Thursday saw Richard Fitch explain why an All-In strategy for the Cincinnati Reds could be a losing one. If you missed it, you will probably want to go back and read that one first. Today’s piece is not going to be a break down countering his points. In fact, I am typing this before reading his piece so that I am not coming at it with a shred of an idea to “attack” points that he made. I’m simply aware of the premise of his article, and of course, the title.

The Cincinnati Reds have done a whole heck of a lot of losing since 2014 began. After winning 90 games in 2013, the Cincinnati Reds haven’t come close to sniffing the .500 mark in a season since. Six straight losing seasons, with them only reaching the 70-win mark twice in those six seasons. It’s been painful to watch. The Reds have gone 418-554 over that stretch. They had arguably the worst rotation of all time in two different seasons in there.

There’s money out there to be spent by the Reds. While they aren’t talking about exactly how much is available, there seems to be somewhere around at least $35M available, and it could be even more depending on how the non-tenders go combined with just how much the team will be adding to the payroll.

The Reds have stated that their goal for 2020 is the playoffs, not just another step forward. And that should be the goal every year. While it certainly feels like team owners are doing more and more to maximize profits over winning these days, I don’t know a single person rooting for the owners bank account over the number in the win column – at least among fans.

Building for the future is a great idea. In life we are all trying to do that aren’t we? While we probably don’t all have a 401K, or investments, or savings – we’d like to (or if we do, we’d like to have more in there). Baseball teams are hoping to win in the future, too. But winning now helps win in the future. Hear me out.

Going all-in doesn’t exactly make sense for the Cincinnati Reds right now. They aren’t a 90-win team looking to get that final piece to put them over the top and become a 100-win team. So going out and trading every single piece of the farm system to acquire one or two players for only 2020 is a bad idea. But shooting for being an 87-90 win team won’t require the trading of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, Jose Garcia, Tyler Stephenson, Tony Santillan, and Jonathan India, either.

But sort of going for it and trying to fight for the playoffs rather than simply being slightly above .500 might require the trade of a big prospect or two. It won’t empty the farm system. The system isn’t what it used to be – the depth isn’t quite there. But you can argue that the top six players are all Top 100 caliber prospects, too. Trading prospects of that caliber doesn’t feel great – but if the Reds were to move two of them in a deal, they would still have four very good prospects remaining. And they’d also have landed a guy that’s a star (they aren’t trading two of those guys for a non-star caliber player).

The Cincinnati Reds in 2020 have a solid base to start with. ZiPS projects the team as currently constructed to be in the 82-85 win range. That’s before they spend any of the money previously mentioned to add players. It’s before they try to make some trades to add players. The base is solid. At least on paper. You never know until you start playing games – but you can’t build around that – you build your team based on the expectations and the expectations are and hope that it works out once the games start. If not, you can attempt to adjust that plan by making roster moves in season.

The rotation looks pretty good as it stands right now. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray were National League All-Stars in 2019. Trevor Bauer was a Cy Young contender two years ago, and last season and the several years prior to 2018 was a solid middle of the rotation option who could flat out dominate at times. And Anthony DeSclafani is coming off of a strong year with an ERA of 3.89 with a 1.20 WHIP. The final spot in the rotation could still be up for grabs between Tyler Mahle and someone not currently with the organization. But even if it’s Mahle, that’s a strong 1-5.

Likewise, the bullpen has the makings of a strong group. Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson are locks if healthy. Behind them you’ve got Lucas Sims, Matt Bowman, Sal Romano, Joel Kuhnel, Cody Reed, and plenty of options out there in free agency.

It’s the offense that needs the most work. Where that comes from is certainly up in the air. Catcher seems to be where most believe the Reds could make waves. Everyone believes they will go after Yasmani Grandal, with multiple outlets believing they’ll land his services. Shortstop is another area that most believe that Cincinnati will look at upgrading. And then there’s second base or the outfield, where Nick Senzel’s position flexibility lets the team look at both spots since he can slide from one to the other.

