Game One

Opening Day gets a lot of attention. It’s the sporting end of winter. It’s the start of a six-month marathon for thirty teams chasing two four eight ten chances at a four-week sprint to the finish. Football has lured away America’s raw passion, but even still, no other season starts with as much fanfare and optimism as baseball.

Which is why I always get an odd feeling as I begin to watch the actual game itself.  All this build up, and then you realize you’re watching what will be just one instance among one hundred and sixty two.  For as much meaning as Opening Day holds, the game doesn’t mean a whole lot.  A win *feels* like the beginning of something great.  I remember in 2011, watching Ramon Hernandez’s opposite field walk-off sear over the wall.  It was one of the most exciting Reds moments I’ve witnessed.  What followed was a season of disappointment.  The only time in the past four years the Reds didn’t make the playoffs.

Just the same, a loss must be shrugged off.  Johnny Cueto turned in a gem, and an injury-depleted bullpen did its job.  But the Reds offense was everything we feared it might be.  Billy Hamilton looked lost at the plate.  Joey Votto seemed indecisive, and only saw 14 pitches in four plate appearances.  All together the Reds mustered three hits.  Yes, they were facing one of the best pitchers in the National League.  But when it’s Opening Day, it’s all you got.

Brandon Phillips had the best day, offensively.  Normally a free-swinging contact guy, BP saw 23 pitches in four plate appearances with two walks.  He showed good patience and laid off some quality pitches from Wainwright.  As was noted on Twitter, how great would it be if he decided to spite us all by showing just how patient he can be (probably a one-game anomaly, but one can hope).

The start of the baseball season is an odd paradox.  Finally, baseball is back, yet we can’t truly make any judgments for at least several months.  Even a poor April shouldn’t leave a fan too discouraged.  So with that, we look to tomorrow, and enjoy the fact that baseball is back, and with every loss comes the promise of another opportunity. At least for now.

Why Mike Cameron is to blame for the Reds’ decade of futility…

In case you hadn’t heard, 15-year-veteran Mike Cameron retired on Sunday.  I’m not going to go into detail about his career, but if I may give an opinion, I’d say it was a quite successful one.  Cameron was often cited as one of the more underrated players in baseball (somewhat of contradiction, I know) especially during the later stages of his playing career.  This was likely due to his unimpressive batting averages (a stat that is historically overvalued) and the value that he added in centerfield (defense is difficult to measure).

As a Reds fan, I always had a liking for Mike Cameron.  Looking back, I had sort of forgotten that he only spent 1 year in a Reds uniform, but I remembered him as a productive player while he was in Cincinnati.  Not to mention the fact that he was here in 1999, the year any Reds fan will remember as the time we won 96 games and lost a 1 game playoff to Al Leiter for the wild card spot.  Despite the lousy ending, it was the last time the Reds were a productive baseball team for quite some time.

Something I also hadn’t remembered is how the Reds acquired Mike Cameron… in a trade with the White Sox for Paul Konerko.  No Reds fan enjoys reading that sentence.  As I recall, the Reds had 2 promising young first basemen at the time, and picked one.  Sean Casey was a good player for a while, and of course became known as the friendliest player in baseball, but the Reds clearly passed on the superior player.  Paul Konerko has gone on to anchor the middle of the White Sox lineup for 13 years and counting (not to mention win a World Series).

But of course, the Reds got a very good player in return.  In fact, if you go by Fangraphs WAR (which some say puts a bit too much emphasis on defense) Cameron has a sizable, and likely insurmountable, lead over Konerko.

Problem is, after the Reds successful 1999 campaign they of course included Cameron in a somewhat notable trade with the Seattle Mariners for Ken Griffey Jr.  No Reds fan could have imagined that over the next 4 seasons, Cameron would produce 10 more wins for the Mariners than Griffey managed for the Reds.  Of course, that was due to the fact that Cameron played in 231 more games and came to the plate over 1000 more times.  Griffey’s rate stats easily bettered Cameron’s (.271/.374/.530 versus .256/.350/.448).

