The Reds aren’t yet where they want to be.
The team that hatched the idea of professional baseball and brought fans the Big Red Machine still hasn’t won a playoff series this century. But a decade spent largely in the catacombs of the National League Central makes the Reds’ present perch seem lofty.
After missing the playoffs for 14 straight seasons, Cincinnati has gone to the playoffs in two of the past three years. What was once a team that couldn’t develop a homegrown pitcher now fields a lineup and rotation filled largely with born-and-bred Reds. The NL’s best hitter, Joey Votto, has spent his entire career as a Red, and he’ll likely spend the rest of it in Cincinnati as well, after signing a contract extension that keeps him locked up through 2023. Two homegrown Reds, Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman, received NL Cy Young Award votes this year. A third, Homer Bailey, threw a no-hitter.
But most importantly, in a city that has been starved of winners (we’re looking at you, too, woeful Bengals organization), the Reds are once again a team near the top.
Because of their ability to build a winner through scouting and player development and the fact that they’ve built for sustainable success, the Reds are the Baseball America Organization of the Year for 2012.
Not Their Year
Until the middle of October, Reds fans could be excused for thinking that 2012 really was going to be their year.
They watched their club win 97 games, the most by any Cincinnati club since the Big Red Machine in 1975. Legendary Reds shortstop Barry Larkin was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Even a knee injury for the seemingly indispensable Votto couldn’t slow down the Reds—they went 16-3 in the first 19 games after he went on the disabled list. And when the playoffs began, they jumped out to a 2-0 lead at San Francisco, returning to Cincinnati needing only one win to advance to the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1995.
In Game One, however, staff ace Cueto left the game with a back injury that forced the Reds to replace him on the roster. After a Scott Rolen error cost the team in an extra-inning loss in Game Three, Cueto’s replacement, Mike Leake, was shelled in Game Four. In Game Five, the Reds rallied from an early 6-0 deficit to bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth, but Rolen struck out to end the season.
So 2012 did not represent a return to the top. It was a disappointing ending for the Reds, but fans could take some solace in the knowledge that the team they cheered on in the 2010 playoffs was largely the one that returned to the playoffs in 2012. The core of that team will return again for the 2013 season and likely for several years to come. Instead of hoping to catch fire with a fluke, the Reds have managed to develop a sustainable path to success.
“Being a small market, we have to rely on our scouting and player development,” general manager Walt Jocketty said. “We supplement it through trades and free agency. I feel we’ve been able to change the mindset. We’re building to contend every year.”
Jocketty doesn’t face many difficult decisions this offseason. After signing Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips to long-term extensions in 2012, the only holes heading into the offseason are in left field and possibly closer if the club decides to move Chapman to the rotation. If Chapman does move to the rotation, the club is facing the desirable problem of having six big league starters vying for five spots.
The biggest need is for a leadoff hitter, but the team’s best prospect, center fielder Billy Hamilton, is arguably the best leadoff prospect in the game. He set a professional baseball record with 155 stolen bases in 2012.For many Reds fans, this is as close to the glory years as they have ever seen, even without a playoff series win. If you’re a Reds fan under the age of 45, the Big Red Machine is something you read about, not something you likely remember firsthand. If you’re a Reds fan under the age of 30, the heroics of Jose Rijo, Barry Larkin and the 1990 World Series champions are not even a memory. Any fan who wasn’t around to root for the club in 1995 hasn’t seen the Reds celebrate winning a playoff series.
Fixing What’s Broken
But more than the long playoff drought, it’s worth remembering just how broken Cincinnati’s scouting and player development was a decade ago. From 1992 to 2002, the team drafted in the top 10 four times, and during that 11-year span landed only one regular (Austin Kearns) with its first-round pick. Four of the 10 first-rounders failed to make the big leagues. Ryan Wagner, the 2003 first-round pick, did make the majors in his first year as a pro, but he was out of the majors after fewer than 150 innings because of injuries and ineffectiveness.
