According to the Chinese zodiac, this was the Year of the Dog. If you spent much time at Great American Ball Park, you know it was just a dog of a year. Every contest seemed a bark in the park, with too many games off the leash before the first time through the order, everyone howling by evening’s end. Frustration reached a boiling point. A mere fortnight and a half into it, everyone was done with a season rudely stamped and all-too familiarly stained, attention turning instead to what must be done to make 2019 watchable.

I still have a hard time understanding why so many think the Reds should have turned this around in short order. I’ll say it once more: the losing may have begun in 2014, but The Rebuild didn’t begin until Bob Castellini waved the white flag shortly after Todd Frazier hoisted the Home Run Derby trophy. The Phillies and Braves have been held up as organizations that are doing it faster and better than the Reds and narratives have a way of quickly curing into concrete, entombing the truth below. The long season finally exposed the Phillies, leaving them with a seventh straight losing season. The Braves have sped up their 45 rebuild to 78, with youngsters that played surprisingly well, aided by impact players that stayed remarkably healthy. 95% of their plate appearances were accounted for by 12 players. Their top three starters made 92 starts. Health matters.

But, I digress.

Perception distorts reality, the deformity of a misshapen season enlarged in the funhouse mirror. True or not, a perception of the Reds plight is shouted from the parapets, demanding action: get demonstrably better or lose a generation of baseball fans as the local entertainment dollars head up the hill to Clifton, where kickball has captured a city’s imagination. Whether we agree that The Rebuild is continuing apace or woefully behind schedule, we can agree the Reds need to do much more than simple improvement over the last two seasons as measured by wins and losses. They desperately need a winning record to put before the paying public. That means the pitching must improve not incrementally, but dramatically. They still need to be patient with their young, developing hurlers, for sure. In the meantime, though, outside help is a foregone conclusion.

* * *

Bob Castellini’s latest tête-à-tête with Paul Daugherty of the Enquirer was, uh, concerning. Again.

“We’ll have the highest payroll we’ve ever had.”

Not great, Bob.

The $115M payroll for the 2015 team put them below league average. Just to keep pace with the rest of the league in 2019, the Reds would need to increase payroll to about $130M. If the organization is really serious about pouring resources at the termination point of this whole enterprise—at field level, the Reds would realistically have to approach league average in payroll, about $140M. Topping out at a handful of ducats above a previous high from four years ago won’t get it done.

It is a game of Russian Roulette, this free agency. Dallas Keuchel will be 31 on Opening Day. His agent is Scott Boras. He will cost a ransom and then some. He’s a soft thrower—falling closer to the Bronson Arroyo end of the velo spectrum than the Stephen Strasburg end. That makes him somewhat less of an injury risk—if there is such a thing with a pitcher.

There are others out there: Patrick Corbin, Carlos Carrasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu. But each of them violates the freshly-minted cardinal rule of paying older players big money for past performance, with their decline years just a bus stop away. Plus, every moneyed organization that came up short this year (looking at you, Yankees, Cubs and Phillies) will be all in on a small pool of free agents who can move the needle.

If valuable free agent pitching is expensive, scarce and fraught with risk, dipping into the farm system, takes from a different account, provides a wider pool of talent to choose from and affords at least the possibility of less risk.

Nevertheless, cashing in the farm system has its own serious drawback, as it very likely shortens the competitive window of the next good Reds team. Our Redlegs have what is generally recognized as a top ten farm system based on the strength of their top 3 prospects, Nick Senzel, Hunter Greene and Taylor Trammell. There are few scenarios that don’t have the Reds surrendering two of those three in order to get the kind of front-line pitching that will make a difference. Trammell would almost certainly be one of the three to go. Including Senzel in any package would be waving goodbye to youthful talent with maximum team control for what might amount to a narrow, two-year window.

