Code Red in Cincy
When moving into a new ballpark, the idea is to follow the Cleveland Indians model. In the seven years prior to changing stadiums, the Indians were one of the American League's worst teams: a 498-636 record. However, the team fittingly left Cleveland Stadium for Jacobs Field at the same time their youth blossomed. In the eight years that followed the move, the Indians made the playoffs six time with a regular season record of 718-509.
Unsurprisingly, the team was no worse than third in AL attendance during this run, drawing over three million fans for six straight seasons. New stadiums add increased revenue, and separately, winning brings in more fans. Add winning and a new stadium, and the results are profitable.
This was the Cincinnati Reds hope following the 2002 season, when they finished 3rd in the National League Central. While the team had flirted with success in the previous decade, they had little to show for themselves since Lou Piniella's 1990 World Series Championship. However, one could argue the pieces were in place after 2002.
Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns had just finished their first full seasons in Cincinnati, and were both extremely productive. Between the two in the outfield was Ken Griffey Jr., who had been great with Cincy previously, but struggled with injuries in 2002. The club's 4.27 ERA had been a product of Elmer Dessens, Chris Reitsma, Danny Graves and Scott Williamson. Heck, Jimmy Haynes had won 15 games.
The Reds were hoping to pull at least a shortened version of the Indians model by winning the division in 2003. They failed, miserably. While the offense regressed by a total of 15 runs, the Great American Ballpark saw the pitching staff give up an extra 112 runs. The club's bullpen had been a success in 2003, but Jim Bowden's rotation was abysmal: Ryan Dempster and Haynes had ERAs above 6.00, and as you surely remember, the Danny Graves starting expirament failed miserably.
It's no surprise that after the 2003 season, General Manager Jim Bowden was out of Cincinnati. The club hired Texas executive, and Doug Melvin/John Hart understudy, Dan O'Brien to fill Bowden's shoes. His job requirements were simple: piece together a viable pitching staff and maximize the potential from the offense.
Bowden certainly could have left O'Brien with worse to work with. Months before leaving the team, Bowden had acquired Aaron Harang for bargain-basement signing Jose Guillen, as well as landing Brandon Claussen from the Yankees. Ryan Wagner had been picked in the previous draft, and expectations were pretty high for all three players.
[Note from Bryan, 1/29/06: Since this article was written, my readers have informed me that (current interim GM) Brad Kullman was the man responsible for acquiring Harang and Claussen. It's no great surprise that two of the best moves the Reds have made in the last five years have had Kullman's stamp. Coincidence, it is not.]
In his first real move as General Manager, nearly two months after having been hired, O'Brien attempted to fill a rotation spot with Cory Lidle. Formerly relatively successful as a member of the Oakland A's, Lidle was coming off a season with Toronto in which he had a 5.75 ERA. Lidle's durability was solid, so you might think he would be a fine addition to the back of a rotation. In Cincinnati, he was near the top.
Besides a signing of Javier Valentin and releasing Russ Branyan, O'Brien went into Spring Training having changed very little about the team Jim Bowden had handled him. However, in Spring Training he made a pair of very interesting moves. On March 25, the Reds signed veteran reliever Todd Jones to a one-year contract. As Jones would take a spot in the bullpen, the next day the club traded Chris Reitsma to the Braves for Bubba Nelson and Jung Bong.
Thanks to some increased health, good revivals from Sean Casey and Barry Larkin, and great power from Adam Dunn and Wily Mo Pena, the Cincinnati offense improved by more than 50 runs in 2004. Griffey even had 300 at-bats during the season. However, by scoring 750 runs, the club was asking for a reduction of 136 runs from their pitching staff to have a pythagorean record of even .500. Rather than shaving off 136 runs, the staff gave up 21 more.
As one might guess, the Cory Lidle signing was no great success story, as he put up a 5.32 ERA in 149 innings. Also, young pitchers Jose Acevedo and Claussen were abysmal in a combined 41 starts. Simply put, Paul Wilson and Aaron Harang were simply not good enough -- aces with 92 and 82 ERA+s, respectively -- to offset horrendous performances from the likes of Todd Van Poppel, John Reidling and Phil Norton.
The one positive in my mind from O'Brien's first season at GM was the way he handled his first two real signings, Lidle and Jones, trading each around deadline time. Magically, O'Brien was able to convince the Phillies to give up a combined five players for two months worth of two mediocre pitchers. Of the group, O'Brien was notably able to land Anderson Machado, Josh Hancock and Javon Moran. So, O'Brien did make up for his trading gaffe of Reitsma with these two.
This is where, my friends, O'Brien left us with very little to compliment him on. Again, he entered the 2004-2005 winter with the goal of creating a better pitching staff, of dropping about 150 runs in that department. Ownership even gave him a little bit of money to spend to do so. So, naturally, O'Brien began by awarding Paul Wilson for his mediocre season (hadn't he learned the Jimmy Haynes lesson) by giving him a two-year, $8.2 million contract. Without spoiling the ending, I'll say this: the Reds will be paying Wilson money in 2006, but after 2005, expectations will be pretty low.
