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May 28, 2008

Transaction of the Day

Jay Bruce

by Christina Kahrl

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CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Designated 1B-L Scott Hatteberg for assignment; purchased the contract of CF-L Jay Bruce from Louisville (Triple-A). [5/26]
Optioned CF-L Corey Patterson to Louisville; purchased the contract of 1B-R Andy Phillips from Louisville; transferred SS-R Alex Gonzalez from the 15- to the 60-day DL. [5/27]

What's two teensy-weensy months in the grand scheme of things? Sure, it makes all the difference in terms of service time and future arbitration eligibility and free agency, but that's for those pesky bean-counters to blow gaskets over. I suppose it also means something to those of you in fantasy sports leagues who aren't feeling FAAB-ulous. And no doubt it matters to people who live and die with the Reds, but there again, dial back your perspective to "eons," and you've got the Big Red Machine, Jose Rijo's revenge (also known as Billy Hatcher's day in the sun), 1940 if anyone remembers it, and that "also appearing" spot as the team handed the 1919 World Series by the Black Sox. At that gross level of perspective, the Reds have been successful, and dickering over how much and when is sort of like getting wrapped up in a debate over whether T. Rex was a predator or a scavenger-either way, it was big, scary, and unpleasant to its victims, quite like the Reds in their heyday.

However, we all invariably tend to think about the present, and new owner or no, new manager or no, new general manager or no, the Reds haven't had a great answer to any season-ticket buyer who asks, "what have you done for me lately?" Happily, that's beginning to change; Marge Schott went the way of the dinosaurs (post-fossilization) and the only height Carl Lindner may ever look down on his former possession is spying it from his eyrie across one of Cincinnati's few urban canyons, but it does seem as if Bob Castellini's outfit is a little more invested in achieving success instead of remembering it happened somewhere nearby. That's not to single him out, any more than any turnaround in Cincinnati will belong to any one man; as Tacitus observed, long before playboys like JFK or Galeazzo Ciano swiped it, success is claimed by all, disaster by none. Just as the Reds' failures over the last 18 years have many fathers, so too will any future successes.

What that means in the immediate present is that even despite the worst-case scare-mongering of Dusty Baker as some gypsy monster who eats the young and protects the ancient (of which I'm guilty as charged), matters took a turn for the better when Joey Votto got the job at first base, something which he was eminently qualified for, at the expense of Hatteberg, who really isn't, not any more, not after reflecting on his failure to slug better than .370 outside of the Gap since 2004. Edinson Volquez earned a slot in the rotation, while it took just three starts for the Reds to reconsider Josh Fogg in a rotation. Eventually, Homer Bailey should present a solution, but after a couple of long outings his control has gone spotty again, but the key word in the sentence is "eventually"; another couple of months, and perhaps Sam Lecure will have done well enough or Daryl Thompson will have stayed healthy enough long enough to enter into the picture.

No, the real eyesore on the roster was the elective decision to add Corey Patterson late this spring, providing Bruce with a measure of insurance and Baker with a security blanket that, sure enough, turned into a sodden mess pretty quickly. So, the Reds have finally brought up Bruce, because after hitting .364/.393/.630 in Louisville, it was pretty clear he had nothing left to learn at the level. Bruce doesn't appear to have a hangup in terms of needing to be platooned, and while just eight unintentional walks in 201 PA is a pretty bad example of patient hitting, if there was an element of "see junk, kill junk, make them call me up" going on in Kentucky, can we blame Bruce? Last year, he drew 44 free passes in 576 PA, which isn't great or terrible, and when you're raking this well this young while playing an up-the-middle position, you're allowed to have a minor imperfection or two. It's also a way of bringing Bruce up in the absence of expectations-of this season and what the Reds might do in it-since those might seem to be at low ebb. Beyond it being an obvious bit of problem-solving, you can consider it a nice bit of self-selective underdogging, because with the talent on hand, there's no reason the Reds can't put themselves back into some sort of chase for a playoff spot. They'll be an especially nasty spoiler at the very least, and if they don't succeed, they can lay the blame on easy scapegoats like Wayne Krivsky or Patterson or Fogg. No, none of them deserve that, but as Little Bill Daggett could advise, "deserve's got nothin' to do with it."

That's not to say that the Reds aren't without other problems to address. Shortstop is a mess, even if you accept that Jeff Keppinger can play short once he comes back from the DL-apparently much sooner than Gonzalez-and what with Jerry Hairston Jr. playing it about as well as you'd expect an adequate second baseman and erstwhile outfielder might. There's a third up-the-middle problem, in that I'm not sure carrying three catchers is really the best call, but here again, having three completely acceptable backup catchers might make for a better bit of bundling in any trade talks.

