After two seasons the Reds aren't better. They're just different, and most of the difference occurred last year. The Reds don't hit as much, but they pitch better, believe it or not, and are more reliable defensively.
Yet the difference adds up to less than nothing -- 73 wins in 2005 compared with 72 wins for the season ended on Sept. 30. In another sense, the difference is substantial, due to declining franchises in St. Louis and Houston. The Reds finished 27 games out of first place in 2005, compared with 13 games out this year.
So the Reds are different but no better, though they're closer to the top of the National League Central division. It's a net gain for the Reds, but how much credit can they claim?
The 2007 season has to go down as a big disappointment. The Reds would be in the playoffs right now with an improvement of six games from last year's 80 victories. Instead, they regressed by eight games and were out of the running by mid-June.
Wayne Krivsky's second year as general manager taught us all a lesson, and one must figure he learned it as well as anyone. His first year brought numerous changes on the fly, including a ball club constantly turning over, changing its theme and freshly infused. His second season, at least the first three months of it, brought stagnation and a presumption that the club was going in the right direction, as if to defy the daily results as the Reds blew lead after lead through June.
It could be that next season will prove Krivsky right for standing on his hand this year. But three months later, the season is defined by the hopeless, sinking events of May, when the Reds lost 12 games on .500, and June, when they lost another six, mostly because of the NL's worst bullpen and a lack of action by the front office.
We're not privy to Krivsky's talks with other ball clubs, nor do we know exactly how the Reds value the people in their organization, but we can surmise that he either couldn't find available relief pitching or couldn't find a deal for relief pitching that made sense to him. Whichever it was, the diminishment of urgency to fix the bullpen contrasted with 2006, when Krivsky went so far as to make a deal over which he took blistering heat for the sake of his relief staff.
Gripped by a notion that the Reds could spend an offensive surplus to bolster their bullpen, Krivsky essentially dealt Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington for relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski during the 2006 season. Krivsky probably was on to something. Sadly, it wasn't reliable relievers.
As the Reds withstood a demoralizing run of losses this May and June because of their awful relief pitching, Krivsky kept waiting for Bray, Majewski and Eddie Guardado to come back from injury. While he fiddled, the season burned.
As the season ended, all three relievers were back, but none were effective. Between them, Bray, Majewski and Guardado pitched 51 innings this season with a 7.41 ERA.
The lesson, of course, is that you should never be terribly surprised or caught off guard or left without recourse if the ball club you have in May and June isn't the one you thought you had in February and March. A major league roster is a living document, as they say in government circles, which means that if it isn't changing and growing it's dying and losing relevance.
The Reds died and lost relevance before the All-Star break because their GM didn't breathe life into their bullpen.
Maybe Bray, Majewski and Guardado will come back next year, will be twice as effective and the Reds can work them for an extra 170 innings combined. But if the Reds are counting on it, we could be back here at the same time next year having the same discussion.
The Reds finished this season with a 5.10 bullpen ERA, the worst in the NL. So scary was the prospect of calling a reliever that former manager Jerry Narron rode his starting pitchers too hard, particularly Bronson Arroyo, who suffered the ill effects through the middle months.
Once the Reds replaced Narron with Pete Mackanin at the start of July, they played at about the rate that won the division, turning in a 41-39 record. But the Chicago Cubs clinched in the Reds' town, in their stadium and with their former manager, Lou Piniella, the kind of proven winner the Reds haven't hired since Marge Schott ran Davey Johnson out of town in 2005.
Now more than ever, this ball club is Castellini's baby, because the owner faces a number of crucial calls in the next year or two. Adam Dunn is up for a $13 million option next season, and it seems a foregone conclusion that the Reds will bring him back. But after 2008, the contracts for Dunn, Krivsky and Junior Griffey all expire.
Furthermore, the Reds are looking for a manager. The name of Tony LaRussa keeps floating around, due to his relationship with Castellini from the latter's days as part of the St. Louis ownership group.
But none of that will matter if the Reds don't improve their bullpen. For clubs in the Reds' general strata of revenues and payroll, middle relief is a dicey proposition. It's often the last part of a ball club to be addressed even though it's responsible for the most crucial portions of the game.
Clubs that won't bat an eye at paying $10 million for a guy to pitch the ninth inning with a two-run lead will try to grub through tie games in the seventh inning for minimum wage. If the Reds can't even afford that much, then they need to either re-think the bullpen or work more ingeniously on the back end of their pitching staff.
Krivsky gave it a good try in 2006. In 2007, he didn't. The first way worked better.