The commonly accepted method for building a contending MLB team these days is to one day decide the team you have is rotten and no longer competitive, flog everything off that isn’t nailed down for prospects and lottery tickets, suck pond scum for a few years to rack up high draft picks that result in more prospects, and then bring all those prospects you acquired through your system together until they flourish at the MLB level for years ... until you start the process all over again when everyone gets older and expensive.
It’s a little more detailed than that, of course. One of the features of building a homegrown core is that they will be cheap, allowing a team to spend the money it’s saving on free agents in spots they don’t have covered. Or just be cheap and do nothing of the sort. And a lot of things still have to go right, even if the Cubs and Astros were able to thread that needle (and they’re still the only two. Throw in the Royals if you want, but the Dodgers and Red Sox took different paths).
There are teams that are reckoning with taking that approach and simply not have it work out, like the Phillies. Not all of the Mariners, Padres, White Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, teams that are unquestionably in some stage of this process, are going to win a World Series and will have to do their own reckoning. Will a few playoff appearances be considered enough?
Or what if you didn’t even do that much before you decide to go to the back of the line?
Then you’d be the Cincinnati Reds.
It’s okay if you haven’t thought about the Reds much lately, because they haven’t really earned your attention. They hadn’t finished above fourth in the NL Central between 2013 and 2019. Though they did finish one spot above fourth in 2020, the only reason you might’ve noticed was thanks to the expanded playoffs. They played in a bouncy castle of a park, had Joey Votto occasionally roast someone sitting by the on-deck circle expertly while putting up another .400+ OBP, and everyone generally went about their lives.
But over the past couple years, they made some sneaky moves and produced some players that had them poised to at least graduate from the remedial class. They picked Sonny Gray off the Yankees roster for some guy with a bindle. They picked up Trevor Bauer at the end of 2019 for a one-use Yasiel Puig (and Taylor Trammel to the Padres). The continued development of Luis Castillo meant the Reds had one of the best top of the rotations in the National League, along with Gray and Bauer, and given their predilection for constructing a useful bullpen in front of closer Raisel Iglesias out of whatever was lying around, the Reds looked poised to jump forward before 2020.
The Reds themselves apparently agreed, as they signed Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos to boost the lineup, even if it meant their defense required everyone in the park to wear a helmet and get their affairs in order. They also won the race to sign Shogo Akiyama from Japan. With Votto and third baseman Eugenio Suarez, Cincy looked like it would have a more than serviceable lineup to go with their plus-plus rotation.
It didn’t work out quite that way for them. The rotation was dynamite, the bullpen barely ok, but the offense sank due to down years from Suarez, Castellanos, and Akiyama, as well as Nick Senzel’s habit of going to the plate with a large fish instead of a bat. Even still, the Reds won 31 of their 60 games, and made the expanded playoffs, where they were promptly booted by the Braves in two games without scoring a run.
Even as depressing as that kind of exit can be, it’s only two games, and even if the Reds really couldn’t afford to keep Bauer (debatable), there’s enough here as a platform to keep contending for a division where no team has shown any desire to be more than a collection of guys. Even the only big market team in the NL Central, the Cubs, are breaking out in a rash at any suggestion to act like one. It’s completely open.
And yet the Reds seem determined to blow it up. The question is, “what” are they blowing up exactly?
The Reds had a $147M payroll last year, before the season reduction, which isn’t horribly cheap but isn’t in orbit either. Right now, they’re estimated to have a $118M payroll, which means that even if they were to give Bauer $25M-$30M a year like he’s asking, they’d still be around where they were last year and where they thought was enough to compete. Just with Gray and Castillo in the rotation, Iglesias in the pen, and a lineup with Suarez, Winker, Moustakas, Castellanos, and whatever they can get out of an aging Votto looks tasty enough.
But can you start over if you never really went?
This feels like what happened to horse racing. One of the many reasons that horse racing went into the toilet in the sporting consciousness was that owners were in such a hurry to get their horses to stud, where there’s tons of money to be made without any risk, that the sport couldn’t develop any stars the masses could get to know. American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in forever. Less than six months later he was on the farm with a cigarette and a martini. Justify won the Triple Crown as well, and then never raced again. Racing never got to cash in on the fame.
It seems baseball teams, or more to the point, baseball owners, are in such a hurry to get to the phase where their team is cheap that they’re not even bothering to do the hard part of paying and fielding a winner first. Reds fans never got to see in person the first team in forever that was built to win and compete. By the time they get back to the park, the Reds could be stripped. Where’s the attachment supposed to come from?
The Reds are just starting the cycle of life over again before they ever reached adulthood.