Williams has been on the show before, but this was his first appearance as the face of the Reds front office. Walt Jocketty, after nine years atop the baseball operations depth chart, is now a consultant. Williams, as executive vice-president and general manager, is running things.
That also means he’s charged with selling the club to the fans. Williams is comfortable doing that. He mingled with the fans a bit after getting off the stage.
“I’m fine with more informal conversations throughout the course of the year with fans,” he said. “I’ve always tried to be somewhat approachable if someone stops me on the street and asks a question. I grew up in Cincinnati. I know a lot of the fans. I spent a lot of time talking about the team with my friends and family. We’re all in this together, so I don’t mind sharing my thoughts.”
What Williams is asking for is the hardest thing in modern sports to market: Patience.
Williams takes over as the Reds are in a rebuild and coming off a third consecutive losing season. But Williams isn’t focused on a quick fix. Any moves the Reds make will be with 2019 in mind as much as 2017. For now, at least, Williams says he finds the fans receptive to staying the course.
“I appreciate the fact that by and large the fans and the rest of the Reds staff and front office have all sort of embraced this project we’re working on together,” Williams said. “We all want to win badly.”
Put Williams at the top of that list. No GM in baseball is more invested in their club than Williams. In his case, it’s a real investment. His father, Joe, and his uncle, Tom, own a major stake in the club. His grandfather, William J. Williams Sr., was vice president and a part owner during the Big Red Machine era. That history hangs over the Reds. The lineup from the Game 1 of the 1976 World Series hangs on the wall at the Holy Grail. A team with a history so rich has trouble selling a rebuild.
“Nobody enjoys going through the lean years,” Williams said. “But when you’re going through a lean year and you have a purpose, it makes it much easier, especially when you can see progress.”
The Reds improved by four wins from 2015 to 2016. That was despite trading every veteran the team could move. The Reds were one game under .500 in the second half after going 25 under in the first half.
“I think what we saw last year from the first half to second half was progress,” Williams said. “I think what we saw off the field — between the draft, the Cuban signings — was progress.”
Williams spent 11 years in the front office before ascending to his current role as head of baseball operations. Williams came to the Reds from the business world. He was an investment banker. He’s moved the Reds operation toward what’s worked in baseball in recent years, i.e., he’s hired guys with math degrees.
“I think what the fans haven’t seen yet is the investment in our infrastructure, adding scouts, adding player development people, investing in sports science and analytics,” he said. “That, to me, is progress. I do feel like, while it was a tough year, we’re continuing to head in the right direction and I’m glad the fans have embraced the ride.”
The offseason has been very quiet so far for the Reds. Most of the activity has been housekeeping roster moves. Williams says the Reds will try to add pitching, maybe an outfielder and catching depth.
What the Reds aren’t going to do is spend big in the free agent market. And the team is unlikely to trade the two high-money veterans who remain. Both Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips have no-trade protection. Williams says he’s had no discussion on moving Votto, who is signed through 2023.
The Reds had Phillips traded last offseason, but he rejected the deal as a player with 5-10 protection. Phillips, who is in the last year of his contract, is reportedly more willing to accept a trade.
“I talked to Brandon at the end of the season,” Williams said. “The message he wanted me to hear and Reds fans to hear is that he likes playing here. He loves it. He’s always loved it here. He’s worn that on his sleeve. I don’t think he wants to go anywhere else. His vision is to be a part of what we’ve got going here.
“But we both agreed that we would keep in touch.”
The market for Phillips is likely limited. He ranked 16th among National League second basemen in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and he’s due to make $13 million.
Shortstop Zack Cozart is also in his final year of Reds’ control. Cozart generated interest from Seattle at the trade deadline.
Either Phillips or Cozart is likely to be traded to open a spot for Jose Peraza.
Williams is sure to get some advice on which to move at RedsFest. It’s another opportunity for fans to mingle with Williams.
“I enjoy hearing from the fans and talking to them,” Williams said. “You get some energy from being around this environment. I don’t mind it. Now, maybe when you’ve been doing it for 10 to 20 years some of the novelty wears off.”