Reds search for next Tom Browning
Improving pitching prospects a system-wide project
By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In June 1982, the Reds drafted a left-hander out of Casper, Wyo., in the ninth round. The kid was in the big leagues two years later.
He went on to win 20 games one year and 18 games another. He pitched a perfect game. He won a World Series game. In all, he won 123 games for the Reds and was part of the rotation for 11 years.
In the 18 drafts since, the Reds have been searching for the next Tom Browning.
And searching in vain. None of the more than 300 pitchers selected by the Reds has approached Browning's level.
Without a big payroll, the Reds go the cheap free-agent route. Four of the five pitchers in the Reds' rotation were bargain free agents. The other, Denny Neagle, was acquired in a trade. Things aren't any better in the upper echelon of the minor leagues.
That was apparent last week when the Reds called on Elmer Dessens to make a critical start against the St. Louis Cardinals. Dessens hadn't started a game since 1998 when he was with Pittsburgh. He made five starts that year and lost every one of them.
But the Reds had nowhere else to turn.
The Reds' minor-league starting pitching cupboard isn't just bare. There's a half-inch of dust on the shelves. The only pitcher in the minors close to being ready for the big leagues is Rob Bell, whose demotion opened the spot in the rotation for Dessens' start.
“All our top guys are two, three, four years away,” assistant general manager Doc Rodgers said.
Reds fans are used to the wait. The Reds' record for developing starters is arguably the worst in baseball. Two players who were signed and developed by the Reds — Brett Tomko and Kevin Jarvis — are in big-league starting rotations.
But you're not talking about Kevin Brown and Greg Maddux here. Tomko has a 32-29 career record, and Jarvis is 14-20.
The only teams that have produced fewer starters than the Reds are Tampa Bay and Arizona, two expansion clubs that weren't around when the Reds were picking Tomko and Jarvis.
Twenty-three of the 30 major-league teams have at least five of their farm products listed in starting rotations.
“The Reds stand out as being bad,” said David Rawnsley, who covers player development for rivals.com. “We all know what they went through with Marge Schott. It's a two-part equation: You've got to sign them and then develop them. They didn't draft talented, young pitchers in the '90s.”
Even drafting talented players is no guarantee.
“It's very difficult to go from draft day to the major leagues,” Rodgers said, “especially when you're talking about a high school player.”
An 18-year-old on draft day is four or five years away from the big leagues. The hope is he'll add 10 or 15 pounds to his frame and 8 to 10 mph to his fastball. It's a hard thing to project, but the Reds' record defies the odds.
So the Reds have been searching for the next Browning ever since.
“You're not just looking for a starter,” said Bob Boone, special assistant to the general manager, “you're looking for a quality starter. Look how many starters have records below .500. You want a pitcher that can get to the big leagues and be successful,”
Browning is the last Reds product to do that.
The Reds have been successful in finding and developing relievers. Scott Williamson and Scott Sullivan are home-grown players. Trevor Hoffman is a Reds product, as was Rob Dibble.
The Reds do have some starting pitchers in the pipeline. Rob Bell, obtained from Atlanta, could be back this year. The Reds' other top prospects are at least two years away. Here are the top five (Bell's not included because he's been in the majors):
1. Ty Howington, first-round pick in 1999: His numbers haven't been good at Single A Dayton, but he's playing against older players. The Reds love his stuff and his attitude.
2. Brandon Love, third-round pick in 1999: He's 3-1 with 3.36 ERA in Dayton. Like Howington, has big league stuff.
3. Jose Valdez, signed after he was released by the Dodgers: Still only 20 years old. He was an outfielder when he was in the L.A. organization. Throw 93 mph. He is 5-3 with 2.67 ERA at Clinton.
4. Jose Acevedo, signed as non-drafted free agent in '97: Led the organization in strikeouts with 133 last year. He's 4-2 with 3.19 ERA at Single A Clinton this year. Inconsistent but his stuff is top-notch.
5. Robert Averette, 21st round in '97: Putting up some of the best in the organization. He is 8-4 with 2.27 ERA at Double A Chattanooga. Struggled in two Triple A starts and was returned to Chattanooga. Was 9-5 with 2.58 ERA last year at Rockford, leading Midwest League. 8-4 2.27 at Chattanooga.
The Reds drafted only two pitchers in the first round in the 1990s — Ty Howington last year and C.J. Nitkowski in 1994. It's too early to tell with Howington, but Nitkowski, who was traded to Detroit in the David Wells deal in 1995, has not blossomed into a solid starter. He has made 33 big-league starts, but the only thing he proved was that he was better suited for middle relief.
The Reds have been playing catch-up in player development since Schott, the previous owner, effectively ruined the department by under-funding it.