All of that to say that the team, on paper, has some pieces in place. It’s not perfect, and there need to be upgrades – but winning isn’t hard to see with a few additions. Ideally, the team could make the additions by simply spending the money on hand. Signing a Yasmani Grandal and a Didi Gregorius – while hoping Gregorius returns to the 2017-2018 version – probably puts the Reds where they want to be. And they wouldn’t have to necessarily “go all in” to make that happen. But what if they can only get one of those guys? And what if that guy is Gregorius, who is a lot less certain than Grandal? Then maybe you have to make a trade, and give up, in theory, “a part of the future”. A guy like Mookie Betts could be available. He’d do the trick, but wouldn’t come cheaply – both in terms of money, or in terms of what you’d have to give up to acquire him.

That’s the thing at hand, here. How much of “the future” are you willing to “give up” to win now? And is that worth it? I decided to go through the archives and take a look at every single Cincinnati Reds Top 10 Prospect from 2010-2019. In total, 47 players made the Top 10 list in that span (plenty of guys graced the Top 10 multiple times). Of those 47 players only two of them were traded away while still prospects and went on to post more than 6.0 WAR for their career to this point: Yasmani Grandal and Didi Gregorius. The players they got back in the trades they went sent away in? Mat Latos and Shin-Soo Choo. Those two players came to Cincinnati and took the team to the next level.

Players like Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Cozart, and Billy Hamilton all provided more than 10 WAR in their career (including time since leaving the Reds). And a few guys are still around that have a chance to make some impact (or have already but are early in their careers). Here’s the list:

Now, there is absolutely a point that plenty of players on this list haven’t been around long enough to rack up WAR. But take a look at that list. A lot of the players on it are never going to rack it up. And those were the top 10 guys in the system. 12 of the players on that list who have reached the Major Leagues and have less than 5 career WAR were Top 100 prospects in all of baseball.

WAR isn’t everything. I’m a believer that pitching WAR is kind of garbage as a stat and misses plenty of information regardless of whether you favor the Fangraphs or Baseball Reference version of it. I believe it undervalues relievers more than starters – but even with starters it can really miss out on some things. Still, it’s a decent guide to what we’re trying to figure out here – and that’s value.

Had the Cincinnati Reds traded away most of these prospects and in turn landed proven big league talent, it’s hard to see where they wouldn’t have come out ahead. Prospects aren’t just for the future of the franchise that originally acquired them. Sometimes they can be traded away to improve the team. You do need to be careful in which ones you move away, and for who. Everyone can think of a trade or ten off of the top of their head where twenty years, thirty year, forty years ago a Hall of Famer was traded for a deadline starter with a few months left on their deal. But by and large, that doesn’t happen.

The chances are that you might trade away a useful player, but you aren’t likely to be trading away a future star. The future you think of with a player probably isn’t likely to happen. Sometimes it does. Sometimes you are right that Yasmani Grandal is going to become Yasmani Grandal. But sometimes Devin Mesoraco’s get injured and it never truly comes to fruition. Sometimes a Luis Castillo, who was a good, but never elite prospect turns into Luis Castillo – Cy Young contender.

There’s more than one way to build a baseball team. There’s more than one way to win baseball games, too. What you need is good baseball players. It doesn’t matter if they came through your farm system. And it doesn’t matter if they came in via trades or free agency. What matters is that they are there.

Winning brings more winning. Winning brings in more money. Let’s go back a few decades at this point and look at what happened between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. Both teams made a similar type of move. For one franchise it altered their future. For the other, well, it didn’t. The Cardinals traded for a superstar slugger in Mark McGwire. And they were able to turn his chase for the home run record, and ultimately the home run record itself, into a huge season ticket base. That in turn led to a big uptick in revenue, which they then used to continue to add good players, and keep winning. Over and over this kept happening.

The Cincinnati Reds made a similar attempt at this in 2000 when they traded for Ken Griffey Jr. Unfortunately he couldn’t stay healthy, the winning never happened (not just because of his injuries – the organization as a whole was an absolute mess). Unlike the Cardinals, the Reds never built up that season ticket base. It’s led to them chasing the Cardinals, and much of baseball in terms of the ability to spend and they’ve always been trying to play catch up when it comes to having money to spend.

