Inside Baseball: Reds October
Early returns on Cincinnati's heavily criticized bullpen deal were positive, brightening the team's playoff outlook
By Albert Chen
Wayne Krivsky is not a recognizable face in Cincinnati, which means the first-year general manager can leave work without fear of being accosted for orchestrating the Reds' controversial eight-player trade with the Nationals on July 13. "That's good, because I'm getting hammered enough in letters and voicemails," says Krivsky, who, with his team in a pennant race, dealt two 26-year-old every-day players (rightfielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez) and a prospect for a pair of middle relievers (Bill Bray and Gary Majewski), a 36-year-old shortstop (Royce Clayton) and two minor leaguers.
Skewered by the national media and Cincinnati fans -- former Mets G.M. turned ESPN analyst Steve Phillips called it "the worst trade of the last 10 years" -- Krivsky remains steadfast in his belief that the deal was essential to get his club into the postseason. At week's end the Reds, who trailed by 1 1/2 games in the NL wild-card race at the time of the trade, had opened a one-game lead since. "We were 9-20 going into the All-Star break with some bad late-inning losses," says Krivsky, whose relievers ranked second to last in the league in ERA (5.16) in the first half of the season but had a 3.31 mark in 10 games after the break. "We had to improve the bullpen. If we overpaid, we overpaid."
A former Twins assistant G.M. and longtime scout, the 52-year-old Krivsky had been widely praised for two earlier moves: trading outfielder Wily Mo Peņa for righthanded starter Bronson Arroyo (9-6, 2.92 ERA through Sunday) in March, then dealing for second baseman Brandon Phillips (.292, eight homers, 49 RBIs) in April. He needed Bray and Majewski to be late-inning bridges to Eddie Guardado, who was acquired from Seattle on July 6. Guardado, 35, got saves in his first five chances with the Reds and had a 1.35 ERA.
A 2004 first-round draft pick with a killer 90-mph slider, the 23-year-old Bray had a 1.80 ERA after five innings pitched for his new club, and could be Cincinnati's closer of the future. The 26-year-old Majewski, however, may have been overrated by Krivsky; he had allowed five runs in 4 1/3 innings, blown a lead and taken a loss since joining the Reds. "[Majewski] looks a little fatigued, maybe the workload [86 innings in '05 and 59 2/3 this season] is catching up to him," says an NL scout. "But Bray has been as good as advertised; he has good poise, so they'll be able to count on him in the late innings."
At the same time, an NL executive says that Kearns and Lopez "were overvalued by most of the trade's critics." After hitting .291 last year, Lopez was batting .262 at week's end (including .211 with Washington). According to team sources the Reds had soured on Lopez because of his poor work ethic and lack of focus on defense. Clayton, despite his fading range, is a defensive upgrade. As for Kearns, who was hitting .270 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs, he's prone to injury and strikeouts; and his numbers were inflated by playing in the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
Their departures freed up more at bats for underused utilityman Ryan Freel and highly regarded prospect Chris Denorfia, as well as cash for 2007: Lopez and Kearns, arbitration eligible in the fall, are due big raises next year.
The trade is defensible for another reason: The cost of setup men is rising as fast as gas prices. Last winter the Yankees signed Kyle Farnsworth for $17 million, the Cardinals added Braden Looper for $13.5 million and the Cubs acquired Bob Howry and Scott Eyre for a combined $23 million. (Each reliever received a three-year deal.) As a result, says an NL scout, "teams are less willing now to deal them away. [Bray and Majewski] might end up being the best two relievers moved this season."
With its revamped bullpen Cincinnati at week's end had won seven of 10 games after the All-Star break. The Reds had the look of an improved team, but only one thing will quiet Krivsky's critics and riled-up fans: their first postseason berth since 1995.
One of the few that are showing us a little love. I'm glad somebody noticed Bray's value in the deal as well.