With Reds pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear today, it’s a perfect time to discuss the far-reaching and momentous offseason.

Short version: It’s hard not to be optimistic. Seriously. The Reds offseason has been spectacular.

A Long Time Coming

It’s been a while, though. The last four-and-a-half years have been abject rock bottom, a painful journey through 90-loss seasons. The slog was littered with recycled Cardinals, journeymen relievers and the likes of Marlon Byrd. Despite glimpses of promise, such as Straily-for-Castillo, many Reds fans lost faith or are about to jump.

Oh, the litany of mismanagement. A two-year contract for Willy Taveras based on havoc, wasting Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen then giving him away, playing Edgar Renteria because of hits a decade before, searching for RBI guys, having Jack for that, Kevin Gregg in the 8th inning on Opening Day, 67 wasted starts, whatever that was with Matt Harvey. And so much more.

To get past it, we’ll need big, beautiful doors in the back of our heads to shovel out the nightmares.

Last season’s 95 losses landed with a disheartening thud.

After years of rebuilding and called-for patience, was it possible the Reds still couldn’t or wouldn’t address the needed culture overhaul? We stared at a list of new manager candidates that somehow included the old manager. Was ownership still gulping down insularity from the poison stream? Beyond that, fractured messaging made it far from certain that any manager could succeed.

Then Dick Williams hired David Bell and everything changed.

Step One: The Manager

Dick Williams is the grandson of W. Joseph Williams Sr., a leader of the group that bought the Reds in 1966, built the Big Red Machine and sold controlling interest in the club to Marge Schott in 1984. Joe Williams (father) and Thomas Williams (uncle) became minority shareholders forty years later. That same year, the Reds hired Dick Williams as rank and file. His background was venture capital, not baseball. “I was lucky to find myself at the table,” said Williams [at 9:20 of the audio], “And I didn’t deserve the job at the time.”

People who know Dick Williams are impressed by his intelligence and analytic skills. But questions have lingered over whether he would succeed in his job as Reds president. (1) Could Williams apply his business acumen and make smart baseball decisions? (2) Would ownership really trust Bill Williams’ grandson with the keys to car?

Speaking of family ties, David Bell is grandson to Reds Hall of Famer Gus Bell and son of Buddy Bell, vice president and senior advisor to the Reds GM. David Bell had a 12-year career as a big league player, then was hired by the Reds as a minor league manager for the 2009-2012 seasons.

It was in that job that Bell first caught – and never left – Dick Williams’ eye.

As a minor league manager, David Bell had a reputation for being hard-nosed and old school. He confessed later that at the time, he didn’t know much about advanced metrics. Bell left the Reds and spent 2013 with Theo Epstein’s Cubs, four years in the Cardinals dugout and 2018 with the San Francisco front office in charge of Giants player development. “Smart” and “tough” are two words often used to describe him.

David Bell studied how those organizations operated. He described it as a tremendous learning experience. Bell’s time in St. Louis was particularly important to his development. As Mike Matheny’s right-hand man, Bell became immersed in the ultra-modern ways of the Cardinals. Part of his job was to convey ideas and data — “incredible information” — from the Cardinals’ analytics department to players and coaches.

Step Two: The Coaching Staff

The most audacious trick this offseason concerned hiring coaches.

Dick Williams and David Bell somehow lured Derek Johnson and Turner Ward, top-notch pitching and hitting coaches, away from organizations whose teams played in the recent postseason.

The new staff brings to the Reds a needed dose of first-hand experience using industry best practices. These men have spent the past few years working at the cutting edge of information and strategy. They were recruited here for that reason. Veteran baseball writer Jonah Keri wrote that the new Reds coaching staff is insisting on collaboration and customization, not clichés.

Along those lines, the Reds have hired Caleb Cotham as their assistant pitching coach. You may remember Cotham as one-fourth of the ill-fated return from the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. Cotham, now 31 and retired from playing, has become a specialist in using high-speed cameras to develop pitchers. If you need an endorsement of the technology, the Astros used it to help Justin Verlander improve his slider. Hiring Cotham to take advantage of the Edgertronic is an impressive sign.

On the day David Bell was announced as manager, he emphasized one thing more than any other: Reds players would be excellent in how they prepare. That means Bell will task the front office with providing meaningful information to its players. This coaching staff knows what other successful, modern analytics departments offer.

Step Three: The Roster

Williams and Bell have also shown a deft touch in assembling the roster. The Reds have added six experienced big league players, including three legit starting pitchers. The only major leaguer it cost was Homer Bailey. The Reds didn’t give up any of their top six prospects.

Five of the new guys are one-year players. It’s noteworthy that the one-year stints are being attacked from opposing sides: The Reds haven’t done enough to help themselves. And what’s with the Reds being “all in” for 2019? The food in this place is terrible, and such small portions!

