Reds' Dick Williams 'looking forward to a nice improvement' this year

Fay sits down with him for a Q & A

CINCINNATI -- Spring training is a little over a month away, and the Reds have been relatively quiet this offseason. The team's only big move was the signing of reliever Jared Hughes -- a solid choice but not a headline grabber.

The Reds are not alone. Most of the top free agents remain unsigned, and the Winter Meetings were devoid of big trades. 

That could change between now and Feb. 14 -- the day pitchers and catchers report -- so we checked in with president of baseball operations Dick Williams. 

The discussion was mostly about pitching, an evergreen topic for the Reds, but Williams, entering his third season in his current role, also talked about Billy Hamilton as the leadoff man, top prospects Nick Senzel and Hunter Greene, the crowded outfield and Joey Votto's sensational year. 

Question: With all these free agents unsigned, is it tempting to dive in and sign more than you had planned?

Dick Williams: It certainly makes sense to circle back around. If people are not finding deals that they wanted, we want to be opportunistic. It remains to be seen if this logjam will result in lower contracts or if it's just a delayed market. When the flood happens, will they get their money?

Q: With the injury history you've had with the starting rotation, is it tempting to try to get a veteran about whom you can say, "This guy is going to give me 200 innings?"

DW: You always want to be protected, but, to be honest, we think it's more important to let the guys pitch that we have. We have more than enough starting pitching candidates who need to explore their potential. If they remain healthy -- and we hope and expect that they will -- we want these guys to get those innings. 

Q: Manager Bryan Price said at the Winter Meetings that he saw four spots taken in the rotation by Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Luis Castillo and Brandon Finnegan. Are you aligned with that?

DW: I don't want to put words in his mouth, but I think what he was saying is those guys deserved every chance, based on the prior performance, to start.

I think it's really hard to hand out the rotation spots until we get to spring and see what we've got just given how much time people have missed. I'm not ready to name a rotation yet, but I like that Bryan has seen enough out of these guys in the past that he has high expectation for them.

Q: The most encouraging thing (or one of the most encouraging things) about last year was the way those guys pitched late. Sal Romano, Robert Stephenson, Luis Castillo from the time he got up. Do you see it that way?

DW: Yeah, we do. (Tyler) Mahle finished well. Stephenson pitched well. All the guys you mentioned. There's no reason to think that won't carry over.

Everybody's going to have their bumps. These guys are young pitchers. They're experiencing the Major Leagues for the first time. We're just going to have to be patient and continue to give them opportunities. 

Our hope is if some of the guys like Bailey and Disco can stay healthy and provide consistent starts, it'll make it a lot easier for those young guys to continue their success. Where they were being asked to step last year was a lot more difficult. Usually young pitchers are more easily groomed in an environment of stability and that's what we hope to provide more of this year.

Q: Of the guys who ended the season injured -- DeSclafani, Finnegan -- are the reports good for them? Will they be ready?

DW: They've been very positive. We've been in close communication with (trainer) Steve Baumann and (strength and conditioning coach) Sean Marohn in the offseason. These players have been in touch, reporting back. We're doing in-person visits. So far, very encouraging for all those guys.

Q: The other side of that is not all those guys are going to make the rotation. Will you look at using some of them as relievers if they don't make it, or are you going to put them in Triple A?

DW: Some them will be candidates to be used in the bullpen as an avenue to continue their growth at the Major League level. We haven't communicated with those pitchers about what their plan is, so I'd like to wait until we have those conversations with those pitchers.

We are going to have a group of pitchers together next week in Arizona, (and) we're going to have a pitching summit for a couple of days with pitchers, catchers, coaches. That'll give us time to discuss and explore that. That's one of the reasons we signed a guy like Jared Hughes as a bullpen presence.

We don't want to have to fill the bullpen with a lot of these young pitchers who we think still have very good opportunity to be Major League starters. I wanted to put one reliever in that 'pen to take up one of those spots and give some stability. Maybe we'll do more of that, but, right now, we feel pretty good about it. There are guys like Jackson Stephens, Robert Stephenson, who have shown the ability ... These guys have shown they can do either.

Q: Will Michael Lorenzen get ready as a starter?

DW: He will. There's not a whole lot of difference in the offseason, to be honest, but he will get some opportunity to pitch more innings in spring training, and Bryan has communicated to him that he has a chance to compete for a starting job.

Q: Jose Peraza got a fair amount of time at shortstop because Zack Cozart was injured. You guys concentrate a lot on analytics. What do the analytics say about him as a shortstop?

DW: In his case, because most of his shortstop playing was in the minor leagues and most of it was before we had the advanced analytics, we rely a little more on our scouts in this instance because they're seen him play short.

Bruce Manno was with him with the Braves and was pretty familiar with him, watched him a lot. Everybody felt like the potential was there to grow into a Major League shortstop. The analytics are fine.

