By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — The long, long, long disappointing and once again another embarrassing season is thankfully over for the Cincinnati Reds and now the real work begins.
The playing part of the season concluded Sunday afternoon, a game that was everything but audience participation. It resembled tee-ball because it was full participation, nearly everybody in uniform on both sides played. Incredibly, in a meaningless game the Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates played 10 innings and the Pirates won, 6-5, on pitcher Jackson Stephens’ wild pitch, the team’s 95th loss.
The year isn’t over for the harried and harangued front office. The work has just begun to see what can be done about making the Reds relevant. One of the worst things that can happen to a sports franchise is for it to become irrelevant and that’s exactly what has happened while the team finished last four straight seasons.
The fans have spoken loudly away from the park and quietly inside the near-empty park. Since 2015 the Reds home attendance has dropped more than 800,000 fans, from just over 2.4 million in 2015 to just over 1.6 million this season.
The so-called rebuild remains a long work in progress with little results so far, especially because when it began the target date for contention was 2018. Clearly, that didn’t happen. Not even close. Last place for the fourth straight year, 94 or more losses for the fourth straight year, 28 games out of first place and 15 1/2 games behind the next-to-last Pittsburgh Pirates this season.
A 3-and-15 start cost manager Bryan Price his job and after a fast start an August-September slumber most likely cost interim manager Jim Riggleman an opportunity to come back next season.
The front office already is making lateral changes in the minor league operations, but mostly it is musical chairs, just shuffling duties and re-assigning offices and venues among people already employed by the Reds.
The ‘search’ for a new manager is under way, too, and Riggleman is scheduled for an interview Monday, although at this point it appears cursory and as one insider said, “Their minds are already made up.”
The front-runner is John Farrell, who managed the Boston Red Sox to a World Series championship and currently works for the Reds in the minor-league system. A darkhorse appears to be David Bell, former major league third baseman who managed Cincinnati’s Class AAA Louisville affiliate. He later served as a bench coach in St. Louis and in Chicago (Cubs) and for the last year he has been Director of Player Development for the San Francisco Giants. He is the grandson of former Reds outfielder Gus Bell and the son of former Reds third baseman Buddy Bell, who now serves as a special advisor in the Reds front office.
As for Riggleman, he played the hands he was dealt but too many of those hands contained jokers. But he wants to come back.
“You know what? I came into this feeling like it was an honor to be asked to do this job,” he said. “My passion was that, ‘OK, you are managing ball games.’ That’s what I love to do. If I get to continue to do it, that’s the best case scenario. If I don’t, I’ll stay with my initial feelings and respect whatever decision the Reds come up with.”
Riggleman believes the internal candidates have an advantage and he was speaking about himself, Farrell, Pat Kelly, Billy Hatcher and Freddie Benavides.
“We all have some of the same feelings and familiarity with what our needs might be and what took place during the year,” he said. “Externally, the candidates will be gathering information and looking from the outside in and be more answering questions. Our internal candidates, like myself, would spend some time giving some suggestions.”
Speaking of his personal experience, Riggleman said, “The first few months I was on the job things were going OK, not great, but in a direction where it looked as if we were getting over the hump. There was a lot of encouragement then.”
Riggleman paused briefly before continuing and said, “That all has been deflated with the way we’ve performed basically since somewhere in August. And that falls on the manager when the team doesn’t win games. That’s the nature of it. You have to find a way to minimize those down times, find a way to keep the losing streaks to a minimum. And here, of late, we’ve had a hard time doing that.”
Based on what he saw and what happened and what is happening or not happening with the front office providing any manager with workable pieces, does Riggleman actually want the job?
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve been in the organization seven years and I am extremely familiar with our player development system and our current major league roster and our coaches.
“My point is, I love to manage,” he said. “When you are somewhere for seven years you feel you are part of that family. This would be my priority, but if I’m not managing here I’m not that person to say, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ I still would be open to anything.”
Riggleman, of course, sees the same things everybody sees about the Reds — the strengths and the weaknesses and what the front office needs to address.
“Offensively, we have a good core, three All-Stars in the infield (Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, Joey Votto),” said Riggleman. “That works. And the addition of (catcher) Curt Casali with Tucker Barnhart has a good chance to be a plus. Jesse Winker. I hate to keep bringing him up because he is hurt and wasn’t with us late in the season, but he really impressed me the first half. For the most part offensively, we’re in pretty good shape. And we have nice young prospects coming in Nick Senzel and outfielder Troy Trammell.”
Pitching? Ah, of course, that’s a horse of a palomino color. Different patterns everywhere.
“What doesn’t work? It is obvious we have to make some adjustments with our pitching,” he said. “Maybe it is the way we attack hitters. It might not be personnel, it might be the method we approach to get hitters out.”
That is an interesting and different approach to why the Reds starting rotation has the second highest earned run average in the National League (5.02) and the bullpen is ninth of 15 teams at 4.13.
Amazingly, the Reds set a club record with the fewest complete games in a season, just one. And that was pitched by Homer Bailey on July 31 and, of course, it was a 2-1 loss at Detroit. The previous record was two complete games, done seven times, all since 2001.
Riggleman summed up his season as manager in a dispassionate and analytical manner.
“We were very competitive for about two months, had a record as good as anybody in baseball,” he said. “And then the same things that happened to former manager Bryan Price (injuries early to Eugenio Suarez and Scott Schebler) happened to us. We lost Jesse Winker and that hurt. Scott Schebler and Joey Votto got hurt. But those injuries are par for the course and every team goes through that. That’s part of the job, the grind and the depth and all the things that go into it. You have to understand that’s part of it and it can’t be the reason for not winning. You have to find a way to win anyway.”
Injuries or no injuries, good pitching or bad pitching — and the Reds used 33 pitchers this season — the team never found its way and didn’t come close to shedding its squatter’s rights on last place.
So, in addition to finding the right manager, the front office must emphasize a search for viable starting pitching, either via free agency or through trades that could cost them some top prospects. That shouldn’t be a major issue. The Reds have spent the last four years stockpiling prospects/suspects, some of which certainly might attract the eyes of teams willing to part with a starting pitcher. And if a team wants to talk about Billy Hamilton or Scooter Gennett or Scott Schebler or Jose Peraza, the Reds should listen without ear plugs.