The final scene of the film Cast Away has Tom Hanks’ stoic and heroic Chuck Noland in the middle of a dusty Texas road, the camera barefaced and unapologetically revealing a man standing not just figuratively, but literally at the crossroads, as if we hadn’t already gotten the message at the end of reel three. When the news came over the transom that Dick Williams was stepping down as President of Baseball Operations and Chief Bottle Washer, I thought of Chuck, looking in one direction, then another, as he contemplates the future and what it might portend. While I’m pretty sure of our protagonist’s next move, the hint of a smile creeping across his face as the screen fades to black, I’ve got nothing when contemplating the road Williams—and the Cincinnati Reds—will head down now.
Teams have gone down one alleyway before, only to backtrack to head down the familiar thruway with more Sheetz truck stops, the highway with recognizable billboards and reliable rest stops, i.e., the road more comfortably traveled. The Boston Red Sox forged a solid foundation under Ben Cherington’s leadership, building a farm system nonpareil, only to show the young GM the door, bringing in Dave Dombrowski. The ex-Detroit Tiger leader’s sole aspiration was jumping onto the HOV lane, stepping on the accelerator, and spending Cherington’s prospect gelt and owner John Henry’s money in pursuit of a quick championship. The end result left the farm system barren and owner Henry unwilling to continue spending to keep perhaps the second-best player in baseball, Mookie Betts.
Why? Possibly because he’d lavished so much extravagance on counterfeit services, the best example being one Pablo Sandoval and his overstuffed $95M contract. The day an overweight Panda swung at a pitch and broke his belt, his corpulence spilling out of his uniform—well, it was a fitting metaphor for the way a baseball organization, bursting at the seams with wealth in both cash and prospects, was willing to stuff itself with talent options. Dombrowski
bought brought the Red Sox a World Championship, plus two seasons wielding the highest payroll in the game. He finished by rewarding his 2018 heroes with gluttonous extensions in celebration before pushing back from the table. Having done all that, Dombrowski’s reward was to get fired himself, his skills no longer suited to the difficult task of rebuilding an organization from the ashes of bad contracts and a depleted farm system. Owner Henry’s zigging—then zagging—should be a reminder of what the rich do when money is at stake and the unexpected occurs.
Baseball lost money, gobs of it, in 2020. From the owners’ perspective, the money spigot was completely shut off until late July, and only then turned back on to a relative trickle with only cardboard fan cutouts and perhaps some branded face masks to keep the masses connected, and—oh, forgive me—pour a little money back into their purses.
You don’t have to be Colonel Mustard to see the clues all around. The above-mentioned Red Sox had no interest in building their future around Mookie. Cleveland see little value in one last season of Francisco Lindor, one of the best players the game has to offer. The Chicago Cubs, still hungover following their long-awaited championship, now have no real desire to keep Yu Darvish. The Tampa Bay Rays, a bat flip away from a World Series championship, traded away their best pitcher. Baseball has gone into a full retreat as the immediate future of the game remains murkier than ever.
Yet, baseball has almost always been awash in money. Long before Amazon, Netflix, and Zoom reaped gigantic rewards in a world suddenly sequestered in their homes, Major League Baseball was feeding voraciously at the money-trough, raking in almost half a billion more in 2019 than they had the year before, the 17th straight year of record profits. Nevertheless, while some focus on Forbes franchise valuations and the eventual windfall ownership groups will pocket at the time of sale as an argument that owners should continue to spend, and spend bigly, an important point is missed: that’s not how the rich operate. While the rest of us would take our Lotto winnings and spend it on god knows what, the rich take their windfalls and put them into the service of making even more money. When a venture isn’t returning the expected profit, the checkbooks close. The rich version of austerity is a tin of roe poolside at home instead of beluga caviar overlooking Central Park at Per Se.
They look ahead and see another season with limited attendance, at best. Unbelievably, the pandemic is worse today than it was at its horrific beginning almost a year ago, displaying a shaking and swaying of the world’s infirmity. Vaccines are scarce and many may refuse to take them. Even if a large swath of the country gets vaccinated by summer, how many will be willing to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbors? How many who have suffered financially will have the disposable income to flock back to baseball and its $5 hotdogs and $14 beers?
There’s more. Beyond the 2021 season, baseball’s one-tenth of one percent see a collective bargaining agreement that expires in the weeks following the next World Series. The rich guys see another work stoppage on the horizon, possibly as early as the middle of the upcoming 2021 season, as players look to regain the position lost over the years while the owners keep their books hidden and cry poverty.