Today the money coming in has less to do with what happens at the front gate of the ballpark than it ever has before. Media deals – the television, radio, and online viewing bring in a big chunk of the teams money. But having sold a lot of tickets isn’t nothing. And people will actually show up to the game to watch a winner. They stay at home and watch or listen when the team is a loser.

The Cincinnati Reds are the only team that exists who has their all-time record for attendance that came prior to 1990. The Reds set their record in 1976. And while The Big Red Machine was indeed a truly great set of teams, that’s embarrassing. The next team on the list if the 1990 Oakland Athletics. Since Great American Ballpark opened in 2003 the highest season the team has had in terms of tickets sold was in 2013 and 2014 – after sustained winning, when they were just over 2,475,000. Neither ranks in the top 4 spots all time for the organization.

But let’s just use that as a base line for what to shoot for. Heck, let’s just round it up to a nice and even 2.5M tickets sold. You’re going to have to win to get there. And you’re going to have to show the fans that you are trying to win to even think about getting near there. In 2019 the Reds had all of 1,808,685 fans buy tickets. The difference between the 2019 attendance and 2.5M in attendance, at the 2019 average price of a ticket would mean an additional $16M. And that doesn’t account for a single penny spent on anything besides the ticket. No parking revenue. No merchandise revenue. Nothing spent on food. No future advertising sales in the ballpark because more people are going to see the ads – none of that. Pure ticket sales alone would be the going rate of a very good player.

But if you don’t win, you can’t grow that revenue stream very easily. There are only so many bars you can open up to get people to show up. Even for the high rollers to get a bar so fancy that they can have their own locker for wine is only going to do so much if you aren’t winning and no one wants to actually come down to the field and watch the team play.

It takes sustained winning to build up consistently good ticket sales. In some places that’s not enough – though places like Cleveland, Oakland, and Tampa are dealing with other issues, too. But Cincinnati has shown that they’ll support a winner. The problem is they simply haven’t had much of one for the better part of the last three decades.

Going all-in isn’t the best idea. At some point the Reds are going to have to rely on some prospects. But at some point the Reds need to actually try to win now. The future rarely comes otherwise. Last season saw Cincinnati sort of go for it, too. It didn’t work out. Alex Wood got hurt. Yasiel Puig had the lowest OPS+ of his career before he was traded away. The plan made sense. But it simply didn’t work.

There’s got to be some trust handed to the Reds front office to go with a plan of going all in or a plan to build for the future while not trying to win now. Both plans require faith that the people in charge can make more right decisions than wrong ones. If you’ve got faith that they can do that – then why would you not try to win now? If you don’t have faith that they can make the right decisions, well – none of this matters.

21 Responses

  1. CFD3000

    This is a fascinating topic, and you and Richard Fitch have made some interesting points. But it does indeed boil down to that last observation. If we trust the Front Office to make good decisions then the team moves forward with a blend of bold and prudent. The Reds win more games in 2020 than in 2019, they win more than they lose, and they at least have a shot at a playoff spot come September. And just as importantly, they start 2021 in a position to be better still. That’s a smart and achievable goal. But if the FO isn’t capable of sound planning and execution, this is all moot. We’ll just watch as the Reds flail through more years of disappointment.

    So here’s the Jason Linden opportunity for optimism: I like what I’m seeing from the front office. Yes, the Dodgers trade was largely a fail. Kyle Farmer was a utility godsend and emergency catcher extraordinaire, but Wood, Puig and Kemp (and Turner Ward) were all a fail. But almost everything else has been a win. Derek Johnson – as advertised. Senzel arrived, Aquino really arrived, JVM and Beef O’Grady are getting their shot and some of those guys will blossom for the Reds. Sonny Gray and the critical extension look fantastic right now. I’m confident Bauer will have us all clamoring for a 2021 contract by mid-year. This is already a better Reds team than in recent years, and there is more help on the way, through free agency spending (2-3 years of Grandal to bridge to Tyler S. please) and through the farm system – Greene, Lodolo, Santillan, and Reed, and India and Stephenson at the least, plus the development of JVM, Nick Senzel, and Aristides Aquino. Jason and I see a good team that’s getting better, under the management of a smarter FO than we’ve seen in quite awhile. So I think the philosophy of “Let’s win some now, then win a lot more later” is just the ticket. I for one cannot wait to see what’s coming this offseason. Bring it on!

