2017 Reds: Why they’ll be worse before they get better

Bob Purkey

Bob Purkey came up with his hometown Pirates, but he welcomed a 1957 trade to the Reds. “As much as I like to play in my hometown, I also like to have some runs scored for me,” Purkey told The Sporting News, according to his bio at sabr.org. Purkey wasn’t wrong, even if the Pirates soon improved, too, though not by trading Purkey. He had learned, according to sabr.org, to throw the knuckleball from Pirates GM Branch Rickey, though it was Rickey’s successor, Joe Brown, who dealt him. Purkey had won 16 games in parts of four seasons with the Pirates as a starter/reliever, but used primarily as a starter, he won 17 games for the Reds in 1958 and again in 1960, as the Pirates won the World Series. The Reds won the NL pennant in 1961, and Purkey did his part, winning 16 games as the No. 3 starter behind Jim O’Toole and Joey Jay. In Game 3 of the World Series, Purkey pitched a complete-game six hitter, but lost 3-2 on a game-tying homer by Johnny Blanchard in the eighth and a game-winner by Roger Maris leading off the ninth. The next year (1962) was Purkey’s best — he won 23 games, led the NL in winning percentage (23-5, .821), had a 2.81 ERA, pitched 288.1 innings and had 18 complete games. Purkey tied for third in the Cy Young vote — there was one award for both leagues in 1962 — receiving only a single vote, though his 7.3 WAR was 2.0 greater than winner Don Drysdale (25-9, 2.83, 314.1 innings, 121 ERA+ to Purkey’s 143, which  had a lot to do with their home parks; Purkey’s Crosley Field was a good one for hitters and Drysdale’s Dodger Stadium a great one for pitchers). Purkey was eighth in the NL MVP vote, the second time he placed (19th in 1958). It was the last of five 200-inning seasons for Purkey, and it might have taken a toll. According to sabr.org, Purkey’s arm was sore in 1963 and he was limited to 137 innings. He pitched 195.2 in 1964 and was 11-9 with a 3.04 ERA as the Reds lost the pennant by a game, but Purkey won just 10 more games in his career, all for the Cardinals in 1965. He returned to the Pirates for 10 games in 1966 and was released. Purkey died at age 78 in 2008. Career numbers: 129-115, 3.79 ERA, 92 complete games, 13 shutouts, eight saves, 2,114.2 innings, 2,180 hits, 793 strikeouts, 510 walks, 103 ERA+, .706 OPS against, 3.80 FIP, 195 home runs allowed, six home runs hit as a batter, three times an All-Star, two times receiving MVP votes (1958 and 1962), 24.9 WAR.

Up next: The Reds have already won with pitcher Amir Garrett, who chose baseball as a 22nd-round draft pick over college basketball, which he played at St. John’s. Then again, almost everybody beats St. John’s these days. The Red Storm have been to the NCAA tournament only once since the Reds drafted Garrett, who averaged 6.2 points per game over two seasons for them from 2011-13. It’s hard to say Garrett didn’t pick the right sport — he has a career minor-league 3.18 ERA and there will certainly be opportunities with the Reds, who are the St. John’s of the NL Central, only worse. But Garrett’s aim on the mound isn’t much better than it was on the court, where he shot 44% in two seasons. He’s walked 204 batters in 496 minor-league innings, and he’ll have to lower that if he doesn’t want his major-league ERA to begin with the same number as his college scoring average.

What he said: “So if I’ve got this massive contract in my backpack and I’m carrying it around and not performing as well as everyone wants or expects, that’s really going to bother me. That’s going to sit with me.” Reds first baseman Joey Votto on the burden of expectations that come with his big contract.  What he meant: “The contract is light as a feather compared to trying to carry this team.”

Outlook: The sprinklers inadvertently went on last weekend during a Reds spring training game, which was only fitting.

The Reds have been offering a watered-down product for going on four years now.

