Prospecting: Panning for Gold in the Infield Dirt

Prospecting: Panning for Gold in the Infield Dirt

Amir Garrett’s dazzling debut brings back memories and momentary magic

It wasn’t’ the first foolish heartbreak of my young life (that was a girl), but it followed hard upon. The 1970 Cincinnati Reds were a revelation. They had Johnny Bench. Power in Lee May and Tony Perez. Promise in Jim Merritt, Don Gullett and Gary Nolan. A workhorse reliever in Clay Carroll. A player looking to prove himself in Bobby Tolan. In Bernie Carbo, they had a number one draft pick ready to bloom. They had a Rose in full flower. The 1970 Cincinnati Reds were so stocked with potential that even an early Achilles injury to legend Jim Maloney could not stop the coming red storm.

It was no accident of fortune that the Reds had so many young players coming together on the cusp of domination of the National League for five of the next seven years. In Greg Rhodes and John Erardi’s splendid book, “Big Red Dynasty,” the authors detail new GM Bob Howsam’s blueprint for building a winning organization:

Howsam, ever the [Branch] Rickey disciple, wanted as many young players as he could afford. In 1965 and 1966, the Reds had drafted 69 players; Howsam’s Cardinals had selected 115. Quality out of quantity. But quantity required more scouts, a new farm club—and additional expenses. The board of directors approved the plan, increased their investment, and Howsam immediately added a fifth club to the Reds minor league system in the rookie league to open 25 new player slots. It was an investment that would eventually yield impressive dividends.

Dick Williams from Fangraphs:

“… this is a flatter roster. By that I mean the difference between the established everyday player and the new young rookie. Back in 2012, it was kind of the haves and have-nots.

“… with more players coming out, and the acquisition costs coming down — and the fact that there’s a secondary market for players — there are more opportunities for us. We want to have a lot more information on these players.”

“We met with each department head and effectively examined where we thought dollars would have a better return on investment than at the major league payroll level. Then we went back to ownership and said, ‘This is our next couple of years, this is what we’d like them to look like, and this is where we’d like to take money out of major-league payroll and put it to use in other areas.”

Like Howsam in the late 60s, Williams and the Reds are bringing quality out of quantity to the table in the form of pitching, with names like Cody Reed, Rookie Davis, Sal Romano, Vladimir Gutierrez, Nick Travieso, Tyler Mahle, Luis Castillo and relative unknowns such as Scott Moss. If ballyhooed prospect Robert Stephenson flounders—others await their chance to shine.

.   .   .

Wayne Simpson, highly coveted and deeply scouted, was chosen in the 1967 June draft. He would stand atop the hill at Crosley Field in the spring of 1970, mere weeks before the venerable ballpark would close its gates and the club would move to its modern, shiny future on the riverfront. Like Amir Garrett’s 2-0 shutout of the hated Cardinals in his first walk to a major league mound, Simpson’s first start for the Reds was an impressive 3-0 shutout of the hated Dodgers. But a fastball to Cubs star Billy Williams just after the All Star Game rendered his shoulder useless. He pitched five additional innings before his season ended. The lights effectively went out for Wayne Simpson only days after they had gone out for Crosley Field.

The Reds would go on to face the Orioles in the 1970 World Series. They would lose, 4 games to 1, in large part because the starting pitching mirrored the plot of the 1970 film, M*A*S*H. Following the catastrophic Simpson injury, 20-game winner Jim Merritt would suffer a sore elbow. Jim McGlothlin would succumb, as well, leaving the Reds rotation shorthanded against a Baltimore team driven by their shocking upset a year earlier to the Mediocre Miracle Mets.

Before Peter Rose careened headfirst into history in the All Star Game, Wayne Simpson had been the talk of baseball. Just like the recent wonderment over Joey Votto’s unreal second-half achievements, they once spoke with awe of Wayne Simpson’s mastery of the first half of the 1970 season. He was 13-1 and had a 2.69 ERA at the All Star break. He was the next big thing in a Reds uniform. Then his arm died.

As I watched Amir Garrett masterfully subdue the Cardinals, I thought of two pitchers, Simpson and Johnny Cueto. Both had explosive debuts and careers that went, of course, in completely opposite directions. Both players’ careers are bittersweet for fans, Cueto’s not because of ligament failure, but from the inherent failure of baseball economics for smaller market teams.

In 1970, I was a terribly young and callow fan, heartbroken over the Cincinnati Reds inability to win four games and find themselves anointed with a glorious crown. But these days when I reflect on that season in the sun, I mostly think of Wayne Simpson and a dream destroyed. I never take for granted nights like Amir Garrett gave us in St. Louis.

And I never forget the value of pitching in this timeless game of ball.

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