For most baseball fans, the minor leagues are a theoretical thing. We hear about prospects around draft time and when they’re approaching major league readiness, but that’s it. And there are a lot of guys in the system, guys you’ve never heard of and wouldn’t call prospects, but who make a mark on the organization. The Reds have eight minor league teams—a bunch of different things have to happen before a guy makes it from rookie league or the Arizona Fall League to the majors. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen at all.
I live in Louisville, so the minors are a bit more than theoretical for me. I watch the AAA Louisville Bats play quite a bit. This year, with so many prospects going up and down between Louisville and the Reds (say it with me: Reed and Stephenson and Garrett and Winker and Ervin, oh my!), it seemed like as good a time as any to take a look at exactly how all of this happens. How does a player get from the draft to the big leagues? And when that doesn’t happen, what goes wrong?
I suppose the first thing you should know is that these are not the minor leagues of your childhood (or, at least, my childhood). For Delino DeShields, who manages the Bats, life in the major was vastly different when he was working his way toward becoming an All-Star second baseman for the Montreal Expos in the 1990s. “We didn’t lift weights during the season,” says DeShields. “We played baseball.” His tone has no judgment to it, just stating a fact. It wasn’t that long ago that teams treated player development as a simpler equation: Draft them, assign them to a team. Bump them up a level every year. If they aren’t good enough to move up, it might be time for them to move on.
This is not how things work anymore.
Jeff Graupe, Reds senior director of player development, says that after the draft, “we try to plan each kid case-by-case.” Perhaps this seems obvious, but many tend to assume that the path is basically the same for all players. It isn’t. There’s a different plan for everyone.
And, of course, there are very different types of players. It’s not a simple black-and-white line between coveted “prospects” and minor-league lifers.
“Once you get traded for the third time, your ‘prospect’ status goes away,” says Tony Renda, who saw time with the Reds last year and is currently playing all over the diamond for the Bats. Renda, we should note, has only been traded twice, but his point is taken. Some guys have to play their way into the picture more than others. From somewhere in the media, Renda heard the assumption that he was the throw-in player in the Aroldis Chapman deal in late 2015. His reaction is exactly what the organization wants to hear: “Really? Okay. I’m gonna be the best throw-in guy they ever got.”
Renda offers a good perspective on development in different systems. He was drafted by the Nationals, and was in the Yankees organization when he was traded to the Reds. The Nationals, he said, heavily emphasized “playing the game the right way.” That is, going first to third, paying attention to all the things that drive baseball fans nuts when they aren’t paid attention to. But both the Nationals and the Yankees were focused on developing him only as a middle infielder. It was the Reds who offered Renda the opportunity to “use my athletic ability.” It was that versatility, he thinks, that got him a chance with the Reds last year where he split his time primarily between second base and the outfield. Graupe acknowledges that the Reds are pushing positional versatility, saying he thinks “single position players are going to become more and more rare.” This is because the Reds need to have “our best lineup on the field every day,” according to Graupe, and given the market size of Cincinnati, positional flexibility is a way to make sure that happens. Renda’s general attitude and willingness to do what’s asked of him exemplifies what the Reds are looking for. Last season, when I spoke to Barry Larkin about his role helping the Reds with development, he talked a great deal about trying to develop players who are “impactful.” And Renda’s attitude, Larkin said, “personifies what you want to see in an impactful player.”
I dwell briefly on Renda because he is a good signpost for an organization going through some big-picture shifts in focus. Dick Williams has now fully taken over for Walt Jocketty in the front office, and many observers detect a shift toward sabermetrics. That’s certainly something I noticed in Louisville.
DeShields, for example, has a reputation as a decidedly old school manager, but he told me he wants to see all the information he can. “I like looking at the analytics. It helps me verify what I see and what I know. I just use it as a balance,” he says. “Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story, either. But the numbers can tell us some things about what kid needs to work on. So, they go together, but one doesn’t supersede the other.”
He also notes, in verbiage that will make stat-savvy fans squeal, “You have more of a sample size when you get to the big leagues. Down here, we maybe see a guy’s tendencies, but it’s 60-100 at bats.” The point he is making is that it can be too easy to get wrapped up in stats at the minor league level, where players are not always with one club for a long time. And even if they are, they are constantly working on things, so their approach may change. Analytics can help determine what a player needs to work on, but just looking at a prospect’s stat line doesn’t always tell you what you need to know.
Graupe acknowledges the focus has shifted some, but that doesn’t mean everything prior has been thrown out the window. “Dick comes from a little bit more of the new-school mentality,” says Graupe. “But we still rely on the foundation that Walt laid down.”
Sabermetrics are not merely about the advanced stats you see on sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. It’s also about organizations trying to find inefficiencies both internally and across the sport. For a small-market team like the Reds, it makes sense to develop as many players internally as they possibly can. Efficiency in player development has become a larger focus, which is why the organization has added coaches to its minor league staffs, top to bottom. DeShields—who at times, even as the manager, had to coach third base during games prior to this year—has found the extra help particularly beneficial. “Those teachable moments don’t slip by as much,” he says. “You get to address things as they’re happening. A lot of times, I’d be standing at third base, [and] things I’d want to address would get lost in the shuffle.”
