If you spend any time on #RedsTwitter, or listen to call-in radio shows, you are slowly driving yourself to the brink of insanity. Also, you are probably aware that a sizable—and vocal—portion of the Cincinnati fan base is adamant that manager Bryan Price and/or GM Walt Jocketty should be fired forthwith. There are suggestions that each should be tarred and feathered, or in the alternative, run out of town on a rail.
All of this makes my head hurt.
If you really make an effort to read the tealeaves, the smart money is probably on Walt Jocketty sticking around for at least another year, with Bryan Price being removed as manager at the end of the season. I think I could make a very good argument that this is backwards: Jocketty is the one who should be replaced, and Price should maintain his position at the helm of Reds’ field operations. In fact, when I started writing this column, I actually intended to argue just that position.
But I really don’t want to be that guy, the reactionary who calls for someone’s head when things are going bad. Walt Jocketty is a real person, you know. I don’t want to wish for another human to lose his job, his livelihood. Yes, Jocketty has presided over the demise of this organization, appears to be resistant to modern thinking about the sport, and he has made a ton of questionable roster decisions (this year’s twin debacles of Jason Marquis and Kevin Gregg are just the tip of the iceberg)…but it ain’t all bad, as they say. Jocketty certainly gets his share of the credit for helping to build the 2010-2013 Reds, who were as successful as some of the best teams in franchise history. His recent trades—specifically, the Alfredo Simon, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake deals—have all been very effective in restocking the Reds system, and providing an argument that he is well suited to preside over The Great Reboot.
All I’m saying is that it’s a mixed bag, and I don’t want to be the guy calling for Jocketty to be fired any more than I want some unqualified yahoo on the internet to be calling for me to be fired. I certainly don’t see a long-term path forward for the Reds organization unless they lovingly embrace analytics, but that’s another story for another day.
On the other hand, I am willing to take a stand where Bryan Price is concerned. Yes, the Reds have been bad during Price’s two-year stint in the managerial office. Make no mistake, however: the mess that this club finds itself in is not Bryan Price’s fault, in any way, shape, or form. That’s not saying that Price couldn’t have done a better job, of course. He’s not infallible. But I’m just not quite sure his performance justifies being summarily dismissed at the end of the 2015 season.
Here I go again. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a piece for ESPN three years ago under the headline, “In Defense of Dusty Baker.” Okay, maybe I’m defending Bryan Price here, but I prefer to think of this as an examination of the reasons why Jocketty and owner Bob Castellini should pause before they hand Price a pink slip.
Let’s dispense with a couple of indefensible items first.
Price’s bullpen management: Completely outrageous. From his fear of using Aroldis Chapman in anything other than the easiest of save situations to running Kevin Gregg out to the mound in important spots, Price has proven himself to be utterly incapable of constructing bullpen roles that maximize the contributions of his best relievers. This is probably the most disappointing aspect of Price’s managerial reign to me, at least; Price was an effective pitching coach and has been quoted a number of times as being in favor of out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to bullpen roles. For example, he has said repeatedly that he thought using Chapman for more than one inning is a good thing. He has steadfastly refused to put that into practice, however, and his bullpen management is textbook old-school managing.
Emotions: This is a bit of a catch-all category, but Price has not distinguished himself with his behavior on the job, at times. At the top of this list is his profane tirade directed at Reds beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans. Completely unacceptable. Then, when you add in stuff like getting ejected before a game, a picture begins to be drawn of someone who is in over his head. Do I think Price is out of his depth? No, I just think he’s a bright guy who has stumbled a couple of times. But if Bob Castellini wanted to fire Price because, as the public face of the franchise, the manager’s behavior embarrassed the entire club…well, I probably couldn’t argue with him on that. I wouldn’t permit one of my employees to act like that, either.
Okay, back to defending Price from those who blame him for all the Reds’ troubles. Yes, the Reds are going to lose 90+ games this season. Is that Price’s fault? Well, he can’t be insulated from some share of the responsibility, but Sparky Anderson himself couldn’t have avoided 90 losses under these circumstances.
Think about everything that has been put in Price’s way. He lost Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco for practically the entire season. He was given a leadoff hitter/center fielder with a .274 on-base percentage. Jay Bruce couldn’t have hit water if he fell out of a boat for large portions of the season. And Price was given a pitching staff that just set a major league record that had stood for 113 years: 44 consecutive starts by rookie pitchers. Is any of that Price’s fault? (And remember, if you want to fault Price for the offensive struggles of Hamilton and Bruce, you have to give him credit for the resurgence of Votto and Zack Cozart this year, don’t you?)
