The Road Back to Relevance
The Rebuild is a long slog. Don’t fight it.
We’re all eight years old again. Here we sit in Christmas morning purgatory. The sun barely risen. We are poised, waiting to run downstairs to see what awaits us under the tree. The sticking point is that it’s not Christmas Eve. It’s October; and Baseball Santa is still at least two years away.
If people were confused about the plan the Reds were embarking upon following the 2014 season, it was likely because there was an internal debate about just how to proceed. You had an owner who promised to keep the Reds competitive on a year in/year out basis. The last thing he wanted to do was wave the white flag, particularly just as the national spotlight was turning to Cincinnati and the 2015 All Star Game. Hence, we heard REBOOT, not REBUILD.
I’m just spit-balling here, but I’ll make a small wager that cooler heads prevailed when the brain trust knocked on the owner’s door and asked him to look north to what the Chicago Cubs were building, while the owner had his gaze fixed to the south at the empty seats in Minute Maid Park where the Houston Astros were averaging 104 losses a year between 2011 and 2014. What both organizations had in common was a full-on REBUILD, a ripping off of the band-aid, committing to years—yes, YEARS—of losing in search of the promised land.
Just before the ASG in July of 2015, Walt Jocketty offered the following clue:
“We’re gonna do whatever makes sense for the long term health of the organization.”
“We need to make sure we stay competitive this year, but more so going into the future.”
In that quote, you can see the duality of the message, the need to keep fans invested in the current season, while preparing them for the inevitable long road ahead, one that will not always be paved, one that will surely go off-road with detours and traffic jams to be negotiated.
By now you’d have thought everyone was on board with all this. If the trades of Jonathan Broxton and later, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake didn’t do it, certainly the plane tickets that sent the Toddfather to the south side of Chicago and Aroldis Chapman north to the Bronx were a river card finally turned over by the dealer. We can read the signs, yeah?
And yet, no sooner did the Reds begin winning again after the All Star break, did some begin complaining of a missed opportunity to compete in 2016. If only the Reds had visited the Bullpen Store in the off-season and put some discount pitching into the checkout cart before Opening Day. If only they had benched Brandon Phillips on opening day and started playing the future. Joey Votto’s resurgent bat, Adam Duvall’s surprising power, Scott Schebler’s phoenix-like return from Louisville and the return of Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen, stabilizing the bonfire that was the bullpen—all combined to lead some to believe the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club is not all that far away from the post-season.
That’s fool’s gold.
Jeff Luhnow and Theo Epstein began the rebuilding of the Astros and Cubs, five seasons ago in 2012. It took four seasons for each to return their respective clubs to the playoffs.
Why would Reds fans expect to get back there in half the time? Yes, the Reds have done things a bit differently, trading for prospects who are closer to major league ready (see, e.g., Peraza, Herrera, Senzel, etc.). But the Astros have now taken a step back, missing the playoffs this year. The Cubs didn’t just replenish their farm system, they supplemented it with serious free agent cash. How much cash? $495 million for eight free agents. Guys with names you might recognize: Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist. Let that marinate for a moment. All that has created not just a contender, but a juggernaut. Love Joe Maddon, yes. But respect the dollar bills.
. . .
2017 will be another rebuilding year for the Reds. The very fact that the Reds didn’t push aside their aging second baseman in favor of younger options should have been a clue. There’s plenty of time to find out about some of these infield prospects when you know 2017 is another step in the process and not the end game of a rebuild. Plus, the Reds needed to showcase Brandon Phillips if they are to have any hope of avoiding eating every last bit of that remaining contract.
Should the heavens open up and angels swoop down upon Great American Ball Park, no one will be happier than I. But, I believe in due diligence, not divine intervention. I’m a hopeful fan. I’m also a realistic one. However, there’s a smilin’ side to this scoreboard of the future; reasons for hope and they are plentiful:
Devin Mesoraco will be back and unlike others, I haven’t given up on him and his future with the Reds. The hip injury was successfully resolved with surgery and there’s no reason to think it’s a problem going forward for the next few years. The labrum injury that cost Devin another season had nothing to do with the hip. I see it as bad luck, not a sign he’s injury prone. Mesoraco is no china doll. He’s not slight of frame. If you want to worry, worry about Billy Hamilton, who has spent the last three Septembers on the shelf.
Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall are unlikely to be everyday players for the Reds. One of them may surprise, but at the very least, one should turn out to be a terrific bat off the bench, which is no small contribution.
Billy Hamilton is 26.
Jesse Winker is almost ready to come out of the oven. He’s been baking awhile, but good things come for those that wait.
Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen both have either top of the rotation or #2 potential. Lorenzen is 24 and a converted outfielder who still has much to learn, which is delicious to contemplate.
Jose Peraza can hit. He can hit at the major league level. He doesn’t walk, true. But there’s this guy named Joey Votto. It’s looking like Votto has been a good influence on Billy Hamilton. I suspect he’ll do the same for Peraza.
Eugenio Suarez spent 2016 proving he’s a major league baseball player. Like Todd Frazier, he started slow defensively at third base, but has come on strong with the leather. And if Nick Senzel is ready by 2018 to play third base, Suarez is insurance for any infield/outfield need that may remain.
. . .
Starting pitching is everything, which is why, despite all the promise discussed above, 2017 is not the year.
I’m not down on what Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed have done at the major league level this year. Go look at Cliff Lee’s Baseball Reference page and count the number of years he looked like nothing special before the light went on in his head. It wasn’t long ago that Jake Arrieta was pitching in anonymity in Baltimore with a 4-plus ERA. Look where he is today. Stephenson can take heart in the fact that once-upon-a-time, Sandy Koufax couldn’t find the plate with a map. Both BobSteve and Reed have the raw skills to be exceptional major league pitchers. What they need now is experience.
So, Stephenson and Reed, along with Amir Garrett are the future, but the future demands patience. Before the Reds can fix their bullpen, they need to know if Lorenzen or Iglesias can start. None of this can be rushed. Think sun dial, not Apple watch.
The Reds have to thread the needle with their fan base next season. The new Fox Sports Ohio contract, whatever it may be, will ratchet up the cries that the club should be spending money to compete in 2017. But the free agent market is often about paying players for what they did in the past, not what they will do for their new team. There will be that rare free agent who can put a team over the top. All that is about timing, scouting and not a small amount of luck. 2017 will not be the year to add important players to a team that’s not legitimately on the cusp.
Next year will be an all star season for people like Lisa Braun, Zach Bonkowski, Audra Sordyl, Jamie Ramsey and all those dedicated to promoting and marketing the Cincinnati Reds in 2017. They will have to sell the future and give fans reasons to keep the turnstiles moving. They will have to remind us all what we should already know: to embrace the present as we look toward tomorrow.
Rebuilding is not something we are used to doing in Cincinnati. Now is the time to learn.