Rebuild Clouded by Competing Interests and the Merits of Merit

Just how committed are the Reds to The Rebuild? It’s an outwardly silly question to float, given that they’re on pace for their fourth straight season with 90-plus defeats—a feat that sounds even more tragic when you say it aloud—but there have been curious roster-management moments over the years that call into question the priorities of team rebuilding. You know, decisions like supplying 55 starts to Tim Adleman, Bronson Arroyo, and Scott Feldman over younger pitchers in 2017, or using the 2015 All-Star Game host role as an excuse to postpone trading Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, and Jay Bruce. Those moves indicate (at least) the occasional decision-making rift between ownership and the front office—and perhaps even the coaching staff—leaving fans and impartial observers alike wondering about divisions at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way.

Recent news around Scooter Gennett and Billy Hamilton lends credence to this theory. Gennett, a free agent after the 2019 season, wants to remain a Red and seems to have the backing of owner Bob Castellini with regard to a possible extension, but the front office doesn’t share the same enthusiasm. Over the winter, Castellini’s extreme affection for Billy Hamilton became public and was reinforced earlier this week via reporting by The Athletic. And yet, in early July, Reds vice president of baseball operations Dick Williams appeared on an ESPN podcast offering an honest, tepid, and statistically accurate take on Hamilton’s poor hitting, saying, “He’s been in the big leagues long enough now that he’s had chances to adjust. I don’t think we’ll see a quantum leap in his offensive production any time soon.”

Owners, front office types, and coaches disagree on the valuation of players all the time, but the contrasting public viewpoints on Gennett and Hamilton—who have been knee-deep in trade rumors for the better part of the last calendar year—at the very least illustrates the difficulty around certain rebuilding decisions, particularly for a waiver-claim-turned-hometown-favorite-turned-All-Star (Gennett) and a baseball Flash whose true value on the diamond is constantly up for debate (Hamilton).

There is a sect of Reds fans, many of whom are quite active on Twitter, who would prefer to see Gennett’s playing time cut—or to see him moved to the outfield—in favor of Dilson Herrera. (And before that, calls were for top prospect Nick Senzel to play over Gennett. And before Senzel, there was Alex Blandino.) Good luck selling those decisions to a clubhouse full of players who haven’t tasted winning in years but have discovered relevance since a 3-21 start. I don’t disagree with the logic, but also remember that ballplayers and their coaches are human beings who operate on the assumption that performing your job well equates to increased—not decreased—playing time.

That line of thinking brings us to Robert Stephenson and Homer Bailey. Stephenson, arguably the top pitcher in Triple-A’s International League this season (2.87 ERA, 135 strikeouts in 113 innings), made his first start for the Reds in 2018 on Wednesday. As for Bailey, after two solid starts (14.2 innings, 8 hits, 4 earned runs, 3 walks, 14 strikeouts) since his banishment rehab assignment ended, he was lit up by the Mets—who have scored the second-fewest runs in baseball—to the tune of 11 hits and five earned runs over 3.1 innings on Monday night. Months ago, a struggling Bailey seemed destined for a bullpen role or a pink slip (the Reds would owe the righty around $30 million if he were cut). Then, Bailey was sent to the minors to rehab a knee injury, moved to the bullpen, back to the rotation, and seemingly rediscovered himself after a sojourn to Oklahoma.

The Reds will likely provide Bailey every opportunity to succeed in the rotation even though he hasn’t been himself since 2014. Why? Well, admitting a $105 million mistake is a tough pill to swallow. There’s also probably a faint, fading hope that the 32-year-old can turn things around and become useful again before his contract expires after next season. This resolution contradicts the principles of merit and the club’s way of operating with Gennett; the right move is to shift Bailey to the bullpen or eat the money.

Stephenson has certainly pitched well enough at Triple-A to garner a shot. But there’s also a reason Stephenson, now in his seventh season of pro baseball, hasn’t stuck in the majors: his propensity for bases on balls. In over 345 career innings at Triple-A, Stephenson has averaged nearly 4.5 walks per nine innings. He’s averaged over five walks per nine innings in 121.2 innings with the Reds. Stephenson’s curious insight this spring—and again the day before he walked five (two intentional) in four innings vs. the Mets on Wednesday—into his issues with walks was flawed logic, as the 25-year-old’s propensity for free passes was certainly a central reason why he was passed by Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, Luis Castillo, Amir Garrett, and others on the young pitching totem pole.

Stephenson supporters point to his lack of minor league options after this year—he has to stick on the major league roster in 2019 or be exposed to waivers. Yet it’s easy to empathize with a possibly frustrated coaching staff and/or front office, particularly after Stephenson’s poor spring showings in 2016 (9.58), 2017 (5.63 ERA), and 2018 (7.71) removed him from Opening Day rotation consideration each season.

If it were up to me, Stephenson would have been in the rotation a month ago, Phillip Ervin would be starting somewhere in the outfield every day, and Dilson Herrera would be spelling Gennett at second base once a week and also seeing time in left field. But the point here isn’t necessarily to assign blame or to levy accusations surrounding the Reds’ decisions around Gennett, Hamilton, Stephenson, and Bailey; it’s to acknowledge that through the pain of rebuilding, decisions are made for all sorts of (occasionally frustrating) reasons and that certain players receive preferential treatment over others—whether that positive care is merited or not—via competing interests through various members of an organization. Whether this clouded judgment affects the long-term viability of the Rebuild remains to be seen.

Grant Freking is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazineYou can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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