Let’s be clear: parting with Senzel defeats the entire purpose of the rebuild. I suppose the Reds could get away with only losing Trammell, but the cost would likely be some combination of a majority of the rest of the top ten (Tony Santillan, Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson for starters), or some combination of otherwise established major-leaguers (Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano and/or Amir Garrett). As Bryan Price once famously asked, “How is that good for the Reds?”

Even with the Reds arriving ahead of schedule in 2010, the window had closed by the end of the 2014 season. Injuries and a lack of depth narrowed that window to essentially two years, 2012-13. Cashing in the farm system now could vastly improve the immediate future, but can the Reds and their fans survive another long, fallow period?

So, if free agency is full of cost and risk, and heading for the teller window with prospect chips in hand is a small-window moonshot, then what is a reasonable path forward?

The solution may lie in doing both, while being smart about it, taking a chunk from the ownership group’s money clip and adding to that from the prospect pocket to mitigate the cost to each balance sheet. There is no safe, easy route going forward. Free agent money will have to be spent and a fair amount of risk taken to get one starter capable of pitching at a high level and giving something approaching 200 valuable innings. And prospects will have to be spent. It costs something to get something. The cash is already there, no matter the dissembling by Castellini; and the pain of surrendering prospects can be minimized by  … wait for it … trading Scooter Gennett and Raisel Iglesias.

The 2018 Phillies had the worst defense as defined by Defensive Runs Saved since they began using this metric in 2003, at -146. By comparison, the Diamondbacks were baseball’s best at +157. Some of that inclement leather was the result of players moved out-of-position in an effort by the Phillies to add offense. By re-signing Gennett and moving infielder Nick Senzel to the outfield, the Reds might be making a similar mistake. Senzel helps the team most by playing on the dirt. People take for granted the defense that played behind the 2012 Reds pitching staff. Scott Rolen, Zack Cozart, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs (if you can remember before Billy) could all go get most anything put into the field of play. The Reds need plus fielding now more than ever, especially behind a fledgling pitching staff—and the Reds are giving them just the opposite with Gennett at the keystone with that yard sale glove of his. As if that weren’t enough, money spent on Scooter is money NOT spent on pitching.

Gennett by himself doesn’t bring a ton in return. Package him with Iglesias and the haul has the potential to increase by a significant factor. It might seem counterintuitive to trade pitching to get pitching, but at 76 innings, Iglesias is that rare player who has substantial value in trade, but significantly less as used by the Reds. Trading those two for prospects further deepens the farm system, allowing the Reds to trade prospects for impact starting pitching while hopefully preserving the future, keeping the window open longer, perhaps by several years. Trade partners can be hard to come by, but the Reds need to find ways to get better and I’m more-and-more convinced that reasonable roster churn is part of the answer.

But you, fair reader, are far ahead of me. Really, how likely are the Reds to part with Gennett or Iglesias, much less both?

“We believe in our position players.”

Not great, Bob.

Not great because it sounds like the owner is moving ahead with that plan to sign Gennett to a multi-year deal. Less money available for a stagnant rotation while offering substandard infield defense to boot. It’s a lose/lose plan. It’s choosing offense at the expense of run prevention.

* * *

From its infancy, baseball has been first and foremost a contest of run-prevention. We desperately want all our games to be about offense. The Stephen Curry three from downtown, the deep route to A.J. Green in the end zone.  We have more nicknames for a home run than the Duggar Family has children. Mostly, we construct a world of false equivalency for the comfort it provides. We like symmetry in all things. In symmetry there’s beauty.  But look at the rules. The rules of any sport will tell you where and how to marshal your resources. The rules say fie on your beautiful balance. Baseball is one of the few games where the defense has the ball. Find a way to succeed with a piece of round ash three times out of ten and they’ll have a day in your honor, render your likeness in in clay before casting it in bronze, finally asking you to stand in a field in upstate New York on a sweltering summer day to tell the whole world just how you did it.

“We relied too much on pitchers to excel.”

Not great, Bob.

