CINCINNATI — The Reds annual Winter Caravan rolled down Joe Nuxhall Way Thursday morning. Four buses will travel 3,300 miles over four days. They’ll hit five states and make 16 stops for public events before winding up for a finale at Florence Mall on Sunday.
The idea is drum up some publicity, sell some tickets and win over some fans.
This year, of course, the job is different. The Reds have been building for the future since July. That’s meant trading Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman for the promise that things will get better.
That means the Reds aren’t going to promise you much for 2016. Bob Castellini, the club CEO and CIC (cheerleader-in-chief), knows that’s a difficult spot to be in. Castellini has been a win-now guy since he took over the team 10 years ago.
This is the first wholesale rebuild under him.
“We’re trying to bring in these young players so we can compete,” Castellini said. “Financially, you have to do it every once in a while. We’ve had 10 years here.
“We’re primarily interested in talent for players. If we don’t get talent, we have settle for reduction in payroll, so we have enough to put into player development, player signings, international signings and otherwise, sports science and technology. That’s the direction you have to go.”
The Castellini ownership has always budgeted to break even. The payroll will be significantly less this year thanks to the trades, but, as Castellini said, the Reds are beefing up player development, analytics and the like.
Castellini doesn’t want to blame the spot the Reds are in on being a small-market team, although Cincinnati is the second smallest market in MLB.
Philadelphia, one of the largest markets, is doing what the Reds are.
Signing off on a rebuild was probably the most difficult decision in Castellini’s tenure. If you can fault him for anything in his ownership run, it’s falling in love with his own players.
The aforementioned four — Cueto, Leake, Frazier and Chapman — were homegrown Reds. All four developed on Castellini’s watch.
Parting with them was heartbreaking.
“It was hard on all of us,” said Walt Jocketty, the club’s president of baseball operations. “One of the hardest calls I had to make in my career was calling Frazier. He really wanted to stay here. It just wasn’t the right thing for our organization long-term. It’s tough on everybody.”
But especially Castellini.
“Bob wants to win,” Jocketty said. “We all want to win. We’re taking a step back. We’ll eventually get back and be stronger than we were.”
“Eventually” is not a word that fans want to hear in the social media age. But when you trade proven big leaguers for prospects, it’s wise not to promise an instant turnaround.
The Reds got 11 players in the deals for Cueto, Leake, Frazier and Chapman. As many as five could make the Opening Day roster. But these were trades for 2017, 2018 and beyond. They got a top 10 prospect in each deal. That’s made the minor league system much deeper.
“We’re were challenged to turn this organization around,” Jocketty said. “I think fans are really going to be pleased. That’s the message we’ll send on this caravan: We’re changing things to get back into contention. We’ve got young, aggressive players who are very eager to learn and get better.”
You can argue whether the Reds got enough in the trades — if you believe some of pundits, they didn’t — but it’s hard to argue that the rebuild was not a necessary step. The Reds are coming off two straight losing seasons. They lost 98 games last year. They could lose more than that this year.
But when things aren’t working, you have to change. The Reds did that.
Again, it was necessary for the future. It’s just not an easy sell for the present.
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.