Whenever I hear the words “All-in,” I think of James Bond. I envision the collective eyes of a hazy, casino floor slowly turning in his direction; the cigarette dangling dangerously from the corner of his mouth; the almost imperceptible smirk informing the contours of his lips, born of a certain knowledge only a few fortunate souls possess; a Bond girl on his left flank; a chilled martini sweating in a glass on his right. The slight tug on one French cuff—then the other—serves to acknowledge the room and all those eyes. Only a fool bets it all unless he or she knows something everyone else at the table does not. He is no fool.
All-In is the strategy du jour on social media, on the blogs, podcasts and in the comment sections now that the World Series is over and free agency is hard upon the Cincinnati Reds. Empty the farm system. Fill those holes at catcher, shortstop and center field. Throw caution and the future to the wind. Work your imaginary forces. See those forever flags, fluttering in the receiving summer breeze. Signal the bartender. Push in all the chips. Go for it.
You may find all this stirring. I’m just shaken.
The towering irony here is that after years of lamenting and lampooning the old school ways of Walt Jocketty, everything old school is new again. Trade the farm for a meager 2 years of Francisco Lindor? Heck yeah! Better yet, let’s take on bad Red Sox contracts, like a past-his-prime David Price for the pleasure of a singular year of Mookie Betts, while paying him Votto Dollars. And while we’re at it, let’s fantasize that Betts would sign a long-term contract with the Red Stockings when he’s already rejected overtures by his Red Sox family, tacitly expressing his desire to spread his wings and discover just how high he can soar in next year’s annual financial playground they call the Winter Meetings.
Or, let’s just do something much simpler and outbid everyone for Anthony Rendon, no matter the sticker price. Trade and spend. Spend and trade.
Spend and trade was Jocketty’s stock and trade; his raison d’être. He left St. Louis when they decided horse-trading players to build a winner had gone the way of the bison and the prairie dog. Sure, you can still win championships this way, provided one has the requisite stable of horses. Witness the recently deposed Dave Dombrowski, selling off all that prospect treasure former Boston GM Ben Cherington had so carefully assembled, filching owner John Henry’s money belt and old schooling his way to a championship. Flags fly forever and all that.
But for most organizations, this approach is suboptimal at best, catastrophic at worst. For Jocketty, neither gambit was ever a possibility. Lest we forget, he rode into Cincinnati to discover near-empty saddlebags. The very things that made him successful in St. Louis—money to absorb large contracts, and tradeable assets—were largely unavailable to him with the horses he found tied up on the banks of the muddy Ohio River.
Twenty days before Jocketty replaced Wayne Krivsky as GM in late April of 2008, Baseball America rated the Reds farm system as third-best in the majors. By May 27th, the 4th and final member of the cream of that highly-regarded farm system—Jay Bruce—would be promoted to the big club, joining Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, and Joey Votto. What was left Walt traded for Mat Latos in the winter of 2011, and a year of Shin-Soo Choo not long after. As for spending, the owner had already opened the vault for Votto (necessary) and insisted on demonstrating to the city he was serious about winning a championship by doubling down on a Brandon Phillips contract (maybe not necessary). So, the cash spigot slowed to a Ryan Ludwick trickle. We laughed at the spare change that was doled out of the owner’s money purse to purchase trinkets such as Jack Hanahan and Skip Schumaker. In the end, all of that bought the Reds a couple of years of contention, then a fade to black.
So, here we are now, idling at the corner of Tomorrow and Yesterday. Oh, gosh, which way should we turn?
I freely admit my voice is in the minority. Still, I simply cannot understand it. The Reds have finally fought their way into the 21st Century. They appear to be—amazingly—elbowing themselves to the forefront of baseball analytics. They’ve robbed teams ahead of them in the standings of both their coaches and their philosophy. They’ve traveled to the cutting edge of baseball’s brave new world to bring in outsider Kyle Boddy and his coterie of progressive, analytic minds. They’ve invested in their minor league infrastructure from top-to-bottom, rethinking how everything is being done, hopefully, to produce major league baseball players who can make a difference in the not-too-distant future on the mainstage of Great American Ball Park.
