How Right Trades Turn Wrong for the Reds
By Bill Peterson
The baseball season, if nothing else, is a drama, and most good drama has a three-act structure. The first act introduces the dramatis personae, the second act sets up and deepens the conflicts between them, then the third act resolves the conflict.
As the baseball season reaches the one-third mark this week, we've now been introduced to the characters on each of the big league stages. Locally, sad to say, the productions aren't among the best. The cast of clubs in the National League Central Division is the least acclaimed in the business, due to its inability to stand up against counterparts from the other divisions.
And the show is such a mess. The leading characters, if any should be recognized after careful viewing, are pathetic imposters. Has-beens, to be kind. Still, the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros try to hang on after winning the last two NL pennants.
The remaining characters are hapless, if they're at all reliable. The Milwaukee Brewers hold the lead simply for winning most of their games.
It's at this point in the show when one dies for an intermission, just to take a smoke and pick through the rubble with the smokers who congregate right outside of every theater at intermission just for these purposes.
At the bottom of this heap we find the Reds, the small-town kid who's trying to change his ways for the better only to be foiled, embarrassed and misunderstood at every turn. The chorus has been rather unforgiving about a trade from last year, when the Reds moved their starting shortstop and right fielder to the empire of their reviled former leader for a fake stash of two relief pitchers.
The outcome has set up for the Reds a test of resolve, for the trade has turned out badly, as the chorus has made very clear. Yet the Reds, in their quiet moments, know the trade made perfect sense and still does.
They needed to fix their bullpen, and the fix didn't work. So the trade didn't work. Does that make it the wrong trade?
The Reds traded right fielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez to Jim Bowden's Washington Nationals for relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski. We can frame the trade for what it really means because none of those players have been with the Reds this year until Majewski finally came off the disabled list last week.
Assume reality, which is that the Reds were the club that played the first six weeks of the season. Now which additional players would make them better? Would you pick Kearns and Lopez? Or would you pick Bray and Majewski in healthy condition?
If you pick Kearns and Lopez, then you have Kearns in right field, Junior Griffey in center field, Lopez at shortstop and no position for Ryan Freel, except when the Reds are just too irritated with third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. So you have a little more hitting, but your defense suffers at three positions and you still haven't solved the major problem with this club, which is a bullpen full of arsonists.
If you pick Bray and Majewski, then you have the Reds of today with the addition of two good relievers and, therefore, the subtractions of two bad ones. It's not even debatable that it would have made a huge difference for the Reds, assuming Bray and Majewski pitch to their histories.
Without them, the Reds are 0-9 when they're tied after seven innings. They've lost two games when they led after seven.
The starting rotation hasn't been the greatest help, either, but the starters do pitch a good game now and then, only for relievers to squander six of the last seven quality starts. After the seventh inning, opponents outscore the Reds 70-52. Can you think of five, six or seven games the Reds would have won this year with a reliable bullpen? Thought so.
Reds Manager Jerry Narron doesn't trust his bullpen any more than you do. What would you do? You'd do what Narron does, trying to squeeze a few extra outs from his better starting pitchers as a bridge to closer David Weathers. But that works out badly, too.
Every time Aaron Harang throws 120 pitches, he gets lit up pretty early the next time out. Keep him right around 100 pitches, and he comes out the next time to toss 7 2/3 innings and two runs, like April 24 in St. Louis, or nine innings with a run, like May 15 in San Diego, or eight innings and two runs, like May 25 against Pittsburgh.
But in the starts immediately after throwing 120 pitches, Harang has allowed four runs in less than three innings on April 29 in Pittsburgh, five runs in less than five innings on May 10 against Houston and five runs in less than four innings on May 20 in Cleveland.
Bronson Arroyo was going along just fine, with a 2.59 ERA and 41 2/3 innings in his first six starts, which ran from 95 to 108 pitches. Then he did three straight starts in May throwing 120, 117 and 129 pitches. In the first two of those starts, opposing hitters put Arroyo through long innings and he left in the sixth.
By Arroyo's next start on May 16 in San Diego, the Reds bullpen was such a consuming liability that Narron literally had no choices. Narron stuck with Arroyo in the ninth inning of a 2-2 tie on the road because it's inefficient to use the closer that way and no other reliever could be trusted.
But Arroyo melted down, making a throwing error in the ninth and walking in the winning run. Since that 129-pitch outing, Arroyo can't get out of the first inning. On this last homestand, a dreary 2-6 output against such powers as Pittsburgh and Washington, he twice gave up four runs in the first inning, once against each visitor.
Using his best starting pitchers to paper over a dismal bullpen, Narron ends up compromising them in the process. Harang has demonstrated the ability to right himself within a couple starts of 120 pitches, but it's fair to wonder when Arroyo is going to get it back.
With a couple relievers, the Reds wouldn't encounter such trouble. They could contend in this division. And they provided for the relievers a year ago in a winning trade that stands oddly as General Manager Wayne Krivsky's worst move.
How does the right trade turn into the wrong trade? Maybe Krivsky didn't ask Bowden the right questions. Majewski was sore-armed when he showed up, and Bray is battling injuries in the minor leagues. Krivsky has filed a grievance against the Nationals because the Reds didn't know Majewski's condition.
Strangely, the trade's failure shows why it was the right idea with the best intentions. But the execution went awry, resulting in two injured pitchers. Somehow, it paved the road to hell, making the Reds a pennant-race wall flower at the start of Act Two.