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March 11, 2003

Prospectus Q&A

Brad Kullman, Part One

by Jonah Keri

Brad Kullman enters his 14th season in baseball and his first as Assistant General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds after an off-season promotion. While the Reds stand to dramatically boost their revenue stream with the opening of Great American Ballpark, Kullman hopes to boost his stock as a future GM candidate working alongside General Manager Jim Bowden. Kullman recently chatted with BP about his love for the four-man rotation, the Reds' proprietary defensive rating system, and the challenges of outsmarting the competition.

Baseball Prospectus: The Reds had a lot of injury problems last year. What can you do to cut down on injuries? For a guy like Ken Griffey for instance, would switching positions help keep him healthy and on the field?

Brad Kullman: Even playing first base, injuries are an issue. One thing about playing in center field is you're free to roam--you don't have to go into the corners. Think about how (Griffey) hurt himself both times. Once it was rounding third and trying to stop suddenly. The other time it was putting it into second gear between first and second base.

BP: Isn't there a concern though that continuing to play him in center will make him wear down and make him more susceptible to injury?

BK: We don't even know if it's a matter of wearing down--he hurt himself in spring training. We've discussed him making a position change, and he's aware of the possible need to consider that. You have to keep in mind, this is someone who as far back as he can remember, has been the best at hitting, running, and throwing, without having to practice or condition hard. Now he's in his early 30s, and for the first time he's having to make adjustments in training and preparation. He's worked hard this winter, and we're hopeful he can make the necessary adjustments in his training program.

BP: But you have a contingency plan in case Griffey gets hurt again, right? Have you considered moving Austin Kearns to center field?

BK: I think Kearns is a Gold Glove right fielder. He has a great arm, and overall he's shown he can be a real asset defensively there, and we don't want to move him. The guy I think could be really good in center is Adam Dunn. We had some people in our organization who felt Lance Berkman would never be more than a DH, but he's able been able to hold his own in center. When you look at Dunn, sure, he's a big guy. But this is a guy who ran a 6.5 60. He's a great athlete. I don't know that he's worked a whole lot on his defense yet, so he's at a point where he can grow into a position at this stage of his career. If someone asked me if Dunn could be a center fielder for the next 10 years, if he started working on it, no one could explain to me why he couldn't do it.

Now with Junior there, it doesn't make sense. But when Junior went down last year, we had discussions about who to put in center, and Dunn's name came up. It would allow us to put Branyan and Larson in left too. It's a discussion we've had internally: People have said we need defense up the middle, but really we need the full package out there. If a player provides less defense, but is awesome offensively, it comes to a point where the offense outweighs lack of defense.

BP: Speaking of Griffey, obviously the Reds will owe a lot of money paying off his contract, though at the time he signed, you probably felt good about it. You've also got Barry Larkin and Sean Casey signed to big contracts. Wasn't there a sense that the team was paying too much for these guys?

BK: All I can tell you in regard to Barry is we had him traded to the Mets in a four for one deal, with Alex Escobar as the center of the deal. Barry was 10 and 5, and he rejected the trade. Then he signed a three-year, $27 million contract. It was clear in Jim Bowden's mind and others' that as great as Barry had been, we couldn't afford this contract. But other factors came into play, and we are where we are.

I was going through old Baseball Americas the other night, looking at the 1998 Indians' top prospects, and you see them talking about what a great hitter Sean Casey was. I remember seeing him in Kinston and really liking him. He came up with Cleveland, became a great hitter, seemed to develop power, and we started talking long-term contract with him. We got input from the labor relations committee to determine fair value. When we signed him, we looked at the numbers, and he hadn't had a great season, so we signed him at a contract far below what we were talking about the year before. People in the industry were ecstatic about the contract we signed with Sean. Obviously today we evaluate his situation, and there are legitimate questions we need to deal with. Last year he had right shoulder surgery, which prevented him from extending, and he hurt it in spring training. We tried resting him, then bringing him back, giving him cortisone shots--nothing really worked. The other thing to keep in mind is when dealing with the player's association, when a player's hurt, you want him going on the DL. But if the player says no, then you have issues with the union.

BP: If it came to this, and a player wasn't performing, and he was signed to a big contract, would the Reds be willing to consider that player a sunk cost and cut bait?

BK: We'll do it if we have to--we did it with Greg Vaughn in 1999. We'd have no problem making a decision if it had to be made. We all feel pressure to produce a winning ballclub.