You can build a pretty good team with the players the Reds have discarded in that span, and others have. The Royals used Johnny Cueto to help win the 2015 World Series and the Cubs used Aroldis Chapman to help win the next one.

Shin Soo-Choo has helped the Rangers to the playoffs the last two years, and Mike Leake helped first the Giants and the Cardinals get near the playoffs. Jay Bruce may not have helped the Mets to the playoffs, but he went anyway. Todd Frazier didn’t get much of a whiff, but it wasn’t his fault — he hit 40 homers last year. He just went from one unstable franchise to another.

In return, the Reds have improved their farm system, and should offer an improved major-league team about the time Votto’s contract expires in 2024.

Teams who sign their best players, like the Reds did Votto, to long-term contracts and then rebuild, are a lot like college coaches who make promises to recruits and then take another job. You can’t trust them.

The Reds have had three straight losing seasons since Dusty Baker left after making the playoffs three times in four years. Who knew the Baker years would come to be the good old days?

The Reds will be better before 2024, but not much if at all this year, and they’re hanging on to a chance to lose fewer than 90 games by the ligament in Anthony DeSclafini’s elbow, which, coincidentally, was reported to be pretty sore on Monday.

DeSclafini came in a trade with the Marlins for Mat Latos, one of the few that has been a clear Reds win (Leake for Adam Duvall is another). Latos is on his fifth team in the last three seasons since the trade, as DeSclafini grew into the pitcher the Marlins thought they were trading for, compiling a 3.28 ERA in 20 starts last year.

Undeterred, the Marlins made the same kind of trade with the Reds this offseason, piling prospects together for Dan Straily, whose 14 2016 wins were a career-high and 3.76 ERA a career-low, in spite of a NL-high 31 homers allowed.

Straily brought three prospects in return, including reliever Austin Brice, who pitched 14 innings in the majors last year and has to be one of the few, if only, big-leaguers born in Hong Kong.

All of the Reds’ prospect acquisitions are a little like buying the furniture before the house. Nobody’s sure how it’s going to come together, but there are lots of nice parts.

The 2017 Reds’ offense has Votto, Duvall (33 homers, 164 strikeouts and lots of similarities to Jay Bruce’s game but not his contract), the poor man’s Vince Coleman in Billy Hamilton, Jose Peraza replacing Brandon Phillips, who won’t be missed as much as he apparently thinks, at second, and the hope that Devin Mesoraco can stay healthy for more than the 95 at-bats he’s had the last two years.  They should score just enough runs to be mediocre.

(Phillips said, according to mlb.com, that he thinks he “can be one of the best players in this game.” Maybe he was referring to backgammon, but baseball seems out of the question, unless we’re expanding the definition of “best players” as much as Jack Morris’ admission would have done so for the Hall of Fame.)

It’s the pitching that will condemn the Reds to awfulness this year. The Reds were tied for 13th in ERA in the NL in ERA at 4.91 with the Rockies, who were seventh when they got out out of Coors Field.

DeSclafini, who has made 51 starts in two seasons, is the longest-tenured member of the rotation, which shows how quick and complete the makeover has been. He and lefty Brandon Finnegan (3.98 ERA last year in 31 starts), who came for Cueto, have potential and aren’t the problem.

But after that it’s veteran Scott Feldman, who’s moving to his sixth team in the last six years for a reason (4.39 ERA), Tim Adleman, who didn’t make the majors until he was 29 for a reason, and one-time highly regarded prospect Robert Stephenson, who’s all in favor of an expanded strike zone since he pitches as if it already exists, having walked 273 in 586.2 minor-league innings.

Most teams have trouble handling one uncertain rotation spot. On the Reds they’re a majority.

To make things worse, the bullpen just might be. It retains Blake Wood (.752 OPS) and Jumbo Diaz (.713), makes room for failed starter Cody Reed (7.36 ERA) and adds Drew Storen, who’s been known to blow a playoff series or two.

On these Reds, that won’t be a problem.

Team song: New Riders of the Purple Sage: Panama Red

This entry was posted in baseball and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s