Not helping the cause was the fact that in the second season following the trade, the Mariners tied the Major League record for most wins in a season.  Cameron played a huge role on that team with 25 homeruns, 110 RBI, 31 stolen bases, an All Star appearance, and a Gold Glove.  Coincidentally, Griffey suffered his first major injury with the Reds and played in only 111 games.  It was probably around this time that people started to wonder if the Reds would have been better off keeping Mike Cameron, without even factoring in the other players surrendered (which included Brett Tomko, the Reds’ latest signee… awesome).

I was probably bitter toward Mike Cameron at first, though for no logical reason.  Here we go and trade for the best player in baseball after winning 96 games, and it turns out we would have been better off with a guy who ended up playing for 8 different teams and had a lifetime batting average under .250??  Well, to put it simply… yeah sorta.  But really, at least to me, the Griffey situation became so absurd in Cincinnati, that soon it didn’t matter who he displaced (it also helped that the Mariners were perennial disappointments in the playoffs for a few years).

I imagine the Reds weren’t the only team who regretted losing Cameron.  He was a productive player for many years.  However, it turns out that he cost the Reds a franchise first baseman in Konerko, and then became the centerpiece in a package sent over to the Mariners in exchange for a player who came to epitomize the disappointing Reds teams of the 2000s… big and slow with a little power and no defense.  Let’s take a look at these three players’ WAR totals over a ten year period and note when each played for the Reds.

Mike Cameron vs Reds Players

The flurry of deals worked out at first, netting the Reds the highest performing of the three in 1999 and 2000.  However that trend turned quickly as Griffey clearly performed the worst of the three over the next 5 years (and surely beyond).

So, to Mike Cameron, congrats on a great career.  But know this: I blame you for the Reds decade of futility.

10 Best Transactions of the Winter

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs has put together a list of his 10 best transactions of the winter.  Considering the amount of activity coming from the Reds’ front office I was curious to see what he came up with.  Right off the bat I can tell you that the Sean Marshall deal won’t be on there, and that the Ryan Madson deal will.  The Latos trade was kind of a long shot, though I think if Reds fans take a moment to be really honest with themselves, it might make this a little easier to swallow:

#3 – San Diego Padres Acquire Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, and Brad Boxberger for Mat Latos

The Reds needed to make a deal like this, but I love this trade for the Padres. Alonso might not have star potential, but as a left-handed hitter with opposite field power, he should be able to hit well enough in Petco to be a useful piece, and there’s value in having six years of a cost controlled Wally Joyner hanging around. Grandal is the real key to this deal, though, as a switch-hitting catcher with power and patience who could easily be more valuable than Latos over the next six years by himself. Toss in a terrific buy-low arm in Edinson Volquez, who is a perfect fit for Petco, and a good young bullpen arm in Boxberger, and the Padres restocked their talent base in a hurry without drastically making their team worse for 2012. In fact, if Alonso and Volquez perform as expected, the team could actually be better than they would have been with Latos and some random first baseman. Toss in the long term value, and this deal was just a huge win for San Diego.

A couple things.

Cameron throws us a bone in the beginning, admitting that yes, the Reds needed to make this deal.  What immediately follows, however, left me kneeling on the mat.

I can’t figure out for the life of me what people are seeing in Volquez.  Every single commentary on the trade sees him as a high upside piece.  I mean, maybe Reds fans are being a little reactionary, but it irks me a little that he’s viewed as more than a throw in.

As most pro-Padre analyses have done, Cameron highlights Alonso’s and especially Grandal’s upside, while glossing over Latos.  I know Latos has some risk, but so do the youngsters (wait a minute, Alonso is how old?).  I was just reading Rotoworld’s top 100 prospects (might be subscriber only – sorry), which notes that Grandal is “already 23 years old and doesn’t have much projection left” and “could be an above-average regular”.  Yes, I cherry-picked a little, and it’s one source’s opinion, but let’s not get carried away.  He’s no Meso (ranked 14th to Grandal’s 45th) and all reports seem to point to Grandal being less likely to stick at catcher.

