The blueprint for rebuilding the Reds

Can the Reds recover from their recent turmoil? Here's a 12-step plan for turning around the organization.

Originally Published: August 1, 2003
By Nate Silver | Special to ESPN.com

The Cincinnati Reds are no strangers to hitting rock bottom. The franchise has had its share of sobering moments, ranging from the exile of Pete Rose to the death of Schottzie 01. While the Reds have shown plenty of resilience in the past, it seems that they've fallen off the wagon yet again. In the span of 72 hours, the Reds disposed of their GM, their manager, their best pitcher, and two of their most productive hitters.

What's next -- hiring Robert Downey Jr. as team chaplain? Fortunately, the kind folks at Baseball Prospectus are here to help. With the assistance of our simple 12-step program, the Reds can rehabilitate themselves on and off the field faster than you can say Cesar Geronimo.

Austin Kearns
Austin Kearns has the potential to be a star for the Reds.

Step 1: Get everyone on the same page
Jayson Stark did an eloquent job of documenting how disconnects between ownership, executives, and field management led to disaster in Cincinnati. We don't mean to suggest that everyone who works for the Reds needs to think alike, or to have graduated from the Billy Beane School of Baseball Management. Great organizations thrive on a diversity of perspectives.

But perspectives are one thing, and priorities are another. The Reds need to annunciate their goals clearly, and give talented front office personnel like Brad Kullman and Tim Naehring ample room to execute them.

Step 2: Recognize your limitations
Every ballclub has its share of Things It Cannot Change, and the Reds are no exception:

  • The farm system is average at best, still suffering from years of neglect during the Marge Schott years. Just one Reds prospect ranked in our preseason Top 40 list (that player, pitcher Bobby Basham, is struggling in Double-A this year). In a perfect world, rebuilding would be a simple matter of jettisoning the veterans and giving the kids a chance, but given the Reds' reality, that could lead to a 100-loss season or two.

  • Ken Griffey Jr. is signed through 2008. Griffey's contract is a sunk cost -- it will be paid out regardless of how many home runs he hits, how many games the Reds win, or how many fans walk through the turnstiles. Trading the contract isn't plausible with Griffey coming off an injury year.

    That doesn't mean Griffey is sunk as a ballplayer. In between his injuries, he showed a lot of life at the plate this year, finishing with his highest slugging percentage (.566) since his last season in Seattle. He doesn't need to be a superstar to help to push the Reds forward.

  • Cincinnati is a small market. According to an estimate by analyst Mike Jones, Cincinnati is the 22nd largest market in the big leagues.

    Fortunately, the Reds play in a division full of small markets. Here, according to Jones, are the relative market sizes for the six teams in the NL Central, accounting for the population of the city and its neighboring regions, and the presence of competition from other baseball teams. A figure of 100 represents league average.

    City Market size
    Chicago 105
    Houston 86
    Cincinnati 69
    St. Louis 56
    Pittsburgh 54
    Milwaukee 39

    If nothing else, these numbers prove that size isn't everything. A team that is adept at securing the loyalty of its fan base, like the Cardinals, can play as a much larger market than the census says it should. The best organizations are able to recognize their limitations and succeed in spite of them.

    Step 3: Keep hope alive
    The examples of Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh speak powerfully to the fact that rebuilding is a dangerous game. If the franchise is too weak at the major league level, fans will tune out, revenue streams will be cut off, and the hill will become that much higher to climb.

    The Reds have trimmed their payroll significantly in the preceding days, and they'll be in an even better position next season when the contracts of Barry Larkin, Ryan Dempster and Scott Sullivan come off the books. As we'll show in a moment, it should be possible for them to put a competitive team on the field next year without spending a fortune.

    Step 4: Trade Sean Casey for a starting pitcher
    Casey is a good player, popular with fans and teammates; it might seem like he's exactly the wrong guy to trade when the rest of the roster is undergoing a makeover.

