Jocketty following Rays' lead to rebuild
Strong nucleus of young talent could turn Reds into contender
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
CINCINNATI -- One year after having 96 losses, the Tampa Bay Rays notched 97 wins this season in a stunning turnaround that carried them all the way to an American League championship and the World Series.
And they did it with an under $44 million payroll -- budget baseball by today's standards.
Reds fans are desperate for a winner again after suffering through eight straight losing seasons and no postseason berths since 1995. That, by the way, was three years before the Rays became an expansion team. One might wonder if a similar franchise resurrection can happen in Cincinnati and then ponder how long would it take.
"I think they had a lot of things go right," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said of the Rays. "It's a good job of putting an organization together. It didn't happen overnight -- even though they had a bad record last year, a lot of the pieces were already in place."
The Rays didn't have a bad record only last year, but for all 10 of their previous seasons in existence. Until 2008, Tampa Bay never won more than 70 games in a season and lost more than 100 three times. After debuting in 1998, the team made a disastrous attempt to contend quickly by signing expensive free agents, which set back development by years. There was a change in ownership a couple of years ago that finally set real progress into motion.
All of those years at the bottom of the AL were good for one thing -- high first-round Draft picks. Many of them are stars on the current team, including third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher David Price, the 2007 overall No. 1 pick. Price earned his first postseason win and first save before he's earned them in the regular season.
The Rays also made some shrewd trades. Top lefty Scott Kazmir came over in 2004 from the Mets for Victor (not Carlos) Zambrano. Two more integral cogs came over in a deal with the Twins this past offseason when young pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett were acquired for outfielder Delmon Young and infielder Brandon Harris.
Look at Tampa Bay now, Cincinnati.
"If you do a good job with drafting and developing your young players, you have a chance to do that," Jocketty said. "They've drafted near the top for the last 10 years, and it's starting to come through."
Winning on the relative cheap isn't a new concept. The Rockies reached the World Series last season with a $54 million payroll and the Marlins won the 2003 World Series with a $45 million payroll. The Twins, Diamondbacks and A's have also contended recently on a budget. All have relied mainly on the assets from within their organizations.
"To be successful long term, you have to build a solid foundation with young players, player development and scouting," Jocketty said.
Getting younger and building from within is a concept that has gained traction only in recent years with the Reds. That plan accelerated more this season as veteran would-be free agents like Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn were moved out.
Younger players like Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto now look to form the core of the Reds. Bruce and Votto were Draft picks, and Phillips and Volquez came over in trades. Cueto was signed out of the Dominican Republic.
Catcher Ryan Hanigan, an undrafted player, was discovered in the Cape Cod League and impressed after his August callup. Other prospects had some success, like outfielder Chris Dickerson and starting pitchers Daryl Thompson and Ramon Ramirez.
Cincinnati finished the 2008 season with a 74-88 record after having a $74 million Opening Day payroll. That amount could move up a couple of digits, but isn't expected to dramatically increase or decrease in 2009.
There could be more prospects on the way as the farm system has made vast improvements in only a few years.
"In our case, we have a good young nucleus. Hopefully, we can add the right pieces to improve our club," Jocketty said. "We've got to improve our defense. That will continue to help improve our pitching. We need to find one big bat, maybe two, that are run producers."
If the Reds make the needed tweaks while the young guys mature and some real fundamental improvements are made, who knows? Maybe fans of some other long-suffering baseball city will look at Cincinnati with envy next season -- and hope.