Is Ownership Meddling in Baseball Operations?

Bob Castellini can best lead the Reds’ rebuild by getting out of the way.

Last week, I opined thusly: Dick Williams is a smart guy. Reds general manager Nick Krall is smart. There is no reason to believe they don’t understand the perils of short-term decision-making at this crucial moment in the rebuild. Whether their hands are being tied by ownership is another question entirely.
It’s that last sentence I want to address this week. More precisely: Do the Cincinnati Reds have an ownership problem?

If we were to open up this question to the segment of Reds fans who are also talk radio listeners and/or deep thinkers on Twitter dot com, the answer would be a resounding YES. But the overwhelming reason given by that crowd would boil down to one word: money. I’ve heard the refrain more times than I care to count: Bob Castellini cares more about bobble-head nights than he cares about spending money on the team.

To those fans, let me be clear: I think the Cincinnati Reds may very well have an ownership problem, but it has little to do with money.

We can debate the issue, but from 2010 through 2015 Castellini opened the checkbook; money was not a huge issue. In more recent years, the ownership team has footed the bill for a number of enhancements to the Reds’ minor league and international operations. Listen, I lived through the Carl Lindner era of Cincinnati Reds ownership. Bob Castellini’s Reds are light-years ahead of where we were under Lindner’s ownership, in terms of willingness to spend money. The argument that he won’t put money into the team is just inaccurate, as far as I can tell.

(Can he spend more? Some have made good arguments about why Castellini could and should invest even more heavily in improving the Reds roster. I’m generally pretty uncomfortable telling other people how to spend their money. On the other hand, if Castellini won’t pay for pitching help this off-season, I will probably be inclined to revisit this discussion.)

Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve seen increasing instances of a perceived divide between the Reds’ ownership group and the Baseball Operations department. The most recent example came late last week, in the form of this report from reporter Jon Heyman: Word going around is that Reds owner Bob Castellini is a big fan of interim manager Jim Riggleman, which should give him a good chance to keep his job. The Reds haven’t said anything officially yet, but it also shouldn’t hurt that he has done a terrific job at the helm.

First things first: Opinions are divided about Heyman, and this is just a throwaway paragraph in a “Notes” column. We have no idea who Heyman’s source is, or even if he has a source. Also, this phrasing: “Word going around is….” What does that even mean? It’s quite possible that this is much ado about nothing. After all, he can’t even get the facts straight—the Reds have, in fact, said something officially. President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams has said repeatedly that the Reds will be doing a full-scale search for a manager in the off-season.

But let’s presume for a moment that Heyman’s “report” is true. If Bob Castellini is meddling in this decision—or any baseball operations decisions—this is a matter of serious concern for the Reds going forward.

I don’t have any problem with Castellini being a big fan of Jim Riggleman. They’re both old-school guys, and the Reds have certainly won more games under Riggleman than they’d won prior. But to the extent that their mutual admiration society conflicts with the Reds’ best interests, Castellini should defer to the people he hired to make baseball decisions, specifically Williams and GM Nick Krall.

Now this decision hasn’t been made yet, and I try really hard not to get upset with the Reds about dumb things they haven’t even done yet. But on the surface, this episode seemingly fits into a pattern that should make a hardcore Reds fan sit up and begin nervously chewing on his or her fingernails.

Another example for you, dear reader. Eighteen months ago, Castellini is reported to have made this statement: “I hope Billy Hamilton is with us forever.” In a vacuum, this is harmless. I’m Hamilton’s biggest fan. Sure, he has serious flaws to his game, but I love watching him rob hits with the glove and speed around the basepaths like he was driving the Mach 5. I understand why someone would become enamored with him.

The people making the decisions about whether to keep or trade Hamilton, however, can’t be influenced by passion or emotion. They have to look at the numbers, see what his value is on the trade market, listen to scouts, and try to make the best decision based on as much information as they can gather. That should decidedly not include the personal sentiments of the boss man.

Discouragingly, it appears that Castellini has not wavered on his love for Hamilton. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported earlier this year that Castellini’s “feelings on the topic haven’t changed.” Then, just before this year’s trade deadline, national baseball writer Ken Rosenthal wrote that Castellini seemed to be a road block to trade negotiations:

According to sources, Castellini’s affection for Hamilton remains a factor for the Reds in trade discussions, though a deal before the deadline was not out of the question. The Reds had other reasons for keeping Hamilton—they did not want to part with another outfielder after trading Adam Duvall and losing Scott Schebler to a shoulder injury and Jesse Winker to season-ending shoulder surgery. Team officials say Castellini would approve the trade of Hamilton for an appropriate return. But considering that Castellini seems to over-value Hamilton, who is batting just .226 with a .601 OPS this season, it’s fair to ask what type of return would satisfy the owner.

Again, the fact that Castellini likes Hamilton is not a problem, except to the extent that it affects the decisions made by the front office. Rosenthal’s report indicates that the owner’s desires are, in fact, having some influence on baseball decisions.

And it’s not just Riggleman and Hamilton. Here’s what Scooter Gennett had to say one month ago: “Just from the talks that I’ve had with the guys in control of all those things, I feel like they want me here. I feel like, just from what I’ve been told, they want me here for the long term. What I’m getting is [CEO Bob Castellini] wants me here for a while.”

As noted by Grant Freking in his excellent piece here last week, Krall immediately came out and dumped water on that, just as Williams tried to tamp down the controversy over Hamilton. But again, there seems to be a divide over Castellini’s reported sentiments and comments made by Williams and Krall, who are the Reds employees tasked with, you know, actually making these decisions.

Maybe there isn’t really a divide. And even if there is, Castellini signs the paychecks, so he has a right to stick his nose in whatever department of the Reds he wishes. For his part, Castellini doesn’t see a problem. In fact, he claims he does not meddle in baseball decisions whatsoever. But his reaction to the question is very telling. From an interview with the Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty back in April:

He said vehemently that he does not interfere with the baseball operation. He interrupted the question. “Do you feel you’ve been too involved in baseball op…’’

“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.’’

Wait, what? Talk about a serious lack of self-awareness. I know he’s the owner, and he has the right to come in the room and state whatever he wants. But it seems to me that he should be coming in the room and listening to the people whose entire livelihood and training is based on making baseball decisions.

But go back and read that quote above, and remember that this is his defense to the charge of being too involved in baseball operations. Castellini is essentially saying that he says what the team should do and, if his salaried employees don’t object too loudly, the team does what he wants. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds almost like a textbook definition of “meddling in baseball operations.”

Listen, a lot of this is reading between the lines, and unless you are in the Reds’ front office day to day it’s hard to know what’s really happening. But we continue to see issues where there appears to be a gulf between what the baseball ops people are saying and what the owner is saying.

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.

As we discussed before, this ownership group has fallen way behind in delivering on the promises they made to fans when they took over the club back in 2006. The Reds are at a crucial spot in the rebuild, and they can’t afford missteps at this point.

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. At least until it’s time to lift a trophy after the season.

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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