How about 2014, Price’s first year as manager? The Reds were coming off an appearance in the Wild Card game the previous season, but only went 76-86, stumbling to fourth place in the National League Central division. Was it Price’s fault that Joey Votto only played 62 games due to injury? Was it the manager’s fault that Brandon Phillips, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, and Aroldis Chapman all missed large chunks of time on the disabled list, but management had accumulated so little depth that Price had no pieces to plug in when those guys were hurt? I have difficulty placing too much blame on Price when he’s forced to give Brayan Pena and Chris Heisey more plate appearances than Joey Votto, thanks to injury and poor roster construction.
Over the last two seasons, Bryan Price has been handed a roster that was as thin as Billy Hamilton’s waistline, and he was ordered to go win. If everyone had remained healthy, there’s a good chance the Reds would have won these last two years. If Jocketty didn’t insist on forcing Price to play with, on more than one occasion, a 23-man roster, maybe I’d have more sympathy for the FIRE PRICE brigade.
But quietly, in the meantime, Price has been more open-minded in some respects than almost any manager in baseball. I’m talking about his lineups, which was one of the huge complaints about his predecessor. In general, I’m pretty happy with the way Price constructs a lineup. He moved Joey Votto to the number two spot for a while, an out-of-the-box move that helped to get Votto more at-bats. He moved Billy Hamilton to the bottom of the order, recognizing that Hamilton was still capable of helping the team with his glove and his baserunning, but he wasn’t suited for hitting first. That would have been unthinkable to many managers, who have loved since the dawn of time having speedy guys leading off.
Yes, he makes strange in-game decisions sometimes, and that causes people to tweet that he should be fired. If that’s your threshold for termination, let me clue you in to something: you’ll never be happy with any manager. Because every single manager in baseball does many of these things. Heck, Sparky Anderson would have driven you up the wall.
But on most of the big things, it seems like Price is just fine. This isn’t really a ringing endorsement, and maybe I’m just trying to wear those Pete-Rose-colored glasses, but he’s okay. The team plays hard, some players have improved significantly on his watch, and I’m fairly pleased with how he’s shepherding these young starting pitchers on their journey.
Again: I’m not saying Bryan Price is the greatest manager in baseball. He frustrates me to no end, at various times. If the Reds could get Joe Maddon to take over the club, I’d be okay with that. But Joe or Sparky aren’t walking through that door, and I really don’t think we have enough data on Price to say that he’s incapable of handling the job. With all the roster shenanigans and injury problems, it simply comes down to my belief that Price hasn’t been given a fair shake over the last two years. And I think there’s a good argument to be made that he’s done pretty well, considering all the roadblocks that have been placed before him.
There’s another reason that I would be happy to see Bryan Price retained for at least another year. There are rumors that Price’s replacement in the managerial hot seat would likely be Reds legend Barry Larkin. I love Barry—he’s probably my favorite Reds player—and I would enjoy nothing more than seeing the Redlegs return to the top of the baseball world with Barry Larkin leading the charge.
But let’s be realistic—the next couple of years are likely to be difficult, as the Reds try to put together another competitive team. And these days, with every game broadcast and with everyone following every single pitch closer than ever before thanks to social media, a team’s manager is in the spotlight every second of every day.
I don’t want to see Barry Larkin’s reputation in this town sullied by asking him to come into a very difficult situation for his first managerial role. I’m afraid he’d be set up to fail, and I don’t want to see things end with Larkin getting fired and with a sizable portion of the fan base remembering him for anything other than all the good memories he provided us as one of the best players in team history.
That position probably doesn’t surprise you since, if you’ve learned nothing from these recurring columns in the digital pages of Nuxhall Way, it’s that, yeah, I’m sentimental about these ol’ Cincinnati Reds. It’s been a tough year for fans like me. It’s been a tougher year for Bryan Price. Maybe he should get a shot to help turn this ship around.
Let’s just hope that, whoever is at the helm—whether it’s Price or Larkin or the ghost of Bob Boone Past—the Cincinnati front office gives that manager the tools necessary to do the job. Because they have failed Price in that respect. And it’ll be a shame if Price has to take the fall for the failings of others.