We still feel like there's room to improve like there was with (Eugenio) Suarez with playing time. There's no guarantees. I would encourage people to have patience with a player who is this young, especially who's going to be trying to replace a guy like Zack Cozart. He needs to be in there -- just like some of the young starters last year -- and be given the opportunity to find his footing. Zack Cozart was 21 in the draft. Peraza is only 23. It took Zack several years to get to the big leagues. There's still plenty of time for him to develop.

Q: Do you plan on playing Nick Senzel at multiple positions?

DW: We've communicated with Nick that he wasn't unlike Todd Frazier when he came up, where you have an athlete who has the ability to play multiple positions. It's important to keep that line of communication open with them about what the possibilities are.

In the short term, we've told him we would like to make sure he's exposed to other positions. Primarily second and third, maybe some short, maybe the corners in the outfield. We want to make sure we have the ability to get his talent in the lineup when the time comes.

You never know for sure where that opportunity is going to be. Who's going to be there in front of him at a given spot? We do think it's important if he can prepare at multiple positions. We think he can. It'll give him more opportunity to get to the big leagues.

Q: He's a guy whose numbers got better when he was promoted, and his arrival is pretty soon.

DW: I think he has the talent to play in big leagues vey soon. We are very encouraged by everything we've seen. We don't want to rush him if we don't have to. I think it's important to allow him time to finish. People get excited about minor league performance, then they want to shortcut the process. I think it's important to let him continue to develop. I think he'll benefit from more time in the minors.

Q: As it stands now, do you see Billy Hamilton as your leadoff guy?

DW: I think that's going to be a topic of discussion. I know Bryan feels like, the organization feels like, we want to see more production out of that leadoff spot. I would say Billy's not guaranteed that spot unless we continue to see some improvement in the on-base (percentage).

We think he can be a leadoff hitter, but right now it's just not guaranteed. He's got to improve on what he's doing.

Q: How do you see the outfield in general working out with Jesse Winker ready? Do you think there's enough playing time to have four guys? 

DW: I do. I like having four outfielders because it gives you the ability to mix and match and it certainly strengthens your bench. On a given day to have one of those four guys -- we're talking about (Scott) Schebler, (Adam) Duvall, Hamilton and Winker -- on the bench, it gives you a very effective weapon, and it gives Bryan more flexibility to manage the team.

I also think, over the course of the season, players' production will go up if they're put in a position to succeed, meaning they're used in favorable situations and matchups and they're given some rest.

I think that will benefit these four guys in particular.

Q: Have you been pleased with the progress Hunter Greene has made and how he's acclimated himself to pro baseball?

DW: I have. We didn't get to see a ton of on-field performance last year just because of the time it took to build him back up, but the impression he made on his coaches and his teammates was very important to us, very important to me to hear how he fit in. He did a really tremendous job there.

The work ethic was there -- the maturity, the awareness of his capability, his goals. He's a very focused young man. He's done a nice job this offseason of getting involved in his community. I think he really has a passion for baseball and making an impact.

Q: You've put some resources into sports science. Is there something you've learned or something you'll do differently as a result of that?

DW: Sports science is an important area to us. I think it's important to note that you're not always going to see direct, immediate, tangible benefits.

The sports science arena is focused more on training players over a period of time, whether it's vision or cognitive training or it's bio-mechanical analysis. These are things we have to get the players familiar with, the staff familiar with and then we have to have the time to adjust, based on what we're learning.

I'm very happy with where we're headed, and our players and staff seem very open-minded. That's part of the battle -- they've got to want the information.

Q: Do you think everyone -- obviously, he finished second in the MVP voting -- but do you think everyone appreciates the kind of year Joey Votto had? Is it amazing to someone like you who watches it every day?

DW: Yeah. I'm biased, because I watch him more than anybody else, but if the organization had a vote, he was our MVP. I'm sure some of it was the environment that he played in. In my opinion, that should only augment what people think of how he played because it's so much more difficult to produce the way he did and continue to produce, especially in an environment that's as challenging as he was.

Q: He's a pretty quiet guy, but he's a guy who you can point to as a leader because this guy started every game?

DW: That was a big point of pride for him. I just think for him to be on the field every day -- he's conditioned himself, he's prepared himself to do that. He plays at his best when he's in there regularly. He certainly leads by example.

The other guys, by watching him, see how much you have to put into your craft if you want to get to his level. I think he's had a great effect on the players in our clubhouse over the last several years, and he doesn't have to be vocal to have that effect.

Q: You've been in the job a while now. Is there anything that's surprised you about it? Have you learned something that will help you going forward?

DW: I've learned to maintain an open mind. You can spend all your time planning on how you want things to go, but at the end of the day, we work in a reactionary business. The performance of the players on the field is rarely what's expected and you have to react one way or another. I think we are due for some health. I'm hoping this year is the year we get a little more health.

Q: Coming in, how optimistic are you about the 2018 season?

DW: I'm looking forward to improvement over last year. I think that will largely come from a return of the health to some of our key starters and improved performance on the pitching side from the young players that have started to improve.

I think with better pitching we'll be able to manage the games a lot more effectively. I'm looking forward to a nice improvement.

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