And now, like a 4-year old in a Stanford testing lab, we’re going to greedily devour the marshmallow that has been handed to us, rather than wait for more sweet things to come at a later date?
I hate the “Flags Fly Forever” trope. They don’t, you see. Oh, they fly for those souls fortunate enough to have seen them run up the flag pole in person. If like me, you were lucky enough to enter Gate 11 and settle into a Club Box seat at Game 1 of the 1976 World Series, you know. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, have Joe and Johnny and Doggie and Pete and Davey and Rawley and Jack and George burnishing our memories.
However, if you are much under the age of 40, you were likely standing in front of your dad’s Sony Trinitron in your onesies with the feet in them, watching Eric Davis surrender his body for Shottzie and the greater good, while Jose Rijo did more than his part, blowing away memories of flawed Reds’ starting pitchers past. Sadly, those images live in the ether, or at least as grainy ghosts on your dad’s mothballed VCR, floating in the fog of childhood; not quite fully formed; dusty and barely accessible now.
For fans of a certain age, you must think yourselves accursed. Your memories are the sins of Marge and Old Leatherpants, the inconsistencies of Wayne’s World, Walt’s flip-phone, and Junior’s broken-down body limping down to first base. For you, flags haven’t flown at all. They are merely one-dimensional images painted on the side of the left-field façade below the Machine Room. Faded, if not forgotten.
That frustration, in my opinion, has been taken out on the current front office regime and its main product: THE REBUILD. Truth be told, I have written about the rebuild and the mythology surrounding it more than I had ever imagined or wanted to. It’s time for us to release ourselves from the flawed narrative of the endless rebuild, as if it’s a cheap menu item at the Olive Garden, devoid of the nutrients necessary to feed a fan base starved for a winner. It’s corrosive. It’s taken us far afield of the truth, to another place where the infield grass is always greener. Places like Philadelphia. San Diego. The south side of Chicago. And most recently, Atlanta. Yeah, everybody has done it better than the hapless Reds, the bitter narrative wails. The truth is a bit more complex.
The Braves rebuild has surpassed the Reds in speed and quality, to be sure. They’ve reached the playoffs the last two years. Interestingly enough, the Braves rebuild was initially predicated upon pitching. But, the international signings and subsequent flowering of Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies sped up their return to relevance. One reason why the Braves rebuild has moved so fast is because they prematurely tore it down. In 2014, they had Freddie Freeman, Tommy La Stella, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, and Jason Heyward. Their pitching staff included Julio Teheran, Ervin Santana, a 23-year-old Alex Wood, and 26-year-old Mike Minor. Oh, yeah, they had a 26-year-old Craig Kimbrel, as well. It wouldn’t have taken too much to make the Braves a playoff contender with that core, but the Braves elected to pull the plug instead. They gave away a promising season or two, but were rewarded with a less painful rebuild, unlike the Reds, who kept players around at Bob Castellini’s directive because … pride, a/k/a the All Star Game.
Oh, yeah, then there’s that footnote in the form of former GM John Coppolella, who was banned for life by Major League Baseball in 2017 for gaming international signing rules. Did that help?
Then, there’s the Padres, who began their rebuild in the winter of 2015 when they traded the aforementioned Craig Kimbrel to the Red Sox in return for four prospects. GM A.J. Preller has since overhauled the farm system, turning it into the best in baseball. They’ve since put $144M under the Christmas tree for Eric Hosmer two years ago with a return so far of 1.1 WAR. Yikes. A year later, they doubled-down, signing Manny Machado for $300M, who rewarded them with a first-year return of 3.1 WAR.
Did I mention they have just concluded their 9th straight losing season, winning 70 games and having just fired manager Andy Green?
The White Sox won 72 games in year three of their rebuild. Along with Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson and Eloy Jimenez, they have some exciting core prospects waiting in the wings: Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and Luis Robert. But injuries have put the rebuild on the back burner, as they won 3 fewer games than the Reds this year. The progress has been disappointing and few people outside the south side think they are on the cusp of anything remarkable next year. Their rebuild is still ongoing.
