Restoring the rosters: No. 30 – Cincinnati

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I’m kicking off a new series reviewing what all 30 teams would look like if they included only players originally signed by the club. The ground rules:
1. Players are assigned to the team with which they made their professional or U.S. debuts. Japanese and Cuban imports are being included. As far as I can tell, Angel Guzman is the only player considered who signed with a team but never played for them at any level. As a result, he’s listed with the Cubs, rather than the Royals.
2. Officially retired players are ineligible, but players simply out of the league are fair game. That includes players currently in Japan.
There aren’t going to be any scientific rankings here. I’m choosing players based on some combination of 2008-09 performance and 2010 projected value. Injured players are being included if, in my personal opinion, they’re good bets to bounce back. For instance, Tim Hudson will lead Oakland’s rotation, while Jeremy Bonderman gets viewed as a fifth-starter candidate and Mark Mulder won’t be showing up at all.
I’ll be ranking the assembled rosters from No. 30 to No. 1. The plan is to cover two teams per day.
So, let’s jump right in. Two teams earned consideration for the bottom spot, but it was truly an easy choice in the end. Ladies and gentleman, here are your Cincinnati Reds.
Rotation
Johnny Cueto
Homer Bailey
Dustin Moseley
Brett Tomko
Buddy Carlyle
Bullpen
Trevor Hoffman
Todd Coffey
B.J. Ryan
Josh Roenicke
Carlos Fisher
John Koronka
Zach Stewart
The sad thing is that this isn’t even a bump in the road for the Reds. Cueto’s future looks very promising, but before him, they hadn’t developed a legitimate major league starter since Tomko, who debuted in 1997, or a good one since Tom Browning, who arrived in 1984.
The fifth spot came down to Carlyle or Koronka. Koronka has a 6.25 ERA in 30 starts and one relief appearance as a major leaguer, while Carlyle is at 5.58 in 27 starts and 75 relief appearances. Before running either to the mound, I’d want to find out if Jack Armstrong or Scott Scudder feels up to making a comeback.
The bullpen is in slightly better shape with Hoffman, who spent two years as an infielder and two as a pitcher in the Reds system before being plucked by the Marlins in the expansion draft. A rebound from Ryan would go a long way. Rounding out the staff are the two young relievers the Reds surrendered for Scott Rolen last week: Roenicke and Stewart. Sadly, that left no room for Scott Williamson, who has allowed 10 earned runs in 5 2/3 innings in the minors this season.
Lineup
CF Chris Dickerson
1B Joey Votto
C Ryan Hanigan
LF Adam Dunn
RF Jay Bruce
2B Aaron Boone
3B Adam Rosales
SS Paul Janish
Bench
OF Chris Denorfia
OF Austin Kearns
C Paul Bako
INF Zach Cozart
INF-OF Todd Frazier
To go along with their two quality pitchers, the Reds also have two above average regulars in Votto and Dunn. Unfortunately, those two, Bruce and Dickerson are all left-handed hitters. For that reason, I’ve slid Hanigan into the third spot in the lineup, which seems like a better choice than batting Boone second. When the Reds face a lefty starter, Denorfia should start over Dickerson in the leadoff spot.
The infield is just brutal, aside from Votto, but there aren’t any alternatives. Even Edwin Encarnacion was originally a Ranger. Cozart gets the utility gig over fellow prospect Chris Valaika. If the Reds actually had this group, they’d likely be concentrating on Frazier as an infielder. He’s played mostly left field in the minors this year. Juan Francisco also provides some hope for the future.
The lone tough call here was whether to go with Bako or Jason LaRue as the backup catcher.
Summary
No other team truly compares. The only thing the Reds have done worse than identifying young talent is developing it. Jim Bowden, who remarkably lasted 10 1/2 seasons as the team’s GM before being fired in July 2003, deserves a lot of the blame, with much of the rest going to those who kept him in power. Particularly given how little depth there is behind this abysmal group, a major league team using this roster would be lucky to win 40 games.

“Bullpenning” creates a serious labor issue

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Last year, we devoted some space here to talking about “bullpenning.” I believe the term was coined by MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, who has been a very outspoken proponent of the strategy. Aside from the occasional “bullpen day,” we haven’t really seen teams give “bullpenning” a shot, so we don’t have much data to work with to say whether or not it’s a viable strategy.

The Rays made some headlines early this season, suggesting the club might use a four-man rotation all year. The Rays also made headlines over the weekend, choosing to start reliever Sergio Romo on back-to-back days against the Angels. That rankled Angels third baseman Zack Cozart, who said the Rays’ strategy is “bad for baseball.” The Rays’ thinking on Saturday was that the righty-heavy top of the Angels’ lineup was threatening for lefty starter Ryan Yarbrough, so having Romo start the first inning before handing the ball off to Yarbrough would prevent him from facing those right-handed hitters three times in a normal-length start.

Despite Cozart’s displeasure with the strategy, Romo is a fan of it:

In discussing the issue last night, I tried to imagine how Cozart’s claim holds up and came up empty. The strategy makes sense in a vacuum and, as SB Nation’s DRaysBay points out on Twitter, the strategy hasn’t led to overuse.

