Return of the Reds
John Donovan, SI.com
Making a couple of good trades is one thing. Getting the front office and the scouting department and the player development people on the same page is another. Playing well for a few weeks at the beginning of the season is something else entirely.
But hooking the fans? Convincing the ticket-purchasing populace to actually buy into a team? Selling people on the idea that it's OK to believe again?
That's going to be the real trick for Wayne Krivsky and the Reds this year.
Right now, early in May, it's awfully easy to fall for these new-look Reds. They can crush the ball with the best teams anywhere. They score more than anybody in the National League. The long-laboring Reds, for the time being, even seem to have some pitching to co-star with that offense. Not a lot of it, certainly. But enough to be 21-12 and on top of the NL Central. It's a stunning start for a team that hasn't had a winning season since 2000 and hasn't been in the postseason since 1995.
But September, as a lot of people in Cincinnati evidently realize, is a long way off. And the Reds, no matter how well they're playing at this moment, still grapple with many of the problems that have plagued them over the past decade-plus.
"We've got a ways to go," Krivsky, the team's new general manager, said the other day by cell phone while driving around, looking for a luncheon in suburban Cincinnati. "But I feel good about a lot of what we're doing. Our record's not a fluke."
For sure, Krivsky has addressed some of the team's biggest shortcomings. He's traded for pitching, most notably starter Bronson Arroyo, who gives the Reds a legitimacy at the top of the rotation that has been missing for years. He traded for second baseman Brandon Phillips and David Ross, who has become Arroyo's personal catcher. Krivsky signed veteran first baseman Scott Hatteberg and outfielder Quinton McCracken, too.
Krivsky's best move, though -- one of the most telling about the new Reds' regime, anyway -- may have been his decision to cut Tony Womack.
A terrible hitter who landed with the Reds after an ill-advised winter trade by former GM Dan O'Brien, second baseman Womack came with a $2 million contract (with the Reds on the hook for more than $1 million) but was going to be little more than a backup to veteran Rich Aurilia and utilityman Ryan Freel. When Krivsky traded for the 24-year-old Phillips, Womack dropped further down the Reds' depth chart.
A lot of small-market teams would have let Womack linger on the bench, figuring that getting anything out of a virtually untradeable player was at least something. But the new Reds did something the old Reds rarely would have done -- they designated Womack for assignment and, earlier this month, gave him his unconditional release, eating the remaining portion of his contract.
"We just didn't have a spot for him," Krivsky said. "I don't know what kind of message it sends. I'm not concerned with what kind of message it sends."
The Reds, let's be clear, are not suddenly cash-unconscious. They're not going to be able to cut every high-paid do-nothing. Their payroll will remain, for the time being, right around $60 million, about where it was last season.
But what the Womack decision did was inform everyone associated with the team that the new Reds weren't letting the bottom line alone dictate baseball decisions. And that, in Cincinnati, is a bit of a change. When it comes to player payroll, Krivsky -- who spent the last 11-plus years as an assistant to Twins' GM Terry Ryan -- preaches a kind of Minnesota mantra. "You just have to spend it right," he said.
It'll be awhile until Krivsky, with the full backing of new owner Bob Castellini, reworks the Reds to his liking. True to his Minnesota upbringing and his deep background in scouting and evaluating talent, Krivsky won't look for quick fixes with free agents or big-money trades. He is pro scouting, pro player development and pro draft.
"We want to be recognized in the game as being a scout-friendly, a player development-friendly organization," he said.
That, again, is a change of pace in Cincinnati where, not all that long ago, the team's late owner, Marge Schott, wondered "What do we need scouts for? All they do is sit around and watch baseball games."
For now, Krivsky is engrossed with trying to make the big club as competitive as possible. Since moving into Great American Ball Park before the 2003 season, the Reds have been a power-hitting bunch. They're still that, second only to the Brewers in the NL in home runs. But with speed at the top of the lineup (notably Freel and shortstop Felipe Lopez) and a patient middle-of-the-order (Adam Dunn strikes out more than anyone in the NL, but he's tied for fourth in walks, and the Reds lead the league in free passes), Cincinnati is capable of playing a smaller-type ball, too.
The Reds' pitching, topped by Arroyo (5-1, 2.36 ERA), has been middle-of-the-road, but with the powerful offense, that's been good enough to win. And it could be good enough for the Reds to compete in the NL Central race for much of the summer.
"If we keep playing like we are, we can. That's asking a lot. We're playing at a [near] .700 clip. Not too many teams can do that for too long," Krivsky said.
The last trick that the Reds will have to pull off is getting fans back in the seats. Attendance at Great American Ball Park has dropped in each of the three years it's been open, dipping under 2 million in 2005, an average of 23,696 a game, 13th out of the 16 NL teams.
This season, despite the third-best record in baseball, the Reds have drawn an average of 22,717 at home. That ranks them 13th in the NL and 22nd overall.
Clearly, Cincinnati fans remain unconvinced.
"This is a great baseball town with a great tradition," Krivsky said. "If we do our part, the fans will come back. If we do our part, I'm convinced people will come out to see us play."
If the Reds keep playing like this, they'll be worth the watching.