Present, future equally key for Reds
Rebuilding for tomorrow while becoming a contender today
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
SARASOTA, Fla. -- In a city exhausted by unfulfilled five-year plans and fearful of the "R" word (rebuilding), the Reds have spent recent years navigating on the narrowest of high wires.
Many professional sports teams have successfully committed to rebuilding and found a winning groove. On the other hand, playing for now, going with veterans over prospects and worrying about the future in the future has often been a rewarding practice.
Then there are the Reds, who are simultaneously trying to have it both ways.
General manager Wayne Krivsky has been overhauling Cincinnati's roster since assuming his post just over two years ago. At the same time, Krivsky is employed by an owner, Bob Castellini, who demands wins and craves a contender -- now.
Teams usually pick one route or the other. Often, when a team can't commit to either, it succeeds at neither.
"It's a tricky proposition trying to do both at the same time," Krivsky said.
Just how tricky? In 2006, Krivsky's first season, the Reds surprised many and notched 80 wins while contending in the National League Central most of the season. Then it all went horribly backward during 2007's 72-90 campaign.
Krivsky believes that rebuilding while trying to contend by gradually mixing youth with the veterans is a doable feat.
"We all want to win," he said. "You want to do right by people's development, too. You can run into problems if you start rushing players, getting them up there before they're ready. Then again, you don't know if they're ready if you don't give them an opportunity. You need a balance, whether it's offense, defense, pitching or baserunning. You need a balance of young and veteran guys."
Castellini's ownership group took over in January 2006, and his first move was to dismiss then-GM Dan O'Brien and hire Krivsky, who came on board one week before that season's Spring Training.
The inherited roster, especially the pitching, was underwhelming, to say the least. In 2005, the Reds' pitching staff owned the NL's highest ERA and led all teams in homers allowed.
"You can't win without good pitching," Krivsky said. "That was the primary focus when I first came in."
The proof is visible when walking through the clubhouse in Sarasota. Of the 30 pitchers in camp two springs ago, only four remain -- Aaron Harang, Matt Belisle, Todd Coffey and David Weathers. Not counted are Homer Bailey, who was a non-roster invitee, and Kent Mercker -- who has left and since returned.
"It'll awe you at times," Weathers said of the turnover. "You look around and actually try to count who was here when I signed in 2005."
"It's weird when you go back and look in the book," Harang said. "[You say], 'Has it been that long since I've played with him?' "
Krivsky's first trade, made during Spring Training 2006, brought in Bronson Arroyo from the Red Sox in exchange for underachieving slugger Wily Mo Pena. Arroyo has eclipsed 200 innings in each of the past two seasons and was an All-Star his first season in Cincinnati.
Two more trades followed. Catcher David Ross came over from the Padres for Minor League pitcher Bobby Basham. The biggest success of all came on April 7, 2006, when castaway second baseman Brandon Phillips arrived from the Indians for a low-level Minor Leaguer named Jeff Stevens. Phillips enjoyed immediate breakout success in Cincinnati.
Not all of the acquisitions have worked. Some were low-risk, low-reward fliers, such as Esteban Yan, Ryan Franklin and Joe Mays. Others were multimillion-dollar mistakes, such as Rheal Cormier, who was released and paid $2.5 million last season for not pitching after April 28. Others, including Mike Stanton, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, have yet to yield sustained results.
Meanwhile, Krivsky picked up from one of O'Brien's positives by enriching the player-development efforts in the Minors. Inherited prospects -- including pitchers Johnny Cueto and Bailey, and sluggers Jay Bruce and Joey Votto -- are now considered among the best in baseball. To his credit, Krivsky resisted urges to either rush the prospects or deal them for established talent.
The Reds have added another young pitching talent in Edinson Volquez, who came over from the Rangers in December's trade for Josh Hamilton.
All of these prospects seemed poised to enter the Majors this season, but the Reds showed this winter that they wouldn't be painted into a corner when it came to the kids. Dusty Baker, who has a reputation of preferring the presence of veterans, was hired as manager in October. Former GM Walt Jocketty, who helmed the Cardinals for 13 years and won repeatedly with a veterans-over-youth approach, was added by Castellini as a special advisor, reporting directly to him.
Veteran closer Francisco Cordero was signed to a blockbuster four-year, $46 million free-agent deal. And despite having Cueto, Bailey and Volquez, Cincinnati signed veteran rotation candidates Jeremy Affeldt in January and Josh Fogg one week into camp.
Though Bruce is competing with Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper for the starting center field job, another veteran, Corey Patterson, has been added to the mix. Jerry Hairston Jr., signed the same day as Patterson, will battle for a utility spot.
"I just look at it from the standpoint that these guys can help us," Krivsky said of the veteran additions. "We'll make the determinations as we go through Spring Training."
The efforts of Krivsky and Co. appear at a crossroads. Which direction is this team headed? Is this a youthful or veteran club? The most important question: Is this a winning direction for Cincinnati? In a soft NL Central, it's possible.
"I think it's definitely getting better," Harang said. "This year so far, we've got some young guys that got their feet wet last year. We've got a couple of guys through trades that played in the big leagues a little bit. And we have veteran guys that have been on winning teams or have been around long enough to be someone to show the younger guys how it's done."
Baker, who has made it clear that he doesn't like being typecast as someone who favors veterans, thinks that the Reds can have it both ways. He has spent camp trying to ingrain a different philosophy, one that stresses discipline and fundamentals.
"When you go out and buy a lot of players, you're getting a different theory and philosophy of whatever is taught where they came from," Baker said. "You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it's harder.
"As an instructor and a teacher, I always coveted having a team like when I first started -- a young team with talent that has the ability to learn and the ability to retain," he added. "That's what makes teaching fun. And then you have a whole bunch of young guys that are smart and know how to play the game. And then they grow up together, [play together] for a long time, and then you pluck them out one at a time. That's how we did it on the Dodgers."
Even with the added veterans around, some of the younger guys are making it impossible to be sent down. Cueto, 21, has been the best starter in camp and is more than deserving of a spot. The 24-year-old Volquez has also been sensational and should break into the starting five. Despite being off to a slow start, Votto is still considered to have a shot at first base. And one of the veterans, Affeldt, was informed on Monday that he was out of the rotation race and would be going to the bullpen.
Bailey hasn't performed well and seems unlikely to make the cut, and Bruce's situation is tenuous. If they're sent down, both could be midseason sparks when eventually called up.
"I'm pleased with the progress we've made in two years overall in the organization," Krivsky said. "Obviously, 72-90 isn't where you want to go. I think we're going to be better. We'll have to play it by the old cliché -- one day at a time -- and do our best to make good decisions and put together a winning team where we can stay contenders and a winning team for years to come."