The All-Star break has finally arrived with Cincinnati and the Reds at center stage. The festivities are a wonderful showcase for an organization and city that has put a huge amount of thought and effort into the planning and preparation. We know how to throw a party.
But it’s also an appropriate time to uncover our eyes after the last two games and analyze the first half of the Reds 2015 season and what direction the team should head.
In March, the conventional wisdom was that the Reds most of all needed Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to become and remain healthy. They did. Todd Frazier has hit better than ever. Johnny Cueto hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t dropped off at all from his Cy Young-class 2014 season. Yet, the 2015 season has been a tremendous disappointment.
That 39-47 record speaks for itself, at amplified volume.
So, what happened?
The third week of April happened.
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the week Devin Mesoraco was diagnosed with a hip impingement that meant he would need surgery and be out as the Reds catcher for the season. It was the week Homer Bailey debuted with low velocity, zero strikeouts and something obviously wrong.
The third week of April ended with Bryan Price putting the F in frustrationÃ‚Â six dozen times.
That the Reds were ill equipped to replace Mesoraco and Bailey is obvious.
In effect, Jason Marquis took BaileyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s spot in the rotation after the unlucky Texan hit the DL headed for Tommy John surgery. Michael Lorenzen would have replaced Marquis quickly had Bailey’s right elbow been healthy. BaileyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ERA the last 12 starts of 2014 was 2.66. His strikeout rate, fastball velocity and groundball rate had all improved over his sparkling 2013 season. MarquisÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ ended up with a 6.46 ERA and 5.20 FIP.
Reds catchers (including Mesoraco) have combined for an 87 OPS+ this year compared to MesoracoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 146 OPS+ last year. Reminder: OPS+ of 100 is league average. So production from the Reds catcher has plummeted from 46 percent better than league average to 13 percent below it. Throw in Mesoraco’s underrated defense and leadership and his loss was a crippling blow to the Reds.
When injuries are held up as an important factor in the Reds poor record, people rightly ask about the St. Louis Cardinals. HavenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t they had injuries as serious as the Reds, yet their best-in-MLB record stands at 56-33?
HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the hard and painful truth
Ernie Harwell, the late, legendary radio voice of the Detroit Tigers wrote: “Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered — or booed. And then becomes a statistic.”
It now becomes a thousand statistics. We can wish it weren’t so, but competence in analyzing data has become the currency of major league baseball, more so than payroll spending. The titanic struggle is over ideas and assimilating them into the game. It’s the race that has launched a thousand shifts.
Not much separates the Reds and Cardinals (and Pirates) in terms of resources. The fight for the inches that make the difference between winning and losing takes place not only on the field, but also in managers offices, dugouts, wherever general managers make decisions and, increasingly, in analytics departments.
The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are smarter, more analytic organizations than the Reds. They have been for a few years and the inches are piling up. Those organizations have become deeper in useful players and more wisely put to use the ones they have. Their players are better on the field and their clubs better able to withstand (and prevent) losses to their rosters due to injuries.
ForÃ‚Â St. Louis or Pittsburgh, you wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t find a washed up relief pitcher assigned to the 8th inning on Opening Day because that player recorded a few saves a couple years ago. You wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t find a pitcher with the track record of Jason Marquis in their starting rotation and a three-time reject like Brennan Boesch the top player on their bench the result of a two-week mirage in spring training.
Beside that ill-fated week in April, the second thing that happened to the Reds this year was horrendous judgment in the offseason, including in Goodyear, about personnel. This isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t pure hindsight. Anyone who could read player pages at FanGraphs or the front page of Redleg Nation knew what to expect.
If healthy, the Reds had enough talented players to compete for the postseason (as they did in 2014). But after Mesoraco and Bailey’s great fall, with a roster structure as fragile as an egg, all the kingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s men couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t put a successful team together again. Not against the Cardinals and Pirates, who are out-thinking the Reds for those inches.
The Reds season isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t over, but competing for the 2015 postseason or play-in game is. Going forward, take pleasure in the occasional well played game and individual performances. Watch the young pitchers and minor league outfielders develop.
You would think that conclusion was obvious. And in a sense, it is.
Objectively, the organization stands at the edge of a roster transition. If, as reported, ownership waited to see how the team finished prior to the All-Star break before deciding to sell off, they received a brutal and clear-cut sign. The Reds were swept by a total score of 25-5 by the last placed Milwaukee Brewers at home and lost a series to the Miami Marlins, a team without Giancarlo Stanton, by a score of 24-5. (The combined total of losing 49-10 sounds like a blowout from neighboring Paul Brown Stadium.)
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s understandable that Mr. Castellini wanted to be sure it was necessary to take a step backward before moving forward. But his role also raises the very source of uncertainty about the Reds future.
Bob Castellini, asÃ‚Â the Reds primary owner, offers the organization tremendous assets and treacherous liability, both of which are products of his laudatory competitiveness.
On the one hand, he has increased payroll from $81 million in 2011 to $114 million in 2014. That major financial commitment is likely the product of new national television and internet-based revenues coming on stream for all major league teams. And happily, the Reds will soon have more revenue — maybe $30 million/year — from a new local television contract.
On the other hand, Mr. Castellini’s competitive juices lead him to play a significant role in the organizationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s baseball decision-making Ã¢â‚¬â€œ something that is certainly his right. It’s becoming clear that his preferences cast a long shadow over the actions taken by the Reds front office.
People who know Bob Castellini say he has a profound sense of personal loyalty. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a positive attribute when it comes to making the Reds a first-class organization. But itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a mixed blessingÃ‚Â when it contaminates personnel decision-making. His long friendship with Walt Jocketty is a prime example.
We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know what, if any, trades Mr. Castellini will allow.
What should the Reds do?
Seven weeks ago, I outlined steps I felt the Reds should take to become a smarter, more effective organization. The advice started with replacing Walt Jocketty with a youngish assistant GM from another organization who places a high value on analytics and who has enthusiasm for modernizing. Someone who isn’t trying to figure out if math is a four-letter word. That person should be provided with a quality staff and resources to keep up with the quickly changing sport.
ButÃ‚Â it’s hard to imagine the Reds bringing in an outsider to run the organization right now, with the trade season having arrived. In the unlikely event that Mr. Castellini felt an urgent need to replace his general manager, the new guy would be in-house, probably Kevin Towers, and it’s far from clearÃ‚Â he would be an improvement.
The good news is that even though the organization has been slow to reach the point of being willing to trade, it hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t cost the Reds opportunities. If they move now to trade the players who will walk away at the end of 2015 (Cueto, Mike Leake, Marlon Byrd, Manny Parra, maybe Brayan PeÃƒÂ±a), no harm will have resulted from waiting a couple weeks. In fact, by delaying the Reds have stumbled and bumbled into an extreme sellerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s market, the opposite of what it was in the offseason.
Facing the world the morning after a party can be bracing and unpleasant. After theÃ‚Â All-Star hoopla leaves town, the Reds will find themselves looking up at the two best teams in baseball, soon to be joined in that tier by the rapidly improving, and no-longer-stupid (just the opposite) Chicago Cubs.
And the Reds will be staring in the mirror at an organization that hasÃ‚Â given more innings to Jason Marquis than Aroldis Chapman.
They need to get to the business of winning those inches back before they suddenly find themselves miles behind.