During the mid-19th century, a game called “Town Ball” treated pitchers as mere “feeders” of the ball to the batter, who was allowed unlimited offerings before choosing which delivery to strike. By the time the game moved to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey, it underwent a very American transformation. A game that had once resembled the British, child-like Rounders and the stately cricket, was now much more challenging for the batter, the field defined with foul lines for the first time. It became a faster game that reflected a young country’s sensibilities. Batters now were limited to three offerings that if struck at and missed with the last one caught was now deemed a “hand out.”

In 1867, the first curveball was thrown, causing batters to throw down their sticks in disgust. Such was the domination of pitching, that purists saw it as grossly unfair—downright dishonest, even.

“I heard that this year we at Harvard won the baseball championship because we have a pitcher who has a fine curveball. I was further instructed that the purpose of the curveball is to deliberately deceive the batter. Harvard is not in the business of teaching deception.”   — Charles Eliot, President, Harvard College.

But, the game is always fluid and so are the rules. We’ve seen how steroids changed the game and its aftermath. Three decades before, expansion also tilted the scales, this time in favor of the offense.

In 1962, the New York Yankees set a season record for home runs. In response, commissioner Ford Frick convinced the owners to widen the strike zone, once again altering the balance of the game in favor of the pitchers. The rules, man.

In 1968, one out of every five games played was a shutout. Bob Gibson led the majors with a 1.12 ERA. Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average. Again, the rules were changed, this time because run prevention simply held too much sway. The bump was lowered from 15 to 10 inches, and the strike zone shrunk at the top from the shoulders to the armpit and upward to the very top of the knees.

* * *

If all of this feels like an exercise in “What If,” as the prevailing opinion is that Castellini wants Gennett badly and all that remains is the dotting of the “I’s” and crossing of the “T’s” on a new contract—well, it is.

And yet …

David Michael Bell has just been hired as the new manager of the Reds. Dick Williams and Co. won the day and in doing so, perhaps sent a message: WE ARE CHARTING A NEW PATH. The Reds got an experienced baseball guy and more importantly, a younger leader who promises a new way of thinking—Beyond the Bunt, if you will.

Perhaps this leads to a willingness to churn the roster, to pivot away from Scooter-mania; or the urge to wait forever for Billy Hamilton to learn to hit. David Bell surely has ideas about what to do with the Reds burgeoning system. The hire of the former farm director of the San Francisco Giants surely means a tighter connection between management, manager and those at the lower levels of development.

The Yankees boosted their farm system by trading their closer for prospects, then signing him back in free agency. The Reds could do something vaguely similar, even if it’s on a smaller scale, trading Iglesias and other assets for prospects, while using free agent $$$ to sign a closer like Adam Ottavino. Perhaps the Reds should settle for one starter and spend assets rebuilding the bullpen into something that can play the kind of game that baseball is moving toward: a rejection of the “third time through the order” starter that has become a rarity on pitching staffs throughout the game. Maybe chasing the Verlanders and the Scherzers is best left to those willing to snuggle up to the luxury tax and all the implications that go with it.

I can’t help but wonder if the hire of David Bell has given the owner what he wanted all along: a Cincinnati legacy hire; the cozy familiarity of Bell Family baseball, Gus, Buddy and all the grainy, woolen history that goes with it. Perhaps he sees a managerial hire of his liking as his own personal stamp on the franchise, a move that soothes the ego, allowing him to finally loosen the reigns on the front office so they can quietly let slip the dogs of analytic war.

That would be good, Bob. Very good.

17 Responses

  1. BigRedMike

    Great summary. Thanks for writing.

    Price was fired and many noted that it was not his fault due to the roster. Riggleman was not retained, thankfully, and it was noted that only so much could be done due to the roster.

    The Reds plan and supported by many Reds fans is that the current 25 man really only needs a couple of starting pitchers?

    I would keep Iglesias and attempt to build a power bullpen and not chase high priced starters.

    The Reds should move on from Gennett and put Senzel at 2B, similar offense with significantly better defense and more roster flexibility.

