The 2012 Cincinnati Reds had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball history. This is not hyperbole, not a statement intended to spark a debate. Their adjusted ERA was 123, which is almost identical to what Madison Bumgarner had for the Giants last year. Picture a staff of 12 Madison Bumgarners, pitching every single inning, and you have something that approximates what the '12 Reds did.
Ashes to ashes, free agency to free agency, and here we have the Reds, a team at a serious fork in the road. They aren't a bad team. They still might even be a good team. But they aren't that team from the first paragraph, and they have decisions to make. They had choices to make with that '12 class, and so far they've chosen only Homer Bailey, who is broken.
The good news is that they have options. They aren't the Rangers, who have an $18 million 36-year-old as their best rebuilding rebate coupon. They aren't the Phillies, with one big player to cash in on and a pile of sour contracts and durfy youngsters. The Reds can blow this thing up and mine the ore underneath.
They also aren't that far away from being good, you know.
Here are the two options, then, and what you have to believe if you choose either one.
If you choose not to rebuild ...
You're believing in Jay Bruce. The last 15 months mean nothing in this scenario, and 28-year-olds don't just shrivel up and lose every last scrap of talent. He's making more contact than he has in years, and he's taking control of his at-bats, starting with a 2-0 count in a fifth of his at-bats, which is easily the highest mark of his career. The hits just aren't falling, though, and they will be soon. This is not the new Jay Bruce, not even close.
You're believing in Billy Hamilton. You don't have to believe in him becoming a superstar, not yet. He just has to be a bad hitter instead of an awful hitter. Last year's .250/.292/.355 line wasn't exactly exciting, but it was good enough to make him a net positive to the lineup, even with a high number of unsuccessful stolen base attempts. This year's .211/.260/.331 is too far on the spectrum of slap-hitting acceptability, though his increasingly successful stolen base attempts are a good sign. And while it's an acceptable reaction to roll your eyes at anyone citing batting average on balls in play as a sole reason for a player's slump, do you really believe a player like Hamilton should ever have a .241 BABIP?
You're believing that Zack Cozart might not be Cal Ripken just yet, but that he is capable of hitting more than he did in his previous career as Brendan Ryan. You're believing that someone will emerge from the scrum and claim the fourth starter's job, like Raisel Iglesias, and that Jason Marquis is someone easy to replace at the deadline. You're believing that Anthony DeSclafani is this good, and he can get better as the season goes on.
You're believing that Brandon Phillips isn't done for, and you're believing Joey Votto still has some MVP dust left.
Over a pint, if you're persuasive enough, I just might believe you. The Reds have the same record as the Pirates, and there aren't a lot of break-up-the-Bucs articles floating around, not yet. That's because it's easy to look at the roster and pick out the young players who should be better and the veterans who should keep on keepin' on. You can do the same thing with the Reds if you squint. Tally up a list of things that should be going right for the Reds, and it's not a short list. That doesn't mean they're the favorites over the Cardinals or anything, but that's a tough roster to strip and sell.
If you choose to rebuild ...
Well, you're, uh, not believing in any of that. The bad seasons will continue until morale improves.
You're believing that in three years, Johnny Cueto and Joey Votto are not going to be cornerstones of a contending roster, so there's no sense in paying them both as much as some small-market teams will pay their entire roster. You're believing that Phillips is done for, Bruce is Ben Grieve, Cozart isn't a building block and Hamilton is just as likely to be a role player as a star. Or, if you're not completely dejected, you're believing in just one or two of those, and that's enough to make you hope the Reds start over.
You're believing in the haul that the Reds can get from their pending free agents, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, can include a future star and several future contributors. You're believing that the haul could be supplemented with aggressive, Beane-style moves, in which players are traded a year too early rather than a year too late. If you don't think Cueto can be replaced and that Votto is somewhere between good and great (but not an MVP), it would make a lot of sense to explore what Aroldis Chapman, Cozart and even Todd Frazier could fetch.
The 2016 Reds could look like the 2014 Astros, except where that would have been an insult last year, you can see how it's a compliment now. Here, I'll start:
Johnny Cueto = one top-30 prospect, two additional prospects
Aroldis Chapman = one top-50 prospect, two additional prospects
Todd Frazier = two top-100 prospects, one additional prospect
Zack Cozart = one top-100 prospect, one additional prospect
Mike Leake = one top-100 prospect, one additional prospect
The Reds opened the season with three prospects in the top 100, according to Baseball America. Here's a chance to have nine, with a half-dozen additional prospects thrown in.
You're at least curious. Please note that it most certainly did hurt when I pulled those trade values out, and it will be a while before I can sit down again, but if anything, I think I undershot some of them. Especially Frazier. How many teams would go bananas for that kind of power, with two more years of team control after this? And maybe Bruce is still someone who appeals to the right kind of team, with a little money thrown in.
The Reds can still surprise the baseball world. The question is if that risk, and the risk of letting Cueto go for draft picks only, is worth passing up this unique opportunity. The good news is they have about two months to figure it out, and they have to talent to make this decision even tougher. They also have the question marks to be even worse, and that could make them the most interesting team at the deadline.
Prospects will break your heart, yes, but so can old players and departing free agents. The Reds have some unenviable choices to make, and we'll just all have to sit here and wait for the benefit of hindsight to see how smart they were.