I don’t mean to knock Grandal here, and I realize I’m getting a little defensive.  But hey, that’s what fans are supposed to do.  Ultimately, I admit that Cameron’s take is convincing, and he may well be right.  But I do think he overstates it a bit.

Anyhow, you should go read the whole thing, but before I quit here I will reveal that (***SPOILER ALERT***) Madson came in at #8, and the yet-to-be-completed Roy Oswalt signing clocks in at #4.  Cameron seems to be optimistic on everyone with an injury history on this list, and Oswalt is no exception.  As you’ve probably heard, the Reds have been popping up more and more in Oswalt speculation, and though I know it’d be a gamble (I’m as big a Homer Bailey fan as anyone), I can’t help but get excited over the possibility.

Filling out the roster…

I joined Twitter over two years ago almost as an afterthought.  I had dabbled with blogs a bit, but I wondered if this might be a better outlet for times when I wanted to write things that were mostly only important to me, but could be important to others, if only they were given a chance to read them.  Well, like with most things, you only get out of it what you put in, and I didn’t really put anything in.  I didn’t have much use for Twitter, most of my friends weren’t on Twitter, so things I wrote really weren’t getting to anyone.

In any case, in what seems like WAYYYY longer than the two years since, Twitter, at least for me, has exploded into the primary source for sporting news.*  I feel I’m not alone here.  Rob Neyer just wrote a delightfully creative post on the Prince Fielder signing according to Twitter.  I don’t think my Twitter feed is quite as active as Rob’s, which is somewhat by design.  Though I check it more now than I did several months ago, I felt that following too many people would be counterproductive.  When checking on an irregular basis, tweets from people I was really interested in would get lost in the sea of tweets from people I was only moderately interested in.  So, I chose who to follow with precise deliberation.  Among the shoo-ins were sources like Neyer, Posnanski, Fangraphs, Redleg Nation, etc.

*I don’t know if it was like this for other people before it was like this for me, but I do think the way Twitter is used now is a phenomenon that has developed in around the past two years, -ish.

Quickly, though, I realized that my horizons could be broadened by carefully selecting accounts slightly outside my comfort zone.  One of the first of these was Royals Authority, an intelligent baseball source with the right amount of snark and humor.  My roommate at the time was a Royals fan, and we all know that some of my favorite baseball people have connections to Kansas City, so it seemed to fit.  Another, was Bill Baer from Crashburn Alley, a Philly fan whose name I’d heard multiple times as I dug deeper into the world of internet baseball literature.

That was a really roundabout way of telling you that Bill posted something interesting yesterday, which prompted this interesting response four hours later, that Bill then retweeted…

Crashburn Alley Tweet

I couldn’t help but agree wholeheartedly with Miles Musselman.  And one of the reasons it is such a great name, in my opinion, is because it clearly is in reference to something somewhat obscure, and not in that, I know something you don’t and I’m going to rub it in your face kind of way, but in a, I bet that’s a really cool baseball story and I want to be a part of it, way.

So of course I went to Bill’s original tweet and clicked on his link, which took me to this, a reaction to the transaction from earlier this week that sent 26-year-old lefty reliever Jeremy Horst to the Phillies in exchange for utility infielder Wilson Valdez.  All those descriptors in front of those two names might indicate that this was a relatively minor move, and in most respects it is.  But when it comes to internet baseball literature, nothing is minor.

If you’ve made it this far, you clearly have all the time in the world to read any such thing you stumble upon in the internets, so I’ll go ahead and let you read the post yourself, which is quite interesting and goes into detail about the Reds’ newest acquisition (and this particular Philly fan’s opinion of him).  It doesn’t get me all that excited about the move, to be honest.  However, we are finally to the point where the title of this post actually makes sense.

This week saw the Reds take several steps toward filling out the 2012 roster.  One was getting a couple utility guys in Valdez and Willie Harris.  Personally, I understand the need for depth, though I’m not crazy about either.  I do admit that I haven’t taken the time to look into either guy.