Availing myself (regrettably) of talk radio last week, I was treated to the sound of the iHeartRadio shofar bleating out the tired unvarnished tune of another rebuild on the horizon at Great American Ballpark.
The most hated. The most reviled. The word banished from our local lexicon just a season ago and the mournful melody it provokes is back on the deejay platter, spinning itself into hearts and minds across the tri-state, because of course it is.
The Reds have indeed begun shedding salary. Gone are Raisel Iglesias, Archie Bradley, Curt Casali, Brian Goodwin, and Robert Stephenson. None of those players materially change the Reds’ fortunes. It’s the Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Eugenio Suárez rumors that are freaking out the fanbase. Right now, it’s nothing more than conjecture, but the fact that Reds’ brass are listening intently may tell us something.
That something may not be “rebuild,” but likely a pause while they wait for the game and it’s power struggle to shake out. Also, the playoff expansion has made winning the division less important. If all you have to do is “get in,” maybe spending more to secure dominance in the form of a division title becomes less important. If the Players Association, weary of six years of player servitude only to be told as free agents that no one is willing to pay for past performance, decide to strike in say, August, well …
Last off-season, Williams made a Moustakas withdrawal from the owner’s ATM and received a paltry 139 ABs for his splurge. The dollars for Castellanos came with a disappointing exchange rate of 0.1 WAR. After a season of silent turnstiles and the likelihood they will turn slowly, if at all, next spring, Bob Castellini and other MLB owners appear to be skittish about further spending. The value signings of Gray and Suarez that were supposed to power the team going forward could easily be wasted to circumstances beyond the Reds’ control.
Steve Cohen, the new rich guy on the block, has something to prove to New York Mets fans, so it’s no surprise he’d take advantage of Cleveland, snatch Lindor and perhaps sign him long term. The Toronto Blue Jays $150M commitment to George Springer adds to the widespread belief “there’s gold in them thar hills” not just out west in Dodgertown and Arte Moreno’s Big A, but up north in Canada and east in Flushing, Queens, too. Right now, these guys are still outliers.
I wonder what Philadelphia ownership is thinking now, having traded away their best pitching prospect and more for another non-winning season with J.T. Realmuto, followed by 47 games and less than 200 plate appearances in 2020. Just guessing, but I’d bet the Reds are glad they kept Hunter Greene when so many were clamoring to send him on his way for two short years of the much sought-after catcher.
While some were fretting about a wide-ranging search for his replacement before it was announced that Nick Krall was taking over Williams’ role as head of operations, I keep coming back to something owner Bob Castellini said to Paul Daugherty in the first month of the 2018 season when he was asked if he’d been too involved with baseball operations, and quickly cut the question off:
“No. It’s bull. We make decisions collectively. When we meet, we all give our opinions. I will come in and say, this is what I think we ought to do. If I don’t get a lot of opposition, we make the decision based on what I say. I do not get overly involved in our operations.’’
We don’t know what the owner’s relationship will be with Krall relative to the relatively free rein he gave to Williams. It likely doesn’t matter much at this moment. Baseball’s uncertain future has turned the sport upside down.
It’s entirely possible the Reds are going to lean heavily on their development team now, mine the gold within the organization, rather than spin the wheel on established performers who are getting long in the tooth. Trevor Bauer may be gone, but he leaves behind Kyle Boddy and a new way of doing things. It’s not a stretch to think that his eccentric and trailblazing way of preparing to play the game has rubbed off on not just his fellow players, but people up and down the organization. Remember, the Dodgers may have spent money, but they also found forgotten players like Max Muncy, who turned himself into a star by changing his approach at the plate. When folks talk admiringly of the way the Tampa Bay Rays do things, whether they know it or not, they’re not just talking about the eye they have for talent, but also their ability to develop it. If that’s where the Reds are moving, call it what you will, just don’t call it a rebuild.
Back to Dick Williams now, standing in the middle of his own dusty crossroads before taking off for what he hopes are greener pastures. It’s an odd time for a man who just ascended to the right hand of the throne to suddenly step down just as the organization was moving in the right direction. At 49, he’s young. He’s not retiring, but in his own words, moving on to other family ventures. Personal and professional considerations aside, you have to think he saw the very uncertain landscape before him, the decisions he knew the owner was going to make—and decided to head down a more familiar road once traveled.