Saturday, February 22, 2014

Thoughts on Bailey's deal and Phillips silence

Well, welcome back baseball.  We missed you.  A few items to touch on now that full squad workouts have begun for the Reds in Goodyear, AZ.

First, while part of me is glad the Reds were able to come to a multi-year contract agreement for pitcher Homer Bailey, I don't know if I would have committed to a 6-year, $100-plus million to do it.
I know Bailey has come into his own over the last three seasons and has two no-hitters to his credit, but his career stats look like this: 49 wins, 45 losses, 4.25 ERA.  Now what's encouraging is he's lowered his ERA and his WHIP each of the last five seasons.  He's also won more than he's lost since 2008 until last year when he went 11-12.  Sure, you could argue he pitched much better than that and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong.  My point is the Reds are committing over $100 mil for a pitcher that hasn't won more than 13 games in his seven seasons in the big leagues.

With the trio of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, I just am not sure I would have committed so much of my resources to Bailey.  If it were me inking someone on the starting staff to a multi-year extension, I would have committed that cash to Cueto and/or Latos.  They are your 1-2 punch in the rotation and personally have a greater value/impact for the organization.

Latos is about the same age as Bailey but has played two fewer seasons.  However, he's 55-40 with a 3.35 ERA for his career.  More importantly he's been phenomenal in his two years as a Red where he's 28-11 with a 3.32 ERA, winning 14 games each of his last two seasons and pitching 200 innings.
Yes there are slight questions about health as Latos had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow as well as repair a small meniscus tear in his knee.  But those are not major operations and the Reds are confident he'll be ready to go for Opening Day.

Cueto on the other hand has been the number one starter on this team for 3 years running and has a 65-48 record in six seasons with a 3.53 ERA. During that time, he's won double figures 3 times including going 19-9 in 2012.  Like Latos, there are injury questions after 2013 where he started only 11 games because of a lat muscle strain.  Still he's started no fewer than 24 games in a season until last year.  More importantly he's been the go-to guy on the staff.  Last year's NL Wild Card game aside, when they've needed a big performance to get a win, Cueto's been the guy.

Now the problem is the money to sign one or both will cost more than Bailey's 6-year, $105 million contract.  General Manager Walt Jocketty has said signing Cueto, Latos and Leake will be "It's going to be tough." It just seems as though the team isn't seeing the big picture and only focusing on locking up the guys who are on the verge of free agency.  Jocketty confirmed as much say, "You take them one at a time.  This obviously was his (Bailey's) time."  My point being they've committed a $100 million to Bailey so how much is left to ink Cueto and Latos who arguably have been more important to the team's success.  If the organization had the foresight to sign Joey Votto two years before he hit free agency, why would they not do the same for key members of the pitching staff?

Alright, enough about Bailey, Cueto and Latos.  Let's talk about Brandon Phillips.  The All-Star second baseman showed up at camp and declined to speak with reporters.  This after a season in which he criticized ownership in a Cincinnati magazine regarding last years contract negotiations, then voiced his displeasure with a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter over a tweet about his on-base percentage with an expletive-filled rant at a pre-game media session in Dusty Baker's office before a road game in Saint Louis (link).  This led to an offseason in which he was rumored to be on the trading block.  In December, the team came out and said Phillips isn't being shopped.  Then there was a report the Yankees rejected a trade, Phillips for outfielder Brett Gardner.

I'm sure there are many who cover the team who feel Phillips should have spoken.  Probably some fans too.  Perhaps he should have.  But as someone who works in the sports media (I just don't cover the Reds), Phillips is under no obligation to talk with reporters.  All I would want as a reporter covering the team is Phillips doesn't make any exceptions.  If he doesn't talk to the beat reporters, he shouldn't make an exception for MLB Network or ESPN.

I'll be curious to see how the Cincinnati Enquirer writes stories regarding Phillips this year, especially if he doesn't speak with reporters.  While I don't like how Phillips went about voicing his displeasure with what Enquirer C. Trent Rosecrans tweeted about Phillips' on-base percentage, I also understand Phillips position.  The Enquirer all year kept harping on how bad the Reds on-base percentage was from the two-hole hitter over the course of the year, so when  Phillips got put into that spot August 28th to help jump start him and the offense, Rosecrans tweeted pre-game how the move actually lowered the 2-hole OPB since Phillips on-base percentage was lower than the team 2-hole hitter average.  All Brandon did that night was go 2 for 5 with 2 runs scored in a 10-0 Reds win.  You want to tweet or write about that stat after the game or after a series of games with Phillips in the 2-hole, fine.  To do it before the game is just taking a shot at the team and the player in my opinion.