    • David

      I would rather see Gennett in Left Field, if kept, and Senzel at 2nd base.

      Or going all out hog wild: Trade Gennett, Trade Suarez. for either a front line pitcher, or a new and better Centerfielder.
      Install Senzel at Third, and Dilson Herrera at 2nd. Or move Peraza to 2nd (his natural position) and trade for a pretty good prospect SS from another organization.
      Peraza would be a big defensive improvement over Gennett at 2nd base. His struggles at SS are largely due to his weak arm, and having to have almost perfect foot work (positioning) to alway make good throws.

  2. eric3287

    “Let’s be clear: parting with Senzel defeats the entire purpose of the rebuild.”

    That has been my point this entire season. I generally am a little more liberal in who I include in that list too, because I think trading anyone who has a shot to crack the big league roster by 2020 defeats the entire purpose of the rebuild.

    If the Reds trade a Senzel, Trammel, etc. in the misguided hope of cracking 70 wins this season, the starting lineup will be:
    C – Barnhart (drafted 2009)
    1B – Votto (drafted 2002)
    2B – Scooter (29, waiver wire claim)
    SS – Peraza (trade, 2015)
    3B – Suarez (trade, 2014)
    LF – Schebler (trade, 2015)
    CF – Billy (drafted 2009)
    RF – Winker (drafted 2012)

    If you run THAT lineup out in 2019 and trade any of your top prospects, what was the point of all that losing?

    • David

      Billy really has to go. I am sorry, but despite him being a nice guy and good defensive CF, his offense is not Major League, at all.
      Suarez would be OK at SS if his defense was better, but he struggles because of a weak arm. His defense will likely get better in 2019 (2018 was his first real year at SS, and it is a hard position to master), but how much better? His natural position is 2nd base. His arm is fine for 2nd base.

      Tucker, again a nice guy and a good catcher, but not much offense from him, and likely not much more to come. I think the Reds need an offensive upgrade there, but that is a rare commodity in baseball again. A catcher with a lot of offense to offer, Why they gave Mesoraco that big contract after 2014 season.

      Votto is likely past his peak. I expect something of a bounce back year in 2019 over 2018, but maybe nothing spectacular.
      This team continues to tread water, with no dramatic improvements coming. Winker will likely NOT be 100% in 2019, due to shoulder surgery.
      Maybe several of the young pitchers get a lot better in 2019. Mahle, Castillo, Reed. Maybe Homer bounces back too; he actually pitched pretty well in his last 10 starts, just bad luck and no run support.

  3. David

    Skip Schumaker. ………. ( facepalm)

  4. David

    Gennett has had some good numbers with the stick the last two years, but all the advanced metrics guys fully expected him to regress last week.
    And he is a crummy 2nd baseman, and that is a fact.
    Gennett hustles and is a good guy, and I like him as a player. But he is just not that valuable.

    Despite his numbers, he is no Joe Morgan.

  5. Bill

    I don’t think you would be happy with any decision the Reds make. Do you really want Girardi the guy who couldn’t relate to the younger players leading a rebuilding team?

  6. BigRedMike

    Great points. This team is not close to contending, adding a 3-4 win Starting Pitcher will make little impact. That is the Reds fans plan at this point because apparently the position players are set. Just a solid 25 man roster all around.

  7. BigRedMike

    Yep. It is just a strange way to operate a team. Gennett would have very little value to another team, yet, the Reds might extend him with a big contract? how does that make any sense?

    The Reds are going to go into 2019 paying $50 million to Bailey, Gennett, and Hamilton and then act like they are limited in how much can be spent. That is just awful roster management for a team in the Reds position.

    Duvall was truly awful for the Braves and Harvey is a journey man starter that will just be a flashy signing.

  8. another bob from nc

    As a dog lover, I find a comparison of the Reds past season to canines offensive to man’s best friend.