However, one problem that has often been overlooked when discussing “bullpenning” is the inevitable labor issue. Right now, starting pitchers make significantly more money than relief pitchers. In December 2016, Aroldis Chapman eviscerated the previous record contract for a reliever when he signed a five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees. That doesn’t even crack the top-85 on the list of the most lucrative contracts in baseball history, per Cot’s Contracts. The largest contract by a starting pitcher was the seven-year, $217 million contract David Price signed with the Red Sox in December 2015. If you’re a pitcher and you want to make money, you should try to become a starter.

Teams will use whatever information they can to avoid having to pay a player more money. We see this when major league-ready players are held down in the minors longer than necessary, we see it when players go to arbitration, and we see it when free agents try to land contracts. On every stat-tracking site, there’s a column for pitchers labeled “GS” for games started. Right now, Yarbrough’s column has a three in it. He has appeared in 11 total games. He was effectively a starter on Saturday despite Romo getting credit for the start since he went 6 1/3 innings against the Angels, but he didn’t get the additional bump in the GS column, which has the potential to depress his salary throughout his career. Yarbrough has effectively “started,” lasting at least four innings in eight of those 11 games. But Andrew Kittredge got credit for the start several times, going two innings ahead of Yarbrough in a few of those games.

Yarbrough, a rookie, will have his contract automatically renewed by the Rays until he becomes eligible for salary arbitration. Until he reaches arbitration eligibility, the Rays will get to set his salary at whatever figure they want as long as it meets the major league minimum ($555,000 next year). Sometimes players perform well enough that the teams willingly choose to pay them more as a good will gesture, but usually teams hover at or just slightly above the minimum. Then Yarbrough will move into potential salary arbitration with the Rays in a few years. Should the two sides not reach an agreement in any of those three years, they will go before an independent arbitrator, who will hear arguments from Yarbrough’s agent and representatives for the Rays. The Rays will use statistics to argue that Yarbrough isn’t worth what he’s asking for. They will likely use the smaller number in the “GS” column, among other numbers, to do so. This would be the case for any player, particularly a younger player, who gets used in the “bullpenning” strategy.

Each previous salary becomes a jumping-off point for the next salary. Let’s say that Yarbrough filed for $6 million, the Rays countered at $3 million, and the arbitrator sided with the Rays. (Historically, arbitrators have tended to side with teams.) The next year that Yarbrough goes to arbitration, he’s arguing for a raise off of $3 million instead of $6 million. If Yarbrough had earned $6 million the previous year, it would be reasonable that he might request $10 million the next year. But if he requests $10 million after earning just $3 million, it seems less reasonable. These numbers are intentionally disparate, by the way. Usually the difference in figures filed is only in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Take Marcus Stroman as an example. He won his arbitration case with the Blue Jays going into the 2017 season, filing for $3.4 million against the Jays’ $3.1 million. He had a career year in 2017, finishing with a 3.09 ERA  in 33 starts. Stroman still lost his salary arbitration case heading into this season, filing for $6.9 million against the Jays’ $6.5 million.

If there’s any doubt that the Rays would fight tooth-and-nail to save a few hundred thousand bucks, consider that the Rays receive money both from revenue sharing and from BAMTech, a 33 percent share of which was sold to Disney in 2016 for $1 billion. Disney then bought a controlling share in BAMTech last August for $1.58 billion. As Craig mentioned at the time, that netted every owner about $68 million. And baseball’s 30 owners will continue to make more money off of BAMTech from their minority share. Yet the Rays’ Opening Day payroll has never topped $77 million. The club is often characterized as small-market and it’s relatively true, but it could have been out trying to sign big name free agents in recent years. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has just chosen not to in an effort to maximize profits.

The solution to this labor issue shouldn’t be to prevent teams from utilizing strategies like “bullpenning.” We should seek to change the way we value players both systemically and statistically. If teams are artificially depressing important statistics for players — “games started” isn’t the only one; teams have also prevented their players from meeting performance bonuses (often based on appearances and/or innings pitched) in their contracts — then we need to amend the rules so that players don’t get the short end of the stick. This can’t be addressed until negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2021. Hypothetically, the change made could be wholesale, but realistically, the change would need to be incremental, perhaps saying that a player’s playing time, amount of starts made, and other similar statistics can’t be held against him in arbitration since that’s almost entirely up to the team based on its personnel and other incentives. As for affecting change in how we value players statistically, that’s both a structural issue involving front offices and a social issue involving members of the media and fans. Batting average versus on-base percentage is a great example of this type of change, both structurally and socially.

We shouldn’t want to prevent teams from optimizing strategy since, in a vacuum, that’s healthy for the game. Having a stale “metagame” means the game is boring and figured out. Teams utilizing new strategies keeps the game fresh and interesting. Unfortunately, “bullpenning” represents an intersection of labor and strategy. It’s a serious issue the Major League Baseball Players Association should be keeping an eye on and working to solve.