The Reds are trying to rectify the situation. Under John Allen, spending for player development is up 50 percent. The Reds have added a Gulf Coast League team.
Under Schott, the Reds were last in baseball in terms of spending for player development. They are now near the middle of the pack.
Under Schott, the Reds did not scout Latin America. They are now hitting the prospect-rich Caribbean hard. They have a top-notch camp, owned by former Red Jose Rijo, in the Dominican Republic.
Under Schott, top players in the draft often were seen only by the area scout and the scouting director. The Reds now have six scouts look at all the top prospects.
“The last couple of years we've gotten better athletes,” said Billy Doran, the player development director. “Anyone can take an average player and teach him to play. But then you'll have a team of average players. You need players with talent. Barry Larkin is not an average player.”
The minor leagues have a Latino flavor again.
“Some of the Latin kids we have can really throw,” Doran said.
The Reds emphasized pitching in this draft. Sixteen of the first 20 players they selected were pitchers — 11 of them high school or junior-college pitchers.
“That's what the Braves do every year,” Rawnsley said. “They take seven or eight pitchers in their first 10 picks.”
Cincinnati is following the Braves' formula by taking high school pitchers.
“We take the high school players because, when they do develop, you tend to get a Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux or a Kevin Brown,” Rodgers said. “They're usually a No.1, 2 or 3 starter. If you take a college player, they might get to the majors faster, but they're usually No.4 or 5 starters. We feel like you can get those kind of guys as six-year free agents.”
Steve Parris and Ron Villone are examples of that, but they are stop-gaps. The Reds are searching for someone like Browning, who will be in the rotation and win 12 to 14 games a year for 10 years.
The top two prospects, other than Bell, are Howington and Brandon Love, the first- and third-round picks in last year's draft.
“Their stuff and make-up is so good that they're going to make it,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers rates two young Latino pitchers, Jose Valdez and Jose Acevedo, just behind Howington and Love. “They're very inconsistent,” Rodgers said. “But they have major-league stuff.”
When baseball people talk about “stuff,” they're talking about how hard a player throws and how much the ball moves.
“You can't teach velocity,” Rodgers said.
Howington, Love, Valdez and Acevedo might have the stuff to get to the big leagues, but it's still a long trip. Last year, David Therneau and Phil Merrell would have been on the top prospect list. Therneau was 12-3 with a 3.41 ERA at Single-A Rockford; Merrell was 8-2 with a 2.20 ERA at Single-A Clinton. This year, both have had to shut it down because of injuries.
Injuries are close behind talent and instruction as factors affecting whether a pitcher makes it.
“Pitching is not a natural thing to put your right or left arm through,” Rodgers said. “I was on a minor-league staff one year, and nine of the 11 pitchers had had surgery. Injuries have as much to do with success as anything.”
The Reds are taking steps to make sure their players move up with healthy arms.
“The medical staff has really done a good job with that,” Doran said. “If there's a better staff, I haven't seen it. Dr.(Tim) Kremchek deserves a lot of credit. He and (minor-league head trainer) Mark Farnsworth have done a great job. That's something that's really improved the last two years or so.”
Each player is given strength tests when he report. If a player's elbow or shoulder is weak, he'll be put on a strength program before he's allowed to throw in competition.
“Some of these kids are abused by throwing so much for their high school or university,” Doran said. “An example of that is Scott Dunn, a kid we drafted out of the University of Texas. We weren't seeing what the scouts had. The velocity wasn't there.”
So Dunn, the 10th-round pick, was put on a program.
“Now he's back where he should be,” Doran said.
How much a young player should throw is a question pitching coaches and farm directors constantly debate.
“There's a fine line,” Doran said. “You don't want to have them throw too much and get hurt, and you don't want them to throw too little and not be polished.”
Even if everything goes right — a kid has the talent, he stays healthy, he learns to pitch — success is not a given.
The Reds talk a lot about “make-up;” that's baseball for character, courage and work ethic.
“There's that moment when he's on the mound. He looks in the hitter's eyes and the hitter looks in his and you find out who's better,” Boone said. “The pace quickens. The exact same pitch he threw by a hitter all his life is now not only getting hit, it's getting crushed. You never know how he's going to react.”
The Reds will find out how their top prospects react in three or four years. Until then, the search for the next Tom Browning goes on.
Here's how many current major-league starters were developed by each team. The Dodgers' and Yankees' numbers are inflated by the fact that they have signed Cuban and Japanese players who were ready for the majors when signed:
NY Yankees: 10
Los Angeles: 10
Kansas City: 8
Chi White Sox: 6
San Diego: 6
San Francisco: 6
St. Louis: 5
NY Mets: 5
Chi Cubs: 4
Tampa Bay: 1