Bob Castellini’s Big Moment
“You should never hesitate to trade your cow for a handful of magic beans.” —Tom Robbins
I walk into the Holy Grail Tavern & Grille days after the Reds have signed the soon-to-be Face of Major League Baseball to a contract that added 10-years and $225M to an existing deal to keep Joey Votto playing hardball for the oldest franchise on earth for the rest of his baseball life. A banner hangs over the bar, echoing a grateful, citywide acknowledgement of a deed well done:
Joy was in the air. And relief, remarkably similar to the way I felt in December of 1972, when doctors at Christ Hospital told the baseball world that the lesion discovered on Johnny Bench’s lung was benign and the National League’s MVP would go on playing baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. Now, for the second time in my life, I could revel in the knowledge that I was going to get to watch the best player in Reds history play in my hometown for a long, long time.
It turned out to be the first really big moment for the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, a symbolic, but meaningful stepping-stone on his promise to bring winning baseball back to a town starved for it. The national media—and even some locally—would trample on the signing, insisting the small-market Reds—like Donny Kerabatsos—were out of their element. No matter. The owner passed his first test and Joey has held up his end of the bargain in spectacular fashion, trammeling up the haters.
Now, another big moment has arrived for the Cincinnati Reds. The rebuild has rounded third and is heading home. Waiting at the plate is Bob Castellini. Is he there to shake some hands or is he instead blocking the plate?
Whatever the Reds decide to do with Homer Bailey’s remaining starts, he needs to be out of the rotation in 2019. That means eating salary, as distasteful as that is. Whatever the Reds do with Billy Hamilton, the Reds will be better served trading him—or at least using him judiciously as a late-inning defensive replacement or a mid-game pinch runner. Whatever the Reds decide to do with Scooter Gennett, Nick Senzel is a high impact player on the come who needs to play every day in 2019, probably at second base, which makes Gennett expendable.
There’s a building consensus that the owner is opposed to all of this, notably, trading Scooter. And as we’ve seen in previous comments made by the owner himself, he seems to be pushing a lot of the buttons lately. It’s his team, as the local media reminded us following the latest Matt Harvey news:
Those who are upset with the #Redsretention of soon to be free agents, like Harvey and Cozart before him, have understand this is Bob Castellini’s team and he has the right and privilege to run it as he wishes @WCPO
— Ken Broo (@kenbroo) August 24, 2018
Chad has already written about ownership’s potentially outsized role in The Rebuild in Cincinnati Magazineand you should read it if you haven’t already. Still, the topic needs to stay front and center because with every passing decision, it feels as if the heavy hand of ownership hovers over everything, threatening to cast a dark cloud over the last three years of work done by Dick Williams & Co.
However, before talking about the future, we need to take the service road for a moment and talk about the past.
It was The Athletic this spring that referred to this season as this “never-ending rebuild,” as if the product at GABP were a second-rate Olive Garden menu pasta selection. The frothing over the perceived lack of progress by some is a product of decades of mostly losing and a misunderstanding of how rebuilds work or simply an intolerance for the concept of the rebuild itself. Which is okay because, let’s admit it, this whole rebuild thing is new to us. Once-upon-a-time, baseball seasons began with real hope. Your team might be lacking talent, but they didn’t strip the clubhouse down to the rails. They didn’t take your hope away in April and tell you to come back with your heart four seasons hence.
Cincinnati isn’t the only place where this angst lives. In Philly, rumbles of discontent from the fan baseswelled with each loss until this year provided a respite from six years of non-winning baseball in the City of Brotherly Love.
Some have confused losing with rebuilding. No, The Rebuild didn’t begin in 2014. The Reds were a handful of games over .500 at the All Star break in 2014. That losing season was a product of Mat Latos landing funny on the mound while rehabbing from a sore elbow and going on to have a very unfunny season. It was a product of Jay Bruce’s torn meniscus and the Oblique Strain Flu Devin Mesoraco caught while standing too close to Johnny Cueto. It was the product of Jonathon Broxton’s bad elbow and too much Curtis Partch and not enough Tony Cingrani, who hit the triage tent with a bum shoulder. Mostly, it was about a very dark time in Reds Baseball—the year Joey MVP missed 100 games with a Left Distal Quad that had the consistency of instant oatmeal.
