That anxiety we felt about the arrival of July 31 was born from equal parts dread and anticipation. As expected, the trade deadline’s toll included the departure of Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. Those fan favorites are now playing for teams that are hundreds of miles from Cincinnati on a map and even more out of reach in the standings.
In exchange for a few months of Cueto and Leake’s ample talents, the Reds front office acquired an excellent return — four promising pitchers and a power bat for the bench.
We’ve had a few days to take a look at those five players and think about the trades the club didn’t make.Ã‚Â In evaluating the job the Reds did at the deadline, keep in mind the limits of the information outsiders possess. We don’t know all the offers they made and others they turned down. We don’t know, for instance, how hard the Reds really pushed for hitters instead of pitchers. We are left to judge the front office’s performance based on the deals they accepted and the players who stayed put.
At least Walt Jocketty and his staff didn’t whiff like they did in 2013. Dusty Baker was judged so harshly for the end of the 2013 season he lost his job. Yet the front office that couldn’t figure out a single way to improve that team at the trade deadline for the postseason run is still around.
The bottom line isÃ‚Â the Reds did the bare minimum last week. They sold their low-hanging fruit by trading the two players who were certain to leave at the end of the season.
But that bare minimum was the best outcome possible this summer.
Let’s start by looking at the trades that werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t made, as their importance exceeds that of the moves that were completed.
The Trades Not Made
Reports intensified Friday morning that the Reds were about to reach a deal with the New York Mets to trade Jay Bruce for pitcher Zack Wheeler. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nothing wrong in principle with trading Bruce (or Todd Frazier) as long as the club puts sufficient value on those players. A swap of 2.3 years of Bruce for 3.5 years of Wheeler wouldÃ‚Â be a close call in a neutral context. But when you account for the Reds’ pitching-heavy minor league system and that Wheeler is coming off Tommy John and tendon repair surgery, that move didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t add up.
Several national baseball writers were reporting the deal had reached the Ã¢â‚¬Å“checking the medical recordsÃ¢â‚¬Â stage. Maybe reading the details of the two surgeries hit home.Ã‚Â In the end, the Reds placed sufficient value on Jay Bruce and backed off the trade. Whether it was Mr. Castellini who intervened with a veto, as reported in several places, or it was Walt Jocketty having second thoughts about trading away so much hitting, the Reds ended up in the right place.
Rumors persisted right up to the deadline on Friday that the Reds were talking to multiple teams (Astros, Yankees) about Aroldis Chapman. The notion the front office was considering a deal for Chapman was surprising. The outcome wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t.
We know the Reds massively overvalue Chapman as closer. They place more importance on his 2 WAR in that role than the potential 6 WAR he could provide as a starter (think Chris Sale). How big a difference is 4 WAR? ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s adding Matt Carpenter or Freddie Freeman or Evan Longoria. To complete a trade for the Cuban Missile in the offseason, the Reds will need to find a partner who assigns as much value toÃ‚Â closer Aroldis Chapman as does Mr. Castellini. Good luck with that.
The Reds also didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t trade Marlon Byrd. In his case, the huge amount of speculation by analysts about the Reds left fielder fitting the needs of several teams was never matched by rumors of Byrd in actual trade conversations. Conventional wisdom holds that Byrd can be moved this month after passing through waivers. However, ByrdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s remaining salary of $1.4 million (Phillies paying half) may not be high enough to stop a team from blocking his trade to a rival. And the lingering issue of ByrdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s vesting option in 2016 could complicate dealing him.
The Demolition Will Not Be Televised
A case can be made that the Reds should have been more aggressive and traded Chapman, Bruce and Frazier. That’s an extreme step, giving up on 2016 and 2017 in pursuit of better draft picks and more prospects. People whoÃ‚Â favor that course of action get to choose their preferred bumper sticker: Blow it up! Burn it down! Blow it down! Burn it up!
While that plan may take the edge off an understandable sense of frustration, it’s not in the Reds’ best interest. Relying on bad records and trading stars to produce top prospects is big risk. The Cincinnati Reds aren’t playing in a fantasy baseball keeper league. If the gamble busts, the club would look back at the scorched Earth and find real devastation. They operate in a world with actual fans, players and business models.
That brings us to the television contract.
Just this week, the St. Louis Cardinals signed an agreement with their local network paying them $1 billion plus a 30 percent equity share through 2032. The Reds current deal with Fox Sports Ohio expires with the 2016 season. Mr. Castellini needs to work out a comparable agreement to keep up with our NL Central rivals.
I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take the class on negotiating strategy in grad school at Michigan. But I bet it’s bad form for the Reds to begin their meetings with FSO and other potential suitors by announcing they are going to burn down the product.Ã‚Â ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true that the local news loves covering fires and explosions. But thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s little evidence that regional sports networks share a similar enthusiasm for broadcasting 162 games of it. That contract is the lifeblood of future Reds success.
Strategy vs. Tactics
ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is formulating a plan to win under resource constraints. It’s about determining the correct capabilities for an organization and the management needed to reach the overall goals. Strategy is also as much about figuring out what not to do.Ã‚Â Tactics are the specific steps taken to implement the strategy. Tactics alone won’t produce a desired result.Ã‚Â To use a military analogy: Deciding to take the hill because it will help win the war is strategy. Figuring out how to take the hill is tactical.
Trading Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto was the work of tacticians. The Reds were confronted with a mandatory move Ã¢â‚¬â€œ trading soon-to-be free agents Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and got as much as possible out of it. That’s a prettyÃ‚Â straightforward operation. Your scouts and analytics department compare all the offers and you take the best. Dealing with other GMs who are smart, experienced negotiators, looking for every edge they can find, isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t easy. But as front office moves go, those two trades were uncomplicated.
Executing the Leake and Cueto deals doesn’t speak to the ability of the current front office to come up with the right strategy for rebooting/reloading the Cincinnati Reds. Taking the hill doesn’t mean the general has the right plan to win the war.Ã‚Â In his after-deadline press conference, Walt Jocketty still talked about Ã¢â‚¬Å“building the organization based on pitching.Ã¢â‚¬Â The one position player he added hits for power but doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t exhibit plate discipline.
A New Front Office in 2016
Those of us who hope that Walt Jocketty steps down at the end of 2015 and the Reds hire a general manager and assistants with a modern, analytics-based approach should welcome the bare minimum outcome for the club at the trade deadline. Let the new team devise the strategy for 2016 and beyond, including trades with the expanded number of partners the offseason brings. New thinkers, not the old ones, should make the crucial decisions about Bruce, Frazier and Chapman.
There’s good reason to harbor skepticism about the likelihood of regime change at Great American Ball Park. But even if the Reds remain locked in their obsolete view of how to win at baseball, be happy about their failure to make bigger moves at the trade deadline. Do you really want this old guard tearing the team out root and branch and rebuilding the Reds according to their outdated vision?
Happily, the Reds don’t need to burn the village down to save it.Ã‚Â They have a strong core of position players, talented young pitching and payroll flexibility. The salaries cleared from departed players exceed the raises built into current contracts. Now that the Reds are done paying for the bells and scoreboards to put on the All-Star game, they can get back to expanding payroll. And new revenues from the upcoming local television contract are headed right down Joe Nuxhall Way.
With a new front office and its main assets still in place, the Reds won’t need a miracle to rise from the dead(line) and contend.