Both criticisms miss the point. Williams and Bell have struck the right balance between the present and future. It’s that simple.

No, the Reds are not all in. They’re just IN. Being all in would mean trading several of the top five prospects to win in 2019. The Reds didn’t come close to that. IN feels like all in because it’s the first time since Shin-Soo Choo the Reds have tried. We’ve forgotten the difference.

One-year contracts mean the Reds will have to reload in 2020. That’s nothing to fear if they make good decisions. Plus, they can pocket another year of information and experience for their young starting pitchers and other prospects. And they’ll have tens of millions of dollars at the ready.

The one player acquired for more than a year is starting pitcher Sonny Gray. Gray (29) has substantial upside, projecting as a #2 or solid #3. Derek Johnson, the Reds new pitching coach, knows Gray from the pitcher’s days as an All-American at Vanderbilt. Johnson says a deep dive into the numbers confirms that Gray actually pitched better last year than is reflected in his ERA. And Gray’s deal is hardly a budget buster.

But the roster moves haven’t all been addition. Shortly after David Bell arrived, the Reds changed course on a few players. They cut Billy Hamilton even though it left them with no proven centerfielder on the roster. Scooter Gennett had said the Reds wanted him around long-term. But now the club is saying it prefers to keep its options open. Homer Bailey was sent packing after years of the front office saying they would emphasize players developed by the organization.

What role did Bell, and his partnership with Williams, play in those roster reversals? We don’t know for sure. There’s a reason the executioner’s face is kept hidden. But you’d expect Bell was at the center of it. David Bell has said he wants to be involved in personnel decisions. He asked for workspace in the front office in addition to the manager’s office in the clubhouse. With the experience he gained in other organizations, Bell has the numbers background for it.

It’s highly noteworthy that a couple of those judgments about players presumably went against the preference of ownership. In this case, it’s easy to imagine David Bell providing Dick Williams the needed reinforcement to get Bob Castellini to let go of a few of his favorites. Remember, the Reds boss said, “You can’t go wrong with a Bell.”

In sum, even in the absence of a true ace starter or centerfielder, this is already the best Reds roster since Opening Day 2013.

Sons of Nobility, Generational Change

Dick Williams started the offseason by convincing David Bell to choose home over his other offers. After that, Williams and Bell pulled off the coaching staff grand heist. Williams could have re-hired Jim Riggleman or settled for a bunch of Reds clubhouse retreads. Instead, he insisted on new voices. As a chaser, the two men orchestrated significant roster improvements without giving up much of the team’s future.

In the context of the organization’s recent lifelessness, this offseason has been a resurrection miracle. (The Redsurrection?)

That men named Williams and Bell would be running the Cincinnati Reds is as surprising as a talking camel celebrating hump day. But are they the right guys, or just connected? With the club’s troubling history of nepotism, it isn’t wrong to wonder.

It’s possible, maybe even likely, that pedigree played a role in their early careers with the Reds. Lineage might make or reinforce the case in the owner’s mind for employing Williams and Bell even now.

But let’s be clear. David Bell’s resumé, as he leads the Reds in 2019, is nothing like the one held by the guy who managed the Carolina Mudcats in 2009. In that same way, the Dick Williams who directs Reds baseball operations today bears little resemblance to the private equity specialist who landed an entry-level front office job in 2006. Substantial personal development in running a baseball team is something the two men have in common.

This terrific offseason has demonstrated Williams and Bell to be strong, effective agents of progress, worthy of their posts on the merits.

Here’s how you know that. Last week, something felt different. Rumors swirled about the Reds pursuing Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto and top draft pick Jonathan India’s name was in the mix. The direction negotiations with Miami were headed was unclear. Reports were conflicting. Yet, instead of learned dread, I felt earned trust, confident that Williams, Bell and their staffs would figure it out.

Dick Williams has found a new running mate in David Bell. Reds fans should hope their dynamic and fascinating partnership will continue to reshape the organization and implement a unified, modern approach.

Two men, sons and grandsons of Reds nobility, have each come their own distance the past ten years. They find themselves, in this time and place, prepared to produce positive generational change for their family and city’s baseball team.

And in a twist that’s a textbook example of irony, their last names might be the ticket to convince ownership to really fix things around here.

32 Responses

  1. Andrew Lykins

    Not only did they bring in some new players but the team has also completely revamped the coaching staff. It looks like Johnson is going to have a big say in the organization’s philosophy on pitching from top to bottom which is very much needed. I’m excited for the new pitchers and for Puig but I’m definitely a little more interested in all the new coaching faces.

  2. Jon

    This Reds team will not only be interesting, but also fun to watch. If things go right, it’s not hard to see them as this year’s version of the 2018 Brewers. A strong offense, a versatile bullpen, and an at least decent rotation gives Reds fans reason for optimism. To me, the Cardinals are the team to beat in the NL Central right now, but anything can happen.