    • Jefferson Green

      Amen, CFD. It is a good season for optimism, and this FO is different than those of 2008-18, and there are some indications that optimism is warranted. We will see if indeed the winning can follow, but I like the Reds’ chances a lot more now than two years ago.

  2. centerfield

    Something to keep in mind is the possibility of a work stoppage after the current CBA expires in 2021. Although this would be as insane as the previous one, I do think it will happen. MLB doesn’t compare favorably to other sports in terms team control and free agency. So maybe based on that premise, you go all in in 2020, before the rules change. On the other hand, if you “go far in the playoffs” and then there is a strike, there is very little to build on for the future. All-in or all-out?

  3. Richard Fitch

    I’m Richard Fitch and I approve this message.


    I don’t think Doug and I are that far apart. As he said, going all-in doesn’t exactly make sense now.

    Where I was really nodding my head was at the end–the plea to have faith in THIS front office. Decades of losing has led some folks to declare this group as nothing more than an extension of the old days. We’ve seen all kinds of proof that is simply not true. The results haven’t come yet because it takes time, especially when you’re rebuilding an entire organization from the ground up, as it appears the Reds are doing.

    IMO, the Reds have the dollar bills to improve this team dramatically without sacrificing a single top prospect. And that doesn’t mean blowing the budget on Rendon.

    Putting fannies in the seats is important, not just for the cash flow it generates, but for the culture of the clubhouse and the general PR around the league when they talk about the Reds. Splashy moves around a big name will certainly pump up the box office temporarily, but if that player costs too many prospects and is only around a year or two, or if the free agent commitment is so great that it stifles spending in other places, the sustainability necessary to create an atmosphere the St. Louis Cardinals have will be impossible.

    Just as it takes years during a rebuild, it takes years to rebuild attendance, to gain customers’ trust that the team is going to be good not just this year, but next year, too. That kind of trust is what drives season ticket sales. And a team thrives on it’s season ticket sales, not the walk-up window.

    The worst thing this front office could do is panic and think the fans won’t come back if things don’t take a dramatic improvement in 2020. That could lead to bad trades and silly spending, the kind the Padres made when they committed to an 8-year contract, paying him for his heroics in the 2015 World Series.

    Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen this off-season.

    • Jefferson Green

      I think this FO is too smart to make the Hosmer mistake, but wise use of resources is critical to longer term success.

    • Hanawi

      Isn’t this the same front office that made the Dodgers trade last year? Because that’s exactly what you describe in the 2nd to last paragraph. Trading extremely valuable future assets to try to pump up the win total for one year. It was an absolutely horrendous trade. The Bauer one doesn’t look much better either. Unless you believe in Bauer as a Cy Young candidate, they did not get nearly the value that they could have from trading a top 15-20 prospect in all of baseball.

      • Rich H

        Who is extremely valuable? Have Jeter Downs or Josiah Gray played a single game in the big leagues? And looking at what the players traded for should have been worth, versus what they actually did, are two different stories. Hindsight is 20/20 Hanawi, you have to be able to look at the process versus the results. And be objective enough to acknowledge we don’t even know if the trade has turned out horribly yet. If neither one of those prospects do anything important, that trade is a wash. Even if they do something, I still think that trade is completely justifiable, and the Reds should do it again. I also think that Trammel for Bauer (simplifying the trade) was more questionable, but there might be reason to think Bauer might be around for a few more years, and might be worth more than just his ERA and adjusted direct stats imply.

      • Hanawi

        They gave up 3 guys that are now top 100 prospects in baseball (which is the same number they still have in the organization fyi) plus another guy who would be top 10 in their org (Moss) for a utility infielder and Bauer. That’s the same front office that people are putting an awful lot of faith in right now. And those were basically made to try to win in 2019 (and maybe 2020) and get more people to park.

        Going to take awhile to wash the stink of those moves off for me. That’s all I’m saying.

      • JB

        Prospects. That’s all they are right now. Unless you can see into the future, they are nothing more than that. Trades can’t be graded until years down the road. It’s easier to criticize than have patience and wait to see if these trades are good or bad.

