So I'm sitting down, trying to figure out what the Reds have to do this offseason in order to improve their fortunes, and it strikes me that everything on their plate, and I mean everything, was sitting there the day Dan O'Brien arrived.
We've been through the first year of the DanO regime and the organization has yet to tackle any of its chief problems. In no specific order those problems are:
1. Horrid pitching, the worst in franchise history.
2. Ken Griffey Jr., Sean Casey and Danny Graves eating up too much of the payroll to invest in other areas.
3. A thin feeder system, particularly in high impact prospects.
4. A young superstar named Adam Dunn who's going to be too expensive to keep around if the organization doesn't put him on a LTC.
Now, DanO did do some things I liked. He's shown aptitude at finding minor league filler with upside. Ben Kozlowski in fact has significant upside and might be the best arm DanO's found in the past year. He reworked the low minors pitching with the eight-man staff and it looked to generate positive results in Potomac.
He also made a tough, but necessary call in not bringing back Barry Larkin. Now, I'm as big a Larkin fan as anyone, but the Reds are a mess and they need to throw ABs at young shortstops until one of them sticks. They'd be a better team with Barry Larkin and he's plenty affordable these days, but the team has to go into tryout mode. Unfortunately Larkin was at best third on the list veterans who needed to moved out.
The top two spots belong, inarguably, to Ken Griffey Jr. and Danny Graves. A year ago I made the case that the Reds had to find a way to dump those contracts (and/or Sean Casey's) otherwise the organization would find itself even deeper in the same hole this year. I believed then it would a mortal sin of GMing to allow that to happen ... and I still do. There was a time in the summer when Jr. and Graves had their markets. The organization made the choice not to pursue those markets and now it gets to pay for that boneheaded decision. Jr.'s got 10/5 rights and the Reds will pay the bulk of of Graves' 2005 contract whether he's in town or not. The one contract they might be able to move is Sean Casey's and that's the one they want to keep. So it's nice to see the organization make a painful, but necessary call on Larkin (and there's no one rooting harder for him to wind up in Boston than me), but the failure to address far bigger problems that go right to the heart of the team's competitive future overwhelms that momentary show of spine.
Not moving Paul Wilson in July is another decision that deserves a double-heaping of scorn. They had a chance to turn a meaningless pitcher into something. Now he's turned back into a pumpkin.
That brings me to the pitching. It's entirely possible the 2004 Reds didn't have a single pitcher take the mound worth keeping over the next three years. I happen to think Ryan Wagner will be a good pitcher, but I wouldn't wager any body parts (not even an appendix) on it. I'm sure there's some who think Luke Hudson's the next big thing, just like they thought Aaron Harang was this summer or Jose Acevedo was last year. Hudson threw a ton pitches per hitter and sooner or later that's going to translate into ugly innings. Brandon Claussen's still got a lot of lumps to take. Under penalty of death, Paul Wilson should not be brought back for 2005. He is A) not a good pitcher and B) unable to chew up significant (200+) innings. I'd rather have Cory Lidle and I'd rather eat a hive of bees than see Lidle back in a Reds uni. Wilson will cost the Reds more than he'll cost any other team. If the Reds want someone like him, then go get someone else's castoff for $1M-$1.5M (or possibly less dependent upon the market).
The Reds do have $8.75M from Wilson, Lidle and Haynes to spend on a pitcher. I still say Matt Clement's the guy to go after. Other pitchers and some sexy bats will be gobbled up before him, taking a lot of the big money off the table, plus the Cubs may not offer him arbitration. Clement should go for something within the Reds' price range. If the budget grows, then D'Angelo Jiminez (possibly in a package) might be able to fetch someone who's coming available for salary reasons (in the $4+M range). With Ryan Freel in town and William Bergolla (who did everything right in the second half of the season) in AAA, Jiminez, whom I like, is expendable.
I don't expect there to be much help from the minors next season. I'm confident Eddie Encarnacion could do a good job, but I'd guess Felipe Lopez will be the opening day 3B (with Andy Machado or Ray Olmedo at SS). Todd Coffey might be able to make the jump, but starters like Richie Gardner and Thom Pauly are still too green. Absolute best case scenario on Bubba Nelson is he's going to need a year to find himself. Same with the wildly mishandled Dustin Moseley. Jung Bong and Matt Belisle have a talent deficit to overcome. Ben Kozlowski might get himself to the front of the class in short order, but he's got to master some command issues before he hits the majors (otherwise you're just looking at a Claussen clone).
DanO proved unable to find young arms who could make a splash in the near term. His veteran fishing expeditions netted one live fish, Todd Jones, but also another, Gabe White, who left a stink lingering over the whole season. The 2004 Reds pitching was every bit as bad as the 2003 model and DanO's yet to show any aptitude or working game plan for stopping what has become a rolling disaster.
And there isn't a ton of reason to think he delivered much in the way of help with the 2004 draft. Homer Bailey's at least four years away in a rosy scenario, more likely five or six years if he manages to stay healthy. B.J. Simmons (I like using his would-be Jazz Age name) didn't exactly set the world on fire in an extreme hitters league. In fact, the Billings club was filled with underwhelming hitters. Tyler Pelland looked good on the mound, but he's probably four (more likely five) years from being a pitcher of any note in the majors.
Joey Votto's the only guy who looks like a fast riser on the farm. Encarnacion's ready as soon as the club blows through its 3B options in early 2005 (hopefully they'll have the good sense not to hand anything to Brandon Larson this time around) Bergolla, if his rediscovery of the BB sticks, could be a nifty addition in 2006.
That brings us to Dunn. 2004 confirmed what many of us knew -- that he's fabulous. The problem is he just whacked 46 HR (with a .956 OPS) right before his first arbitration season. Record awards are sure to follow. The Reds, with an ounce of foresight, could have locked him up prior to season and saved themselves millions. However the Reds continue to let things happen to them rather than making the sort of aggressive moves it's going to take to rebuild the franchise into something good. Small market franchises simply cannot allow the course of events to wash over them.
Dunn, if he isn't signed this offseason, will head into astronomical territory by 2006 and the Reds may be forced to deal him. The young OF they should be moving is Austin Kearns (though maybe not until next season so that he can push his market back up -- warning, he will be injured again, just as sure as it will be sweltering hot in Alabama next summer, so careful with the brinksmanship).
The good news is the attendance this season. Apparently Cincinnati's a decent little baseball market. Who'd have guessed? I mean if only there had been some historical evidence which suggested that. Maybe now that the Reds have been reminded of that fact, they'll stop trying to mimic Milwaukee Kansas City and Pittsburgh.
It goes to the heart of the organization's main flaw -- THE CINCINNATI REDS MUST STOP CONDUCTING BUSINESS AS USUAL. They've misjudged their market, failed to address their most glaring problems and neglected to put the necessary down payments on their future. As Reds fans, we're exactly where we were a year ago. It's beyond frustrating to root for a team that refuses to help itself. And these overarching problems only get more entrenched the longer they're allowed to linger.
The Reds can't afford to keep duplicating 2004.