It's mid-February and the post-2013 offseason(I really don't know what to call these things) figures to be one of the weakest winters of the last 20 years. ("Weakest winters" is also the name under which I make acoustic guitar recordings.) The last 20 years also happen to be the era of relative labor peace and Wild Card play, so that seems like a reasonable timeframe for comparison.
Other eras that began somewhere around 1994 include:
- The slow death of the Expos
- The Chunnel
To say this has been a weak offseason doesn't mean the quality of the team taking the field next season is among the worst of the last 20. Far from it, in my opinion. But a bad offseason, taken alone, ought to be relative to the baseline set by the previous year's team and, to some extent, what that team looked like after players fled to free agency.
From there, we can look at the moves that were made/not made and try to grade things out. Sometimes, a small-to-mid market team just has to say goodbye to productive players. Sometimes, doing next to nothing might actually be prudent. Sometime, a bunch of weird garbage happens.
This list isn't really about GMs blowing it - hands are tied by payroll, markets can be weak and there are unfortunate offseason events beyond anyone's control. In some of the offseasons below, avoidable human error played a major role. In others, unavoidable bad stuff happened and well-meaning deals turned out poorly.
It's best left to debate (or another post) which of these was the worst front office botch-job. And since I couldn't seem to get the rank order down, here they are in no particular order.
First, the worst four:
The 1996 Reds season was a pretty major let-down after a '94 team who led the Central when the strike hit and a '95 squad made it to the NLCS. But the regression in '96 wasn't for lack of moves. In fact, there were frantic attempts to reconstruct the 1990 World Series squad. Bringing back Eric Davis ended up looking like an inspired move for a season, but this "only reclamation projects" approach was mostly a bust.
Eric Davis (FA)
Curtis Goodwin (David Wells trade)
Chris Sabo (FA)
Joe Oliver (FA)
Vince Coleman (FA)
Mike Kelly (trade)
Jeff Shaw (FA)
Ron Gant (FA)
David Wells (Trade)
Darren Lewis (Released)
Damon Berryhill (Released)
Jerome Walton (FA)
Benito Santiago (FA)
Mariano Duncan (FA)
Michael Jackson (FA)
Jose Rijo injured during spring training
Putting this offseason on the list isn't really a sweeping indictment of Walt Jocketty - especially given the payroll constraints at the time and some of the bad luck that hit during Spring Training '11. And it's sometimes it's defensible to stand pat after a season in which your team makes the playoffs. However, there is quite literally nothing redeeming about the post-2010 off-season. Depending on how you score Arroyo's contract, you could argue there were no good signings, re-signings or personnel decisions. Cueto and Bruce were non-FA extensions, but maybe that's just semantics to leave them out.
We're glad Arroyo was around 2012-'13, but his three-year extension looked terrible in 2011. It's easy to forget he was given $35M, all told, and it's an open question whether he was "worth" that money when you weigh all three years. Dontrelle Willis was fun to watch, but only at the plate. And Miguel Cairo's two-year contract came out as a wash in the end.
It may not have featured the ugly multi-year signings of a Milton or Cordero, but it did have the first steps down the path to keeping Aroldis Chapman forever in the bullpen. Chapman missed valuable development time in an alternate universe where he would have at least attempted to become a starter for another half-season. Remember, this is a team that already featured a highly-paid closer. While not irreversible in the way of a long-term contract, this was a crucial decision point in recent Reds history.
Other bad offseasons could be partly shrugged off by saying "at least they tried something." Post-2010 doesn't even hae that appeal. And a lack of things to talk about counts for something, doesn't it? At least from a fan perspective. The offseason is a form of substandard entertainment for those who miss baseball. That winter was nothing but crumbs.
There's no single, highly-objectionable move here, just a gray muddle of disappointment. The loss of a fan favorite (Harang), some bad injury luck and ultimate underachievement put this over-the-top. Three starting pitchers were in some way debilitated before spring was over and the team won 12 fewer games than in 2010 (the second biggest drop-off in the last 20 years). All en route to watching from home as the Cardinals took the 2011 World Series.
Re-signed/option picked up:
Miguel Cairo (new contact)
Bronson Arroyo (option + extension)
Johnny Cueto (extension)
Jay Bruce (extension)
Other key decisions:
Aroldis Chapman sent to bullpen (Part I)
Paul Janish started season as primary SS
Edinson Volquez offered extension but did not come to terms with team
It's still difficult for me to grade the Josh Hamilton trade, partly because it's so hard ignore all the history. There were certain internal affairs with the Reds in 2007 that made trading Hamilton almost inevitable. Then, for a season, it looked like a win-win trade. After 2009, it started to look like a horrible mistake. But then there's Hamilton's inability to stay healthy and productive, which would have made it sensible for the Reds to trade him at some point, rather than try to lock him up. Had they kept him, would he have gotten the extension money that went to Joey Votto? And how do you factor Volquez becoming 1/4 of Mat Latos?
