The words hang over the ballpark like a shroud. They hang over the entire season, really. With every late summer Mike Minor pitch, every Colin Moran swing of the bat, it comes in whispers, like a voice out of the corn in that baseball movie:
aligning payroll with resources
The response sticks in the craw, choking the tongue of the weary fan. It does for me. Then the Milwaukee Brewers did the unthinkable. They traded Josh Hader in the middle of a divisional race, one they were in the thick of, because as president of baseball operations, David Stearns said:
“Consistent competitiveness leads to a World Series. That is how you win a World Series, is you give yourself as many chances in the playoffs as you can possibly have. We believe that. I think that is the right approach. It is the approach that I have tried to set this organization up for since my time here. We are trying to avoid the ‘boom or bust’ cycle.”
This was right out of the new Castellini manifesto, unartfully translated by Nick Krall as “eliminating peaks and valleys.” Krall went on to say, “We want to create a model of long-term success that is sustainable. Whether it starts today, tomorrow or whenever.”
Phil Castellini’s words, followed by Krall’s utterances lost much of the fan base. In Bernie Brewer land, Stearn was in danger of losing his clubhouse. Pitcher Eric Lauer was blunt:
“It didn’t send us the right message from the upstairs people trying to say, like, ‘We’re doing this and we’re trying to put you guys in the best position and we’re trying to win right now with you guys.’ It seemed more of a, ‘We’re trying to develop for the future.’”
Nothing changes the fact that the Reds had a playoff team not long ago and could have built on that with some savvy moves and a commitment to spending. The Reds are limited in what they can do to be sure. Nevertheless, they are not poor.
One could be persuaded to see the validity of this new “Reds Way,” even if it only feels like a faded blueprint of the Tampa model. David Stearns has been viewed as a more than capable front office guy, one who has his share of admirers for his stewardship of the Brewers organization, keeping them in contention year-in, year-out. It gives one pause, even as Milwaukee has struggled, falling behind the Cardinals; even as the Hader trade has so far been a train wreck for both the Brewers and the Padres. Front offices perceived as smarter than the one here in Cincinnati are moving similar chess pieces in an effort to compete with the handful of affluent teams that are swallowing up all the difference-makers in the game—the Gerrit Coles, the Mookie Betts, the Scherzers and the deGroms.
I want to jump on board with the new plan. Krall has done his part, and done it well. But “aligning payroll with our resources” hangs over everything going forward.
Fourteen years separate 2010 and 2024. If you look aslant in the direction of 2024, you can—with fond remembrance—see that magical breakout season, the one that saw the window crack open and the fresh air that signaled seasons of promise, the ones that never really came to fruition.
So while others cast their eyes toward 2024, I see next season as perhaps the biggest indicator of where the Reds are headed as an organization in both mind and spirit. And I see Mike Moustakas as the canary in the coal mine.
Yoda could tell you: spend money the Reds must. They are unlikely to do so next season. But they can do the next best thing. They can eat the rest of Moustakas’s contract, make room for the future. Get on with the business of finding out who belongs in 2024. None of that is likely to happen if Moose comes east from Goodyear next spring.
If ownership isn’t willing to eat the last year of the Moustakas contract, if they insist on penny-pinching, squeezing the orange for very little juice, it will be more than just an inauspicious beginning. It may be a signal that they never spend the way they will surely need to, not just in 2023, but ever. It could lead to another lost decade. Another unweeded garden going to seed. More thrift, more funeral baked meats furnishing the next morning’s marriage table.
Fie on it.