What Went Wrong: Cincinnati Reds

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The following is the second in a series profiling some of 2009’s biggest disappointments.



Last Week: Cleveland Indians



This Week: Cincinnati Reds



Record: 63-78 (5th in NL Central)



How It Happened:



With one of the most exciting young cores in the game, there were
more than a few baseball
experts who pegged the Reds as a darkhorse team in the NL Central race.
And with good reason. We’ll never know what could have been. While the
Mets have grabbed all the headlines on the injury front this season,
the Reds have been equally as snake bit, with top stars like Jay Bruce,
Joey Votto,
Scott Rolen, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Aaron
Harang all finding their way to the disabled list.




Believe it or not, the Reds were a .500 baseball team as late as
July 7. This in spite of Bronson Arroyo putting up an ugly 5.85 ERA
over his first 17 starts and Votto (chronic depression) and Volquez
(Tommy John surgery) both hitting the disabled list by the start of
June. But they came back to the pack in a big way between July 7
and August 22, going a pathetic 10-30, and losing Bruce (wrist), Cueto
(shoulder inflammation), Ramon Hernandez (knee), and finally Harang
(appendectomy) along the way.




While the Indians decided to sell off valuable parts around the
deadline, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty resisted trading Arthur
Rhodes, Aaron Harang, Francisco Cordero or Arroyo. Instead, he acquired
the injury-prone and expensive Scott Rolen while giving up on Edwin
Encarnacion, who, by the way, missed significant time with a
broken wrist. Coincidentally, Rolen suffered a concussion in his second
game with the Reds, and went on the disabled list shortly thereafter.
On the bright side, the Reds are 12-7 since Rolen’s return and managed
a season-high seven-game winning streak until running into the buzzsaw
that is the Colorado Rockies this week. They have lost five in a row coming into Saturday’s action.




The injuries remain an easy scapegoat, but the Reds have managed a
major-league worst .242 batting average (tied with the Padres) while
scoring a major-league worst 551 runs in one of baseball’s most
hitter-friendly parks. They’ve also struggled at the gate, averaging
just 22,928 fans through 68 games at Great American Ballpark.




Silver Linings:



When the Reds lost Bruce to a broken
right wrist on July 11, the lineup was aching for a power source. Jonny
Gomes has stepped up in his absence, launching 14 home runs. The
28-year-old outfielder is batting .279/.349/.563 with 19 home runs, 48
RBI and a .912 OPS in 240 at-bats this season.




The Reds expected Ramon Hernandez to be a productive force in their
lineup, but the veteran backstop batted just .249/.330/.355 with five
homers and 36 RBI in 77 games before undergoing surgery on his left
knee in July.
While Hernandez disappointed, 29-year-old Ryan Hanigan has emerged as an option for next season, batting
.271/.364/.328 in 227 at-bats while throwing out 42% of would-be
basestealers. Look for the Reds to buy out Hernandez’s option for 2010.




Though he had the 5.85 ERA through July 7 as referenced above,
Arroyo has been nothing short of brilliant since, compiling a 2.17 ERA
over his last 12 starts. Too bad he has gone just 4-4 over that time.




Granted, his season might ultimately be dogged by odd comments
about an injury to his left wrist, but Brandon Phillips has put together a
bounce-back season by all accounts, batting .275/.330/.453 with 19
homers, 86 RBI and 24 stolen bases. He is showing a noticeable maturity
at the plate, walking at a career-best rate of 7.4% while cutting down on his strikeouts (12.2%).




Looking Ahead:



Manager Dusty Baker has another year on his
contract that will pay him approximately $4 million, so it unlikely
that Bob Castellini will buy him out. And considering the hand
Baker was dealt this season, he doesn’t deserve the hook, anyway.





There’s no question that the Reds should tender Gomes a contract for
2010
(arbitration-eligible). One possibility may be to sign him and then
ship him off to another team. It may be a creative way to strengthen
their roster without spending a significant amount of money.




Paul Janish isn’t the answer at shortstop. Sure, his glove is great
(+8.0 UZR), but it’s not enough to make up for his weak bat
(.207/.294/.287). Could J.J. Hardy be a good fit?




Will
2010 finally be the year that Homer Bailey turns the corner? The Reds
will need him to step up with Edinson Volquez expected to miss all or
most of the season after Tommy John surgery. Bailey has pitched better of late, going 3-0 with a
1.67 ERA over his last four starts, but his spotty control remains a
serious concern (4.50 BB/9).




Who will patrol center field? Former No. 1 pick Drew Stubbs is
getting a chance right now, batting .250/.306/.440 with with five
homers and eight RBI. But with a 31/8 K/BB ratio in 97 at-bats, his
plate discipline leaves something to be desired. Willy Taveras (who is
owed $4 million in 2010), Chris Dickerson or Chris Heisey, who batted
.314/.379/.521 with 22 homers and 77 RBI between Double-A Carolina and
Triple-A Louisville this season, are also options.




