I’ve been a die-hard Cincinnati Reds fan for 43 years, due in large part to moments like the one pictured above: a big Riverfront Stadium crowd, runner on third, Cesar Geronimo at the plate, and Pete Rose on deck. It was the Big Red Machine era of the 1970s. I will argue that this was the best team, in terms of the “regular eight” on the field, ever assembled.
The entire infield — Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench — is either in the Hall of Fame or should be. Left fielder George Foster was a Most Valuable Player, and right fielder Ken Griffey Sr. was a multiple-time All-Star. Geronimo was an outstanding defensive center fielder but only average as a hitter — the only starting eight player who was not a perennial All-Star.
This was the team that attracted the attention of an 11-year-old who previously cared little about sports, and who thought that winning the World Series would be a common occurrence. Alas, it has only happened once since the seventies. But that has not diminished my love for the sport and the team.
Fast forward to 2016. It was made clear before the season started that a now-infamous professional sports “rebuild” was being implemented. There have been iterations of this in all professional sports. The basic tenets: We don’t have enough here to win consistently, so we’re going to use what valuable assets we have to acquire young, inexpensive talent that we can control for several years. The most successful endeavor in this strategy has been achieved by the Kansas City Royals. The Houston Astros were abysmal losers for several years prior to 2015, when they made the playoffs. Their bad start this year calls into some question whether their process will be viewed as successful or whether it is yet complete. The Chicago Cubs have been the best team in baseball this year after years of slogging their way through their own rebuilding plan.
The fact that it has borne fruit for some long-time losers has prompted several other teams to go all-in. Along with the Reds, the Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are trying to follow a similar blueprint to a rebirth of sorts.
The Reds’ specific plan is outlined here in some detail. Here are the basics:
Goal: To win the World Series
Four main components:
1. Trade players who have value, but will not be here for the next window of success – and acquire young talent in return.
2. Invest aggressively in the amateur market
3. Create payroll flexibility
4. Investments in other areas
Another important aspect of this plan which has been detailed in other articles is that the Reds have decided to allow their top minor league prospects all the time necessary to develop in the minors. According to Manager Bryan Price (as quoted by Cincinnati.com):
“Because of the way we came into the season, saying we’re going to bust our tails to win as many as we can but we understand we’re transitioning somewhat, the impetus is not to say, ‘Let’s just reach down and grab the guy who’s pitching the best and get him up here as quick as possible.’ If we felt we were on the verge of winning the World Series, I think we would take more risks,” Price said. “Because of where we are, we’re not going to take the same risks early in the season. That would be my stance on it. My understanding. You may get some different feedback from Walt (Jocketty) or Bob (Castellini) or Dick (Williams). I think that’s been suggested pretty strongly by what we have in our system and the fact that they’re still in our system.”
That’s why despite having six (SIX!) starting pitchers on the disabled list, they have not brought up their stable of promising young pitchers. Of their top 30 prospects, four of the top six, and seven of the top 12 are starting pitchers. But with a pitching staff that in some respects is historically bad, the Reds are not calling up those top prospects, but instead pulling guys off the street, and calling up pitchers who are NOT considered top prospects, to fill gaps.
The result? After winning five of their first six this season, the Reds have proceeded to lose 30 of their last 40. Now living in Madison, Wisconsin, I still catch games on the MLB app and see mostly-empty Great American Ball Park seats. My wife and I are going to Miller Park in Milwaukee this Saturday to watch the Reds vs. Brewers — our first chance to experience Miller Park. And, it’s my first chance to watch the Reds play in a stadium other than Riverfront, Cinergy Field or GABP. I was “thrilled” (NOT!) to look ahead and see that the Reds are planning to start a pitcher this Saturday who has an ERA over 10.00. Even so, I’ll be there wearing a Reds cap. 🙂
When this season started, I knew that success wasn’t likely. But I certainly didn’t expect this level of ineptitude. It’s completely counter-intuitive to me that an organization would not field the best team that it can. It does help, though, that at least the people in charge have articulated the strategy, and that it has proven to be successful for other organizations. Reds fans can only hope that the “strategy” yields the same results as it has for the Royals, Astros and Cubs.
Historically, I hang with the Reds as an engaged follower until it is clear that they aren’t going to seriously contend. Most years, that is sometime in July or August. When that threshold is passed in my mind, I will check scores and results occasionally instead of following each game pitch-by-pitch. This year is the earliest point in more than four decades that the threshold has already been passed. I don’t like looking at 30,000 or more empty seats at GABP, and it can only get worse this year. I don’t like knowing that even when they are ahead, the Reds don’t have much of a chance to win. It is the complete antithesis of the image above. We can only hope that this painful path will return this team to one which will prove to be competitive.