In today’s game where large market cities have such a payroll advantage the development of talent has become the life blood for the futures of small market franchises. For years Cincinnati was one of the poorest organizations at doing that. Not-so-coincidentally they failed to see post season play for fifteen years before winning the N.L. Central in 2010. New ownership put an emphasis on improving depth in the system which is now producing dividends. Baseball America rated the Reds organization as the seventh best at the conclusion of last season.
Of course there are two ways a farm system can help a major league team’s success: a) by promoting players to contribute to the parent team and b) by bringing in contributors in trade returns. The Reds farm benefited from neither between the arrival of Austin Kearns in 2002 and Joey Votto in 2007. That period began a nine year run from 2001-09 when the teams lost an average of 88 games per year with nary a winning season.
If an organization is not drafting and developing talent then the only way to upgrade is to bring it in from outside. Cincinnati’s payroll handicaps their ability in the free agent market and it’s unreasonable to expect them to compete with players that were passed over by the other teams. The problem with trading for talent is that other teams generally want talent in return. They might be able to pull off an occasional Brandon Phillips-for-Jeff Stevens deal, but no one can do that enough to fill out a lineup. Also, if a team continually attempts to go after diamonds in the rough they are vulnerable to giving up someone like Josh Hamilton for a pitcher who gives them only one good season.
Fortunately for Reds fans times have changed. Fifteen on their current active roster are players that were home-grown. Four others plus injured Scott Rolen are trade returns from prospects. When making deals teams make a statement whether they consider themselves contenders or rebuilders by either bringing in or shipping out prospects. The Reds made a strong statement this offseason that they are the former with more trade activity than they’ve had in recent history. After 58 games it appears that the front office’s self-assessment was correct.
When dealing prospects there’s no way to determine after 1/3 of a season if the trades were good ones. The short term advantages almost always go to the team receiving veterans. Still, it’s interesting to give a “mid-term evaluation”. Some of the departed saw action with the Reds last year and would be on the active roster now if they were still in the organization. Sometimes risks are needed to add a couple of pieces by giving up a bunch of prospects. The Reds were unable to pursue those opportunities before they had adequate personnel to deal.
Mat Latos was the biggest name of the returns. The 24 year-old was considered a top-rotation pitcher and is not eligible for free agency until 2016. It was expected that his ERA would increase by moving from San Diego to Cincinnati, but not all the way to his current near-5. His BB/9 innings are up and SO/9 down while his HR/9 has more than doubled. Historically he’s been a slow starter with a lifetime March/April ERA of 5.73. He’s been a disappointment thus far, but the season is still young. Not knowing who was involved in any of the almost-deals this off-season, he’s still the best option at filling one of the five rotation spots. They’ve hitched their wagon to him and will be counting heavily on him for their drive toward post season. He’s had four quality starts in twelve appearances and there’s plenty of time left this season for him to put together a good 2012 for the Reds.
Sean Marshall was pressed into closer duty from the injury to Ryan Madson. He struggled with a 5 ERA until he returned to his familiar role as a left-handed set-up man. Since that move he’s performed with the proficiency that the Cubs enjoyed prior to his trade. After returning to his original job he did not allow a run or a hit in ten appearances while working 7+ innings before his losing effort last night. The good news is that the Reds don’t need anyone else to close as long as Aroldis Chapman is in that role. In the meantime it can be expected for Marshall to remain a key member of a strong bullpen upon whom the Reds have relied so heavily this season.
Wilson Valdez competed with Paul Janish for a spot as a backup infielder on the opening day roster. Both hit over .300 in spring training. The Reds opted to give the job to Valdez which was probably a bad decision. Thus far he’s hit below .200 while Janish started out the season batting .315 at Louisville. That competition has been put on hold since Janish was sidelined with a broken wrist suffered when a pitch hit him on April 28.
Injuries prompted a trade for the Braves prospect J.J. Hoover right before opening day. He’s stepped up to fill a role well in the pen after injuries to three relievers projected to be on the opening day roster. An injury to Chipper Jones and pitching depth in the Atlanta organization made Hoover available. He has a sub-3 ERA in 14 appearances and allowed only one run in his first twelve outings. His future will be uncertain when Billy Bray and Nick Massett return and he could compete for a spot at the back end of the rotation one day. Right now the Reds are happy to have him providing bullpen depth.
Yonder Alonso was the biggest name moved out when the Reds went after Latos. His bat appears to be major-league ready but defensive liabilities destined him to continue being blocked by Joey Votto at first. He’s playing regularly for San Diego and started off the season hitting .261 with one home run. In the field he’s committed six errors in 56 games. He’s going to hit, but some analysts have come to an opinion that his stroke may be limited to gap power. If that be the case, Petco Park is probably a good fit because it neutralizes everyone’s home run stroke.
Travis Wood was impressive for the Reds during their 2010 postseason run after a midseason call-up. Last year he struggled with a sophomore jinx and had an ERA close to 5 with a demotion to Louisville. He started off this season at Iowa with a mid-4 ERA before the Cubs called up him. His five starts with the Cubs this season have looked more like the 2011 Wood than the 2010 version. He’s 0-2 with a 4.71 ERA.
Dave Sappelt hit well at every level within the Reds organization before his call-up after roster expansion last season. Previously there was some speculation that he might finally provide the Reds with the elusive leadoff hitter. He failed to make the Cubs opening day roster and has since hit .226 at AAA Iowa.
Yasmani Grandal was blocked when the Reds opted to stick with Devin Mesoraco to replace free agent Ramon Hernandez. He’s in only his third season of professional ball and is hitting .317 AVG/.416 OB%/.518 SLG with the Padres’ AAA affiliate in Tacoma. He did see action in the big leagues for one game in June and will likely return there before the end of this season.
Bruce Boxberger was the final piece of the Latos deal. There was some thought that he would be in the Padres bullpen on opening day. Instead he started out at Tacoma where he’s put up a 4.70 and walked almost 6 per nine innings this season.
Edinson Volquez is still trying to put his career back together after Tommy John surgery in 2009. He is leading the league with 13 starts over which his ERA is slightly below 4. He’s still walking over five per nine innings but they don’t come around to score as often in Petco. Going to San Diego was a good career move for him.
Juan Francisco is hitting .228 with five home runs in almost 100 plate appearances, and as is the case with his selectivity almost 100 AB’s too. In the field he’s made four errors in 24 games (only 19 starts). Todd Frazier’s performance would limit his action to a left-handed bat off the bench if he were returned to the Reds.
Ronald Torreyes was part of the package that went to the Cubs for Marshall. He shot up the list of Reds prospects after hitting .356 at Dayton last year. Thus far this season at high-A Daytona he’s hitting .210 in almost 200 plate appearances. That type of performance would reduce him to a backup in a system with as many good middle infield prospects as Cincinnati.
Jeremy Horst went to the Phillies in the Valdez deal. The left-hander is doing well with a sub-2 ERA in 20 appearances at AAA Lehigh Valley. He has yet to appear in a MLB game this season.
All the dealing has not left the Cincinnati cupboard bare, but it did tap out the upper level as evidenced by Louisville’s 20-44 record. Six of the organization’s top ten prospects per Baseball America are now either with the Reds or in other organizations. Only five of those remaining in their top 30 had seen action at a level higher than single A before the season started. Thirteen of the previous year’s top 30 list are now gone and account for one third of their current active roster through either promotion or part of a trade. The Reds are either moving them up or moving them out and they are making a huge impact on personnel at the major league level. There’s now a void at the top of the pipeline and it will be interesting to see how everyone advances as Cincinnati reloads their system.