The Reds also settled matters with a couple arbitration eligible players, Nick Masset and Jose Arredondo.  This gave me a great idea: let’s go back and take a look at the pie to see if my salary guesstimates were anywhere close on the arb guys.

Player – Aaron’s 2012 Salary Guess – Actual 2012 Salary
Homer Bailey – 3.5 – 2.425
Nick Masset – 1.5 – 2.5 (part of a 2 year deal)
Bill Bray – 1.5 – 1.4175
Paul Janish – 0.5 – 0.85
Jose Arredondo – 1.0 – 1.0

I’m going to go ahead and say it – I did ok.  In the Payroll Pie article I admitted that I tried to stay conservative, which played out with Bailey.  He’s been inconsistent as a Red, and it showed in his first year of arbitration eligibility.

For Masset, I think (1) I put less value on relievers than the average baseball team, and (2) I probably got a little caught up in some of the anti-Masset clamoring that goes on in the comments of Redleg Nation, when in reality, if you look at Masset’s overall performance and his peripherals, he really is quite valuable, and I’d love to see him flourish in his newly defined, 7th-inning role this year.

Bray and Arredondo were nailed.  ‘Nuff said.

Janish I think I may have forgotten about.  There was talk that he wouldn’t even be tendered a contract, so I probably just filed him away and forgot to re-address (which isn’t to say I’m not happy he’s on the team).

All in all I think the roster is shaping up nicely.  These moves aren’t going to excite the fans, but they are the minutia that must get done each year, you know, for veteran leadership and whatnot.

Larkin Represents ’90 Champs

A couple days late but Tyler Kepner had an outstanding piece in the Times on Tuesday, discussing the 1990 Reds and their first Hall of Fame inductee.  Apparently every World Series Champ before the wild card era had a player enshrined except the Reds, until Monday.

I know this is about Larkin, but I just love this quote from Eric Davis on his table-setting blast:

“I had faced [Stewart] in the All-Star Game,” Davis said. “He threw me a first-pitch fastball and I took it, and then he threw four splitters in the dirt and walked me. So if he was going to start me off with a fastball, I was not going to take it. And everything else is history.”

The whole thing is good.

 

Reds Payroll Pie Version 3.0

Bob spent some money last night…

2012 Reds Payroll Pie 1-11-12

Of course, a few changes since last time:

  • Wood’s league-minimum salary is out.
  • Marshall’s $3.1 million makes a small dent; Madson becomes the 4th highest paid Red in 2012, nudging ahead of Scott Rolen.
  • Last time there was some fudging around bench players and relievers.  I don’t pretend to know who will round out the Opening Day roster, but I did limit it to 25 players this time, allowing for two more relievers and three bench players not listed by name.
  • Surplus is gone, folks.  Can’t say I’m aware of any master plan at this point.  Sounds like they still want a cheap veteran OFer.

The Reds clock in at around $86 million as of now, already a 6%-ish increase from last year.  Obviously a few million dollars in payroll doesn’t really affect fans directly, but if management is expecting more seats to be filled this year, I hope we can come through.  If I was in Cincinnati I’d be looking into some sort of season ticket package as we speak.

UPDATE: So as details around the Madson signing continue to leak out, Mark Sheldon reports that the 2012 figure is only $6 million(!!!), with a mutual option for 2013 of $11 million, and a $2.5 million buyout.  That’s $8.5 guaranteed, which is the number I cited above.  Not completely accurate, but you get the idea.

Chris Heisey’s Player Projection

In my last post I alluded to Chris Heisey’s impressive production in about half a season’s worth of plate appearances.  Thanks to a couple multi-homerun games, Heisey had 18 dingers, this after belting 8 round trippers in 226 PAs as a rookie.

Well, Fangraphs just released a set of player projections from RotoChamp.  I don’t really know anything about RotoChamp, except that they are one of the many sources for player projections, and apparently they’re good enough to meet Fangraphs’ standards.  Anyhow, the first rule when it comes to player projections is that there are always anomalies.  Usually, they come from younger players with limited sample sizes who turned in some sort of unsustainable trend.