Look like any other fraternity, media members look out for their own, especially when they feel an athlete is picking on them for just doing their job.  Could Phillips have talked this week, starting with privately and publicly apologizing to Rosecrans for how he acted in St. Louis?  Sure.  Would it have been nice for him to address the offseason trade rumors?  You bet.  But if he feels the best way not to get himself into more hot water is by not talking with the media, I get that.  Just don't play favorites by talking with some reporters and not others.    

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Phillips appears to still be in Reds plans

I love how all the baseball pundits or so-called "experts" said Brandon Phillips was a "goner." That the Reds were absolutely going to trade him this off season.  Especially now that they've had to back track on those statements of absolute.  Because now those same people are saying Phillips is "unlikely" to be traded.  Click this link.

In fact, one writer said he spoke with clubs the Reds allegedly had spoken with about Phillips and got the feeling ownership was more the driving force than the front office.  (See @jaysonst on Twitter) If that's the case, I go back to what I've said regarding this whole thing in the first place.  Which is, if Mr. Castellini pushed for the signing of Phillips for this long-term multi-million dollar contract; then he should have known what he was getting into with Phillips, and no article in a magazine should be the driving force behind trading him one year into said new contract-- no matter how critical Phillips was of ownership.  It's just not good baseball business.

So going forward, assuming Phillips is in the fold, the Reds need to announce Phillips' participation in Reds Fest and the Reds Winter Caravan today.  I'll grant you Brandon appears to be too sensitive and needs to be shown love.  Well now is the time to start mending whatever damage has been done to the fence.  It needs to be done long before Spring Training is here.  This is still a talented organization capable of competing for the division title, but they have a new manager, coaching staff and can ill-afford Phillips to be a distraction.  So suck it up. Show him some love and that he's wanted.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Price succeeds Baker as Reds manager

The Reds made it official, promoting pitching coach Bryan Price as Reds manager. One thing stood out for me during his introductory press conference, Price used the word "unity" quite a bit. He stopped short of intimating the 2013 team wasn't unified. He never implied that. What he did add is its important for the team to be held "accountable" for giving its maxim effort every day for the Reds fans that pay for a ticket. He said it's not just from the coaching staff but the players holding themselves accountable to one another. That may be the key to what went wrong during the 2013 season.

Being held accountable by your teammates is something former Red Scott Rolen did very well, and while he had diminished returns on the field in his last few seasons, one can certainly draw a connection between his absence in the locker room this year and the lackluster finish the Reds had. Whether that appearance is actual or just a coincidence, we may never know. Remember, I, like most of you, follow this team from my living room couch. However I read and watch as much as I can on this team and I view them through the lens of journalist, which is how I make my living. Still, the reason Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty traded for Rolen in 2009 was to bring leadership to the locker room. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips all credited Rolen for the intangibles he brought to the team. It was thought that would be the legacy he imparted to that aforementioned core group; and yet, it seems to me like none of the three stepped up down the stretch when the Reds looked lethargic.

It goes to reason that perhaps one of Bryan Price's top priorities this Spring Training is to have Votto, Bruce and Phillips take that next leadership step and carry on the torch that Rolen passed to them. Yes, I include Brandon Phillips. Because despite all the media speculation about their being a "For Sale" sign around his neck, the reality is - one - it's difficult to move his contract, and - two - the Reds would suffer defensively as second base. And when plays aren't made defensively, who pays the price? The pitching staff. And what was Bryan Price's job title before being promoted to manager? Pitching coach. Plus, despite all the baseball scribes telling you how Phillips had his worst offensive season. He did knock in a career-high 103 runs, and many fail to mention how he was one of their few consistent clutch hitters at the plate and he played through a bruised forearm for much of the second half of the year.

Now I'm not saying Phillips won't be traded. For all his interaction with the Reds fans, beat writers will tell you he is not well liked in the clubhouse and that Brandon is out for Brandon. However he doesn't have to be your best friend for you to win. I seem to recall Rose and Bench not being BFFs. Sure his comments this year in Cincinnati Magazine calling Reds ownership "liars" (when it came to his contract negotiations) I'm sure didn't sit well with President and CEO Bob Castellini. But he had to know what he was getting when he signed Phillips to that multi-million dollar deal, and you don't chuck an important cog in your company's success to the curb after one year of that contract because of one inappropriate remark. Especially if you were the one who forced Jocketty into signing Phillips in the first place. Those things can be ironed out. It will be interesting to see, if Phillips isn't traded, what the relationship will be like with his new manager. Brandon was one of the guys Rolen I'm sure held accountable and it will be interesting to see if Price can convince him of assuming more of a leadership role, along with Votto and Bruce.

