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Reds' Trade Just a Part of the Plan (If the Plan Is to Win)

By Bill Peterson · July 19th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Three years later, the torch is finally passed. In the course of an eight-player trade with the Washington Nationals on July 13, Reds General Manager Wayne Krivsky gave the Jim Bowden Reds back to Jim Bowden, the latest in a sweeping set of changes to establish Krivsky's vision of baseball in Cincinnati.

The Reds gave up two big bats -- right fielder Austin Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez -- along with forgotten relief pitcher Ryan Wagner. In exchange, Krivsky brought to the Reds a mostly anonymous set of parts, including relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, infielders Royce Clayton and Brendan Harris and minor league pitcher Daryl Thompson.

While fireworks went off in the nation's capital, restraint prevailed among the Reds fandom. So lopsided is this trade against the Reds from a present-day value standpoint that one could hear the words "salary dump" in the wind, even though Krivsky addressed an aching need for relief pitchers. Only the trade market through the rest of July will tell us if Krivsky overpaid for them.

Baseball initiates across the nation, hypnotized as they are by familiar names, believe the trade ratifies the previous Reds ownership's prohibition against dealing with Bowden. In other words, the consensus decided that Bowden robbed his former club blind. But that's not obvious to those who actually watch the Reds.

Among the trade's numerous possible motives, we shouldn't include the notion that it's a bold move by the Reds to win now and take a chance with the postseason in sight. Krivsky didn't trade top prospects for a superstar in his walk year. He merely made one more in a series of maneuvers to orient the Reds toward a less bombastic and more trustworthy style of baseball.

To the extent that it helps the Reds win now, it's only because Krivsky's preference for pitching and defense is more perspicuous than Bowden's fixation on hitters. As baseball so often has shown us, little improvements in pitching and defense trump little improvements in hitting, because good hitting is less consistently rewarded.

You're not trading for Majewski, Bray, Clayton, Harris and Thompson if "win now" is your only motive or even your main motive, because they won't take you to the top. Krivsky, who inherited a ball club diametrically opposed to his philosophical ideas about the game, simply moved to simultaneously improve the bullpen, upgrade the defense at shortstop, probably remove a net 150 strikeouts from the batting order, clear the way for a prospect to play right field and likely save the club $10 million when Kearns and Lopez wind through arbitration next February.

The trade cost the Reds nothing more than batting production, of which they still have plenty enough.

Based on this trade, the Reds will not stand accused of over-valuing their players. Lopez is a good hitter for a shortstop but a poor fielder for a shortstop.

Really, Lopez hits well enough to play only shortstop, second base or catcher. If he played any other position, you would expect to upgrade offensively. Add it up, and he simply isn't a solid everyday player.

At 36, Clayton has seen better days, but he's still a defensive upgrade at shortstop.

It's tougher to see Kearns go. He's 26 and finally turning into the player the Reds expected when they took him with their first round pick in 1998.

Maybe the Reds could have brought a better return for Kearns, but that's the only isolable aspect of this trade that raises a discerning eyebrow. It could be that the key player in this deal is Chris Denorfia, the rookie right fielder who batted .347 at Louisville and now receives his chance with Kearns departed. If Denorfia is the player his minor league record says he is, he gives the Reds more of their Ryan Freel dimension, which is much needed because Freel can't provide that dimension every day.

From reading the blog boards populated by stat fiends, one would think Krivsky shot his mother or traded Jesus and Mohammed for the Three Stooges. The stat fiends often talk as if acquiring middle relief should be a painless proposition for an efficient organization. And they're right when they object to paying millions for a veteran dish rag when a young dish rag is just as raggedy, much cheaper and might eventually amount to something.

Still, since quality pitching exceeds supply and clubs put their best pitchers in the starting rotation and closing relief, quality middle relievers tend to be rare. And so the club that makes an intelligent commitment to middle relief will benefit.

The importance of middle relief is illustrated in the course of almost any baseball game, for it quite often happens that the most important at-bat, the definitive game situation, comes up in the sixth or seventh inning, when the game usually is in the hands of a middle reliever. If you've got a two-run lead and the other club is batting with two on, two out and Albert Pujols on deck, you need to get this out. If Pujols comes up this inning, then you go from managing the last two innings from ahead to managing them from behind.

To those who believe Krivsky gave up too much for middle relievers Majewski and Bray, don't be so surprised that Krivsky made this kind of move.

As mentioned here during the spring (see "Pitching? Check," issue of April 5), Krivsky will err on the side of pitching rather than hitting. If he errs with this trade, it's the right kind of error and, if you agree with him on the fundamentals of a baseball club, you hope he's persistent. After all, he's not going to be right every time, but he's also not going to be right often enough unless he tries often enough.

Regardless of the religious arguments, it remains that the Reds bullpen desperately needed a makeover. On the day of the trade, the Cincinnati bullpen ERA sat at 5.21, the very worst in the major leagues, nearly a run worse than the average major league bullpen ERA of 4.28.

Last week's trade, along with the acquisition of Eddie Guardado a week earlier, ought to fix that. If it also tightens up the infield defense while pushing the offense toward "little ball" strategies, that's all part of the plan.

The plan ends with winning. But not necessarily now.



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