Of all the words ever spoken about baseball, none are truer than those attributed to 1950s catcher Wes Westrum, who's supposed to have said that baseball is like church: Many attend, but few understand. Baseball just isn't like the other sports, which is why more hogwash is uttered about baseball than any other game.
Baseball attracts a specific mentality that even players often can't describe, which is why so many are prone to cliches. When intellects from George Carlin to Bart Giamatti try it, their insights are groaned out of polite conversation.
Most initiates would agree that no one truly dislikes baseball. Detractors simply don't "get it," which doesn't make them bad people. Even many who like baseball don't get it.
So we're back to spring training this week with another challenging season, the outcome of which will rely largely on who gets it and who doesn't. We might look at the coming year from the perspectives of two National League Central clubs that have shown very similar results for the last two years, just to demonstrate how two different approaches can come to the same results.
The Reds finished 2006 with an outside look at contention but still wound up with a losing record at 80-82. The Houston Astros surged at the end to finish 82-80. In 2007, both clubs plummeted into the division depths, the Reds to 72-90 and the Astros to 73-89.
Both clubs suffered from terrible bullpens last year and addressed those problems in the offseason. The Reds signed free agent Francisco Cordero to a four-year contract for $46 million, and the Astros traded prospects and spare parts to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Jose Valverde.
But that's about where the similarities end. The Reds have lost for seven years straight. The Astros went to the World Series in 2005, fielded an even better club in 2004 and generally have stayed in the mix for most of the last 15 years. Now those tables are turning, perhaps quickly, but certainly within the next two or three years.
The Reds are in the midst of building a very solid program. Their prospect pipeline right now is the equal of any in big league baseball, certainly in terms of front-line talent. The 20-year-old center fielder Jay Bruce is said to be right up there with Evan Longoria, Joba Chamberlain and Clay Buchholz in the eyes of the experts.
Pitchers Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto, along with first baseman Joey Votto, are found among the top 25 prospects across all of professional baseball by most reckonings. Considering that only 30 clubs operate and one of them has four of the best 25 prospects, the Reds could be striking gold. Wisely, the Reds are keeping those guys in their pocket.
On the other extreme, we find the Astros, who have allowed their farm system to degenerate. The trade publication Baseball America ranks the Astros at the very bottom among 30 pro player development systems, with little sign of improving the situation. In December alone, the Astros dealt away top pitching prospects Troy Patton, Matt Albers and Juan Gutierrez in their attempt to win now. But their pitching is so thin and their farm system so dry that it's questionable if they're ever going to win.
The Reds would tell you that they want to win now, but they seem to understand that the point really isn't to win now. The point is to win every year, which takes patience.
That means you trade prospects only when you know they're expendable (because other prospects at the same positions are better) or in mid-season, when the big league club has worked itself into a chance and needs that one piece to go over the top. Another good rule: Never trade top prospects in the offseason for a Grade B player who's a bit better than what you already have.
Therefore, appeals for the Reds to deal prospects for the likes of Oakland Athletics pitcher Joe Blanton are thoroughly misguided. It's true that prospects are uncertain. It's equally foolish to bank on that uncertainty. The intelligent approach involves working a prospect until making a firm judgement that he's expendable.
One of the most persistent myths of Reds history has it that then-General Manager Bill Bergesch blew their chance of winning a division in 1987 by hanging onto prospects instead of dealing a package to the Pittsburgh Pirates for veteran right hander Rick Reuschel. Such incompetent historians forget that the Reds remained a pretty consistent contender, won the 1990 World Series and stayed thick into the mid-1990s largely due to Bergesch's care with the prospects.
The Reds were flush with young talent in those mid-1980s, the core consisting in four outfielders (Eric Davis, Paul O'Neill, Kal Daniels and Tracy Jones) and two shortstops (Barry Larkin and Kurt Stillwell). Rather than deal them away quickly, the Reds watched them play for a while to see what they had.
Future general managers benefited from Bergesch's wisdom. The Reds ended up keeping the right guys -- Davis, O'Neill and Larkin. They traded Jones and Daniels for pieces that helped win the World Series. They traded Stillwell for Danny Jackson, who finished second in the 1988 Cy Young voting before arm trouble sidetracked his career.
That's how it's done: Trade prospects only when you know they are expendable or when you've assessed they're not going to make it or when you have a chance to win in August. Young talent is at once the most valuable and the most uncertain commodity in the game. An organization that's hasty with young talent will suffer for its own foolishness.
To illustrate what can go wrong, consider the Astros, who decided to tear down and start over in 1991 with young talent. Among the youths who suited up for Houston that season were not only Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio but Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, Pete Harnisch, Darryl Kyle and Curt Schilling. Beginning at ground zero with that base of talent, the Astros went to one World Series, and not until 2005. The mind almost can't put it together.
Astros general managers in the 1990s simply outsmarted themselves with frivolous, silly trades, handing out prospects like candy. They traded Lofton to the Cleveland Indians for Eddie Taubensee. They dealt Schilling to the Philadelphia Phillies for the notorious Jason Grimsley, who never did suit up for the Astros.
By the late 1990s, the Astros could have ruled the world, and they frittered it away. They still put together good ball clubs, but they gained not a single good piece for the players mentioned and never could go over the top until a wave of spending four years ago brought in Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.
Houston is a much larger market with more money than Cincinnati. The Astros can spend their way through mistakes. The Reds can't. Further, the Reds aren't close enough to winning for a prospect trade to make any sense.
The Reds would be wise to stick to their guns, hang onto the kids and play them out. Any other approach is unsustainable in their market.