    But Casey is signed to a relatively expensive contract, and doesn't hit for enough power to be a championship-caliber first baseman. At age 28, that breakout year is unlikely to come, and nobody is hankering for the second half of Wally Joyner's career. The Reds might have to take on a contract of a similar size to move him, but a starting pitcher like Livan Hernandez or Kris Benson could do more to help them in the medium term than Casey would.

    Besides that, we have other plans for first base.

    Step 5: Move Ken Griffey Jr. to left field, and Adam Dunn to first base
    Though Griffey can still be a top-notch power hitter, his wheels are never going to be what they once were. Continuing to play him in center exacerbates the risk of injury -- Griffey's shoulder injury in April came on a ball he was struggling to track down -- and doesn't do much to help the Reds' porous defense.

    With Griffey moving to left, Dunn can fill the vacancy left by Casey. His big frame would make a nice target at first.

    Step 6: Give Brandon Larson a chance -- again
    Larson began thise season as the Reds' third baseman, and did just about everything he could to earn a one-way ticket back to Triple-A Louisville. Larson's defense was poor, his offense was poorer still (he was hitting .091 when he was sent down), and for a guy who had been waiting for his chance for a long time, his attitude was strangely indifferent. Larson is already 27. Most times, a guy like that that won't get a second chance.

    But the Reds have to give Larson another chance, simply because he has the potential to provide a ton of bang for the buck. Larson was hitting .327 with 18 home runs in just 66 games at Triple-A, good for a major league Equivalent Average of .293, a figure higher than that of Eric Chavez, Troy Glaus -- or Aaron Boone. The Reds subscribe to the adage that minor league stats are good predictors of major league performance. With the pressure off in the final two months in Cincinnati, Larson will have plenty of opportunity to prove them wrong.

    Step 7: Target defense in the off-season
    Cincinnati ranks last in the majors in fielding percentage, and 13th in the NL in defensive efficiency, a measure of the defense's ability to convert balls in play into outs. While their pitching staff isn't going to right itself overnight, improving the defense at premium positions could instantly lower ERAs across the board.

    Mike Cameron
    APIt would be a wise decision for the Reds to bring Mike Cameron back to Cincinnati.

    The most attractive target in this winter's free-agent class is none other than the man who was traded for Griffey -- Mariners center fielder Mike Cameron. Although it's unclear whether he'll harbor any hard feelings over his previous ouster from Cincy, Cameron is one of the finest defenders in the game. His offense has been hurt greatly by the damp and drafty conditions at Safeco Field; Cameron's OPS has been more than 200 points higher on the road over the course of his Mariners career. Great American Ball Park could have exactly the opposite effect.

    With relatively weak defenders at second (D'Angelo Jimenez) and third (Larson), the Reds could also use an upgrade at shortstop. Expos shortstop Orlando Cabrera won't be a free agent until 2005, but the franchise in a City to be Named Later will be in cost-cutting mode, and Cabrera is headed for arbitration. Trading Casey and minor leaguer Felipe Lopez for Cabrera and Livan Hernandez could suit both teams' needs.

    Step 8: Sign Austin Kearns to a long-term contract, and wait and see on Dunn
    Kearns and Dunn have been lumped together ever since they were selected with the Reds' one and two picks in the 1998 draft. But Kearns and Dunn are vastly different players, and require different treatment in terms of long-term planning.

    Kearns is the safer bet of the two; he's a better athlete, and his skills set is broader -- our projection system compares him to plenty of players like Dwight Evans and Jack Clark, who had long, productive careers. Signing him to a long-term deal now could provide cost certainty for the future.

    Dunn, because of his body type and high strikeout rate, is a considerably riskier proposition. His upside may be higher than Kearns' -- he could be the next Jim Thome or Mark McGwire -- but his profile is also similar to burly sluggers like Jason Thompson and Tom Brunansky, who never quite lived up to the expectations heaped upon them. The Reds will know a lot more after next season; they should renew Dunn cheaply for 2004, and re-evaluate before he heads to arbitration.