      • Rich H

        It would’ve been just as easy for Gray and Downs to have a down year and watch their value slip, than for them to have a good year and watch their value rise. Like Trammel did. All I’m saying is that we don’t have any idea how that will turn out; Billy Hamilton was a top prospect also, remember. If the results from the Dodgers trade is what it should’ve been on paper, the Reds contend last year and possibly have either 1 or 2 high comp picks, or Wood and maybe Puig for this year at least on qualifying offers. I think that the process of that trade was solid. I just don’t think that should be viewed as a stupid move, just one that didn’t work out.

  4. Jefferson Green

    It sounds like the combined article for you and Richard to write is ‘A Commitment to More Winning by Spending More and Making Opportunistic, but Prudent Moves’. Kinda has ring to it. Not. But I’m sure Richard will be able to say it in a creative and engaging line.

  5. Telecaster

    I’ll spend the reds $$ and give the bosox 30 million in savings this year and 50 million next year to make a run at mookie or reload. Reds get C. Sale and X. Boegarts. Bosox get N. Senzel, T.Bauer, and any other player not listed, possibly 2 players. List= Castillo, Gray, Saurez, Greene, India, Lodolo. Reds solidify there core for the next 3-4 years. Bosox get below luxury tax, one of there stated goals. They get young talent in Senzel, Bauer gives them a good rotation piece for next season, and I would guess they would add to there pen off Reds roster for third player.

  6. Steve Schoenbaechler

    Maybe for one season. But, not for successive seasons.

    I was thinking about that recently, about what the Reds should do. For example, with 2 starting pitchers going FA after the upcoming season, then Gray only signed for the season after that, with only Mahle and Castillo after that, it may be prudent for the Reds to cover their a** with getting a starting pitcher this off season, also. For I couldn’t help thinking back to our starting pitching when, several years ago, we had our 4 top pitchers lost to FA, didn’t cover are a** with any of them.

  7. TR

    Six years is enough to be non-competitive. No more rebuild. Ownership has revamped the Front Office led by Williams and Krall, so spend money on necessary free agents to give the Reds a winning look, especially on offense. Then, when there’s openings bring up young guys but not just to ride the pine. Certain prospects should be traded to keep the starting pitching and bullpen solid. Attendance will only increase when the Reds field a winning team and are competitive.

  8. Doc

    At this time last year, what win total was Zips projecting for the Reds in 2019?

  9. Aaron B.

    Am I the only one thinking Scooter? His asking price must be much lower than before, and really the Reds gave him an opportunity to play every day for the Giants so I am hoping there is no ill will, and Scooter loves the Reds, man if he could return to form that is a lot of extra offense. I think he can be had for a song compared to Didi and maybe even a better result who knows.

    • Michael Smith

      @Aaron B,

      I’d bring g him back on a minor league deal. If he rebounds great, if not we can cut our loses.

      P.s. this is assuming the reds do not bring in a centerfielder. If that happens then Senzel is at second

  10. Tom Mitsoff

    I hope you are correct about the transition to the Cleveland-Tampa-Oakland model. Those teams are in contention almost every year, with the occasional outlier which can happen in any sport due to injuries and other factors.

    I really hope the “tanking” model is on the way out. Baseball really needs to take a hard look at what effect having four teams with more than 100 losses has on every aspect of the business. Reds fans are fed up with the rebuild process, and surely the other fan bases that have been and will be going through it in the next few years feel the same.

  11. Tom Mitsoff

    I agree completely with Doug’s article. Going all-in would be trading the cream of the farm system for one year of Mookie Betts, which I am completely against. By the same token, the misperception exists out there that every one of the Reds top prospects is going to become a major league contributor, and Doug’s research above proves that is just not the case. Never has been, never will be. Grandal and Gregorius were traded to get major-league-ready pieces for a contending team. That’s part of the purpose of minor leaguers — assets that can be traded. There’s nothing wrong with bringing them back for two or three years to push this team to contending status.

    • Tom Mitsoff

      I’m not saying the Reds should forget player development. Just the opposite. Keep those great players coming through the pipeline that can help the big-league team or bring a needed veteran when the team is a contender.