If you haven’t asked yourself how the Cincinnati Reds can compete with the Chicago Cubs, you really should. The Cubs are the elephant in the room, not only in the National League Central Division, but in the National League.
The Cubs just won the Central Division, running away, while having the best record in baseball. They then won the National League and the World Series. They are a very, very good baseball team. What makes a good team? Well, of course good players make a good team. How did most of those players get there? Through smart decisions, plenty of money and some flat out luck.
The Cincinnati Reds aren’t EVER going to be able to spend with the Cubs unless baseball finds a way to set up things like the NFL and set revenue sharing and set a salary cap and floor. That’s next to impossible, because unlike the NFL, teams have their own radio and TV contracts, where as the NFL is one big deal and everyone gets an even share of the pie. The Reds are getting about a 5th of the what the Dodgers are getting for their TV deal. Before the Dodgers even sell a single ticket, hat or jersey, their revenue for the year is already about what the Reds bring in for everything they sell, including their TV money. The Cubs aren’t quite on par with the Dodgers in the TV money, but they are a huge market that is always going to bring in significantly more money and thus be able to also spend significantly more money.
So, that leaves the Reds plenty of ground to make up. That means the Reds have to be smarter, more creative, more talented – they need to be MORE of something to gain an edge. Right now, the Cubs have a guy who is considered the best manager in baseball leading the team. The Cubs also have guys running their front office that are considered the best in the entire game of baseball. Their scouts are well regarded around baseball and over the last five years they’ve made incredible trades that have resulted in key parts of their team being acquired.
How do the Reds stack up with that? Well, right now, it doesn’t look great. Bryan Price isn’t nearly as well regarded as Joe Maddon is. Now, having more talent to work with may change the perception a little bit with Price, but right now I don’t think that there is anyone who considers the two of them to be on par with each other.
The Cubs front office is being run by Theo Epstein (President of Baseball Operations) who now has three World Series under his belt in the last 13 seasons and Jed Hoyer (was the Assistant GM under Epstein in Boston through 2009, winning two World Series there). The Cincinnati Reds front office is pretty much an unknown. Dick Williams is just now entering his first year as the actual decision maker. While Williams has certainly been a breath of fresh air compared to Walt Jocketty, at least in terms of what is being said publicly and the things that he’s pushing for over the last year since being named General Manager, it’s an entirely different thing to expect them to be on par with one of the most forward thinking front offices in baseball who has years of experience, success and very likely a big head start in technology over them. That advantage may not always exist, but for now, it’s probably a very big and real advantage for the Cubs.
When it comes to scouting, it’s tough to really say one way or the other. We can really only use anecdotal data points on maneuvers made. We don’t know deals that didn’t go through that were great ideas to turn down, but we never heard about them. When it comes to the draft, it’s also tough to really peg things – clearly the Cubs have had big success recently with picks like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, but opportunity to draft higher certainly gives a team an advantage.
In 2012, the first year in which the current front office was running things for the Cubs, they drafted one player that has made the big leagues (6th overall pick Albert Almora). No one else from that draft has made the big leagues, but only one of their first five picks was a college player – which means four of their first five picks just completed their age 22 season. What’s interesting to see is how that first draft went compared to the next four drafts. In 2012 the Cubs had seven picks in the first five rounds and they picked five high school players and just two college players. As mentioned above, they took Albert Almora with the #6 overall pick in the draft. The next year they didn’t select a single high school player until the 9th round. In 2014 their first two round picks were college players. The same happened in 2015. In the most recent draft the Cubs didn’t have a 1st or 2nd round pick because of free agency compensation issues, but they didn’t select a single high school player until the 22nd round. In the last four drafts the highest the Cubs have selected a high school player has been the 3rd round.
In that same time span the Cincinnati Reds have spent a significantly higher rate of their first five round picks on high school players (48% for the Reds, 36% for the Cubs – but just 22% in the last four drafts). I don’t think there’s a right, or a wrong way to go about things when it comes to the high school versus college player thing, other than you are usually going to get players to the big leagues faster from the college ranks. That doesn’t always mean much though, because if they aren’t all that good, what does it matter?
What is interesting, though, is to see that perhaps the Cubs have shifted their focus a little bit when it comes to drafting players. Of course, it may just be a situation where the opportunity hasn’t been there for them when they’ve been on the board. The Reds seemed to use the “close to the Majors” aspect when acquiring players via trade in their rebuild plan, which does fit into the “get them there quicker” ideology that comes along with drafting a college player. There’s certainly something to the idea here, in that the college player, and the “closer to the Majors” player are less risky because they, generally, are further along in their development and have fewer questions surrounding their game (and in a pitchers case, health concerns as they’ve built up more innings and remained healthy).
One interesting area that teams are really looking at is medicine/injury prevention. Steve Mancuso at Redleg Nation has touched on things in general, and in particular with the Reds a few times in the last year-and-a-half. He’s particularly been looking at pitchers arm health. You can see his articles here and here. In one article he made this note about the Motus Sleeve, which can be used to measure different stresses in a pitchers elbow:
25 major league teams signed up to use the sleeve this year in spring training and the Motus website boasts that 27 teams in total are using it. According to an industry injury expert, the Reds are one of the tiny handful of teams who aren’t.
Now, it’s worth noting that this came from 2015, and things could certainly have changed – but even if they have, it’s likely that the Reds are behind the research side of things given they got into this game behind a large majority of baseball. At the same time, the Reds went out and hired Dr. Charles Leddon to oversee their new Sports Science division.
The Reds are clearly trying to catch up with the times, so to speak. But, trying to catch up means you were already behind and that just makes things tougher when the team you’ve got to catch is the one that is leading the way in multiple areas.