The Cincinnati Reds are two years removed from winning 90 games and making the playoffs. In fact, from 2010-2013 the Reds went to the post-season three times in four years, but were never able to get over the divisional series hump. As a fan, those were fun teams to root for. Joey Votto was (and still is) one of the best hitters in baseball. There was a young core of players in their 20’s that looked primed for a long run of success. Brandon Phillips and Johnny Cueto brought a personality and swagger to the team that was infectious. The front end of the rotation, while not dominant, was solid. It was hard not to be optimistic.
Yet here we sit on January 3, 2016, and the Reds are coming off back to back losing seasons. 2015 was their worst season by winning percentage since 1982. Some of what went wrong over the past two years is obvious. This was a team ravaged by injuries. Several players from that young core underperformed. Meanwhile, the NL Central became one of the best divisions in baseball.
In this article I’m not so concerned with how things got to this point. Instead, I want to take a step back and look at the moves that have been made over the past year and a half. More specifically, I want to look at this past year and a half from a fan’s perspective.
Ultimately a team can give its fans two things. They can give them present success and/or future hope. When you give them both you’re selling out ballparks and creating a rabid fanbase. However, if you can give them at least one of these things you’ll keep the core of your fans invested.
My biggest problem with the Reds’ strategy over the past few years is that it has failed to give their fans either of these things. There’s little thought of present success. Enough key pieces have been traded away to put that idea to rest. However, as they’ve traded these pieces away they’ve also failed to give their fans much hope that things are going to get dramatically better in the future.
I don’t need to spend any time explaining why giving your fans success is important. Success sells tickets and jerseys. Success gets a city buzzing. Everyone wants to be associated with a winner, and the best time to be a baseball fan is when your team is winning. But if you can’t be a part of a winner, then the ability to be a dreamer is the next best thing.
We’re one year removed from the Cubs being a sub .500 team. Yet in the midst of a run of losing seasons the fans had reasons to be optimistic. Clearly not everyone loved the process of rebuilding, and at times some questioned what they were doing. Most fans held out hope because they knew Kris Bryant was coming. They knew Addison Russell was coming. It was obvious the farm system was well stocked. They had watched young stars like Anthony Rizzo develop. Fans also knew that as those stars came of age the front office was in a position to invest in the free agent market. There were enough high ceiling prospects in place for Cubs fans to dream about what could be.
The Astros are another example of this. From 2011-2013 the Astros weren’t just bad…they were comically bad. During that stretch they wouldn’t win more than 56 games in a season. They followed that stretch up with a 70 win season in 2014. Astros fans had to watch a lot of bad baseball (if they watched it at all). I’m sure a lot of fans checked out during this period of time, but the hardcore fan base could see that help was coming. Analysts fawned over the stock pile of young talent Houston acquired during this period of time.
The Astros burnt their team to the ground. There wasn’t any semblance of a major league roster for multiple seasons. What fans did have was hope. If just some of these prospects turned into the best versions of themselves, then they knew the foundation of a winner could be in place.
Over the past two seasons the Reds have dealt some of their most prominent trade chips. Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon were the first to go. Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake made their exits after 2015’s all-star break. Fan favorite Todd Frazier was the first domino to fall this off-season. Aroldis Chapman is now headed to New York.
As a fan it was hard watching these players leave, but the hope was that the best among them (Cueto, Chapman, and Frazier) could bring back pieces that could provide hope for later. The Cueto deal is perceived to be the best of the group. The Reds only lost a few months of Cueto, and in return got a few nice arms with upside. However, the Frazier deal was a head scratcher. Most seem to believe that the Dodgers actually got back the highest ceiling prospect in the trade (Montas), while the Reds acquired a solid defensive second basemen. The Chapman deal was met with equal disappointment, but given his off the field troubles it’s easy to understand why teams were hesitant to make a deal.
Many Reds fans hoped that the players listed above could at least bring back one or two high ceiling prospects. Maybe those fans, myself included, expected too much in return. Still, it’s hard to get too excited about what these deals have brought back.
On a recent episode of the Fangraphs podcast, Dave Cameron argued that the Reds were sacrificing high ceiling prospects for those that are more major league ready. That seems like a fine strategy for a solid team looking to bolster its deficiencies, but should it be the approach of a team that needs a major overhaul? Ownership would likely argue that this team is closer to winning than fans think, but in the gauntlet that is the NL Central its hard to see this team coming out on top.
I’ve read responses to these trades from a number of committed (but not hardcore) Reds fans. Every one of them responded with disappointment as “name” players were sent away. I wanted to be able to chime in with, “I know they just traded _____, but this prospect could really turn in to something.” The problem is I don’t think that prospect is in this group. The Reds have acquired several solid players who will likely contribute at the major league level. However, I don’t think there’s a potential middle of the order hitter or top of the rotation starter in the bunch. There isn’t much to dream on.
The Reds still have some quality players. Joey Votto is still at first. Homer Bailey is returning from injury. If Jay Bruce sticks around, he’ll provide solid production. On their own these players can’t turn the Reds into a winner, and they’ll likely be on the down swing when the Reds get competitive again. It might drive some fans away, but why not go all the way and trade what you have to position yourself for the future? It’s hard to imagine a half-way rebuild being successful, but that’s what it feels like the Reds are going for.
Maybe it’s the cold weather of January that has me down, but its hard to be optimistic about Cincinnati’s present or future. The Cubs look like a dominant force. As much as I hate to admit it, St. Louis isn’t going anywhere. The Pirates have found a plan and system that works for them. No one is going to luck into a playoff spot from the NL Central over the next handful of years.
The Reds have traded away a lot of key pieces recently. With the few remaining trade chips they have left I would love to see them take a chance on some guys who might be a little farther away from the big leagues, but potentially offer much more upside. It’s not going to put more wins on the board in 2016-18, but it might give committed Reds fans hope that things will get better.
Success and hope are powerful things. Give either to a fan base and many will stick around. What happens when you give a fan base neither? A lot of fans might simply find better uses of their time than following a team spinning its wheels.Next post: Best of 2015 Polls
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