Bryan Price Never Had a Chance

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On October 1, 2013, the Cincinnati Reds’ season ended. Three days later, Dusty Baker was fired as the team’s manager. Seventeen days after Baker was dismissed, Reds owner Bob Castellini, general manager Walt Jocketty, & Co. selected their next skipper.

The Reds’ brass only needed one interview to find the right man for the job, someone who could not only guide Cincinnati to the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons, but propel the Reds past the first round of the playoffs.

“I was convinced that Bryan was our guy just because of the past association we’ve had with him,” Jocketty said at the press conference introducing Reds’ pitching coach Bryan Price as the franchise’s 61st manager. “I think that to bring other people in just for the process of going through an interview—to me, I wouldn’t want that.”

In that same press conference, Castellini used the word “exceptional” to describe Price on at least two occasions.

“I can’t tell you how well this has fit in for us. We did not have to go out and do a search,” Castellini said. “We had the person we felt could take this team deep into the postseason and then some.”

Fast forward about seven months to July 14, 2014, and the Price-led Reds entered the All-Star Break at 51-44, a game-and-a-half out of first place in the NL Central. All seemed well.

In the 22 months to follow, the Reds have gone 103-160.

When Castellini officially became the Reds’ majority owner a little more than a decade ago, the development may have been the most important moment in the franchise’s history since the 1990 World Series championship.

“We’re buying the Reds to win,” Castellini said on January 20, 2006. “Anything else is unacceptable.”

After Reds’ fans suffered through the excessive frugality displayed by previous owners Marge Schott and Carl Linder, Castellini backed up his talk by opening up his wallet. In attempt to preserve the winner his front office created over the first half of this decade, Castellini doled out a combined $324 million to Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips in April 2012, and rewarded Homer Bailey with a $105 million deal in February 2014. In the days leading up to the 2014 season, the Reds’ payroll was reportedly just over $112 million, the highest in club history.

But over the next year, Castellini and Jocketty tightened the budget and pursued a path of discount shopping. And that course of action doomed any chance that Price, their Perfect Fit, had at fulfilling the imposing task ahead of him.

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Entering the 2014 offseason, any sane baseball mind knew that the likelihood of the Reds retaining Shin-Soo Choo—the club’s center fielder/leadoff hitter who finished 2013 second in the National League in on-base percentage (behind Votto)—was unlikely. Choo, a free agent, was going to net an expensive multi-year deal—he eventually landed a seven-year, $130 million contract from the Texas Rangers—and letting him walk was a prudent business move by Cincinnati.

But instead of replacing Choo with one or two free agents with some on-base chops, the Reds elected for the economical and misguided route, handing the job to Billy Hamilton despite the fact that Hamilton, a rookie, had yet to prove he could reach base in a consistent fashion in Triple-A. The Reds also provided Hamilton—the minor league’s single-season stolen base champ—with no certifiable backup to push him. Predictably, Hamilton was a disaster, finishing with one of the worst on-base percentages in the majors despite ranking second on the team with 611 plate appearances.

And instead of bringing in legit competition for left fielder Ryan Ludwick, who was entering his age-35 season and had undergone a major shoulder operation in 2013, the Reds were content with flawed in-house competition (Chris Heisey) and to supply 34-year-old utility player Skip Schumaker a $5 million contract. In 2014, Reds’ left fielders—with Ludwick, Heisey, and Schumaker combining for nearly 86 percent of the plate appearances—ranked dead last in the majors in adjusted run creation and were second-to-last in Fangraphs’ measure of Wins Above Replacement.

When the Reds lost nine of 10 games post-All Star Break and were dire need of an potential upgrade or two, the front office that fancied its club a contender sat back and watched as the season spiraled out of control: Cincinnati finished the second half with a record of 25-42. The strategy was an unusual way for Castellini and Jocketty to show their support for Price.

Heading into 2015, the Reds still believed contention was feasible. But, again, the club’s decision-makers raided baseball’s bargain bins, bringing in 36-year-old Marlon Byrd from the Phillies to play left field, 36-year-old Jason Marquis to pitch in the rotation (Marquis hadn’t pitched in the majors in two years), and relievers Burke Badenhop (on paper, actually a solid move) and Kevin Gregg (on paper, a dumpster fire of a move) to shore up the bullpen.

None of the patchwork paid off—Marquis and Gregg were abject disasters—and through 50 games the Reds were 22-28 and 11 games out of first place.

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It would be completely unfair to note all of this without also addressing the Reds’ horrible injury luck since Price’s hiring.

In 2014, Votto was limited to 62 games because of leg injuries. Jay Bruce, playing through a knee malady, slashed a ghastly .217/.281/.373. Injuries also undermined the pitching staff, with Aroldis Chapman not appearing until mid-May and Mat Latos not debuting until mid-June. Tony Cingrani was limited to 11 starts, and when the lefty did pitch, he averaged five walks per nine innings. After hitting the disabled list in mid-August, Bailey missed the rest of the season. Ace reliever Sean Marshall was confined to 14 innings.

(The upshot to those injuries was that 13 starts were made by four Reds’ immortals: Dylan Axelrod, Daniel Corcino, Jeff Francis, and David Holmberg.)

The injury epidemic continued in 2015, as Bailey made only two starts before he required season-ending Tommy John surgery, Devin Mesoraco played in just 23 games, and Zack Cozart was lost for the year after 53 games. The Reds finally admitted a teardown was in order by late July, and have since shipped out Byrd, Chapman, Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, and Mike Leake.

This season, the Reds’ roster has been reduced to rubble. On a nightly basis, Price must navigate a historically-inept bullpen and trot out one of the majors’ worst offenses.

The good news for Price is that if the Reds decide to not offer him a new contract after his current deal expires at the end of the season, there are 16 current MLB managers—excluding those whose first managing jobs were interim gigs—who are in at least their second stint leading a big league club. (Though to be fair, not all of them were fired/let go from their first jobs.)

Some of Price’s lineup and bullpen decisions were head-scratching, and his defining moment as Reds’ manager may be his F-bomb-heavy tirade from April 2015. But if this is indeed Price’s only shot, the human side of me would feel melancholy for the former pitcher who reached Triple-A on multiple occasions but had his career end at age 27 before reaching the majors.

Price never got his shot to play in the big leagues, and in retrospect, he never stood a chance to continue the winning ways the Reds enjoyed under Baker. After years of investing into the big league club, the Reds’ higher-ups decided that enough money had been spent. The Reds suddenly became a brittle bunch, the core aged seemingly overnight, and an overdue rebuild was finally initiated.

And you know what, that’s a f—— shame.

Grant Freking writes for Redleg Nation, Land-Grant Holy Land, and is a regular contributor to Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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