A Winter of Hard Choices Is Coming

The Reds need to heed lessons from successful rebuilding efforts by the Braves, Brewers, A’s, and Indians.

Once again, our beloved Cincinnati Reds (although perhaps not as beloved as they once were) have lost 90-plus games. It’s the fourth consecutive season we’ve said that, and it makes my head hurt every time. Sadly, the ol’ Redlegs will once again not be participating in the Major League Baseball playoffs. (How do I insert a sad emoji here for the kids?)

I like baseball and the playoffs are a lot of fun, so I’ll be watching with interest. As Cincinnati’s management turns the page to next season, however, I hope they’re watching the playoffs carefully and taking notes. Because they just might be able to learn a thing or two from the teams still playing.

Atlanta Braves: Let the Kids Play
In a surprise to most everyone, Atlanta won its division and is returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Sound familiar? That’s the last time the Reds made the playoffs, so these clubs began their rebuilding process at approximately the same time. Early in its rebuild, however, Atlanta was aggressive in making trades to collect talented minor league players while Reds owner Bob Castellini wouldn’t let his baseball guys trade Todd Frazier or Aroldis Chapman for minor league assets because he had the 2015 All-Star Game to worry about.

There’s nothing the Reds can do about that at this point, but the Reds can certainly emulate the way Atlanta supercharged its rebuild by calling up the organization’s talented kids in 2018 and letting them play.

  • Age 20: Four 20-year-olds played for the Braves this season, including superstar-in-waiting Ronald Acuna.
  • Age 21: Two players, including All-Star Ozzie Albies.
  • Age 22: Two players, including pitcher Touki Toussaint, who was traded to Atlanta from Arizona in one of those early-rebuild deals with our old friend Bronson Arroyo in exchange for … wait for it … another former Red, Phil Gosselin.
  • Age 23: Two players.
  • Age 24: Two players, who constitute the right side of Atlanta’s infield.

That’s eight players under the age of 23 who saw time with Atlanta this year and won the NL East. Guess how many kids under 23 played for the Reds in 2018? If you guessed zero, you’re correct, and you can pick up your prize at the Fan Accomodation Station. The Reds did have one 23-year-old participate in the fun and games this year, Tyler Mahle, and gave significant playing time to Jose Peraza and Jesse Winker, both age 24 (though reluctantly in the case of Winker).

The point here is not to show how much better the Braves have conducted their rebuilding process than the Reds—though that’s true, of course, even if we ignore their former GM’s cheating. It’s really a plea for the Reds to get serious about pushing their top prospects through the system and getting them on the field at Great American Ball Park. Nick Senzel, one of the best prospects in baseball (who turns 24 next June), needs to be on the Opening Day roster. Tony Santillan (who will be 22 next year) needs to be in the mix for the Reds rotation immediately. Taylor Trammell (age 21) needs to be on the radar to make his Cincinnati debut sometime next year. Same for Shed Long (23) and Jose Siri (23).

Milwaukee Brewers: Be Aggressive During the Winter
The Brewers haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2011, but they’re back this year after deciding to energize their rebuilding process by being very aggressive last winter. They traded away four outstanding prospects for Christian Yelich, who was 26, under team control for five more years, and already a star. He’s now a potential MVP. Shortly thereafter, they signed free agent Lorenzo Cain to a five-year contract, identifying a hole on their roster and spending money to fill it.

Like Atlanta, Milwaukee was far more willing than Cincinnati to turn over their roster via trade early in their rebuild. This winter, however, it would do the Reds well to emulate Milwaukee’s sense of urgency last off-season. The Reds need to acquire at least two starting pitchers, either via trade or free agency. It may require trading some of the minor league talent that’s been amassed over the last few years, and it may require spending a lot of Castellini’s money—but if the Reds want to prove they’re as serious as the division-rival Brewers, that’s what it’s going to take.

Oakland Athletics: Hire Smart Guys and Get Out of the Way
Both the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds finished in last place each year from 2015 to 2017. The 2018 Athletics are more than 30 games over .500 right now and heading back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Reds, well, you know. Last place. Again.

The A’s began the season with the smallest payroll in baseball and play in a dumpster fire of a stadium. But what they do have is a brilliant tactician pulling the strings in the front office. Oakland VP of baseball operations Billy Beane is famous for the Moneyball A’s, but 2018 appears to be another example of him going out and acquiring undervalued guys who are producing.

Look no further than the pitching staff. In an era when strikeouts are king, Beane has crafted a pitching staff that has the third-worst strikeout percentage in all of baseball. But that same staff gets ground ball after ground ball—in the American League, only the Astros and Rays induce more grounders—and those pitchers are complemented by the third-best defensive team in all of MLB, according to FanGraphs.

There are plenty of other examples of the A’s still finding ways to exploit market inefficiencies, but the reason it continues to happen—and this will be the ninth time since 2000 that Beane has figured out a way to get the A’s into the playoffs—is because he is left to his own devices. He has an owner who commits far fewer resources to the team than Castellini does in Cincinnati, but they still win.

I continue to believe that the Reds have smart guys in place, from president of baseball operations Dick Williams to GM Nick Krall to Assistant GM Sam Grossman. Castellini needs to get out of their way, and it needs to happen now (if not sooner).

Cleveland Indians: No Small Market Teams
Let’s stay close to home for this one. The Indians are back in the playoffs for the third consecutive season, and fourth in the last six. Cleveland has had winning records and finished no lower than third in the AL Central every season since 2012. In the 2016 Collective Bargaining Agreement, Cleveland was listed as the 25th biggest market in baseball, while Cincinnati was 28th.

While Reds owners in the past have used market size as an excuse, it is becoming increasingly clear that it’s not as big an obstacle as we’ve been led to believe. Jason Linden has written about this topic here at the Magazine, and Henry Druschel addressed it well at Beyond the Box Score. Druschel, in a piece entitled “There’s No Such Thing As a Small Market Team,” put it in this context:

There’s certainly a relationship, which might lend credence to the idea that measures of market size are picking up on something real about the ability to spend of each team. But here are the biggest positive outliers over that period, teams that have spent more than their market size would suggest: the Cardinals, who have a .555 winning percentage since 2005, third-highest in MLB; the Tigers, who have a .525 winning percentage, eighth-highest; and the Red Sox, who have a .539 winning percentage, fourth-highest. In other words, the simplest way for teams to break out of their market size limits is the obvious one: win a lot. Winning teams have fans, in their area and around the world, and those fans give that team money which that team can then spend. Being a small-market team is not a badge of inferiority that certain teams have to carry throughout life like a scarlet letter; it’s the product of choices, usually made by the owner, to scrimp and save, to not sign free agents, and to not try as hard as possible to win. That’s what makes a small-market team, not where they happen to play.

It’s very simple. Does Bob Castellini want to commit to delivering on his promise to bring championship baseball back to Cincinnati? Fans are growing impatient, and I’m not sure anyone can endure another season like this one, a season of what I (somewhat charitably) described as “incremental progress” in the Reds’ seemingly-endless roster rebuild.

Can we trust Reds ownership and management to make the smart, aggressive moves to get the club into contention next year? Can we trust the owner to stop meddling? Judging by what we saw in 2018, my sad analysis is this: Don’t bet the ranch on it. They certainly don’t seem to have a readily identifiable strategy like the playoff teams above, as far as I can tell.

On the other hand, if the Reds commit to doing things like the Braves, the Brewers, the Athletics, and the Indians, maybe, just maybe, Cincinnati will be preparing for a playoff run 12 months from now.

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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