Nor did The Rebuild begin that off-season with 2015 on the horizon. Instead, they hung on to Cueto and Mike Leake, when both would have brought back substantially more in trade than they would at the July trading deadline. They chose to retain the services of Aroldis Chapman. They dealt a future pitching prospect—Ben Lively—for long-in-the-tooth lion Marlon Byrd, hoping he would bring some leadership roar to the clubhouse pride. They signed shopworn free agents Jason Marquis, Paul Maholm, Burke Badenhop and Kevin Gregg in the hope that when the All Star Game circus left town, the Reds—although not true players in the post-season sweepstakes—would remain within shouting distance, keeping the ownership group satisfied, the turnstiles clicking, and the national media talking about the Queen City.
I say “they,” the “they” being one Robert Castellini, American businessman from Cincinnati, Ohio. The 2015 All Star Game wasn’t just the city of Cincinnati’s moment in the spotlight, it was Castellini’s moment, too. It was a chance to demonstrate that Samuel Langhorne Clemens doesn’t own us, that you treat us like flyover country at your cultural peril. It was a chance to showcase OTR, The Banks, and yes, National League Baseball on the Ohio River once again, before decades of bad ownership and bad luck had swamped this proud, self-conscious city.
And like the owner’s first big moment—the signing of Votto to a gobsmacking contract—he wasn’t about to swing and miss. If that meant The Rebuild had to wait, then so be it.
It’s important to get the history of the 2014 and 2015 seasons grounded in reality, lest our emotions betray us into thinking the rebuild is sailing into the foulest of weathers, about to crash into another bank and shoal of miserable time. Honestly, for a rebuilding only in year three, significant progress has been made. Jesse Winker and Scott Schebler have seemingly answered the questions about the corner outfield positions. Jose Peraza has staked a claim to shortstop, and in doing so, rewarded the front office’s belief in him when they chased the fallen prospect all over the National League, first with the Braves, then with the Dodgers, before bringing him into the fold. Joey Votto is still very much a part of the near future at first base, while Eugenio Suarez salsa dances into his future role as Votto’s heir apparent—the next face of the Reds. The draft has brought Nick Senzel, a high floor, high ceiling player, waiting to anchor the keystone position and fill out what could be an All Star infield all across the diamond from right to left. Jonathan India is surely on the fast track and only adds to the depth the Reds will need moving forward.
Baseball has noticed, even if we have been skeptical. Grant Brisbee, a favorite writer of mine, spoke dispassionately about the Reds rebuild not long ago:
“They quietly pilfered young talent from other teams and through their own system. Luis Castillo was gifted to them for Dan Straily Ã¢â‚ They started to develop an almost, dare I say it?, Cardinals-like ability to mold young hitters into something worthwhile. Adam Duvall became an unlikely all-star, Scooter Gennett morphed into someone who could hit a ball way farther than anyone named Scooter should, Eugenio Suarez went from a moderately intriguing organizational player to someone with star potential. So even though they whiffed on a lot of their rebuilding trades, the rebuild is still going strong. They’ve used their screw-it freedom wisely, introducing the world to players like Jesse Winker and other auto-generated names from MLB: The Show. They’ve done so much right. They’ve done so very much right.”
If The Rebuild isn’t showing the requisite results in the win/loss column, that’s because the great 2012 pitching staff we look back wistfully upon all left at basically at the same time. David Dewitt Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani were supposed to provide some stability as the Reds waited for a conga line of prospects to weed themselves out, but Disco and Homer fell to the malignant Baseball Gods, leaving the Reds bereft of starting innings to manage.
While some are already pronouncing the pitching prospects a failure, the truth lies elsewhere. Pitching prospects rarely burst upon the scene fully-formed. There’s a distinct learning curve at the major league level—one that Tyler Mahle, Luis Castillo, Sal Romano, Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, et al. must navigate as they learn not just how to pitch to major league hitters, but also master game theory as well. Patience is key, no matter how loud the bellowing from social media. And yes, this applies to Robert Stephenson, too [ducks], even if recent events say otherwise.
“[Dallas] Keuchel, whose fastball has never averaged 90 m.p.h., said he had been lucky to arrive in the majors when the Astros were struggling, because they could afford to be patient as he developed. In a different organization—with more pressure to win, harder-throwing prospects to try, or both—he might have been buried.”