Now that the Reds ship is being captained by a new skipper, the off season work for Jocketty and his staff is about to begin. They face some hard decisions. Truthfully, despite the drafting and developing and the spending during Castellini's time as owner, I wonder whether I shouldn't just turn in my Reds gear for a Cardinals cap. Because I don't know how Cincinnati or any team in the NL Central will ever overcome St. Louis.

I know that sounds defeatist, but it's hard to keep the faith versus the cold hard reality. The truth is the Cardinals are the Yankees of the National League. During Reds current GM Walt Jocketty's tenure (1994-2007), St. Louis won 7 NL Central Division titles, 2 NL Pennants and a World Series. Current Cardinals Adam Wainwright, Allen Craig and John Jay were all drafted or traded for under Jocketty's watch. And since Jocketty's departure the organization hasn't missed a beat under John Mozeliak, who was hired in the scouting department by Jocketty.

The Cardinals have won 2 division titles, 2 pennants and a World Series under Mozeliak's guidance. This year's NL Champ is made up of 17 players drafted by St. Louis, 4 free agent signings, 3 acquired via trade and one international signing. Guys like Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams were all drafted under his tenure. Mozeliak made the shrewd move of trading fading star center fielder Jim Edmonds to San Diego for third baseman David Freese who won the 2011 World Series Most Valuable Player award. It was Mozeliak who didn't bend to the contract demands of the franchise's greatest player of the last 50 years, Albert Pujols. Instead letting the 3-time NL MVP walk to sign with the Angels. His compensation, the 19th pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft, some guy named Michael Wacha. I don't hear any Cardinals fans crying over the loss of Pujols anymore.

It's success like that both Castellini and Jocketty have been trying to duplicate. Three playoff appearances in four years is a good start. But to get over the hump, they'll need top prospects Billy Hamilton, Robert Stephenson and Nick Travieso to step up and contribute soon; and quite possibly Jocketty must know when to cut bait with current stars Votto, Bruce, Phillips and Cueto.

As fun as it can be to play arm-chair general manager of a baseball team, the task of trying to overcome the Cardinals juggernaut is a daunting one.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Thoughts on Dusty Baker's firing

Well I hope all you Dusty Baker haters are happy. You finally got your wish. Remember this day when you are griping about the man who takes his place.

The Reds fired Baker Friday after 6 seasons in which they won two NL Central Division titles and made the postseason three times. He had 1-year left on his contract. No doubt the five-straight losses to end the season and the defeat in the NL Wild Card game to rival Pittsburgh didn't help.

Many in the baseball media remarked how the team looked lifeless down the stretch. It's the same scenario that got Terry Francona canned in Boston and could have cost Freddie Gonzalez his job with Atlanta a few years ago.

I said on this blog a few days ago I didn't know what the right move(s) were and I still don't know if this will turn out to be the right move. There is all kinds of speculation as to what ultimately cost Baker his job. Most have settled on the poor finish. I've been unable to confirm any reports about the players revolting to Dusty's leadership. In fact, writer Mark Sheldon said he spoke with a few players who were surprised at the news.

In fairness, teams under Baker's tutelage have a history of failing to get over the hump in the postseason. It's too bad because I think he is a good baseball man and an even better person. His record proves it. Baker has the 2nd most wins of any active manager (over 16-hundred wins), sandwiched in between Jim Leyland and Bruce Bochy. The only difference is both have World Series rings. However Leyland's was in 1997 with the Marlins and has taken two Detroit Tigers teams to the World Series only to fall short. Bochy, meanwhile, has to have been viewed much like Baker until his two recent successes guiding the Giants to World Series crowns in 2010 & 2012.

While some of the Reds failures down the stretch fall to Baker, tell me how many other managers could lose its number one starter, clean-up hitter/left fielder and two of it's top relievers and still get 90 wins and make the postseason? I'm not certain he deserves most of the blame. As I've said before much of this falls on the players themselves. Essentially they cost Baker his job.

