Fay: What's behind the Reds' tailspin? Here are the Top 9 reasons

Bad luck, bad choices derailed four winning years
Posted at 11:01 AM, Jul 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-21 12:19:00-04

CINCINNATI — We know where the Reds are: deep in baseball’s abyss, on pace to lose 100 games and about to trade away established major leaguers they developed for unproven prospects for a second straight season.

Rebuilding, retooling, or whatever you want to call it is painful — even if it ultimately works. And there is no guarantee it will work.

But that’s where the Reds are. It didn’t happen overnight. The Reds were sitting fairly pretty just three seasons ago. They had won at least 90 games and gone to the postseason three of the previous four years.

What happened? Not one thing — or at least no single thing. It was a series of decisions that could have gone the Reds' way but didn’t. There was some bad luck involved, particularly with injuries, but a lot of the slide is the result of choices the Reds made. Some decisions predate the turnaround that led to the strong four-year run.

I covered the Reds throughout this period. Some of the decisions I thought were the right ones at the time turned out to backfire. Some I questioned at the time and still question.

Here’s one man’s list of the Top 9 reasons the Reds are in such a bad place:

Jay Bruce was among a group of Reds draft picks that became starters, if not stars. The group also included Joey Votto, Zack Cozart, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco. (WCPO file)

1. Draft drought: The good run was made with a team built around drafted-and-developed players. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Zack Cozart, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco were all high picks that turned into starters, and in some cases stars, at the big-league level. The Reds also traded Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso and Brad Boxberger to get Mat Latos.

Since drafting Grandal in 2010, the Reds have picked Robert Stephenson, Nick Travieso, Phillip Ervin, Nick Howard, Tyler Stephenson and Nick Senzel in the first round.

  • Stephenson and Travieso were high school pitchers. Time will tell their impact.
  • Ervin was a college outfielder. You’d expect his bat to be at least on the cusp of being major league-ready, but he’s hitting .230-something in Double-A.
  • Howard, a college closer whom the Reds hoped to convert into a starter, is still in A ball and back to relieving. He has a 6.50 ERA and 31 walks versus 20 strikeouts.

The only players on the current roster from the last five drafts are Tony Cingrani and Michael Lorenzen.

Yorman Rodriguez bats during the 2015 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Great American Ball Park on July 12, 2015. Rodriguez was among Latin players the Reds signed for big bucks but who haven’t panned out. (Elsa/Getty Images)

2. Latin swing and miss: The Reds took a deep dive in the Latin American market in 2008. They signed Yorman Rodriguez for $2.5 million and Juan Duran for $2 million.

The moves were well received. A Reds front-office type told me Rodriguez was a high school kid he would have rated with Bryce Harper. Hyperbole? Sure, but it shows the Reds thought a great deal of him.

Eight years later, he has 27 big league at-bats. Duran has none.

There’s inherent risk in signing 16-year-olds. It looks now like the Reds made a $4.5 million mistake.

Johnny Almaraz, right, Philadelphia Phillies director of amateur scouting, shakes hands with Phillies 2015 first-round pick Cornelius Randolph. Until 2007, Almarez worked for the Reds, signing the likes of Johnny Cueto, Adam Dunn, Jason LaRue and B.J. Ryan. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

3. Where’s Johnny? Johnny Almaraz was arguably the Reds’ best scout over the last 25 years or so. He signed Johnny Cueto, Adam Dunn, Jason LaRue and B.J. Ryan as well as about a dozen others who made to the big leagues.

Almaraz spent 16 years in the Reds organization before leaving in 2007 after a front-office dispute.

Cueto was the last impact player the Reds got out of the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Almaraz is currently the scouting director for  Philadelphia. Before that he spent eight years with Atlanta, where he signed Julio Teheran and Jose Peraza.

The decision to use Aroldis Chapman as a closer instead of a starter was expedient in 2010, but it may have cost them a No. 1 in the rotation. (WCPO file)

4. Closer vs. starter: The decision to make Aroldis Chapman a reliever changed the course of the franchise. I can understand why the Reds did it in 2010. They were on the verge of winning for the first time in nine seasons. Chapman as a reliever would greatly help their chances, and he wasn’t ready as a starter.

The Reds could have moved him back to the rotation in 2011, though. If he had developed into a dominant starter — not a given, of course — the Reds would have had Chapman, Cueto and Latos at the top of the rotation in 2012 and ’13. That’s pretty scary in the postseason.

Keeping fan favorites Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto in 2012 cost the Reds nearly $300 million — money that small-market teams can't afford to have locked up. (WCPO file)

5. Spending spree: The Reds handed out $297.5 million in contracts to Joey Votto (10 years, $225 million) and Brandon Phillips (six years, $72.5 million) over a one-week period in 2012.

I thought the deals, particularly Votto’s, were good moves. The Reds locked up two fan favorites and ones with All-Star talent. If good times continued to roll, revenue would rise, and the deals would be manageable.

Bad years in 2014 and ’15 mandated a rebuild. Contracts like Votto’s and Phillips’ hamper a rebuild.

If you’re in the Reds’ position, i.e. in a small market, you have to be willing to move players when they get too expensive. Reds owner Bob Castellini tends to fall in love with his own guys.

The Cardinals let Albert Pujols walk five months before the Reds signed Votto. St. Louis hasn’t faced a rebuild since 1990s. The Cards have had one losing season since 2000.

Choosing to keep Homer Bailey over Johnny Cueto seemed like a good decision until Bailey's injuries. (WCPO file)

6. Bailey over Cueto: The Reds signed Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million deal before the 2014 season. What’s happened with Bailey, as far as injuries, is simply bad luck.

But because things went bad in 2014 and ’15, the money that went to Bailey precluded the Reds from signing Cueto — or even making a real offer.

Firing Dusty Baker after a 90-win season in 2013 ignored his skill at managing people. (WCPO file)

7. Firing Dusty: This is no indictment against Bryan Price. He’s been dealt awful hand. But the Reds fired Baker after a 90-win season in 2013, thinking that a change in the manager’s office was what the team needed.

I wrote at the time that I thought it was flawed logic. Baker was not the problem. He’s a great leader of men. Fans tend to harp on his lineups and his in-game decisions, but the biggest part of a manager’s job is managing people.

Baker’s excellent at that. Look at his record in Washington.

Jesse Winker plays in the 2014 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game in Minneapolis. Winker is a top Reds prospect in AAA Louisville. (Elsa/Getty Images)

8. Developing hitters: Votto arrived in the big leagues in 2007, Bruce in ’08 and Frazier in ’11. It looked like the Reds had a pipeline of impact, middle-of-the-lineup bats.

Since then? Mesoraco had a nice year in 2014.

The Reds don’t appear to have a lot of impact bats in the minors, either. No. 5 prospect Jesse Winker is hitting in the .290s in Triple-A Louisville, but he hasn’t shown much home-run pop. Alex Blandino, the No. 6 prospect coming into the season, has struggled to keep his average above .200.

The Reds probably should have traded Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman before they did, John Fay argues, and should have traded Brandon Phillips, too. (WCPO file)

9. Waiting game: The Reds have a habit of waiting too long to pull off trades.

The Reds sat tight at the trade deadline in 2014. Chapman and Frazier probably should have gone at the deadline last year rather than wait till the offseason. The Reds probably should have moved Phillips before his 10-5 rights kicked in.

Of all the things listed above, the most important thing is the draft. The Reds have to have a steady pipeline of drafted-and-developed players to make the rebuild work — and avoid another one four years later.

Follow John Fay on Twitter: @johnfayman.