His next move was trading prospect (and I use that word loosely here) Dustin Moseley to the Anaheim Angels for Ramon Ortiz. I actually liked this move at the time, thinking Ortiz had a bit of an upside, despite pretty bad seasons in 2003 and 2004. Still, the cost was very little, and at worst, the team could ship him to the bullpen. However, both I and O'Brien didn't quite note the flyball issues that Ortiz had, which would not be helped by a move to the Great American Ballpark.
Next on the docket was the bullpen, for which O'Brien signed veterans Dave Weathers and Kent Mercker. Both essentially got two-year contracts, Weathers at a total of $2.75 million, and Mercker at $2.6 million. It's dangerous to be signing multi-year deals on players like this, but with the cost low and some previous success on their resumes, O'Brien could have done worse with these deals.
Having released Russ Branyan, quit on Brandon Larson, and discovered that Ryan Freel didn't slug like a third baseman, O'Brien's next move was signing Joe Randa to a modest one-year, $1.3 million contract. This isn't a move with a lot of upside -- a theme of last year's offseason -- but again, he could do worse. Eventually, I'd like to note, Randa would get traded midseason for two pitching prospects. If we say anything good about Dan O'Brien, it must be that he's quite skilled at persuading others on just how valuable two months of cheap mediocrity is.
Still, the Reds were missing one thing: an ace. And O'Brien had nearly $9 million to spend on acquiring one. While a player like Kevin Millwood was signed relatively inexpensively a year ago, the Reds opted on Eric Milton. Like all of O'Brien's acquisitions, Milton had a history of durability, a stamp of mediocrity, and the ability to allow the home run. In the minds of the Reds front office, this was worth a three-year, $25.5 million deal. Horrendous.
In 2005, the Reds scored 70 more runs than the previous season. They allowed, somehow, 18 less runs. However, they lost three more games last season, as the team ERA of 5.15 still didn't get the job done. Felipe Lopez broke out, Griffey was healthy, and the offense performed admirably. But led by Milton's 6.47 ERA and Wilson's 46.1 innings pitched, the pitching staff was again a failure. Besides trading Randa and stealing Allan Simpson from Colorado, O'Brien was quiet while his team self-destructed.
To make matters worse, for the third straight season, attendance fell at the Great American Ballpark. In fact, it fell below the two million mark, nearing Cinergy Field numbers.
This was seen as a very important winter for the Cincinnati Reds. The team was finally able to trade one of their many outfielders for some pitching, but besides that, was set there. And considering that Harang and Claussen had successful seasons, and Milton is tied up, O'Brien was left with patching up just two rotation slots.
Following a season in which he hit .312, but was sapped of all power, O'Brien decided Sean Casey was the best member to trade from his depth. One could argue that a player like Austin Kearns would be better, given Casey's presence in the PR department as well as Kearns' numerous suitors. However, O'Brien found something he liked: a left-handed, durable (well, sorta), home run prone, mediocre starting pitcher. In exchange for Casey, the team acquired Dave Williams, coming off a 4.41 ERA season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. This wasn't a horrendous move, but I certainly contest that the team could have done better.
In a very odd turn, on the day in which the Casey deal was consummated, O'Brien also felt the need to add a second baseman. Why, you might ask? Don't the Reds have Ryan Freel? Apparently Freel's .371 OBP isn't better than the speed and veteran leadership that Tony Womack provides! Oh, by the way, this is a player whose OBP has never topped .350. While this deal isn't up to Milton-esque proportions, O'Brien was able to stand on the other fence of a meaningless one-year acquisition. Especially when, weeks later, the team would re-sign Rich Aurilia to a one-year contract.
This is where the story ends for Dan O'Brien. Shortly after taking ownership of the Reds, Robert Castellini fired O'Brien, putting Brad Kullman in the interim GM role while he searches for the next person to lead this team. O'Brien's legacy is not a very good one, arguably one without a vision but rather the obsession with mediocrity.
I'd like to think there is still some potential to be found within the depths of this Red team. If in charge, I would trade both Jason Larue and Austin Kearns for pitching. In their spots, Javier Valentin takes over the catcher role, while Pena plays in right field. In center is a split between Chris Denorfia and Freel, while Aurilia mans second base for one more season. Add the two starters that those two veteran hitters provide to a rotation of Williams, Harang and Claussen, and things could be worse.
But no matter which action the next leader of the Reds takes, it must be one with a clear vision. The team must maximize the potential of its young offensive players, build a farm system from nothing, and of course, add pitching to a staff that has barely seen it in a decade.
And, more than anything else, put fans in the seats. It's too late to follow the Cleveland Indian method, but the mantra that winning adds attendance applies even in a stadium's fourth year.