I'm nervous about the Reds

Are the Reds actually committed to winning in 2021? Reply hazy, try again.

Let me begin by saying that it’s quite possible that I’m overreacting. The last two off-seasons, the Cincinnati Reds have been active in trying to put a winner on the field, so perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt. But even as I acknowledge that I’m just reading tea leaves here, I can’t deny it: I’m nervous.

A month ago, I laid out the case here in the digital pages of The Riverfront that the Reds needed to be aggressive this off-season, zigging while everyone else was zagging:

Imagine if the Reds were aggressive, and put the finishing touches on a team that showed some real promise in 2020. What if they can put together a championship contender this winter while other teams are panicking and refusing to spend dollars? Then, if things return to normal at some point…well, the Reds will have a winner. And you know what happens when they put a winner on the field in Cincinnati?

The fans come out to the park in droves. Game-day revenue will rise, with the potential for the increased revenue that comes with post-season series’ at Great American Ball Park. It’s simple: the Reds can be proactive now and reap the rewards later.

Sure, it’s easy for me to spend Castellini’s money, and I really don’t know whether the financial situation is actually dire inside the business office. Perhaps it is.

But you can’t deny that an opportunity exists this off-season for whichever team decides to pursue it. Why not the Reds?

This week, the Reds traded Robert Stephenson for Jeff Hoffman, a swap of two first-round draft picks who have spent their careers underwhelming everyone. In the wake of that trade, Reds general manager Nick Krall did a round of interviews in which he sounded (to me, anyway) like a talented baseball executive whose hands have been tied because of financial constraints. And that does not bode well for Cincinnati’s chances of fielding a competitive team in 2021. On Bauer and the starting rotation, Krall said:

“We haven’t really had substantial conversations with where we are this offseason,” Krall said Wednesday on 700-WLW’s “Hot Stove League” show. “Who knows? Anything could happen. I wouldn’t rule anything out. It just depends on what Trevor wants to do and where he wants to go.” …

With the high likelihood that Bauer signs elsewhere, the Reds have sought alternative options for their rotation. That was one of the reasons they traded for Jeff Hoffman on Wednesday, a pitcher who moved to the bullpen in 2020 because he was out of minor-league options, but he’s been a starter throughout his career.

“For us, at this point, we've lost Trevor Bauer and trying to figure out how to fill that fifth starter spot,” Krall said. “Can we create some competition if we don't fill it another way?”

“…with where we are this offseason.” “…we’ve lost Trevor Bauer…” “…if we don’t fill it another way?” Does that sound like the words of a general manager who has been given the go-ahead from management to improve the team? Or does it sound like Wayne Krivsky and Dan O’Brien and Jim Bowden, general managers of the past who had to get creative because ownership wouldn’t commit the necessary resources to put a winner on the field.

I know, I know…it’s all speculation. But with nothing else going on in Cincinnati, at least until the college hoops season really gets going, this is the only game in town: worrying about the Reds. And nothing I’ve heard since the season ended has given me any reason for optimism about the Reds being active this winter. To the contrary, I see a club that is going to use the pandemic as an excuse not to spend. (And it’s quite possibly a real excuse, but we’ll never know because the Reds’ books aren’t public.)

Mentioning Hoffman in the same breath as Bauer just smacks of the way the Reds have done business for the last thirty years…or at least, how they did business before Dick Williams engineered the two most active off-seasons in my lifetime the last two years. How many pitchers did the Reds take fliers on in those years, hoping they could salvage something? A partial list, from 2000 to 2008 (I apologize in advance for inflicting this on you): Josh Fogg, Eric Milton, Kirk Saarloos, Joe Mays, Paul Wilson, Todd Van Poppel, Jimmy Haynes, Cory Lidle, John Bale, Jimmy Anderson, Seth Etherton, Joey Hamilton, Shawn Estes, Osvaldo Fernandez.

Now, this is completely unfair to Hoffman. Hoffman is one of the Driveline Baseball guys, and I have a lot of confidence in Reds pitching coordinator Kyle Boddy (the founder and president of Driveline). If Boddy and pitching coach Derek Johnson see something to like (Hoffman’s spin rate, for example), I am perfectly willing to believe that the Reds can turn Hoffman’s career around.

