Have you ever scrolled through the “Teams” page on Baseball-Reference? There have been some strange destinations that hosted major league franchises. Keokuk, Iowa. Worcester, Massachusetts. Altoona, Pennsylvania. Perhaps the strangest of all is a long-forgotten National League team called the Cincinnati Reds.
This legendary team of yesteryear used to be a juggernaut of the sport. They were far and away the best team of the 1970s. Even more recently, they reached the playoffs three times from 2010-2013. In the five years since, they suffered through a 343-467 record, and they haven’t topped 68 wins since 2014, finishing last in the National League Central each year. Unsurprisingly, attendance has declined each season.
The Reds haven’t won many games because, obviously, they don’t have enough good players. Sure, there’s Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, and a few others, but they surrendered 819 runs— highest in the NL in 2018. Clearly, an upgrade in talent is needed. While we’re making obvious statements, there are three ways to improve a ballclub:
- Player development
- Free agency
Good player development is necessary for any organization to succeed, either to support their own roster or to trade for major league assets. The Reds have some decent prospects, but only Nick Senzel is close to the majors, and he doesn’t really have a defensive position that works for their lineup. They could go the trade route, but surprisingly, they appear to be most interested in free agency.
Reds are among teams pursuing AJ Pollock and Dallas Keuchel— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 6, 2018
This is a novel concept for the Reds. Their highest paid free agent signing last winter was reliever David Hernandez, who signed a two year, $5 million deal. Their last major free agent acquisition was Francisco Cordero in 2008, who signed for $46 million over four years.
There have been sizable extensions granted to their existing players over the years, such as Votto, Suarez, and (ugh) Homer Bailey. But considering that the best signing in franchise history was probably Dave Parker prior to 1984, the club has zero reputation as a major player for free agents.
That being said, they apparently are pursuing A.J. Pollock and Dallas Keuchel. According to John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer, there’s plenty of cash on hand.
The Reds have money to spend. They won’t say how much. But (owner and CEO) Bob Castellini said the payroll (will) be the highest ever. It was $101.3 million last year. The guess here is it goes to at least $120 million and possibly to $130 million.
That’s a positive signal to a disenchanted fanbase, but will they actually sign someone for real?
With a reputation as a perennial loser that hibernates in the winter, Cincinnati could have a hard time attracting top targets. They may need to follow another team’s path if they want to become a trendy free agent destination.
Remember when the Nationals were a joke?
The current Reds are in a similar position to the 2010 Nationals. Washington had just finished a 69-93 season, which was actually a ten game improvement over the previous two years. The team hadn’t finished above .500 since 2003 when they were still the Montreal Expos. Their last placd finish in the NL East was their sixth in the previous seven seasons.
Put simply, the Nationals were a team in need of respect. Yes, free agency is all about the money, but players do like to win games. To announce themselves as a serious organization that actually could push for the playoffs, they made an enormous splash in free agency, signing Jayson Werth to a seven year, $126 million contract.
The deal was widely thought to be a massive overpay. Werth was a corner outfielder approaching the age of 32 with a checkered injury history. A seven year deal seemed haphazard and foolish, even to other executives. According to then-Mets GM Sandy Alderson, as reported by MLB.com:
It makes some of our contracts look pretty good. I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.*
*The history of each franchise ebbs and flows over the years, but it’s never good if the Mets are making fun of you. Seriously, the Mets.
The Werth contract has run its course now, and while it soured at the end, the first four years turned out pretty well. Perhaps more importantly, it showed the Nationals demanded they be taken seriously. A few years later, they signed Max Scherzer. Last week, they nabbed Patrick Corbin. Since the Werth signing, they finished no worse than 80-81, winning the division four times.
Of course, the Nationals didn’t just spend their way to success. They also drafted Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon. They traded for Adam Eaton and Trea Turner, and developed Juan Soto and Victor Robles (though the latter is still warming in the oven). But Werth signified a turning point for the franchise— a commitment to better baseball through all available means of player acquisition. Yes, the contract was probably a few years too long, but those extra years were necessary to show the baseball world they meant business.
The present day Reds are just as moribund as the 2010 Nationals. Votto is as spectacular as ever, even at 35-years-old. If they’re serious about making the most of his remaining productive seasons, they need to sign an impact free agent in the near-term. Maybe that means giving a fifth year to Pollock or Keuchel when no one else will.
Certainly, no one advocates reckless spending, and it takes a lot more than one or two free agents to turn around a franchise. But that turnaround has to begin somewhere. If the Reds want to improve their laughing stock status, they need to find their own Jayson Werth.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983