The Reds have also started to delve into sports science and have hired people to focus on certain aspects of the game that may have previously been lacking. Graupe points out that the organization has increased its focus and investment in more intangible things like leadership, implementing specific training to help improve that quality among prospects. This is reflected in the players I’ve talked to. Sal Romano noted that he’s become close with the current crop of Reds pitching prospects, naming Amir Garrett, Jackson Stephens, Rookie Davis, Cody Reed, and Robert Stephenson—Romano will actually be the best man at Stephenson’s upcoming wedding—as people he trusts and who have helped him in his development. “We all have been through the struggle,” he says. “We all have never just dominated the minor leagues.”
Renda couldn’t narrow it down to only a few players, instead noting that everyone in the clubhouse is willing to help. “We’re all teammates. We all try to help each other. It’s not every man for himself here. We’re a collective group and everyone is trying to get better.”
And there are players in the minors—especially AAA—for reasons other than their potential as big leaguers. We all enjoyed watching Hernan Iribarren get a shot last year with the Reds, but at 33, he wasn’t someone who was brought into the organization purely because of his baseball ability. Graupe actually mentioned Iribarren, unprompted, as an example of the kind of support player the franchise is looking to add in the minors, calling him, “a high-quality make-up player, who makes everyone around him better.” I talked to Iribarren and those around him extensively last year, and it was obvious that there is no better-loved player on the Bats. He makes it a habit to speak with younger players—especially those from Latin backgrounds—and help them on their way to the majors. The desire in the organization to see him rewarded with a call-up last year was palpable.
And it’s not just the players and coaches in the minors who help with development. Cody Reed spoke about his positive relationship with Bryan Price, but especially with Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey. “The first guy that came up to me is Jay Bruce,” Reed says when discussing the adjustment to life at the major league level. When talking about pitching, it’s Homer Bailey who’s made an effort to get Reed where he needs to be. The two spoke extensively when Bailey was recently in Louisville on a rehab start. Reed spoke in particular about a start last year, when he was pulled during the second inning. He’d finished his post-start routine and was about to come back to the dugout when, “[Bailey] comes in the clubhouse and sits me down in front of the computer and watches my game.” Reed describes Bailey as “very blunt,” but also says that’s something he needs. It also makes it more believable when Bailey tells him he has the stuff to succeed in the majors.
Though as we’ve seen time and time again, success in the majors is by no means automatic. For those fans who are feeling overly pessimistic about some of the young Reds’ performances, it’s important to remember players like Bailey, whose first couple rounds through the big leagues were every bit as bad as what we’ve seen from the young pitchers this year. The end goal is always sustained success at the big league level, but that doesn’t mean the Reds never want their developing players to fail. “It’s really difficult for players to fail for the first time at the major league level,” says Graupe. It’s why the organization tries to build in times when a player knows it isn’t a one-stop shop. He can keep learning, keep trying, if struggles occur when he’s called up.
Cody Reed offered an endorsement of this approach when I spoke to him. While noting that struggling in the majors feels different than struggling in the minors, he discussed his struggles during the 2014 minor league season in-depth. “I thought, I don’t want to do that again.” He learned from that experience and focused more on training and preparation. “I never let failure bother me,” he says. “I knew that if I didn’t have my greatest game, it was five more days and I could prove myself again.” He pauses when he says this. “Maybe that’s what I need to go back to,” he adds, “because that  was my best year.” No one would claim that Reed’s future success has become a certainty for the Reds, but his self-analysis is clearly driven by past response to failure. He is using what he learned.
Reed’s response also offers a glimpse at what is perhaps the least-often discussed part of player development: the mental aspect. DeShields told me that while there is a lot of teaching of baseball skills and worrying about curfew and all of those things at the lower levels, he believes virtually everyone in AAA has the physical tools to succeed in the majors. “From here up, it’s 90 percent between the ears,” he says.
Graupe agrees. “AAA is a difficult level,” he says. “The simple truth is, a high percentage of players are looking to be somewhere else.” That drive to get to the next level can cause issues. “They’re so close to the major leagues that they want to do too much,” adds Guape. That kind of mental struggle is why the Reds try hard to have people like Iribarren and DeShields, who calls himself “a player’s manager.” They understand that, as DeShields put it, “it’s about process, not results.” Occasionally, DeShields draws criticism for his lineup construction. When I asked him about it, it was clear that this is an aspect of the “process.” Players in AAA are trying to make the final tweaks to get themselves to the big leagues or to maintain their skillset until a spot opens up for them. While DeShields praised Tony Renda for being someone who “never changes his approach”—file Renda and Iribarren as the two players most likely to be brought up unprompted if you talk to someone in Louisville—other players change their approach if they’re hitting third or fourth in the lineup. He also noted that dropping a player down in the batting order visibly reduces the pressure.
While many fans may get upset about prospects not hitting where they think they should, the mental aspect is important to consider. These players are professionals, but they’re still human. Some players, when they get sent down, are immediately prepared to get back to work. Others sulk for a few days. Some don’t care where they hit. Others try to do to much if you bat them third. “[There’s] a human component that’s really difficult to see from the outside,” says Graupe.
It’s true—from an outside perspective, player development decisions often seem perplexing. If one stares only at box scores and stat lines, it’s possible to come away confused about what the Reds are doing at times when it comes to prospect development. And though the organization may not always make what proves to be the best or smartest decision, it’s clear that nearly every decision has a reason behind it. In the end, it’s always about the process, the human element, and the organization trying everything it can to build a contending big league team in Cincinnati.
Jason Linden is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, Redleg Nation, and The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @JasonLinden.