More Evidence of Meddling

The Reds owner is doing a fair impression of George Steinbrenner instead of Bill DeWitt Jr., which doesn’t bode well for next season.

Here we go again. Three short weeks ago, I despaired in this space that Reds owner Bob Castellini was meddling too much in baseball operations:

I really do believe that Castellini genuinely wants nothing more than for the Reds to win, but sports history is riddled with owners who took too active a role in front office decision making, and the club almost always suffers for it. He hired Dick Williams and Nick Krall (and Sam Grossman, etc.) to make tough decisions. He should trust them and get out of their way. …

The upcoming off-season is the most important winter for the Cincinnati Reds in many years. The team will either make a commitment to win or they’ll settle for being also-rans for another season. Castellini and the ownership group need to make available the resources that will enable the commitment to win—whatever it takes—and then get out of the way.

As evidence of Castellini’s meddling, I cited reports that the owner is involving himself in long-term—and very important—decisions regarding interim manager Jim Riggleman, center fielder Billy Hamilton (also here), and second baseman Scooter Gennett. No sooner had the digital ink dried on that column than Castellini went and proved beyond all doubt that he is interfering in the daily operations on the baseball side of the Reds. And fans of this franchise have every right to be seriously concerned about what it means for future success on the field.

First, Castellini reportedly blocked a potential trade of Matt Harvey to the Milwaukee Brewers. Milwaukee claimed Harvey on waivers, so the team had 48 hours in which to negotiate a deal (or the Reds could pull him back off waivers). With the deadline looming, reports started to surface that Castellini was the road block.

From Jon Heyman: “Sources: ultimately, reds owner bob castellini did not want to trade matt harvey. which may well mean reds try to sign him as a free agent.” (Link and quote is from Twitter, where Heyman frequently forgets basic rules of grammar and capitalization.)

From ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick: “I’m not sure if this was the deciding factor in the Reds hanging onto Matt Harvey after the Brewers claimed him. But word is that owner Bob Castellini ‘loves’ Harvey, who has done a nice job of rehabilitating his image as a teammate in Cincinnati. Harvey is staying put.”

Oh no. Reasons for trading Harvey are easy to see. I outlined some of them here, but mostly it comes down to the fact that Harvey is not going to be on the next good Reds team. Sure, the Reds need to acquire pitching before next season, but the last thing they need to do is waste precious dollars on a 30-year-old pitcher who (a) has had surgeries on his shoulder and his elbow, (b) was recently cut by one of the worst teams in baseball, and (c) has been well below average even in his time with Cincinnati.

From a baseball standpoint, hanging on to Harvey isn’t a huge impediment to the rebuild. Sure, it means that Cincinnati will be giving him starts that should be going to a young pitcher, but that’s not a huge deal. But what it says about the inner workings of the team’s front office should frighten even the most reasonable Reds partisans.

Think about it: The baseball operations department (GM Nick Krall and President Dick Williams) knew that Harvey needed to be traded. That’s the correct baseball decision, but Castellini evidently overruled them. And because the owner has fallen in love with an aging pitcher who used to be good, there’s a chance that he’ll be signed to a free agent contract this winter. That would be a disaster.

But wait! It gets even worse. In an interview this week, Riggleman revealed that Castellini pops into the manager’s office to discuss strategy:

“He’ll come in and say, ‘Jim, why’d you do this? What are you thinking here? Why are we doing this?’ I like it. I’d rather hear it from him than hear things from people and me not having a chance to respond. That’s really what it’s about.

“He’ll come and express what he’s happy about with players and what he’s disappointed in. I can give my opinions on why we did what we did in the game and my thoughts on the players. I enjoy it.”

This is Riggleman’s fifth stint as a big-league manager, but the owner back-and-forth is entirely new.

“Maybe this would be odd to people who read your paper, but I had never spoken to an owner,” Riggleman said. “Any place I managed there’s either been corporate ownership or there (have) been owners that just didn’t come in and talk to me.”

Not only is Big Bob meddling with front office decision-making, he’s sticking his nose into on-field decisions as well. This is getting out of control.

Listen, I get that Castellini is a fan and wants to deliver on those promises he made to the fans back in 2006. He has been very successful in other walks of life, and I’m sure being a hands-on executive has worked for him in his business endeavors. But he doesn’t know baseball, and it’s baffling that he won’t give freedom to the smart baseball guys that he employs to, you know, make smart baseball decisions.

The Riggleman interview came as part of a piece about how the Reds want to model “The Cardinal Way.” Certainly, the St. Louis Cardinals have been very successful for a long time. But perhaps Bob Castellini should try mimicking the behavior of Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., who lives near Cincinnati and whose father was the architect of Cincinnati’s 1961 National League pennant winning “Ragamuffin Reds.” DeWitt hired a bunch of really smart baseball guys with all manner of advanced degrees and expertise. In the process, he fired the general manager who was hostile to analytics, Walt Jocketty, who is now employed by Castellini. After hiring those guys, DeWitt got out of the way. Seriously, he lets them do their job. And it’s worked beautifully.

Over at Redleg Nation this week, Steve Mancuso contrasted the approaches of Castellini and DeWitt:

You know what you never read about the Cardinals? About how players X or Y couldn’t be traded because Bill DeWitt loved them. About how players X and Y were getting an extension because of the owner’s personal judgment. You might make the case that sentimentality got the better of the Cardinals in their recent 3-year extension deal with catcher Yadier Molina. But Molina is earning his $20 million this year. …

Finally, it isn’t the case that just because a team has an analytics department it therefore doesn’t matter whether the manager is adept at modern thinking about how to win baseball games. The manager has to be engaged and comfortable with using new information and ideas. One need only look at the 2018 Reds to see that. The gulf between their analytics-oriented front office and the way Riggleman manages can be observed from outer space. Certainly from Bill DeWitt’s office window.

If the Reds want to catch up in the win column by using the Cardinal Way, they need to take a closer look at the owner’s box, not bunting practice.

The Cincinnati Reds are on the verge of losing 90-plus games for a fourth consecutive season. In the 65 seasons from 1950 to 2014, the Reds had four total seasons with 90-plus losses. (Is this the #PositiveMomentum we were promised?)

Castellini acknowledged earlier this year that he wouldn’t let the front office begin the rebuilding process back in 2014-15 by blocking trades of certain players before the All-Star Game. And now the Reds are spinning their wheels at an important moment in the rebuild because the owner is continuing to meddle in areas that he just doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies—who began their rebuilding machinations at the same time as the Reds—are fighting for a playoff spot. The Reds, in contrast, are in last place. Again.

Castellini’s legacy is that he’s presided over one of the worst stretches of losing baseball in the history of the Cincinnati Reds. His fingerprints are all over every single loss and every single curious decision this franchise has made over the last four years. But that doesn’t have to be his ultimate legacy. If he’ll just get out of the way, Castellini has some good baseball minds in his employ. I trust those guys to make the important decisions that need to be made this winter, decisions that could lead the Reds back to an era of winning baseball.

What the Reds need is an owner who behaves like Bill DeWitt Jr., someone who understands that he is the steward of a public trust and commits to doing what is best for the team, whether that strokes his ego or not. What the Reds have is an owner who acts more like George Steinbrenner, or at least a version of Steinbrenner that you wouldn’t mind inviting to a cocktail party. It’s not a recipe for success.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available now in bookstores and online.

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