As the Cincinnati Reds begin their search for the Holy Grail of baseball in San Francisco Saturday, a World Series ring, it isn’t far-fetched to ask, “How in the name of Joe DiMaggio did they get here?”
If you asked most fans as spring training began, they’d ask, “What was Walt Jocketty doing? The team needed a leadoff hitter and they needed a cleanup hitter and he didn’t get either.”
How they got here, for a large part, is what Jocketty did do and what he did do is strong enough stuff to merit him Executive of the Year.
His one make-sense offseason move was to sign closer Ryan Madson because Coco Cordero was too proud to accept what he considered a paltry and demeaning off from the Reds.
So, what happened? Madson didn’t even make out of spring training, gone for the season. And the fans groaned about a wasted $8.5 million to a team that can’t afford to was $2 million.
It was time for a fast shuffle. Jocketty, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price put their heads together. What to do, what to do? Aroldis Chapman was the best starting pitcher they had in spring training, but Jocketty & Company decided to put him in the bullpen.
After a few test runs in a set-up role Chapman was moved to closer and he became one of the game’s most dominant operative.
Another head-shaker for the fans was the trade of starter Travis Wood and outfielder Dave Sappelt to the Chicago Cubs for relief pitcher Sean Marshall. The fans agreed that Marshall is top-shelf stuff and the Reds didn’t give up much, but why a relief pitcher for set-up when they already had Nick Masset and Bill Bray.
So, what happened? Neither Masset nor Bray made it out of spring training. Masset was lost for the season and Bray was gone for the majority of the season. Marshall stepped into the breech and did what Marshall always does — provide the solid bridge from the eighth inning to the closer.
Jocketty made another offseason deal that had fans muttering, “Why?” He traded four players, starting pitcher Edinson Volques and three top prospects for a talented but flaky problem child Mat Latos. Well, that’s the tag the San Diego Padres slapped on Latos.
And when Latos staggered through April fans dropped their jaws and said, “We told you so. They gave up four players for this?”
So, what happened. Latos turned it on from May through September and won 14 games, finishing the season 14-4 and getting more dominant as the year went by. And the four players traded? Check the standings, near the bottom of the standings, to find the Padres.
Jocketty also signed outfielder Ryan Ludwick and the fans blubbered, “Hey, an outfielder? They already have three good ones in Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey. Ludwick can’t bat leadoff and he can’t bat cleanup. And he hasn’t had a decent season since 2008?”
And it seemed the fans were right when Ludwick, like Latos, was an April mess, struggling to find the .200 level.
So, what happened? Ludwick gradually found his stroke and won left field over Heisey. When Joey Votto went down, Ludwick went on an offensive spree to help the Reds build an insurmountable lead in the National League Central. And by season’s end he was batting cleanup.
Jocketty didn’t stop there, either.
As the non-waivers trade deadline approached, he was still looking for a cleanup hitter and/or a leadoff hitter.
Did he find either? Neither.
“There were somethings out there, but the other teams wanted too much, they wanted our best players and our best prospects and we weren’t about to give up our future,” he said.
Instead, he traded for another relief pitcher, Kansas City’s Jonathan Broxton, a closer who had 23 saves when the trade was made. And the fans asked, “Why? They already have baseball’s best closer in Aroldis Chapman.”
So, what happened?
Broxton was slipped into the set-up role. Marshall was pushed up to the seventh inning and Broxton became the eighth-inning guy and he turned out more lights than a power outage. And when Chapman’s shoulder suffered fatigue and he needed 12 days off Broxton was there to step in as closer and he was practically perfect.
The Reds lacked punch off the bench and Jocketty went searching. Outfielder Xavier Paul was in the Washington system and had an opt-out clause in his contract — if the Nationals didn’t call him up by a certain date, he could ask out. And that’s what he did and Jocketty quickly signed him.
So, what happened? After a short stay at Triple-A Louisville, Paul was called up and became the team’s best pinch-hitter and a strong extra outfielder.
And how about the catching situation? Weren’t the Reds set with Ryan Hanigan and rookie No. 1 draft pick Devin Mesoraco?
Dioner Navarro, an All-Star in 2008 with Tampa Bay, was with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011, but hit below .200 and was released in August. Nobody picked him up.
But Jocketty, with that innate sixth sense, signed Navarro in January and fans once again were mystified.
Hanigan was outstanding all season, especially at throwing out runners and handling pitchers. The earned run averages of the pitchers when he caught was below 3.00, best in baseball. But Mesoraco struggled. He barely hit over .200 and the team was 0-10 at one point in games he caught. And the pitchers’ ERA was above 4.00 on days he caught.
So, what happened? Jocketty called up Navarro in August, a switch-hitter who could add a left-handed bat on days when Hanigan didn’t catch. After a shaky couple of games behind the plate, Navarro settled in defensively and right from the start he provided some key hits down the stretch.
Because Jocketty wasn’t afraid to do some tinkering that didn’t make sense or suit the fans at the time, the Reds are in the playoffs for the second time in three years and Jocketty’s name is on the short list for Executive of the Year.