A Different Kind of Opening Day

A Different Kind of Opening Day

 

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Opening Day in Cincinnati has a different vibe this year. And that’s okay.

It’s almost here. Opening Day. To paraphrase that essential Passover question,

“Why is this day different than all other days?”

Perhaps that’s just what forced abstinence does to a body. If you live and breathe baseball, the world dies a little when your team plays its last game. Postseason offers a temporary respite from the withdrawal, forestalling the pain of the inevitable. But once the last pitch of the World Series is thrown, the abyss of the long winter ahead becomes a reality. This means giving in to The Shield, the blunt object that is the NF of L. It means retreating to lesser entertainments. We trade bat flips for back flips by by snowboarders. We tap into our inner college student and give over to bouncy-ball for a few weeks. We huddle in the cold near our mailbox waiting for our newly-minted copies of Baseball Prospectus. We bide our time. We do our social media thing. And then finally it’s here.

We OD on Opening Day. Especially in Cincinnati, where the start of each major league baseball season once began—before money seeped into every nook and cranny of the game, the way water insidiously seeks its own level. It’s a celebration unique to the Queen City, one that none of the other 29 teams can quite match. If you’re not playing hooky from work on Opening Day in Cincy, you’re probably one of those damn heathen NBA fans. You think Red Panda before Red Stockings. We know all about you people.

But if you’re a Baseball fan with a capital “B”, you’re blessed each April if your team has a chance. At a time when a third of baseball makes the postseason, blessings are a cheap and easy commodity. On Opening Day 2015 down at The Banks, hope was in abundance despite the way 2014 played out.

We hoped that Anthony DeSclafani would make a decent replacement for Mat Latos. He did that. We hoped that Brandon Phillips would stave off Baseball Gravity—otherwise known as old age—and post a productive season at the plate. He did that. We hoped Joey Votto would rebound from injury to have an MVP-type season. Whoa, did he do that. We hoped that Johnny Beisbol would continue to pitch like a top-of-the-rotation starter and maybe even find himself on the bump in a World Series game. He did that. (Be careful what you wish for.)

This year, hoping for a Reds World Series most likely requires a belief in the Easter Bunny. If we are honest, we know that even a Wild Card seems far out of reach, even as the first pitch has yet to be thrown.

But no worries. Because this year is not about what Scott Rolen once called the Big 162. It’s about the Big 324. Or the Big 486, depending upon just how optimistic or pessimistic you might be at the moment. Which is just another way of saying the future is not now. The future is further down the road.

Rebuilding takes time. Fans and media like to measure rebuilds in 162 game increments. That may be a feasible goal for the Red Sox and other well-heeled teams that can treat free agency as their own personal Costco. Small market teams need to take a more organic approach. The Reds are doing more than just that. They are changing the inner workings of the organization itself, fully engaged now in that enormous task. Payroll has been slashed and hopefully banked for future use when the time is right, which won’t be in 2016. Trades have been the baseball version of  Miracle-Gro, nurturing the farm system soil, adding quality and depth at a time when the next mature crop—Winker, Stephenson, Peraza, et al.—has fully ripened and proved ready for harvest. This is a crucial inflection point. Remember 2008, when Homer Bailey was picked too soon to be the rotation savior? The Reds do, which is why they are being so careful with Robert Stephenson right now.

To fully engage with this Season of the Rebuild, we need to ditch our old glasses and get a new prescription. We need to look at this team through a different lens. The last two years have been as frustrating as any time since Bob Castellini and his ownership group bought the Reds. Injuries, money woes and a lot of bad luck in the postseason did most of the heavy lifting that stifled the core group of Bruce, Cueto, Votto, Phillips, Bailey, Frazier—and slammed the window shut on the most promising era the Reds have had since the Big Red Machine days. It also didn’t help that the Reds’ owner—fan that he is—probably had too much of a hand in salary decisions, not to mention tabling difficult rebuilding decisions with the All Star Game on the horizon.

That was then. This is now.

The Reds have stockpiled a tremendous amount of money that will be available for future international signings and the draft. As the front office transitions from Walt Jocketty to Dick Williams, we are already seeing more of an investment in advanced metrics, as the Reds attempt to bring themselves in line with more forward-thinking organizations, such as the Rays and the Pirates.

“What I like about our department is that our analytically oriented guys are genuinely interested in understanding and appreciating scouting. I think that’s critical to making them more complete, in terms of giving advice to me. And vice versa. I think our scouts have evolved to the point where they’re much more comfortable asking questions of the analysts.

“We really want to blur that line. A lot of teams talk about integrating it from, ‘Hey, I want to take the scouting decision and the analyst decision, and weigh those.’ What I want is to see more interaction between the two sides, even before you get to a recommendation. We’re evolving that way. We have some good young guys on our staff; Nick Krall and Sam Grossman, and others, have been to scout school. They’ve sat in the stands and written scouting reports.

“I feel like the whole analytical community needs to make sure they understand what goes into scouting. Those scouting reports can’t be replaced as an input into the bigger system.

“None of us really know what everybody else is doing, but I would put our analytics up against anybody. Our goal is to provide as much information as our decision-makers can use. We’re constantly hiring – building our team – and we’re constantly improving the outputs we get from those different models. It’s an evolution, and it’s going to continue to be an evolution.”  — Dick Williams, GM

In the next couple of years, Cincinnati will be enjoying not only the savvy work on the player acquisition front that has provided the team future Opening Day lineups that will likely include names like Suarez, DeSclafani, Reed, Iglesias, Peraza—it will also be able to leverage those little things that steal a game here and a game there, the inches that sometimes make the difference between division champion and wild card runner-up. Mix in a future that includes Jesse Winker, Stephenson, Amir Garrett and perhaps a surprise or two, like Jonathon Crawford or Phillip Ervin, and that’s a lineup to get excited about.

The lights turn on again at Great American Ball Park on Monday. Gloves are popping. Can you hear it? Joey Votto is back. That’s reason enough to get excited right there.

The future isn’t here. It’s on the horizon. But the road starts right here, on Opening Day 2016. If that’s not enough, well, it is Baseball, after all.

Can a Big Red Smokey be far behind?

 

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