Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the external Cuban pursuit of the White Sox and internal player development machine of the Reds.
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There is no greater time drain in the internet baseball universe than the pages hosting old prospect lists. Not only do they present an opportunity to indulge in a world where Delmon Young and Brandon Wood are superstars, but they’re also bastions of fascinating trivia. You may not remember that Jose Iglesias’s large signing bonus spawned rumors that Boston was just splashing cash to curry favor with Aroldis Chapman, but those are the kind of factoids just waiting to be devoured in the archives.
Very Good Prospects
3. Joey Votto
(If you’re wondering, Milton Loo retired before playing a game in 2007, due to cumbersome travel and a desire to be closer to family in Hawaii. I told you, these pages are rabbit holes.)
Just about everybody else reached the major leagues though, and four of them can be considered stars by one definition or another. It’s rare for a team to have so much impact talent in the pipeline, especially in a system that wasn’t particularly well regarded: Bailey and Bruce were blue chippers but the rest of the group was considered either too young or too unexciting to garner much interest at the time. Relative to their perceived value in 2007, the Reds got an excellent return value from their farm system.
Fast forward a few years. By 2010, every future big leaguer from the ’07 rankings besides Wood had reached the major leagues, and Cincinnati’s prospect list looked very different:
1. Aroldis Chapman
That’s quite a collection of talent in hindsight, and it doesn’t even include Devin Mesoraco, who broke out in the months following publication. Again though, Cincinnati’s farm system wasn’t ranked among the game’s strongest. An unimpressed Kevin Goldstein wrote that “Chapman alone brings up the organizational ranking considerably. Without him, the Reds’ system is down.” It wasn’t just Goldstein, as Baseball America didn’t expect much from Cincinnati’s crop either, ranking their system 17th in the league.
As it turned out, Cincinnati was able to coax much more out of their internal talent base than the experts projected. It’s very unusual to see a list overflowing with major leaguers, much less twice from the same team in a four-year period. Highly regarded systems underperform expectations all the time, and a ton of teams wind up with basically nothing from their minor leaguers. The Reds, by contrast, produced nearly a full team from their farm system alone.
Moreover, they had a penchant for producing a diverse body of talent. They developed speedy outfielders and power hitting first basemen, good glovemen and players seemingly without a defensive home, rocket-armed power pitchers and crafty lefties alike. Combined with a few smart trades, the Reds produced two division title winners and three playoff teams while barely dipping their toes into the major-league free-agent market. Clearly the developmental machine was humming, but it’s difficult to isolate exactly what made their diverse system click, and how they extracted so much value from so many different types of players.
The key seems to be an organization-wide culture of flexibility, where players with different strengths and developmental needs are fostered in a supportive environment conducive to maximizing potential. At the heart of this approach is a willingness to embrace the unconventional and to let players with unusual skill sets or habits play their own game.
Take Billy Hamilton. Nobody in organized baseball ran as often as Hamilton did in his minor league days, when he took off nearly every time the base ahead of him sat unoccupied. It was unconventional, but the Reds figured that the best way for Hamilton to learn the craft was to steal as often as possible, and to run his way out of slumps. The organization also took a surprisingly laid back attitude toward the speedster’s affinity for Mountain Dew. In a time when teams dedicate significant resources toward developing an optimal nutritional plan for their athletes, the Reds let Hamilton—a player arguably more dependent on a slim and athletic physique than anyone else in the organization—guzzle one of the unhealthiest drinks money can buy. Hamilton isn’t exactly sneaking sips behind the team’s back either, regularly drinking his “Hit Dew” before and during games: “Even the coaches bring it to me,” Hamilton said.
Cincinnati’s handling of Hamilton suggests that the organization is willing to defer to the preferences and habits of their players, even if they happen to be a little strange. It’s the perfect environment for an unusually patient hitter like Joey Votto to thrive. While the franchise’s legendary broadcaster babbles about Votto’s unwillingness to expand the strike zone, the Reds themselves are smartly content to let one of baseball’s best hitters succeed in the best way he knows how. “I (choose) not to make outs,” Votto said in an interview about his hitting philosophy, adding that he doesn’t feel any pressure to hit more homers. His approach clashes with the conventional conception of a power bat’s primary responsibility, but the Reds are perfectly willing to accommodate their star’s philosophy.
Cincinnati’s flexibility goes beyond a willingness to let players be themselves: throughout Jocketty’s tenure as general manager, the team has embraced the kind of players and developmental strategies that more conservative organizations eschew. In recent years, the Reds have drafted Michael Lorenzen and Amir Garrett as pitchers, even though the former spent most of his college years playing center field while the latter primarily focused on basketball. Today, Garrett’s star is on the rise after striking out more than a batter per inning in the Midwest League while Lorenzen may crack Cincinnati’s rotation just two years after working in relief (in addition to playing center) for Cal State Fullerton. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the one college draftee over the last fifteen years to skip the minors entirely—Mike Leake—did so for the Reds.
Ultimately, the Reds are a team blessed with few comparative advantages. They aren’t overflowing with money, and they haven’t revolutionized a particular skill set, player role, or draft philosophy. They simply keep an open mind to the talent available and to their players at hand. It’s an environment where unusual approaches and divergent philosophies—it’s fitting that Votto shares the right side of the infield with saber-phobe Brandon Phillips—can succeed, where players develop their best attributes and do it their own way. While the Reds may not be true contenders or rebuilders, fans take solace in the organization’s recent history with young players: they may not have the most exciting talent base, but the players in the system appear to be in a great place to succeed.
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