A team reliant on developing homegrown talent can’t swing and miss on 10 out of 11 first-round picks. The Reds began their turnaround with the hire of Terry Reynolds as scouting director in 2004. They haven’t missed on a first-round pick since.
Reynolds’ two drafts paid off with Bailey (2004) and Jay Bruce (2005). He then moved over to player development when Chris Buckley came aboard with the arrival of new GM Wayne Krivsky in 2006. Buckley’s first draft brought in first-rounder Drew Stubbs (2006) followed by Devin Mesoraco (2007), Yonder Alonso (2008), Mike Leake (2009) and Yasmani Grandal (2010), all of whom were big leaguers in 2012 (Alonso and Grandal with the Padres).
“The 2004 draft, from then on the drafts have been outstanding,” longtime Reds field coordinator Freddie Benavides said. “You’re only as good as the players you have. The scouting department has done an outstanding job of getting players, and the player development staff has been outstanding at getting guys ready.”
Benavides should know, as he’s one of the few people still in the organization who was working for the Reds during the dark days of 2000-2004. He has seen the club go from having few big league-caliber prospects in the farm system to last winter, when the team could trade three big league-ready players (Alonso, Grandal and reliever Brad Boxberger) to the Padres for righthander Mat Latos because all three could be traded without appreciably affecting the big league club.
“Back then it would have crippled us completely to do a trade like that,” Benavides said. “We have the players to do that now. Our big league team had a first baseman, we have some catchers and the bullpen is one of our biggest strengths.”
Interestingly, the roots of the Reds’ current success manages to stretch back through four general managers. Votto, the Reds’ best player, was drafted during Jim Bowden’s regime back in 2002, and everyday catcher Ryan Hanigan was signed as a nondrafted free agent that year.
Dan O’Brien replaced Bowden in 2004, and he hired Reynolds as the club’s scouting director, laying the groundwork for the turnaround. O’Brien didn’t last long as the club’s GM, getting fired early in 2007 when the team was sold to new owner Bob Castellini’s group. Krivsky took his place and hired Buckley as scouting director, moved Reynolds to player development and brought in Tony Arias as the club’s Latin American scouting director.
Buckley has kept the Reds humming on draft day, and four of the Reds’ regular position players in 2012 were Buckley draftees, including Todd Frazier, Chris Heisey and Stubbs. Three more Buckley draftees were dealt in the Latos trade, and two more were sent to the Royals at the trade deadline to acquire Jonathan Broxton.
Under Krivsky, the Reds also picked up Phillips in what appeared to be a minor deal in April 2006, getting him from the Indians for a player to be named, which turned out to be minor league righthander Jeff Stevens. Phillips, whom the Indians had soured on after four seasons in their organization, turned into one of the cornerstones of the Reds’ lineup almost immediately.
Before Krivsky left, the Reds also picked up Josh Hamilton in an astute Rule 5 move in December 2006, only to send him to the Rangers for righthander Edinson Volquez a year later.
Yet it wasn’t so much anything Krivsky did or didn’t do that led to him losing his job. Instead it was something that the Cardinals did, pushing Jocketty out in October 2007 after 13 successful seasons as their GM. Castellini, who had been a minority owner with the Cardinals before buying the Reds, quickly hired Jocketty as “special adviser to the president,” which meant Krivsky was just waiting for the other shoe to drop—which it did in April 2008, making Krivsky the third Reds GM to lose his job in just six seasons.
To his credit, Jocketty recognized that the Reds were already on the way back. While he did bring in some trusted lieutenants, he also kept many of the key people in place. Buckley kept running the draft. Benavides remained the field coordinator, while Mack Jenkins remained the pitching coordinator. So in spite of frequent reshuffling in the executive offices, the organization had continuity on the field.
“I think sometimes mistakes are made when you make wholesale changes when you come in,” Jocketty said. “You have to take some time to get to know people, find out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and stay with the people you can build with.”
