2014 Cincinnati Reds: One step down at a time

John Tsitouris

Reds pitcher John Tsitouris figured prominently in the final days of the 1964 pennant race. It was Tsitouris who shut out the Phillies 1-0 on the night Chico Ruiz stole home. Tsitouris fanned eight and threw a complete-game six-hitter for the first of the Phillies’ 10 straight losses. But it was Tsitouris who started the last game of the ’64 season and couldn’t get out of the third inning, giving up three runs, as the Phillies won 10-0 to knock the Reds from first place and deliver the pennant, once theirs, to the Cardinals. Tsitouris finished ’64 9-13 with a 3.80 ERA; his best season was ’63 when he was 12-8 with a 3.16 ERA and three shutouts. He spent his early years with the Tigers and Kansas City Athletics before being traded, with Johnny Briggs the pitcher not the outfielder, for Reds icon Joe Nuxhall, who started with the Reds at age 15 during World War II, then returned for almost a decade in 1952. It was the trade for Tsitouris that kept Nuxhall from playing for the Reds’ only pennant winner in his playing career. Tsitouris missed out on the ’61 pennant too, spending the year in the minors. Tsitouris fell out of the rotation in ’65 when he went 6-9 with a 4.95 ERA, then made just six more starts in the majors over the next three years before playing his last big-league game at age 31. His final numbers: 34-38, 4.13 ERA, five shutouts, three saves, 663 innings, 653 hits, 432 strikeouts, .728 OPS against, 2.2 WAR, including 3.1 in ’63.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Oakland owner Charlie Finley once wanted a designated runner to go with the designated hitter, and offered Herb Washington, who wasn’t good at either. Washington might be the only player ever to have never played in the minors, never batted and never fielded. Alas, he wasn’t very good at stealing bases, the one thing he did do. He tied for seventh in the AL in 1974 with 29, but tied for fourth in caught stealings (16), was caught twice more in the ALCS and then picked off with one out in the ninth inning of a one-run Game 2 of the World Series, the only one the A’s lost. At least, Kolten Wong has a chance at redemption. Washington went 2-for-3 in 1975 before the A’s decided to use the roster spot on a baseball player and not a baton holder. Which brings us to Billy Hamilton. It’s easy to pan Hamilton, given his 2013 offensive performance — a .256 average and .308 on-base percentage — and his inability to play shortstop (39 errors in 2011, 25 in 77 games in 2012). But Hamilton steals bases at better than an 80% rate, his defense in center field might even have made Adam Dunn look good, and his career minor-league on-base percentage is .350, including .410 in 2012, when he stole 155 bases. That does a lot to make up for a lack of power. There’s an element of absurdity to the Hamilton experiment, but unlike Washington, there’s a good-faith attempt. You can’t coach speed, and Vince Coleman, who once stole 145 bases in the minors, played 13 years because of it (1,425 hits, 752 steals). There’s precedent.

Trivia: Ten Reds have been NL MVP, including two times of three years in a row, and two players twice. Name them. Answer below.

What he said: Reds manager Bryan Price on rookie speedster Billy Hamilton: “I saw what Ichiro (Suzuki) did for the 2001 Seattle Mariners. We’re not comparing the two. But the speed element … he wreaked havoc.” What he meant: “One can dream.”

Outlook: Ex-Reds manager Dusty Baker didn’t so much dismantle the Reds’ winning team as he squandered its opportunities. The Reds won the division twice in the last four years and made the playoffs three times, but went 2-7 in the playoffs and advanced no further than a deciding game. Which they lost.

Even worse, the 2014 Reds aren’t much better than the 2010 Reds, while their prime rivals in the NL Central, the Cardinals and Pirates, are markedly better. The Reds were third in runs scored and fourth in ERA last year, but it’s hard to see how they can maintain either.

The former lost Shin Soo-Choo, who walked 112 times, was hit by 26 pitches, slugged .462 and scored a career-high 107 runs. It’s going to take a lot of Hamilton’s defense and steals to replace that. Choo did that in his only season with the Reds, who traded Didi Gregorious and Drew Stubbs for a season of Choo and the 29th pick of the 2014 draft, the compensation for him leaving as a free agent. No matter how flawed Gregorious and Stubbs, the Reds need to make the pick a good one.

Ths Reds have Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, and a lot of hitters with little or declining secondary value. Or both. Third baseman Todd Frazier dropped 108 points of OPS and he fanned 125 times in 2013; shortstop Zack Cozart has a career .680 OPS and has averaged 107.5 Ks per season; catcher Devin Mesoraco inherits the job by default after producing a .641 OPS in 538 big-league at-bats.

And even Brandon Phillips, in the second year of a long contract extension, was in decline in 2013, despite a career-high 103 RBIs. Phillips also had career-lows in steals (five), on-base percentage (.310), slugging (.396) and OPS (.706); his contract is moving in the other direction until it hits a career-high of $14 million in 2017. Phillips is the Reds’ version of Jimmy Rollins: a vocal, expensive, declining middle infielder who makes too many outs and doesn’t help the team as much as he once did or still thinks he does.

The Reds’ strength would be its pitching, if it wasn’t so bandaged. Johnny Cueto (shoulder), Homer Bailey (groin) and Mat Latos (knee) have all been hurt this spring, and ace reliever Aroldis Chapman took a horrifying line drive off his head. Latos and Chapman will begin the season on the DL, but it seems a sure bet that others will follow.

The rotation is Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani, Alfredo Simon and whoever is well enough. It’s about now that the Reds should finally appreciate Bronson Arroyo’s eight-season tenure, with seven of them at 200-innings plus. The eighth he was at 199.

The Reds won’t have Dusty Baker to blame if things go wrong this year, which it’s likely they will. Reds fans might find it hard to believe Baker’s Reds finished two games better than baseball-reference.com’s Pythagorean formula said they would, and is +10 for his managing career (-7 with the Cubs, +15 with the Giants).

It sure didn’t seem like it in the postseason. And last year’s wild-card loss may be a harbinger of what’s to come.

The 10 Reds to be MVP: Joey Votto (2010), Pete Rose (1973), Johnny Bench (1970 and 1972), Frank Robinson (1961), Barry Larkin (1995), Joe Morgan (1975-76), George Foster (1977), Ernie Lombardi (1938), Bucky Walters (1939) and Frank McCormick (1940).

Team song: Roy Ayers: Cincinnati Growl

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