The Reds already have $65 million in contract commitments for 2010,
including $12.5 million for Harang, $12.25 million for Arroyo, $12.125
for Francisco Cordero and $11 million for Rolen, so unless Jocketty
trades one of his veteran starters, there won’t be much payroll
flexibility. They’ll have to hang their hats on continued progression from their young stars.

Joe Blanton signs with the Nationals

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07:  Joe Blanton #55 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reports that the Nationals have signed Joe Blanton to a one-year contract.

Surprised it took this long given that Blanton was excellent out of the pen for the Dodgers last year, posting a 2.48 ERA and 80/26 K/BB ratio over 80 innings. But even if it’s a late signing, it’s not a terrible one: Blanton will receive a $4 million salary and will have the chance to make an additional $1 million in performance bonuses. UPDATE: The salary structure is kind of odd. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post reports that Blanton will get only $1 million in 2017, plus some incentives, and will have $1 million deferred to 2018 and $2 million deferred to 2019.

And he got two weeks off work. Bonus!

Baseball doesn’t need gimmicks to draw in young fans. It just needs to be baseball.

MESA, AZ - MARCH 6: Chicago Cubs ball and bat bags are seen prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on March 6, 2015 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. The Reds defeated the Cubs 5-2. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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MESA, AZ — I didn’t set out to ask Robin Mitchell about pace of play, rules changes, how to best execute an intentional walk or how to turn kids into baseball fans. I was interviewing her about other stuff. She brought those topics up on her own.

“I heard them saying that they were not going to throw four pitches for intentional walks anymore,” Mitchell said. “I’d prefer that they throw the pitches because anything can happen. There can be wild pitches. And that’s the exciting part of baseball. That you don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think we need to speed the game along.”

For most baseball fans such sentiments are tied up with a devotion to baseball purism, tradition or their distaste for change. But such is not the case for Mitchell. While the lifelong Chicago resident went to Cubs games as a child, baseball has not been a lifelong obsession. Rather, it’s something she has become reacquainted with via her two baseball-obsessed boys, Jake, 11, and Bennett, 9.

Mitchell and her boys live on the north side of Chicago and, over the past two years, her sons have developed a huge affinity for the Cubs, almost by osmosis. It was certainly a good time for it, as the Cubs have become winners, and Mitchell allows that since Jake and Bennett didn’t “have to suffer through some of the more challenging times,” their attraction to the game became easier. It’s clear to her, however, that they are not going to be fair weather fans.

“They love baseball,” she said, implying that it’s not just homerism for the current World Series champions at work. They love the sport itself and began to play it too. It’s not easy for Mitchell to say whether their playing led to their fandom or vice-versa. It all sort of happened at once, with each reinforcing the other.

I asked her what about baseball, specifically, appeals to them. What, at a time when Rob Manfred and everyone connected to the game is worried about the sport’s seeming inability to attract and hold on to young fans, keeps Mitchell’s sons engaged.

For them, it seems to be all about accessibility and engagement. Being in Chicago and living close to a park is important, as is having all of the games available on TV. Also important to them: appealing young stars.

“It helps that the Cubs have some really nice players who seem like really nice guys,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we see them in the neighborhood even. Ben Zobrist. Anthony Rizzo. David Ross. Whenever we’ve seen them out or at an event they’re always kind and polite and give the boys encouraging words.”

But isn’t baseball . . . boring? And slow? Don’t kids like video games and kinetic action? Doesn’t a 19th century pastime with a sometimes turgid pace turn off 21st century kids?

“No, are you kidding?!” Mitchell said. “We don’t leave the game before it’s over. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what the score is. We love the pace of baseball. In the world of electronics, with everything moving really fast and being gimmicky, there’s something I think that my boys and I find appealing about baseball. I can share it with them and we all just slow down.”

As we talked, Jake and Bennett ran around a field just outside the Cubs clubhouse, playing catch and practicing rundowns with a couple of other boys they just met. Mitchell and I spoke for nearly a half hour. They played the whole time and looked like they wouldn’t stop unless or until their mother dragged them away.

We have spent a lot of time lately talking about how to fix baseball. I don’t know that anyone has made a compelling case that, despite the challenges the game faces, it is actually broken. Robin Mitchell doesn’t think it is. Neither do Jake and Bennett. While Rob Manfred and Joe Torre propose increasingly unorthodox methods for speeding things up, some pretty basic and longstanding factors are continuing to attract young fans:

  • The availability of games almost every day;
  • An exciting and successful local team;
  • The charisma of baseball’s biggest stars;
  • The ability for kids to play the game themselves and to emulate those stars on a little league field; and
  • The chance for parents to share their love of baseball with their children.

These are the factors which have always made up baseball’s appeal. Perhaps Major League Baseball should concentrate on ensuring that those factors, which are proven to draw in fans, persist and flourish. Perhaps they should concentrate less on chasing hypothetical fans via gimmicks aimed at fixing problems which are far-from-established.