Despite the postseason failures, I will always look back on his tenure in Cincinnati positively. He was a good manager, who helped mold this franchise back into relevancy in the National League. Baker was a far more credible figure at the helm than Dave Miley, Jerry Narron, Ray Knight and Pete Mackanin; each of whom this organization had hired previously to run the ball club. Granted most of that was all under previous ownership. Dusty was the first manager hired under Bob Castellini's current tenure and it proved a good choice.

Personally I hope this decision is coming from someone other than ownership. Mr. Castellini knows the value of letting the baseball people do their jobs and the importance of continuity from his years as a minority owner of the Cardinals. I'm not saying the decision to get a new voice, a new direction in the manager's office is wrong, but I'm not entirely sure it's right either. As with anything, only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Stinging loss to Pirates leaves unanswered questions for Reds

For the third time in four years, the Reds proved they are shrinking violets. When placed in the white-hot spotlight of baseball's big stage, they fail to perform. Tuesday's NL Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh meant that Cincinnati still hasn't won a playoff round since October of 1995.

I don't envy Walt Jocketty. He's faced with questions in which their are no easy answers. But it's what he gets paid to figure out.

Blaming the manager, which it seems many fans have done since Dusty Baker was hired, is too easy and, frankly, unwarranted. Last I checked, Baker can't stop Johnny Cueto from grooving a fastball or Joey Votto & Jay Bruce from swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. Besides, Baker is already signed for next year and my guess is owner Bob Castellini doesn't want to pay someone who doesn't work for him. No, as I said on this blog yesterday, this is on the players.

Each one of those guys need to look themselves in the mirror and figure out why they don't perform when everything is on the line. It's not like this team hasn't risen to the occasion in big spots. They did it in the first two playoff games last year on the road in San Francisco. They did it this year when they began September by taking 6 of 7 from the first place Cardinals and Dodgers. But for some reason, when it's win or go home, this team can't get over the hump.

Here's a quote from Bruce in today's Cincinnati Enquirer following the loss to the Pirates, "Having good regular seasons is fine and dandy. But you play for championships. We haven't been able to get it done. We've got to figure out a way to get it done."

And that's where Jocketty and his staff come in. They're the ones who put the pieces together and must now determine what tweaks need to be made.  Center fielder Shin-Shoo Choo is a free agent, one that the Reds would love to have back but likely will be out of their price range. Same goes for starter Bronson Arroyo who has been the anchor of this young Reds pitching staff for the last 8 years. There are certainly ready-made replacements in youngsters Billy Hamilton and Tony Cingrani. But younger means inexperienced and the Reds would be fool-hearty to believe either is ready to step up and fill the shoes of Choo and Arroyo.

The bottom line is the Reds championship window is still open, but with the Cardinals being perennial  contenders and the Pirates now showing they are a team to be reckoned with, the time is now to capitalize on their opportunity. How they go about doing that, is anybody's guess.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Season Rests on Reds Players Shoulders, No One Else's

The playoffs are here. And whether it lasts 1 game or 20 for the Reds, the outcome is on the players now. Sure there might come a spot where a crucial managerial decision by Dusty Baker will need to be made, but October is where the best shine on the baseball diamond.

Do the Reds have the best? I don't know. I felt more confident last year and looked what happened. A 97 victory, division winner blew a 2-0 lead to the Giants and lost 3 straight home games.  October can turn on a pitch, a catch, a swing or an injury.

After making the postseason 3 of the last 4 years, the only thing I wonder about is this team's heart. Do they have the drive and the passion to hoist the World Series trophy? They rolled over for the Phillies in 2010 when they were over matched by a better team. They couldn't find a way to put a stake in the heart of the Giants when San Francisco teetered on the brink of elimination. So what do they do now that the perennial favorite to win the NL Central could do no better than capture the 2nd Wild Card spot and blew a chance to be the 1st Wild Card and host this winner take all affair over the weekend?

Team's usually take on the personality of their manager. And Dusty Baker is not thought of by most to be a fiery guy.  That demeanor suits guiding a team through a long, grueling 162-game season. But underneath that calm facade of Baker's is a competitive individual who wants to win badly.  It's time for  Baker and his Reds to let that passion, that fire loose.  Let the fans see just how much they want to win.

Last weekend, in an article by Reds beat writer Mark Sheldon, pitcher Bronson Arroyo said the following, "To be honest with you, the identity of this team is yet to be established. It's basically the exact same road we took last year. If we fall short in the playoffs or not make it to the true postseason, then I think we're labeled as a good group of baseball players that can't achieve greatness. That's what's going to land on our heads this year."