  3. Big Ed

    Bell was the right-hand man of Dave Matheny? Of Footprints Property Inspections in Copley, Ohio? I do agree that the Reds’ culture has changed remarkably since the end of the season.

    The Reds have a brutal schedule from April 13 until Memorial Day. They play 2 “home” games April 13-14 in Monterrey, Mexico against the Cardinals. From April 15 until May 2, they have 14 road games, 3 home games and 1 day off. The road games included the Dodgers, Cardinals and Mets (i.e., both coasts). After a 4-game wraparound series Derby weekend v. the Giants, they head back to the Bay Area for 6 games at the Giants and A’s.

    They then come back for 11 games through May 26, all against the Cubs, Dodgers and Brewers. That is 19 home games, 33 road games and 2 games in Mexico.

    If they can hold it together through May, they have a chance at a very good season.

    • bmblue

      They also have a decent first couple of weeks to combat that though- home series with Pirates, Brewers and Marlins.

  4. CFD3000

    First things first Steve. It’s good to read your thoughts on the Reds again – you’ve been too scarce this offseason – and it’s really good that they are actually optimistic. For good cause of course. Second, I’m excited about the changes that have been made to the roster and the coaching staff, and what that portends for future decision making.

    But the biggest issue buried in your article is, to me, the question of now vs. soon. 2019 should be an exciting year for the Reds. Finally. But the fact that this is true and all of the Reds’ top six prospects are still with the Reds is the best news of all for 2020 and beyond. I have high hopes for Senzel, Santillan, and Trammell soon, and Greene, India, and Stephenson not long after that. If the Reds can target carefully for extensions (Wood and Puig please), and develop or sign one or two very good starters (looking at you Tyler Mahle, Cody Reed and of course Hunter Greene and Tony Santillan) this could be a very good team for many years. How exciting would that be? Welcome back Steve. It’s a good time to be back. And oh – Pitchers and Catchers!! Go Reds.

    • Mike V

      Welcome back Steve , I have not always agreed with you, but your opinions are always well thought out, well presented and are ultimately correct more often than I would like to admit. Great column here !

    • Scott C

      I agree with Chris. Enjoy reading your well thought out articles and wished you write more. To me one of the things that you hint at although not said directly is that finally we have a front office and manager on the same page. That is always a good sign.

  5. Capt. Phreddie Pizzazz

    Beautifully written piece, Steve! I’m looking forward to the coming season with great optimism.

  6. Armo21

    History, Perspective and reason for Optimism. I love the lines; “No, the Reds are not all in. They’re just IN.
    Excellently Written!

  7. OnBaseMachine

    Steve – I’m blocked on Twitter for some reason lol, but this is a great read. I enjoyed this piece as much as anything I’ve read this offseason. For the first time in years I have faith in the Reds front office and coaching staff.

  8. hokiebo

    After the last handful of seasons, I finally feel like my excitement for Reds baseball isn’t just because it’s baseball and it’s a great sport. Our excitement is finally justified.

    Mr. Mancuso, it is great to see another article from you. I really enjoy your work!

  9. SultanofSwaff

    Great writing. I concur!

    What rubs me though, is that this path the front office has taken was a year late…..that the 2018 season could’ve been a little more informative (and tolerable) by undertaking the same approach. It’s not even hindsight being 20/20……..we knew Price wasn’t the man for the job, we knew who Bailey and Hamilton were, we knew the pitching was well below average, and we knew there were redundancies in the minors (Long/Downs, etc.) who could’ve been leveraged to improve the big club.

    I love the current direction, but it still stings to know they wasted a year of my baseball life!

    • Eric

      So, in summary…”they are…who we thought they were…and we let ’em off the hook?”

      *chuckle*

    • JayTheRed

      Bob can meddle if he wants. Only by opening his pocketbook though.

      If we are winning or are highly in contention do they go out and get a number one starter, or top notch bullpen piece?

  10. Chris

    Great, and well thought out article Steve. Good to see you writing again.

  11. Vada

    Great Article ! Yes, finally, fans can see light at the end of the tunnel. But we need not be unrealistic for 2019. There is a CERTAINTY the Reds won’t be cellar-dwellers again. There is some OPTIMISM they won’t finish 4th. There is a tad more HOPE they can finish 3rd. As for a playoff spot, let’s just say it can happen depending on a little LUCK. But getting into the World Series comes close to being a MIRACLE. It’s a good thing miracles DO happen.

  12. Sanantonefan

    Great article! I am a long-time Reds fan, and am very excited for the season to start for the first time in a long time. I may have to invest in MLB TV since the Reds don’t travel to Texas much.

