You were sold a bill of goods. Heading toward the All Star break, you were told that because the Reds were a handful of games out of first place, they were contenders; that they could have been somebody. You were told on the airwaves, in print. You stuck your chin out, pugnacious and without pose. Even Dick Williams played along:
“I’d add. I like this team. I think the fans deserve an aggressive approach to making deals.”
Manager David Bell gave the boilerplate response, the one you can find on page 12 of the dog-eared manual Dusty Baker left behind in his office: The Book of Hank:
“I don’t want anyone else in our clubhouse. I love the team that we have. We have the talent and we have the ability. We just have to get better.”
You can’t blame either man for talking this way. One has 25 players who go out there every day grinding it out for the Big 162 and they want to know that somebody in the dugout stands with them. The other has The Big Man standing behind him who wants tickets sold between now and October 1. Nothing closes up the Call Window faster than a signal that the team has already packed up the trucks and is getting ready to head south for the next good year.
But Williams also has a plan and much of that plan involves building from within, not chasing moonbeams and bumgarners. Sure, if the Reds had crept to within a couple of games of the Cubs, they might have gone out and added a reliever whose name you’ve never given a thought of in this Year of the Puig. But, they were never going to swing some deal of considerable prospect largesse to the hapless New York Mets in order to land Noah Syndergaard—or even Zack Wheeler.
The real problem isn’t that the Reds have lost 7 of their last 10 games. It isn’t even that they were never going to be able to creep into the wild card game and win, only to face the Dodgers, who have more talent than any team, including the Yankees. The real problem right now is the disconnect—the disconnect between fans and front office.
The paying customers were never into this thing called The Rebuild. They didn’t understand it then. Some still don’t understand it now. It doesn’t help that everywhere one turns, one reads the phase “this never-ending rebuild” on blogs, behind paywalls and over the car radio. As if the recent example of the Houston Astros never happened. As if the Philadelphia Phillies haven’t had seven straight non-winning seasons and, despite spending “stupid” free agent money, are frantically paddling with their heads barely above .500.
Then, there’s the fact that more than a few people believe that rebuilds are just a euphemism for tanking, perpetrating fraud on a gullible public while the ownership group stuffs their Tom Ford slacks full of tuition money for their Ivy League-bound children.
This year was oft-referred to as the Bridge Year. But the Dodger deal was first and foremost about getting Homer Bailey’s contract off the books for the Reds and clearing cap space for the Dodgers to have the flexibility to go after Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, had they felt so inclined. It also did double-duty. It got rid of a Dodger problem child in Puig and it gave the Reds fan base a little hope and a desire to head downtown.
Only the Sonny Gray trade was about the future. The rest was about cushioning the bumpy rebuild ride one more season.
Had a few players among the everyday 8 performed up to expectations this season, this remarkable pitching turnaround would have been rewarded with a National League Central race that included our boys in red.
Only 4 teams have scored fewer runs than the Reds this season. It’s a testament to the pitching that they’ve hung around as long as they have. But, aside from Castillo and Gray, no one has had the kind of season that lifts all other boats. There have been spurts here and there, but nothing sustained. To make matters worse, a glance at the minors reveals a similar malaise taking place. No one is having a breakout season on the bus circuit; not Taylor Trammell; not Tony Santillan; not Jonathan India.
Fans have largely given up on Votto, written his epitaph, wondering out loud why the Reds don’t just DFA the old codger, never mind that stars of all ages have misbegotten seasons, like Jose Ramirez and Paul Goldschmidt.
The Reds have a solid core, even if you don’t want to wait for Jose Peraza and Jesse Winker to mature into guys who can become above-average players or don’t believe they ever held that promise to begin with.
The wholesale turnaround of the front office should give one hope. The unfortunate reality is that after suffering the Jim Bowden Era, watching Junior limp to the finish line of his HOF career, after years of engaging in the Jocketty Jeremiad and throwing rocks at Bryan Price and later, Jim Riggleman, there is little patience for Dick Williams and Co. People are already calling for Turner Ward’s head, as if he’s a coaching Boll weevil, infecting bats an ruining the harvest. Stop.
For the first time in a long time, the Reds have a plan top-to-bottom. Systemic problems have been addressed. Baseball people at all levels are on the same page. The owner seems to be allowing his employees to do their jobs. There will be no falling in love with Scooter, no last minute long-term contract.
All that’s happened is that too many players haven’t performed this season. And it’s happened all at once, up and down the system. Players careers are not a straight upward arrow, but it’s important to recognize that now, neither are they straight downward arrow either.
The game now is not just about making savvy trades and stunning draft selections, it’s taking the talent you already have and transforming it, the way the Dodgers did with Max Muncy and the way Trevor Bauer and Adam Ottavino have done for themselves.
For me, the most interesting hire of the season by the Reds was that of Caleb Cotham. Making his bones in analytic techniques at Driveline—the baseball training factory—Cotham represents the next wave of teachers who are going take player performance to a higher level. As Travis Sawchik and Ben Lindberg wrote in The MVP Machine:
“In baseball’s old-school scouting parlance, ‘guy’ is a versatile label, employed, one scout says, ‘like how Smurfs use the word ‘smurf.’ A non-prospect is not a ‘guy,’ or (said dismissively) just a guy; a prospect is a guy; and a top prospect is a GUY, or a guy-guy. Players aspire to ‘guy’ status.
“Talking in terms of “guys” and “ceilings” suggests that there are identifiable limits. Yet more and more players are figuring out how to go from non-guys to guys or from regular guys to guy-guys, which raises a radical possibility. Maybe there’s no such thing as an absolute ceiling, or the ceiling is high enough that no one knows where it is. An maybe more guy-guys are out there than we ever believed before.”
I think the Reds know this already. That’s why Cotham is there. It’s why Bell was able to talk Turner Ward into leaving the Dodgers and Derek Johnson into buying into the Reds plan.
Nobody wants to hear it this morning. That doesn’t matter. The big, bold future is still coming. It’s just been deferred a little longer.