I prefer to sidestep all that and just say that the offseason after 2007 was pretty bad. I won't gloss over the first BP extension, which worked out pretty nicely, but it's obscured by two of the most infamous moves in recent Reds' history: Corey Patterson, on just a minor league deal "wreaked havoc" all over the lineup and CoCo Cordero's head-scratchingly generous contract got its start.
Also, it's hard to know what to do with the Dusty Baker hire - he presided over a franchise renaissance - but this was simply not a good lineup to hand him.
Edinson Volquez (Josh Hamilton trade)
Danny Ray Herrera (Josh Hamilton trade)
Corey Patterson (FA)
Paul Bako (FA)
Jerry Hairston (FA)
Francisco Cordero (FA)
Jeremy Affeldt (FA)
Mike Lincoln (FA)
Kent Mercker (FA)
Brandon Phillips ('08-'11)
Other key decisions:
Dusty Baker hired as manager
Joey Votto optioned to AAA out of spring training
Though bad pitching has been almost endemic for the Reds over the last 20 years, the Y2K Reds' staff was decent. It combined a reliable bullpen - led by Danny Graves and Scott Sullivan - with a competent ensemble cast of starters (which included swingmen Scott Williamson and Elmer Dessens). But in 2001, that cobbled-together staff would crumble as some of the talent was shipped out during the offseason and much of the rest headed for regression and injury. The Denny Neagle trade in August of 2000, though defensible, marked a symbolic beginning of the Dark Times of the aughts.
It would be unfair to say we saw it coming. Scott Williamson's injury, for one, was an unfortunate blow. But looking back, the 2000 season had plenty of harbingers for the horrors of '01. Pete Harnisch struggled with shoulder injury, while Steve Parris and Villone - Villone especially - came back down to earth. Parris, for his part, was enjoying unsustainable mid-career success. Harnisch was 33 and his K-rate had ticked down in three straight seasons (to 4.9). Osvaldo Fernandez had come out of nowhere, after a year lost o injury, to have his first real big league success at 31.
In large part, the misery of 2001 was a result of injuries and lack of depth in the farm system. Alongside injuries to Harnisch and Williamson, this was the first season Griffey missed significant time and the beginning of another series of DL trips for Barry Larkin. So it was perfectly reasonable for the Reds to get younger, looking to guys like Chris Reitsma, Pokey Reese and Jose Acevedo to pick up the slack, but nothing seemed to stick. Other youngish position players with some promise - like Wilton Guerrero and Ruben Rivera - all flamed out soon after '01.
It shouldn't be overlooked that the actual moves the Reds made during the 2000-'01 offseason were understandable - some were even good (ie, Willy Mo Peña) - but the bigger sin was continuing not to build any kind of pipeline of younger pitching talent around Griffey. And bringing back Deion Sanders for the eleventeenth time and Jose Rijo (in July '01) were never going to be the answer.
Other key decisions:
Jack McKeon fired
Ron Oester rejects low-ball offer for manager job, Bob Boone hired
Jason LaRue tapped as primary catcher
Alex Ocha replaces Dante Bichette
Adam Dunn optioned to AA to begin season
Reds fail to extend Barry Larkin
The rest: A three-way tie for not as worst
The dip after the 2004 season (3 less wins compared to 2003) was pretty small compared to the post-'99 and post-'06 drops. But '99 had its Griffey deal and '06 had the Josh Hamilton pick. Post-'04 featured the Eric Milton contract, which alone puts it in the running.
If you tally them up, most of the moves in the 2008 offseason were "good," if small: Ramon Hernandez, Arthur Rhodes, Laynce Nix, Johny Gomes and the hiring of future manager Bryan Price as pitching coach. But what kicks this into the "bad" pile is the puzzling two-year deals given out to Mike Lincoln and Willy Taveras. Neither harmed the team long-term, but both helped key a disappointing season.
This is another one where the individual moves don't scream BAD OFFSEASON. Ryan Freel was signed, which was good. And the Elmer Dessens-Felipe Lopez trade is ambiguous. Lopez went on to have a very good season in 2005, while Dessens was the main reason the 2002 Reds' staff was league-average. The problem here was the whole "moving Danny Graves to the rotation and saying Mission Accomplished." The '00s would suffer for all that turn-of-the-century neglect.