I just fear that the Reds are returning to the bad old days, when obviously, we don’t have enough money to sign top free agents like Trevor Bauer was the consistent message emanating from the front office and ownership. The fans just need to understand that we’re a small market team and we’re limited in what we can do.

Again, let me be clear: there is not nearly enough evidence to draw this conclusion! We are less than a year removed from the Reds’ biggest free agent shopping spree in club history! I suppose that I’m just battle-scarred from three decades of watching Reds ownership cynically refuse even to pretend that they could compete for championships. I fear a return to those days, and I keep seeing signs of its return.

In late September, as Bauer was impressing everyone on the way to the club’s first Cy Young Award, Mo Egger wrote at The Athletic about why retaining the services of Bauer should be the most important item on the Reds’ agenda this off-season. You should read the entire thing, but here’s the part that stuck with me:

I can’t help but wonder how seriously fans will take the team’s claims of being completely invested in winning if it somehow allows one of the best pitchers in baseball to get away….

It would be incredibly sobering if the Reds instead tried to plug the hole left by a Bauer departure with cheaper, not-as-good alternatives, especially after watching years of castoffs and low-end prospects try to fill the mid-decade void left by the likes of Johnny Cueto and others. It would be equally maddening if Major League Baseball goes through on Rob Manfred’s suggestion of a 16-team playoff in 2021 and the Reds responded by tightening the strings and simply building a team good enough to sneak into October with just 82 or so wins.

Again, read the entire thing.

It’s still early in the off-season, and far too soon to draw any grand conclusions. But if the Reds do not ultimately make a competitive offer to Bauer, it’s probably safe for fans to ignore them. That will be a good indicator that (a) they aren’t committed to putting a championship team on the field in 2021 and (b) aren’t interested in showing the fans that things are different. Oh, you’ll hear the same cry-poor words from management we’ve been hearing for years, even before owner Bob Castellini famously promised a number of things on which he ultimately failed to deliver. But this ownership group has done almost nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt.

Krall is in a tough spot here. Maybe he can pull a rabbit out of a hat, given that he likely has serious financial constraints placed upon him. But if he fails, don’t blame him. Point your finger squarely at Castellini…and then spend your discretionary dollars elsewhere.

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Blast From The Past

With college basketball season upon us, let’s take a moment to remember Danny Fortson, mostly because UC needs to bring back those unis. In a city that has seen quite a few college stars, Fortson remains among the very best.

If you have a Cincinnati sports-related picture you’d like to share here, send it my way (dotsonc@gmail.com).

What I’m Reading

Robert Weintraub: What did Bengals fans do to deserve this torture?

Doug Gray: Can the Cincinnati Reds “fix” Jeff Hoffman?

Wick Terrell: Thinking long-term with the Reds payroll

Adam Baum: Three games in, here's what we learned about the Xavier Musketeers

John Fay: My retirement will be filled with memories of friends I worked with

What Chad’s Watching

Two good movies this week. “Shirkers” is a documentary about a movie by a teenage filmmaker in early-90s Singapore whose footage was lost for years when her adult mentor disappeared. When the film is recovered, she goes on a journey of discovery about the mentor and reconnects with the past. A good watch.

“Peeping Tom” is another in the genre of “best Hitchcock films that weren’t made by Hitchcock.” The lead character is Mark Lewis (not the Mark Lewis who played for the Reds in the 1990s, unfortunately), and I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for those of you who want to watch. Suffice to say: very suspenseful, gorgeous, and extremely controversial at the time. Recommended.

The World’s Most Dangerous Reds Podcast

Redleg Nation Radio #354: Reds Coast to Coast

I begin by discussing the news of the week in Redleg Nation, then I was joined by John Majewski from the left coast. We talked about growing up as Reds fans and how the kids these days just have it different, as they say.

We talk about the Cincinnati Reds — for better or for worse — every single week on RNR. Join us for free by subscribing everywhere you find dangerous podcasts. Or any other podcast, really. And you can support the podcast here.

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