Under Jocketty, the club shifted its outlook. The talent-starved Reds earlier in the 2000s were constantly looking for inexpensive young talent. But as the talent from strong drafts and improved international scouting kicked in, the Reds got closer to contending. As the farm system started to develop a surplus of upper-level prospects, the Reds became buyers as well as sellers.
Time To Trade
They acquired third baseman Scott Rolen in 2009 in a package that sent Edwin Encarnacion and prospects Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke to the Blue Jays, and that deal helped get the Reds to the playoffs in 2010.
After the pitching was found lacking during those playoffs, the Reds traded for Latos and Sean Marshall, for whom they sent three players, including 2005 second-rounder Travis Wood, to the Cubs. In the past year the Reds have traded away eight prospects who have ranked among their Top 30 Prospects in deals to bring in big league talent. And despite those trades, the Reds system still has good prospects.
“That’s the way we’ve tried to plan and design it,” Jocketty said. “We’d have that core to replenish. We have some great young guys on the way with Billy Hamilton, Didi Gregorius, Tony Cingrani and Daniel Corcino. We have to keep doing that.”
The Reds have figured out how to steadily retool while contending. It’s a balance they failed to make for much of the past 20 years. By the end of the 2013 season, Hamilton will likely be ready to be their leadoff hitter. Cingrani has already helped the big league club in the pen, but he’ll likely spend much of 2013 in the minors refining his secondary stuff.
“The key to a lot of the things is we’re able to be patient with our prospects now. It used to be that we would have to plug a player in whether he was ready to go or not,” Benavides said. “It’s been great. It’s been a good run, hopefully it continues.”
|BUILDING FROM WITHIN|
|The Reds’ 97-win 2012 club is most notable for how little it depended on free agents. Only one player, Ryan Ludwick, was a major league free agent.|
|C||Ryan Hanigan||Undrafted free agent in 2002||Yes|
|1B||Joey Votto||Reds’ 2002 second-round pick||Yes|
|2B||Brandon Phillips||Acquired for RHP Jeff Stevens, April 2006||No|
|3B||Scott Rolen||Acquired for 3B E. Encarnacion, RHP Z. Stewart and J. Roenicke, July 2009||No|
|SS||Zack Cozart||Reds’ 2007 seventh-round pick||Yes|
|OF||Ryan Ludwick||Signed as free agent for one year, $2 million deal||No|
|OF||Drew Stubbs||Reds’ 2006 first-round pick||Yes|
|OF||Jay Bruce||Reds’ 2005 first-round pick||Yes|
|INF||Todd Frazier||Reds’ 2007 supplemental first-round pick||Yes|
|OF||Chris Heisey||Reds’ 2006 17th-round pick||Yes|
|UTIL||Wilson Valdez||Acquired for RHP Jeremy Horst, January 2012||No|
|C||Devin Mesoraco||Reds’ 2008 first-round pick||Yes|
|SP||Johnny Cueto||Signed as amateur free agent, 2004||Yes|
|SP||Mat Latos||Acquired for RHPs E. Volquez, B. Boxberger, 1B Y. Alonso and C Y. Grandal, 2011||No|
|SP||Homer Bailey||Reds’ 2004 first-round pick||Yes|
|SP||Bronson Arroyo||Acquired for OF Wily Mo Pena, March 2006||No|
|SP||Mike Leake||Reds’ 2009 first-round pick||Yes|
|RP||Aroldis Chapman||Signed as amateur free agent, 2010||Yes|
|RP||Sean Marshall||Acquired for LHP T. Wood, OF D. Sappelt and 2B R. Torreyes, December 2011||No|
|RP||Sam LeCure||Reds’ 2005 fourth-round pick||Yes|
|RP||Logan Ondrusek||Reds’ 2005 13th-round pick||Yes|
|RP||Alfredo Simon||Claimed on waivers, 2012||No|
|RP||J.J. Hoover||Acquired for 3B Juan Francisco, April 2012||No|
|RP||Jonathan Broxton||Acquired for RHP J.C. Sulbaran, LHP Donnie Joseph, July 2012||No|