’s, Milwaukee had a breakthrough in 2008 winning 90 games. Then a couple years of regression, until they won 96 in 2011. Since then, 83, 74, 82 wins and no playoffs.  What did they do? Well they engaged in some combination of the Royals strategy – pushing all in for those years, and then not much in the subsequent offseasons. They notably acquired CC Sabathia in 2008 and rode him to the ground like the Cowboys and DeMarco Murray. Then in 2011 they gutted the farm to acquire Greinke and Marcum. After the 2011 season, they let Prince Fielder go, leaving a hole at 1B that caused Fangraphs to write this article, had their 2B (Weeks) who they signed to a big extension regress in a major way, had their MVP candidate suspended for PEDs, had their SP regress (Gallardo, Marcum), and ended up trading away their big SP acquisition (Greinke), with only minor moves (e.g. Corey Hart, Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay) to fix those and replace lost production.  So the Brewers in some ways illustrate the dangers of the pushing the chips in philosophy, but also what happens when there isn’t a broader philosophy beyond that. Lets not forget they hosted an All Star game too…

I think like most other Reds fans, we’re frustrated not because we think the Reds front office is horrible by any means, but just that the rumors which never seem to materialize or their recent history of silent trade deadlines suggests they are taking/sticking with any one of these approaches.  And the eery similarities to Milwaukee keep nagging at me, both in terms of their brief and fleeting success and the problems they continue to have – Do the Reds have a position that’s been a black hole for years? LF. Aging 2B with a contract extension? Phillips. Losing their MVP candidate for extended periods of time? Votto. Rumors of trading away an ace SP who they gave up a lot to get? Latos. Minor moves that aren’t indicative of a clear plan to extend the window or rebuild? That’s us so far – we’re even looking into signing former Brewers like Nori Aoki…

The debates we have on this site can often be framed as one of these strategies — or the tear down strategy, not documented here but see Cubs, Chicago. The reason we gravitate toward these philosophies is because we’ve seen them work, and those teams have played in or won championships. Regardless of which strategy is proposed, we can then quibble over the specifics of that strategy, the feasibility of that strategy, or overall desirability of that strategy.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on both the strategy and the execution.

But what I think we can all agree on is that the Reds front office should be the first to know what strategy they’ve adopted and what they’re doing. For years it really hasn’t seemed like that’s the case.