  13. scottya

    Nice article Steve. The hires of David Bell, Derek Johnson, Turner Ward, the analytic hires and adjustment’s made in the minor’s staff’s and scouting departments have me really excited for the long term future of the Reds.

    The trades and signings have me fired up about 2019 and looking forward to the next off-season.

    I can’t wait to see the adjustments our pitchers make under Johnson and our hitter’s make under Ward than anything this season.

  14. Roger Garrett

    Great article.As stated this team can just do it all over again next year if need be.What was done this off season certainly looks like a definitive plan to me as we go forward.We got better and with no long term investments(Gray’s deal barring injury will be a steal) and this front office not only made some decisions they made them with a look towards the future.We play in a tough division but we will improve record wise no doubt.Much much better then waiting to see how many warm bodies we can get to fill out the rotation and betting that Billy will turn the corner in year 6.

  15. TurboBuckeye

    Great article. Totally agree on the concept of the Reds being “in” and not “all in.” I’m very excited about 2019 for the obvious reasons. But in a strange way I’m even more excited for 2020 and beyond. The Reds have something like $60mm coming off the books if they let Scooter, Puig, Kemp, Wood, and Roark go. I’m happy with that. This offseason has shown that 2-3 WAR players are able to be acquired without giving up tons of prospect depth and/or FA dollars. We can replace those guys. If they perform well, just extend a QO and if they don’t accept that’s just fine–another draft pick!
    Very happy with the work of the FO this offseason. Something I haven’t been able to say in a long time.

  16. Scott Benhase

    Steve, superb article as usual. I know you didn’t address this, but your piece made me even more convinced the REDS should go “all in” on Manny Machado now that his market price is clearly coming down. The big market teams have been waiting for that to happen, and as spring training is now opening, it has happened. Clearly, Machado is not going to get a 10-year, $300m contract, as Scott Boras expected. Whether by collusion or analytics or luxury tax limitations, the Yankees of this world are not buying at that price. The REDS could afford a 10-year, $200-225m contract for Machado, which is the neighborhood to which I think it will eventually go. We’d pay for his 5 prime years and for his 5 years of decline, but it would be worth it. If the REDS FO were in Boras’ face (in a nice way) today saying “We want Manny and he’s who we need to be a World Series team,” then when the others come to the table later with similar offers, the REDS may just be the team he chooses.

    • TurboBuckeye

      Couldn’t disagree more. We’ve had a SS who put up 2.7fWAR last year for under $3mm. Spending another $22mm to get an additional 3.5 WAR while clogging up our $130mm payroll with another giant contract isn’t a good allocation of resources at all.

    • TurboBuckeye

      Whether or not he could play shortstop for the duration of the deal is an open question, and honestly not one that I’d be willing to bet on.

      Obviously the years and dollars are the big one. But I’d have a tough time going over something like 7/147 ($21mm AAV). Leaving aside the argument of whether or not they can “afford” it and assuming that they will stay in the $130-$150mm range over the next several years, I feel that that money is better spent elsewhere.

      If you assume Peraza would average out to $4mm AAV over the next couple years, that leaves $17mm to spread around to a few players to get a few WAR. Much less risk in this strategy (with Machado, if he gets hurt or suddenly declines, the franchise will be handicapped for quite some time).

      Of course, all of this assumes he’d sign for low-20s AAV. That’s not going to happen. More realistic is $25-$28mm AAV over at least 7-8 years. No way can we get involved in that.

  17. Remdog

    Thanks for the great article, Steve. I’ll always miss Chad’s fun insights, but he has left this, the best Reds site, in the best hands, with you and Doug, let alone respect to you other wonderful writers.

    Though I don’t comment much, I have come here daily literally the first thing every morning since 2005. You guys are truly amazing at what you do. I played and coached baseball for 40 years, but I’ve learned more about the game because of you guys than anything other than being on the field. Much respect. Truly a special and respectful family that we have here.

    Long live Redleg Nation!

    • Doug Gray

      Chad isn’t gone. He’s just doing more podcasting than writing these days.

  18. TR

    Isn’t that true of all teams? Hope springs eternal.

  19. Remdog

    Oh, I understand that, but I just wanted to thank you guys for your spectacular commentary. For example, my friends and I have never been so informed on our minor league system since you took it on.

    Not to kiss tail here, bro, but your insight has been the best we’ve ever had as true baseball fans. We never got anything we could have trust in on the Reds’ system until Redleg Nation. Much appreciated.

  20. JayTheReds

    Wondering how long it will be before Puig or Wood gets a multiyear deal offer??
    and go…

  21. JayTheRed

    I don’t think it affects 2020 at all. I feel like there are plenty of options ahead of Lopez for the rotation in 2020 and beyond.

    It does stink losing him but it’s not critical that we did.