BP: Your front office consists of several young, aggressive people, while on the field you've got an older hand in Bob Boone. How much communication do you have with him? How old school is he? Does it become difficult to communicate with him?

BK: When I floated the idea for a four-man rotation, both Boone and Don Gullett were and are very supportive of it. Think about it: Is a four-man a new-school, or an old-school idea? When they were playing, most teams had the four-man. And if you remember, Boone tried it in the early 90s. At first, Herk Robinson supported him privately, but Appier got hurt and Herk didn't support him after that. It's the same with the discussion of batting Dunn leadoff. There's a lot of pressure to have him in the middle of the lineup. The public reaction is to unfairly call the manager a moron. They say, 'why put a big guy like Dunn leadoff, when you can put Aaron Boone there with all the steals he had last year?' Great, and then you lose 100 points of OBP. For Bob to be willing to try something new, bat Dunn leadoff, or go to a four-man, he'd face a tremendous amount of scrutiny. It would take tremendous organizational fortitude.

BP: How did you first broach the idea of a four-man rotation to members of the organization? Were you worried people would be put off because it's so unheard of in today's game?

BK: Boone and Gullett both believed in it from the start. Don pitched in that environment, and Boone played in those days. We talked about how nothing has to be iron-clad. What you do when the team has an off day can be flexible, giving specific guys a day off here and there for various reasons, skipping a guy one turn, giving a spot starter or swingman a turn.

I think teams need to really rethink the way they use pitchers in general. You might see a pitching prospect throw three innings. In the first two he gets bombed, but he stays in for the third to get to 100 pitches. And when you wonder why he stayed in, people say they sent him back out there to get his work in. I like what Don said about that: 'That's not development, it's torture.' Same thing if you're leaving a pitching prospect in to get that last out in the 7th, or 8th, or 9th. How much more does he really develop if he has to struggle for that last out? It's more important for him to come out fresh next time, and to do everything possible to keep him healthy.

BP: Practically speaking, how would the Reds handle the workload for a four-man, given the team doesn't exactly have much in the way of star pitchers to begin with? What about phasing in a guy like Danny Graves, who's going to be limited anyway since he's converting from being a reliever?

BK: The big thing we try to do is constantly evaluate each pitcher on the staff. For instance we've asked relievers: 'Can you throw one pitch every day of the entire season?' They say yes. Then we ask them: 'Could you rest for 10 days, then throw 200 pitches?' And they said no. Then we get more specific. We're constantly evaluating how each pitcher on the staff is evaluating his own workload.

People talk about making adjustments on the side. But when we talk to pitchers, it becomes obvious that everything they do adds to fatigue. Then from a development standpoint, you can throw all the side sessions in the world, but what is it that people always say: 'It's different when you get in the game.' So where do you really need to make adjustments? It's not in the bullpen, it's in the game. If a pitcher in the minors gets more starts, he's starting fresh each time and developing. On pitch one, the days of rest you've had makes little difference. On pitch 20, 30, 50, yeah maybe you start to hit a wall quicker on shorter rest. And we'll manage that.

With Graves, whatever we decide to do, our basic goals will be the same. When he's on, he can get through an inning in five pitches. Most nights we feel he can give us six innings and 80 pitches, or if he's on a roll seven innings and 90 pitches.

BP: Do you think a four-man would help a team like the Braves when they had Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz-Neagle more, or a team like the Reds more?

BK: It'll help everyone because it takes out every team's weakest link. Our number one may be a lesser guy than their number one, and our number five may be less than their number five, but both teams' number fives are less than their number fours, which is the important factor here. The goal has always been to maximize at-bats for your best hitters--the more times at bat you get them, the more runs you're likely to score. This is just a way to get the most innings out of your best pitchers.

BP: Do you have some kind of injury prevention or medical plan in place if you end up going with the four-man some time soon?

BK: Tim Kremchek, our medical director, tests pitchers' shoulders and elbows to guard against future injuries. We've had situations where we've shut pitchers down and put them on arm strengthening programs before they have a chance to get hurt. One of the things (Kremchek's) trying to help us study now is if there's an optimal rotation and amount of rest for a pitcher's arm. It could be the four-man, or five-man, or maybe even the six-man or the three-man. We were at four and that was accepted as the norm for years. Then we go to five, and now everyone says five is right. I just want to know why--which rotation is optimal, and what makes it so.

Want to see more of Brad Kullman's thoughts on team-building, plus the Reds' use of run expectancy charts to track defense? Click here to subscribe to BP Premium.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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