Just yesterday, Brandon Phillips said this in another article by Mark Sheldon, "We haven't really been playing Reds baseball all year. It's been up and down. We have too much talent on our team to be in this situation. I feel like that, in my opinion, we let the city of Cincinnati down. I feel like we should have won our division."

And that's how all 25 guys in that dugout tonight have to feel. All spring training long, they talked about "unfinished business." And how losing the way they did to the Giants is what would drive them this season. Time to prove it.

We got a glimpse of that passion this team holds inside over a week ago in Pittsburgh, when trailing by 3 runs, Cincinnati took advantage of a throwing error that would have ended the game and rallied to tie it in the 9th and win it in the 10th. When Devin Mesoraco reached on an infield single that plated 2 runs in the 9th to knot the contest at 5 apiece, the television cameras flashed to the Reds dugout to show everybody pumping their fists, giving high-fives and shouting encouragement. That emotion is what October is all about. It's about a player stepping up in the moment to propel his team to victory. It needs to surface right now for Cincinnati when they play Pittsburgh tonight. They need to leave it all out on the field. Play the game as if it were their last because there is no tomorrow if they lose.

There are really plenty of reasons why this team finished third and are the second NL Wild Card. They were without its number one starter (Johnny Cueto), its left fielder and clean-up hitter (Ryan Ludwick) and two of its top 3 relievers (Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall) for most of the year. Still this team managed to win 90 games and make the postseason for the third time in four years.  The likes of which hasn't been seen since the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. So for all the Dusty Baker bashing that goes on on Twitter and other social media, the man has done a heck of a job guiding this team to the playoffs.

Now, 3 of those 4 key cogs are back in the Reds fold for October. Cueto is taking the ball tonight with all the team's hopes and dreams resting on his right shoulder. If they lose tonight will it be a disappointing season. Sure. But baseball is a game where anything can happen. Especially when it's just one game. Which is why it's up to the players to take hold of the opportunity in front of them and achieve greatness.

Friday, September 20, 2013

October Comes Early for Reds

The playoffs start now.  Sure the calendar says it's still September and the schedule says there's 9 games left in the regular season, but it might as well be October for the Reds.

Cincinnati enters the weekend two games out of first in the NL Central and just a game back of Pittsburgh for second.  The Pirates currently hold the second NL Wild Card spot, meaning if the season ended today, they'd host the 1-game NL Wild Card round versus the Reds.

But Friday marks the first of 6 games between the Reds and Pirates.  So if Cincinnati is going to make a run at the division or even the first NL Wild Card, they might as well pretend it's October and play like there's no tomorrow.

For all the griping and moaning some Reds fans have done over the course of this season, the team is almost assured of being in the postseason for the second straight year--barring a collapse of historical proportions.  They're also getting healthy. Ryan Ludwick has been back for almost a month and this week finally saw the return of Johnny Cueto and Sean Marshall.  Just how productive the trio can be come the playoffs is debatable, but it's better than going into the postseason without them as the team has had to do for a majority of the season.  Had all three been able to play, perhaps the Reds would be in first place.

But after sweeping the lowly Houston Astros, it's time for the Reds to show they're ready to make a deep run in October.  They can't afford to lose two of three in any of the upcoming final three series of the season.  Pittsburgh is reeling a bit and the Reds need to run them down and serve notice to the Pirates that to go anywhere in the playoffs they'll have to go through them and do so by taking a trip down the Ohio River to Great American Ball Park.

As most Reds fans know, the Great 8 -- the everyday lineup of the Big Red Machine -- were recently honored as part of "Joe Morgan Weekend."  During a Saturday news conference they talked about what drove them toward winning the 1975 & '76 World Series titles.  Pete Rose said it was because they played like there was no tomorrow.  Johnny Bench concurred, adding that when they saw a runner in scoring position, it was their job to drive him in.  When they didn't succeed, the next guy to the plate said they'd pick-up their teammate.  More times than not, they did.

Now I know today's players may have a different mindset.  Perhaps driven by forces other than championships.  But as the stage is set for the first of six with the Pirates, this group of Reds would be wise to take heed of the Great 8's mentality.  There is no tomorrow.  Play every game as if it were your last.  Pick up your teammates.  The Reds might as well turn the page on the calendar because October starts now.