For The Rebuild to see the jump not just in development, but also in wins, it’s the pitching that is going to have to make substantial gains. This is where the owner’s third big moment is about to arrive. Feathers are going to have to be added to the wings before the 2019 season can take flight.
But acquiring the kind of quality pitching the Reds need to turn the corner while still showing patience with the youngsters will require sacrifice. Some fan favorites may need to go. Hard decisions await the front office. Signing Scooter Gennett to a multi-year contract or trading him is just one of those decisions.
Castellini has his favorites (Billy Hamilton) and the Reds’ second baseman is one of them. Castellini sees players such as these as cash cows that drive fans through the turnstiles. But as writer Tom Robbins once said, “never hesitate to trade your cow for a handful of magic beans.”
Prospects are the magic beans of smart baseball organizations today. As Chris Welsh said to Bill Lack on a recent Redleg Nation podcast, getting young and staying young by churning the roster every couple of years is something the Reds don’t do well. Bringing in fresh talent on a regular basis is the difference between throwing the competitive window wide open for years—and watching it slam shut after only a couple of competitive seasons.
From inside the World’s Most Famous Arena—Section 215, Seat 2 to be precise—I can see the barren landscape laid out before me. It’s dressed up with brilliant lighting, Broadway-choreographed dance routines and video galore, all in the service of distracting me from the mess at center court. These are my New York Knicks. The owner, James Dolan, is the son of Charles Dolan, the successful business mind behind Cablevision and HBO. A few years ago, the Knicks—after years of floundering—were embarking upon a promising rebuild themselves. They had a nice group of young players who played hard, had something to prove, were growing—and yes—winning together. Then, young Dolan saw a faraway shiny object in the likeness of Carmelo Anthony. Thusly smitten, he traded all his magic beans for Anthony. Melo, in turn, was welcomed home, a prodigal son returned to The Mecca. Many jerseys were sold. Many tickets were bought. A buzz was back in the Garden. But the buzz came at the expense of the future, and soon, the Knicks were back to their tired ways, the ball rarely leaving the aging star’s hands on offense, while defense—like a pestering child pleading for an autograph—became an annoyance Anthony and his teammates had little use for. Regretfully for this season-ticket holder, the Knickerbockers sank back into a comfortable mediocrity, a place they know all too well.
Meddling is happening east out at Citi Field as well, where Fred Wilpon and son Jeff have been infuriating their fan base for years. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s believed that MLB mandated the hiring of Sandy Alderson as GM of the Mets, such was the ineptitude of their owners.
Meet Woody Johnson, baby shampoo impresario, owner of the New York Jets and Ambassador to Great Britain—because yes, men of great fortune and great wisdom can do anything they set their minds to—except draft a competent NFL quarterback.
Which brings us back to the Reds’ owner. Mr. Castellini need not look east to New York to see an object lesson on the dangers of ownership & hubris. He needs only to look across the expanse of concrete parking lots, downriver to Paul Brown Stadium. Has any owner in Cincinnati sports history been more reviled than Mike Brown is today?
Bob Castellini is not Mike Brown. Unlike Brown, Bob Castellini wants to win. And he kept Joey here and I will always love him for that. But, the owner is a fan and fans should never run baseball teams. Owners should spend their money wisely and turn the baseball decisions over to the very people they have so wisely hired.
The decision to pull Matt Harvey back and keep him feels like another Carmelo Anthony move. Holding on to the past or attempting to leverage big names into ticket and jersey sales at the expense of youth and the future is the complete opposite of where the smart people in baseball are heading. Whether it’s holding onto Homer Bailey because of money owed, or sticking with Billy Hamilton because of the sometimes excitement he generates, or investing in years of Scooter Gennett because he’s part Pete Rose, part Ryan Freel and all grit, these are all decisions that need to be made not with the heart, but with a clear thought process, devoid of sentimentality—and yes, hubris.
Everyone thinks Cincinnati sports are jinxed. If that’s true, perhaps what it will take is inspirational thinking and yes, some magic beans to finally break the fever.
What the Reds don’t need are sacred cows.
Note: This piece first appeared at redlegnation.com