    Step 9: Move Danny Graves back to the bullpen
    It was a nice idea, but in spite of some scattered successes, the Graves experiment has been a failure. Graves' situational splits tell the story:

    Graves Opponents' OPS against
    Pitches 1-15 .835
    Pitches 16-30 .828
    Pitches 31-45 .796
    Pitches 46-60 .896
    Pitches 61-75 1.061
    Pitches 76-90 1.007

    Graves has been a reasonably effective pitcher the first time through the batting order, but as his pitch count rises to 50 or so -- levels it never reached when he was a reliever -- opponents begin to tee off against him. A good reliever might not be as valuable as a good starting pitcher, but he's certainly more valuable than a poor one.

    Step 10: Move Ryan Wagner to the rotation
    If the Reds are still willing to experiment, a better guinea pig might be Wagner, a 2003 first-round pick who is already up with the big club. Wagner was a reliever at University of Houston, but frequently pitched long outings, and the Reds believe he has the build (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and the mechanics to make a conversion to starting. Wagner should be eased into the role, opening the year in long relief as he builds his stamina, but by June or July, he could give the Reds the power starter they've been lacking.

    Step 11: Don't squander your draft picks
    While the early returns on Wagner are favorable, the Reds have a history of lowballing their top draft picks, the most egregious example coming in 2001 when they selected Jeremy Sowers, a player who had announced his intention well ahead of time to attend Vanderbilt University. The Reds also ran into trouble in 2000, when they signed top picks David Espinosa and Dane Sardinha to big-league contracts rather than pay them large signing bonuses, a move that could crimp their roster flexibility going forward. Signing bonuses are a real cost, but a necessary evil for a team that needs to rebuild its farm system.

    Step 12: Leverage Pete Rose, but keep him out of baseball operations
    One of the best ways the Reds can curry the favor of their fan base is by playing into their city's rich baseball tradition. Pete Rose is still a beloved figure in Cincinnati, and by working with the commissioner's office to give him a larger public presence -- Rose certainly won't mind the attention -- they can help to connect past and present. That doesn't mean that Rose belongs in the dugout or the front office.

    The Road to recovery
    By implementing the moves that we've suggested for them, the Reds could go into Opening Day with the following roster. (Salaries for free agents and arbitration-eligible players are estimated based on those of recent comparables):

    Player Money
    2B D'Angelo Jimenez $800,000 (estimated arbitration payment)
    RF Austin Kearns $3,500,000 (yearly payment from new long-term contract)
    LF Ken Griffey Jr. $10,174,110 (guaranteed contract, net of deferrals)
    1B Adam Dunn $500,000
    CF Mike Cameron $6,000,000 (free-agent contract)
    3B Brandon Larson $350,000
    SS Orlando Cabrera $4,250,000 (estimated arbitration payment)
    C Jason LaRue $2,000,000 (estimated arbitration payment)
    P Livan Hernandez $6,000,000 (player option to vest later this year)
    P Aaron Harang $350,000
    P Paul Wilson $3,500,000 (guaranteed contract)
    P Brandon Claussen $350,000
    P Ryan Wagner $350,000
    P Jimmy Haynes $2,500,000 (player option)
    CL Danny Graves $6,000,000 (guaranteed contract)
    Others $5,500,000 (11 players to complete 25-man roster at $500,000 per)
    Total $51,174,110

    That's a club that will score plenty of runs, has some upside on the pitching staff, and a much-improved defense to help the Jimmy Hayneses of the world. The payroll checks in at $51 million -- roughly $6 million less than where the Reds began this season -- inclusive of a new, long-term contract for Austin Kearns. The team would be competitive enough to keep fan interest piqued and pocketbooks open as the Reds work simultaneously to revamp their farm system.

    The Reds have had a season in which just about everything that could go wrong has, which obscures the fact that there's still a lot of talent on the roster. If the Reds make targeted reinvestments in their team over the winter in the form of players like Cameron and Cabrera, this could be a proud franchise again far sooner than anyone expects. If, instead, they elect to hide in a small-market shell as the team's record and reputation enter a downward spiral, the Tigers and Brewers will keep them plenty of company in the gutter.

    You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com.

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