Winning Culture? Yes, Please!

Management thinks the Reds have turned the corner, which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

A strange season for the Cincinnati Reds got a little stranger last week. Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline passed us by, and the Reds were largely silent. Adam Duvall was traded to Atlanta, but Cincinnati management declined to make any other deals. I’m sure you already know this, because you’ve read Jason Linden’s excellent trade deadline recap that was published here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine, right?

In the days and weeks leading up to the deadline, rumors had been floating that various teams were interested in Billy Hamilton, Raisel Iglesias, or Scooter Gennett. None were traded. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Especially in the cases of Iglesias and Gennett, there was no pressure for the Reds to trade those guys unless they were bowled over by an offer. Both of them can be key players on a good 2019 Reds team.

That’s the difference between this trade deadline and those of years past. This year, the Reds weren’t in a situation where they had to deal anyone. That’s a big step in the right direction. Well, with one exception. The only player the Reds really needed to trade was Matt Harvey (as I told you a month ago). If you were paying attention above, you know that the Reds inexplicably did not trade him.

And that’s where things got a little strange. As a response to the lack of action, Reds’ President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams made a curious statement, reprinted here in full:

“We’re pleased with the performance we’ve seen in the middle of the summer. The winning vibe and the winning culture that has been present recently is something we’ve been looking for. We see this as a club that is competing with the best teams right now. We don’t want to do anything to disrupt it.”

In some corners, that statement was read as a justification of the decision not to trade Harvey. And if that’s what Williams meant, it is patently absurd. Harvey is not going to pitch for the Cincinnati Reds in 2019. Keeping him around for two more months because the Reds have played better since he arrived in town, and in an effort to win a few more games over the next two months, would be seriously short-sighted.

When I first read that statement, I sorta shook my head and went back to playing Angry Birds. (Do people still play Angry Birds? Remember when that was a thing?) Was Williams really using “winning vibe and winning culture” as a defense for not trading the one guy the Reds really needed to trade? But after thinking about it for two seconds, I don’t think that’s what Williams meant at all. In fact, I completely agree with his statement.

First, let’s note that I’ve been pretty critical of Reds management this year. Just scroll through the archive of my columns here at the magazine for the last few months, and you’ll see numerous instances of me being baffled by decisions made by this front office over the course of the 2018 season. (Nick Senzel, anyone?) I’m perfectly willing to slam the powers that be when the situation calls for it.

But any criticism here seems like a reach. Sure, the Reds should have traded Harvey. But I’m perfectly willing to believe, based on what other pitchers have fetched in trade in recent weeks, that the market for Harvey was pretty soft, and the Reds didn’t get any decent offers. It’s not a terrible strategy to wait to see if they can trade him before the end of August. (Players can still be traded until the end of this month, but only if they clear waivers first.)

Aside from Harvey, however, there was no urgency to trade any of the other players. If the Reds want to be competitive in 2019—and there’s no question they can be, if they make the right moves going forward—then keeping Iglesias and Gennett (and, to a lesser extent, Hamilton) makes sense. Frankly, we should expect nothing less of the Reds going forward.

And that’s why Williams’ statement can be read as a good sign. As the Reds were putting together the pieces over the last few years, the hope was always that there was going to be a time that the “culture” around the club shifted. As the Reds emerge from the rebuilding process, the expectations around the team need to change, too.

That time is now. Williams has signaled that losing is no longer to be expected and no longer acceptable as part of a rebuilding process. He’s saying the Reds have turned the corner, and I believe that (even if I think the corner is being turned eight or nine months later than it should have been). This is a competitive team right now.

At the time he made the statement, the Reds had gone 40-31 since that dreadful 8-27 start to the season. In the six weeks prior to the trade deadline, the Reds had the best record in the National League (26-15) and had won 13 of 18 games against first-place clubs. (Sure, they promptly lost five of six games after the deadline, but who’s counting?) No, they aren’t going to make the playoffs this year, but there is every reason to believe they’re getting close.

Every decision made at the trade deadline—whether to trade or not to trade certain players—should have been made with an eye to improving the team going forward, not to make sure the team continues to play well for the rest of this season. An easy argument can be made that that’s exactly what Cincinnati management did.

Duvall was moved because Jesse Winker and Scott Schebler have earned the corner outfield spots for the foreseeable future. Gennett and Iglesias weren’t traded, presumably because they wouldn’t have brought back enough in return to justify losing the production they’d provide to next year’s Reds team (and perhaps even longer). Harvey wasn’t traded because, well, I’m not sure why he wasn’t traded. But it’s difficult to believe—based on every other recent management decision—that he’s still here because there’s a “winning vibe” around town right now and they think he’ll help them for the rest of 2018.

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. And if they don’t trade Harvey later this month—for almost anything—and instead keep letting him pitch rather than giving those starts to guys who can help the team in future years, then all bets are off.

I like the fact that there’s a “winning culture” right now. And management needs to be doing everything necessary to ensure that the right pieces are in place for that culture to surround a team that can compete for a playoff spot next year and for the foreseeable future.

Should we give this current ownership/management team the benefit of the doubt? Not necessarily, and I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms when I think they’ve blundered. But Williams is correct: This is a team that can compete with the best teams going forward. A winning culture is beginning to creep into the clubhouse, onto the field, and into the stands.

And the Reds just told you that you should expect nothing less than winning baseball in the future. Now they need to deliver.

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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