Enter Chris Heisey.  Just out of curiosity I sorted by homeruns, descending, and sure enough, there’s Chris Heisey smashing 30 homeruns in under 500 plate appearances.  This ties him for 15th in all of Major League Baseball, matching some of baseball’s most promising young stars like Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Justin Upton.

Here’s to hoping.

Walt’s Gone Mad(son)

It has been quite the whirlwind off-season for this team.  Let’s recap…

Gone: Wood, Volquez, Alonso, Grandal, Sappelt, Boxberger
Here: Mat Latos, Sean Marshall, Ryan Madson

That last one definitely came out of left field (literally).  We’ve been hearing rumors that Walt was talking with Francisco Cordero for somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 or 8 million.  I think most people, including myself, were not in favor of that arrangement, mostly due to Coco’s loss of effectiveness (last year was a mirage), the perceived bigger need for another bat, and the notion that big money should not be spent on a guy just because he’s been labeled a “closer”.

Ryan Madson is much better than Francisco Cordero, and despite the fact that those last two points still apply, I’m excited about the addition.

The thing that makes this signing better than signing any ol’ closer for too much money is that Madson, and Marshall for that matter, are legitimately very good (relief) pitchers.  They strike guys out, and they don’t give up too many walks or homeruns.  That is a sure fire recipe for success (and I’m sorry, but it bothers me a little when people say that these guys are built for GABP… that’s like saying a hitter is good for GABP because he hits the ball 500 feet and steals a lot of bases… that just makes you a good player, in any ballpark).

I know the research tells me otherwise, but like most fans, I like the comfort of knowing we have two legitimate weapons waiting at the end of each game.  The one excuse for Coco’s recently completed, four-year contract that actually spoke to me a little bit is that the Reds’ bullpen was a disaster before he arrived.  Yes it was a horrific overpay, and for too many years, and nothing changes that.  But the (very faint) silver lining was that it was one less thing to worry about, and (watch out I’m about to put stock in an intangible) whether or not it actually affects results, not having faith in your bullpen is a terrible thing, and I can’t imagine players enjoy putting up with it.

Now, some stats: Sean Marshall has the most WAR of any reliever in baseball over the last two years.  Ryan Madson has the 9th lowest FIP among relievers who’ve averaged more than 40 IP over the last two yeras.  These guys are good.

If there’s something that bothers me just a little, it’s that the Reds just committed 13.1 million dollars to two relief pitchers.  Early in the off-season I was of the mindset that the Reds shouldn’t dedicate any more money to their bullpen, asserting that assembling a cheap but effective bullpen is easier than finding cheap and effective players anywhere else, and that middling extra starters (which the Reds had) can often be converted into very effective relief pitchers.  Funnily enough, both acquisitions are converted starters.

Instead of spending the money on the bullpen, the Reds could have made a different sort of splash by signing Carlos Beltran (he got $13 million a year from St. Louis).  People are worried about his age/health, and they are right to worry.  One could also worry about investing in relief pitchers, who not only play a limited role on the team but also have a tendency to be finicky.  Relievers come and go, often having two or three very good, even dominant years before quickly losing effectiveness.

Honestly though, as I’m writing through it all, I might prefer Madson/Marshall to Beltran.  The relief combo will be plugged into a bullpen that collectively earned 1 win above replacement last year.  ONE.  The Reds’ closer had 0.1.  Several others were negative.  It shouldn’t be hard for the Reds to replace those replacement level players and reap the maximum benefit from these two signings.

On the other hand, Chris Heisey is currently penciled into left field.  In around 300 PA last year he accumulated 1.6 WAR.  Heisey could have a better year than Beltran, we don’t know.  He hasn’t experienced the workload of a full time starter yet in his career, so there is definitely some uncertainty.  However, left field isn’t the black hole that some would have you believe.

In case it hasn’t been said enough, the Reds are all in for 2012.  This was a bold move, and a lot of money to spend on a guy who will probably pitch exclusively in the 9th inning.  But man do I love the attitude the Reds are taking this off-season.  They want to win, and they are addressing needs, and they are spending money to do it.  More money than I ever thought they’d spend for this year.  I haven’t been this excited about a Reds team in a very long time.

