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.