The Phillie fan base must have been ecstatic to hear owner John Middleton’s proclamation to be a little stupid about spending money last off-season. There’s good reason for that. Their rebuild has been a bad Ben Affleck movie, an unmitigated flop. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
In 2016, Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus said this:
“The State of the System: Long a laughingstock for prioritizing athletes who couldn’t hit, the Phillies are now as loaded at the top of the system as any team in baseball. The rebuild started later than it should have, but it might not take long.”
That “loaded” group included shortstop J.P. Crawford; outfielders Nick Williams, Roman Quinn and Cornelius Randolph; pitchers Jake Thompson, Franklyn Kilome, Mark Appel and Ben Lively; and catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp.
As ESPN writer Ben Miller recently said, “There’s not one player on that list who would be starting on a good team.”
The Phillies have spent money, but have no base in place to build around. Unlike the Cubs, who drafted well and spent in free agency to supplement their young core, the Phillies have only done the latter and will have to keep spending furiously, throwing money at Gerrit Cole and/or Anthony Rendon to appease a very restless fan base.
The Phillies offense was 10th in Weighted Runs Created Plus in the National League, 13th in starting pitching in 2019. Their relievers were 8th in xFIP. They’ve struggled badly defensively for years. They have no identifiable strength anywhere on the diamond. They have now completed their 8th straight non-winning season and have replaced manager Gabe Kapler with no average Joe, but Joe Girardi and all the Yankee pedigree that comes with him.
The Brewers didn’t rebuild. They rebuilt on the fly. They did what many Reds fans wanted: they #GotTheYelich. They’ve had one remarkable year to show for it. Even as they won 14 more games than the Reds this season and made it to the wild card game, their +2 run differential and 3rd Order Win Percentage suggest they and the Reds should have had very similar records. That portends a fall back to earth in 2020 if they don’t make significant off-season moves and, in particular, #GetThePitching. But that will be difficult to do with what is now a farm system that ranks near the bottom of the major leagues. But, they Got The Yelich.
Envy and the Atlanta Braves aside, the reality is that the Reds’ rebuild has been just like everyone currently embarking on a similar project—a work-in-progress. There’s no guarantee that history will judge the rebuild a success. That will depend on the results of the draft from the last 4 years—on the development of Hunter Greene, Nick Senzel, Jonathan India and others—assuming the Reds don’t push them to the middle of the poker table for a shot at the playoffs now.
Today, the Reds’ farm system—despite the losses in the last year—ranks higher than every team in the NL Central, save for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Trading more prospect treasure away, weakening the minors just as analytical help is arriving to develop those players would seem to go against everything they have been attempting to do off the field.
It’s difficult to know how Dick Williams and Nick Krall define “All-in,” or whether this is even now the plan. The rumors that the Reds were going to trade multiple prospects for a meager 2 years of J.T. Realmuto is a sign they aren’t thinking long-term. The trade of their top prospect for one full year of Trevor Bauer only reinforces that notion.
Meanwhile, they’ve revamped not just the entire organization, but their philosophy, as well. Pair that with a decent farm system and you have something to supplement the rebuild. You have something that can be SUSTAINABLE when you’re building with youth.
If the Reds are going to spend their future for a couple of shots at glory, you should remember the lesson of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who took their shots 2013 through 2015, only to lose in the LDS and twice in the wild card game.
If recent history is any indication, here’s the way offseason will go for the Reds:
Free agency will be slow for all but the top free agents. The Reds will wait and make several offers to those who are far outside the 3-ring circus that goes by the name Scott Boras. Trades will also likely be made from the 25-man roster as the Reds attempt to patch holes using positions of greater depth. While we talk about the same few players in the coming days—Rendon, Gregorious, Castellanos, and Grandal—it’s others now off the radar who will likely be wearing those dubious alternate jerseys in April.
The Reds will spend significantly more money because they’ve laid their reputations on the line by saying so publicly. What “significantly more” actually is remains to be seen. But, if Redsfest is not the only place they are playing poker this winter, if they leverage the farm for a generational player that is nothing more than a short term fix, be prepared to revisit the dark days all over again in a couple of seasons. Then, heaven help baseball in Cincinnati for years to come.