Barry Larkin

Barry Larkin was voted into the Hall of Fame yesterday.  Seven years ago I wasn’t sure this day would come.  I remember scouring ESPN.com when Larkin retired, trying to figure out if the experts agreed with the entire city of Cincinnati on their shortstop’s Hall of Fame credentials.  I likely turned to Rob Neyer first, though if I remember correctly his take wasn’t much different than most: Larkin deserved to get in, and it wasn’t all that close.  Whether the writers would vote him in is a different story.  As has been chronicled more times than I can count over the last several days/months/years, for some reason Larkin didn’t stand out.  Most commonly, it’s blamed on the fact that he was good at everything, and not transcendently great at any one thing.  My personal bias is that Ozzie Smith’s legend, which I maintain helped him win a couple extra Gold Gloves in his twilight years that probably should have gone to Barry, kept the Reds shortstop under the radar.  Whatever the reason, whenever Larkin’s Hall of Fame case came up, I started sweating.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Cooperstown.  More accurately, millions of tiny little things having been happening and continue to happen, which are slowing beginning to shape the way many people look at baseball.  The internet continues to find new ways to gather and deliver information.  Very smart people who would otherwise have no outlet, now have a voice.  And I think these smart people started talking about Barry Larkin’s Hall of Fame credentials, and then other smart people started noticing.  And soon, even the not smart ones started to think: “Hey, this Larkin guy was pretty good.”  Or maybe they thought: “Wow, everyone seems to like him.  Seems like a good enough reason for a ‘yes’ vote.”  We can’t really be sure.

Point is, in the weeks leading up to the vote, I was much less worried about the results than I had been in the past.  It seemed that support had swelled, and before it actually happened, everyone knew that Larkin would be inducted in 2012 before a wave of great players entered the pool in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

So when it happened, I was happy.  But I was also really busy at work, and when I finally found the time to look out on the interwebs and see what I could see, I got kinda bored.  All these people talking about Larkin as if I didn’t know who he was and what he had done.  Jim Bowden and his lame home video, telling generic stories and recalling his connection to our team when it was convenient for him to do so.  These things did not interest me.

***

Barry won his MVP when I was 12 years old.  Not long after that season I remember going with my parents to the Bigg’s in Eastgate to get a limited edition poster, a full-body illustration of Larkin following through on a toss to a teammate.  I came home and put it up on the ceiling above my bed, not because I wanted to look up at our star every night before falling asleep, but because all my other wall space was filled.  Honestly, though, had it been any other poster I don’t think I would have given it such a front-and-center location.  I ended up staring that that thing an awful lot.  It had his 1995 MVP-winning stats listed along the bottom, which still stand out to me today.  13 homeruns.  66 RBI.  A few years later, when players were routinely hitting 60 and 70 homeruns, it seemed both remarkable and perplexing that Larkin was able to win.  I always though it was funny, too, that the next year he became baseball’s first ever 30/30 shortstop, posted a career best OPS+ of 154 with a .298/.410/.567 slash line, won the Gold Glove, and finished 12th in MVP voting.

***

For some reason I never had a baseball jersey growing up.  I had several football ones, but they were mostly afterthoughts (including a Marino jersey that was probably on sale at All About Sports).  In all honesty, basketball was my favorite sport growing up, and my jersey collection was evidence of that.  Aside from the three Nick Van Exel Laker jerseys, my favorite was probably a Grant Hill from Detroit’s short lived teal era.

I do have one baseball jersey now.  Several years ago when I had a birthday coming up, it had become clear to me that I had no Reds jerseys, and that was weird.  I thought of the players on the team, and though my fandom was as intense as ever, no one really jumped out at me as the guy I wanted to wear around GABP.  No, I wanted a jersey that was inspired by greatness, that represented this team’s proud history.  And now, I know exactly what I’ll be wearing in Cooperstown on July 22nd.