Saturday, August 01, 2015

And Now Their Watch Has Ended

Major League Baseball's trading deadline was yesterday, July 31. In the days leading up to it, the Reds made two trades, divesting themselves of two free-agents-to-be, both pitchers, in Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake.

Cueto signed with the Reds out of the Dominican Republic when he was 18 years old. He came up to the big leagues in 2008 as a highly regarded prospect. The 2000s are often referred to by Reds fans as "the Lost Decade"--heralded by the return of prodigal son Ken Griffey, Jr. and with generally pretty decent offense around him, the team's powers-that-be failed to put together any decent pitching staffs during that team, leading to a string of losing seasons that all seemed to start with promise and then go nowhere fast.

Cueto's entrance to the big leagues was one part of the end of that trend. Looking at the box score for his debut, you'll see names like Griffey and Dunn in the lineup while young guys like Votto and Bruce were not; looking at the list of guys who pitched for the Reds that year, you can see the transition that was being made in that area. Cueto joined a staff consisting of guys like Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang that would help them break a 15-year playoff drought just two years later, in 2010.

I watch pretty much every Reds game that's televised, and it's been that way for as long as I've been interested in baseball (when I first got interested, games on TV were much less frequent than they are now, when just about every game is on). Needless to say, during the "Lost Decade," I saw a lot of losing baseball. So it's not just about watching them to see them win (although obviously I prefer when they do). I watch for a variety of reasons, not least of which is seeing young players perform and develop. I can say without hesitation that watching Johnny Cueto develop into one of the best pitchers in the game has been one of the great delights of being a Reds fan over the past seven years. Even last year, when the Reds fell out of the playoff race pretty much right after the All-Star break, Johnny provided a reason to watch as he strove to become the team's first 20-game winner since Danny Jackson in 1988; seeing him do it on the last game of the season wasn't as good as making the playoffs, but it was pretty damned exciting nonetheless.

In a perfect world, Cueto is a guy the Reds would love to keep around. Unfortunately, baseball's economic realities make him a luxury they can't afford. As a free agent this offseason, Johnny is going to command huge dollars. The money is one thing; the years are another. Chances are good that he'll be looking for (and probably receive) a five- or six-year deal. He'll also turn 30 this offseason, meaning that he'll pass the mid-30s mark toward the end of that deal, and whatever team signs him will be paying a premium for a pitcher whose best days are behind him (physically, at least; I feel like Johnny is such a smart pitcher and hard worker that he'll continue to be effective even as his stuff declines).

Cueto is a bigger loss in terms of pitching, but, while I hate to lose him, I have to say that the trade of Mike Leake makes me a bit sadder. Another cog in the Reds' pitching renaissance, Leake was drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft. He then made the team the following spring and made his Major League debut without ever pitching in the minor leagues, quite a rare feat. It fascinated me, and as it turned out, his first start coincided with a bit of a rough time in my own life. To distract myself, I decided to drive down to Cincinnati to catch his debut in person. It was a good decision, even if I did end up with a hellacious sunburn (it was a Sunday afternoon game, and I forgot to take sunscreen, a cardinal sin for someone with fair skin). So I've always had a little soft spot for Mike.

As the deadline got closer, I kept hoping against hope that they'd keep and re-sign him instead of trading him away. Sadly (for me), that didn't happen; he was traded in the wee hours of Friday morning. It didn't seem like such a stretch. He won't command nearly as much money as Cueto will, and, as he'll be just 28 after the season ends, a 5- or 6-year deal is less likely to be an albatross toward the end of it. Alas, the Reds' front office did not see it the same way I did.

Those were the only two trades the Reds made, although there was plenty of chatter about other possibilities. It sounded like they seriously entertained offers for outfielder Jay Bruce and hard-throwing pitching phenomenon Aroldis Chapman. I was actually a little disappointed they didn't trade Chapman, although I love watching him pitch, mostly because he could have commanded an awesome return. As big of an asset as he is, I feel like the Reds have mishandled his career--he's so dominant, he's wasted pitching fewer than 100 innings a year as the team's closer. He should have been developed as a starter, and with just one year remaining on his contract, that option almost certainly won't be explored with Cincinnati (and probably not anywhere else, either). I'd be a little surprised if they didn't continue to explore trading him in the offseason.

Bruce, on the other hand, I had mixed feelings about. The Reds have the makings of a pretty potent offense; what they really need is someone (or someones, ideally) who can get on base a ton and set the table for big bats like Votto, Frazier, and Mesoraco (assuming he comes back healthy next year, which I have no reason to believe he won't). The problem is that most of the starting position players are firmly entrenched, so even if you find a guy like that, there's nowhere to put him on the field. As of now, left field (currently manned by Marlon Byrd) is the only real possibility; trading Jay would have opened right field as well. Keeping him isn't a bad option, though. He's another of the big bats like the ones listed above, and while I'm not sure he's as reliable as those guys, the pop he provides can't be denied.

So the main drama for the rest of the Reds' regular season will likely be whether they can maintain their hold on fourth place in the National League Central Division or slip into last, it's certainly shaping up to be an interesting offseason. With these trades augmenting the talent they already have in their system, they have a ton of young pitchers vying to fill out next year's staff. I expect a trade or two to hopefully find that OBP machine they need, and I wouldn't mind seeing them find a crafty veteran to plug into the rotation as well, to mentor the young kids and take some innings load off the bullpen--coming off an injury, I'm not sure you can count on Homer Bailey, the one returning vet, to fill that role.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping an eye on Cueto (now with the Kansas City Royals) and Leake (San Francisco Giants--I expect him to thrive in the NL West) and pulling for them to do well with their new teams. Since the Reds aren't in it this year, it's nice to have a rooting interest in the pennant race (other than hoping the Cardinals get knocked out early in the most humiliating fashion possible).

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