The challenge here isn't that Walt Jocketty can or can't make deals-he's an accomplished trader. The problem is that in Cincinnati he lacks two of the chief assets that made him successful in St. Louis: an initial, ready partner in his former franchise, and a willingness to take on salary or rent veterans from franchises looking to clear them off of their own rosters. After clearing out the A's to port over the parts that were still able to contribute to a winner, Jocketty picked his marks with care, with an eye towards helping a contender by filling in the edges of his rosters. Consider a list of Jocketty's bigger deals, with the odd characterization ("raid" for getting an increasingly expensive player from a team that had concerns beyond just its talent base, "fair exchange" for deals where money didn't play a definitive part):

1995: Get Ken Hill from the cash-strapped Expos for junk; raid
1996: Get Royce Clayton from the Giants for Allen Watson; fair exchange
      Get Todd Stottlemyre from the A's for junk; raid
      Get Dennis Eckersley from the A's for junk; raid
1997: Get Mark McGwire from the A's for junk; raid
1998: Get Jeff Brantley from the Reds for Dmitri Young; fair exchange
      Get Darren Oliver and Fernando Tatis from the Rangers
       for Royce Clayton and Todd Stottlemyre; fair exchange
1999: Get Edgar Renteria from the dumpsville Marlins for junk; raid
2000: Get one pre-FA year of Pat Hentgen from the Blue Jays for junk; raid
      Get Darryl Kile and junk from the Rockies for junk; raid
      Get Fernando Vina from the Brewers for Juan Acevedo; raid
      Get Jim Edmonds from the Angels for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy;
       fair exchange, but Edmonds was getting expensive
      Get Mike Timlin from the Orioles for junk; raid
      Get Jason Christiansen from the Pirates for Jack Wilson; oops
      Get Will Clark from the Orioles for junk; raid
2001: Get Dustin Hermanson and Steve Kline from the Expos
       for Fernando Tatis and Britt Reames; raid
      Get Woody Williams from the Padres for Ray Lankford; fair exchange
2002: Get Chuck Finley from the Indians for Coco Crisp; raid/oops
      Get Scott Rolen from the Phillies for Placido Polanco, Bud Smith,
       and Mike Timlin; not quite a raid or a fair exchange-like Kile,
       a matter of liberating an unhappy and expensive talent
2003: Get Brett Tomko from the Padres for junk; raid
2004: Get Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis, and Ray King for J.D. Drew
       and Eli Marrero; fair exchange
      Get Larry Walker from the Rockies for junk; raid
2005: Get Mark Mulder from the A's for Danny Haren, Daric Barton, and
       Kiko Calero; fair exchange, but Mulder's salary was a major factor
2006: Get Jeff Weaver and cash from the Angels for Terry Evans; raid
      Get Ron Belliard from the Indians for Hector Luna; raid
2007: Bupkus

Now, I know this representation is a bit argumentative-Weaver and Belliard proved critical additions, for example, but at the time both Luna and Evans looked like things worth having, and Evans may well still be, although I doubt he's going to turn out to have as much career value as, say, Coco Crisp has. There's a certain elegance in how he repurposed people like Clayton and Tatis after they'd served their purposes, certainly. As far as the very baubles you might think he bobbled, Dmitri Young, Jack Wilson and Crisp are the real nuggets, although for Jocketty's Cardinals each represented a defensible exchange at the time. Even then, those deals hardly cover up how much fool's gold Jocketty has had to throw at the financially handicapped owners of various worthwhile veterans, and even then, keep in mind that Young, then as now, was a hitter without a position, and that was on a team that already had Mark McGwire at first base. Crisp and Wilson both turned out more than a bit better than expected; it happens.

From all this, two deals really stand out, the deals where Jocketty can count coup long after the last of his hair falls out: getting Edmonds from the Angels, and dealing off one year of Drew to the Braves for a ready-then starting pitcher and situational lefty, and a future ace in Wainwright. Getting Kile and Rolen were both inspired deals, as well, but were also more fundamentally issues of exploiting other people's drama for fun and profit, and putting the reputation of St. Louis as a baseball mecca onto the scales for an assist. The rest is a bit of canny shopping on assorted used car lots, and making exchanges with salesmen who needed to move inventory.

That doesn't make Jocketty brilliant or dumb, it speaks to a very sensible GM who doesn't go nuts over players whose present-day value is finite and relatively obvious, and someone who generally doesn't throw away premium talent to get it. It'll be interesting to see what, if anything, he gets for Hatteberg, especially in a market in which some contenders are still short at first base. If the Reds get close, he'll have a good sense of what's acquirable, and dealing from a relatively modest stock of talent, he's not likely to throw something of value away to get the fifth-best reliever for his pen. If, on the other hand, it gets to a point where dealing Ken Griffey Jr. or even Adam Dunn becomes a necessity, you can expect Jocketty to get reasonable value, and as the catching situation reflects, the team's spread of veteran parts scattered around the roster gives the Reds ammo to beef up any deal if it's a matter of getting something or somebody potentially important. That might not be the next Bruce, or Votto, or Volquez, but on the other hand, if Castellini agrees to some budgetary freedom, it might involve acquiring a veteran who will complement the team's promising crew of kids and fit in well enough with Baker's preferences. It's a case where everyone could get what they want-even Reds fans. Whodathunkit?


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

Related Content:  Cincinnati Reds,  The Who,  Reds,  Fernando Tatis,  Rosters,  The Call-up

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