  9. Larkin11

    Cant wait to win the Mega Millions tonight. I’ll buy 5% of the team and get to sit on the board meetings and yell at Bob

  10. Optimist

    The “trade ???” problem is that most of the tradeable Reds are useful only as special pieces of the top few teams. They’ve done that with the Dodgers at a lower level for a few years now – Cingrani, Floro, Heisey and so forth. Hamilton has great, but limited, value, but only for the very few teams needing that last piece. Pretty much the same for Scooter.

    Suarez and Iglesias would draw much wider interest, and there are likely internal replacements for both, but it’s probably better to go for the FA, which puts us right back in the Not Great Bob budget game.

    As bad as this year was, especially the lack of change from the prior 2, it really should be the bottom. There’s no sign they’re in Marlins territory, and the new bench staff may well be worth 3-5 more wins.

    At this point they really just have to not be stupid anymore and the improvement will seem dramatic. Nowhere near serious contention, but smelling a wild card is pretty doable, and as long as they don’t sell the farm, they’d at least have several new positives to build interest.

    Still, 2 or more wasted years.

  11. jveith1991

    A few thoughts here…First and foremost, I don’t want part of the Reds spending money on a record payroll to include a contract extension with Billy Hamilton. Either non-tender Hamilton or trade him for anything the acquiring team is willing to give up. As for Gennett, if the Reds can sign him to a team-friendly four year deal in the $40-50 million range, I’d be okay with it. I’d also be okay with trading him if it involved getting pitching in return.

    If Matt Harvey is still available for a reasonable contract (somewhere in the 3 year, $33 million range, with a team option for a fourth season), the Reds should consider signing him.

    Nathan Eovaldi is a name the Reds should consider signing. He pitched to a 3.81 ERA and 3.60 FIP with the Rays and Red Sox this year. MLB Trade Rumors posted an article recently that I believe predicted he could get a contract similar to that of Alex Cobb, which was 4 years/$57 million.

    Speaking of Alex Cobb, perhaps the Reds could find a way to get him from the Orioles and have them eat the majority of his contract. Or take a chance on a free agent like Drew Pomeranz, who was awful in 2018, but was solid the previous four years. The Reds are likely going to have to be like the Brewers, who had an excellent bullpen and a great lineup, but a fairly unknown rotation.

  12. Mason Red

    I guess hindsight is 20/20 but the Reds completely and totally botched the rebuild from the get go. Because of that they are between a rock and a hard place. The pitching is atrocious so it doesn’t matter how great the prospects in the farm system might be because they will have to score 6+ runs a game in order to win. If they trade those prospects for pitching they better have an ERA of 3 or less and hope the bullpen holds because of inconsistent offense. I don’t have a clue how to fix it but unfortunately I don’t think the Reds do either.

  13. Jreis

    This was a really good article with a lot of thought provoking content.
    I think all the parts for the everyday 8 are either in the big leagues now or in the minors. I don’t think it is necessary to trade for a position player. It is just a matter of finding the right places for everyone.
    The main challenges are ss and cf. I think we hold our noses next year with Billy in center then let him go. I’m telling you guys this Siri guy can play a really good cf and should be ready by 2020. I got to think Peraza’s defense will continue to improve and he can be overday ss for a long time. India is another option.
    I think Scooter wants to stay in Cincinnati and I think we should offer him a long term below market offer. I think he could be a very important bench player for our next competitive team. If he walks away from it, that’s fine.

  14. Sabr Chris

    Seriouly, the best we can hope to get Scooter to extend at is the same 3 year 45 million Daniel Murphy got three years ago. That’s money better spent elsewhere when you have options that may not replace his hitting but more than make up the value gap in the field.

  15. Bill j

    We talk about prospects but look at the Reds number 1 draft choices and how many had great success with the Reds. Of 28 pitchers drafted 13 had little or no sucess. Prospects are just that, as we seen this past season 2 top prospects were hurt, maybe they will come back strong we don’t know, but you can’t always count on prospects.