Bad things happen in threes, so the theory goes. The Cincinnati Reds would probably cosign on that theory these days, since the origins of their two year tumble to the bottom of baseball can be traced to a trio of episodes of bad luck, bad fortune, or simply bad management.
Baseball is inherently generational, especially among teams that can manage to develop talent from within and create waves of homegrown players. The Reds, after years and years of unsuccessfully attempting to create such a group, finally nailed it at the end of last decade, and that fueled a pair of division championships and three playoff appearances in four seasons. Alas, generations in baseball last only so long, and six years of team control becomes a concern from the moment you realize there's something special you're watching on the field. That was the crux behind bad thing number one, since the blessing the Reds had seen with such a flush group of young players quickly morphed into the curse of trying to decide which ones to extend and which ones to let reach the brink of free agency. It's a great problem to have - while you're winning - but one that eventually superseded the team's play and became the inevitable, incorrigible crack in the ice that just would not stop growing.
The roster began to break apart, which was bad enough. The timing, however, was equally as bad.
Those generational waves I mentioned? Well, just as the end of the most successful one the Reds have put together came about, the rise of the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates mowed right over the remnants in Cincinnati, and both now stand formidably next to the St. Louis Cardinals and their voodoo at the top of the National League Central, and appear to be there for the foreseeable future. It's bad enough when the G.I. Joe you asked for in your stocking turns out to be G.I. Walt, the disjointed knock-off that won't even blow up when you glue it to a cherry bomb, but it's infinitely worse when you find that the kid down the street got three G.I. Joes and his dad is a pyromaniac demolitions expert.
But I digress. Big, bad, well stocked neighbors are bad thing number two for the Reds.
Bad thing number three has yet to fully materialize, but it's one that's been forming steadily for quite some time in anticipation of grinding the Reds down in slow, methodical fashion. If the Reds let that happen, I should add, since it's this entire premise that prompted this article you've so obligingly followed thus far.
See, the Reds have the second overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, and there's not a lick that can happen to make that not be a thing. They can't trade it, they can't sell it, and even if they take a pitcher who lacks an elbow ligament with it, they'd have wasted it but not seen it merely go away. It's theirs, the draft pool that comes with it should be theirs, and they'll have a chance to use it to add a future star to help turn around the franchise.
Most importantly, it's protected, which is baseball jargon for "you can sign any of the free agents who turned down Qualifying Offers and you won't lose your first round pick." And, conveniently enough, the off-season we've just entered can claim to have the deepest, richest, most talented class of free agents in possibly ever, both on the mound and at the plate. Instead, the Reds - should they venture into the waters and sign a big ticket free agent for the first time since Francisco Cordero - would forfeit their next pick in the draft, but even that gets mitigated by their ownership of the top pick in Competitive Balance Round A, which comes right after the end of the first round.
You know, the Competitive Balance Round? The Round specifically designed to help the teams that are neither big enough nor willing enough to make these kinds of moves in the first place?
Bad thing number three could be this. The Reds, in dire need of a roster revamp to boost them back into the brash NL Central race, sit positioned perfectly to sign an impact free agent and not lose a coveted top draft pick...but, for some reason, they won't. Either they won't because of a money crunch, they won't because they've established a history of avoiding the free agent market altogether, or they won't because they'll claim that 2016 isn't a year in which they intend to compete.
Jason Heyward will play next season as a 26 year old, and will be right in his prime when the Reds intend to be back on solid ground in 2017 and 2018. Similarly, Justin Upton will play as just a 28 year old in 2016, and both just so happen to play where the Reds have seen historically awful production over the last two seasons (if not longer).
What if the Reds actually leveraged their unique position - their protected position - because they just so happened to be there at the same time as a once in a million free agent class? What if they splurged to sign Upton to the 7 year, $147 million deal suggested by MLB Trade Rumors because it just so happened to coincide with them still having the #2 overall pick and two of the first 35-ish picks in the upcoming draft?
To facilitate such a thing, the Reds could trade Aroldis Chapman this winter, notch a Top 50-75 prospect, and clear the $11.5 or so million he'd be due in 2016, the last year before he, too, becomes a free agent. They could trade Jay Bruce, or hold on to him in hopes his value rises only to trade him in July to open an OF spot for Jesse Winker, who may be ready at that point. Both moves would add pieces for the future while shedding the pricey salaries of players who don't appear to be in the team's plans for the long term, and it would free up the kind of money to help add a player who'd be around - and still in prime age - when the team's new young core projects to mature.
In a way, it's what the Cubs did in signing Jon Lester, a big ticket free agent who figured to help them more in the second and third year of his deal than in year one. It even somewhat mirrors what the New York Mets did in signing Curtis Granderson, or what St. Louis did with Matt Holliday, when they gave a nine-figure contract to him to anchor their lineup when it became increasingly clear that their current anchor, Albert Pujols, wasn't going to be around for the emergence of the next generation of Cardinals.
There's a very real chance that the Reds could tank again in 2016 and again have a protected pick at the top of the 2017 draft, conceivably having the same choice and position again in one year's time. However, there's no guarantee they'd have a Competitive Balance pick at all - much less the best one - and next year's free agent class projects to pale woefully in comparison to the one currently on the market.
It'd be a big investment. A massive one, really, but one that would be as much of a move for the future as it was for 2016. One dictated as much by the coincidental timing and fortune as by strategic planning, but one that could help turn the course of what has been a brutal, precipitous slide. Otherwise, it could just be bad thing number three, one that haunts for a long, long time.