by Steve Mancuso

Fix the team, Phil

Yes, I share the outrage directed at Reds ownership. Every bit of it.

Sell the team, Bob! Sell the team!

But deep down, we know that’s not happening. The Castellini family won’t give up the largely unaccountable ownership dynasty that is enriching and empowering them. Phil Castellini appears as ambitious toward the family business as his father. When he takes over, it will represent the first time in the club’s storied 150-year history that principal ownership passes from one generation of a family to the next. Unprecedented, but it’s on the way.

Be careful what you wish for

Beyond the futility of calling for new ownership, keep in mind an adage that dates to Aesop: Be careful what you wish for, as you may receive it. Oscar Wilde put it this way: When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.

Look, if I could choose the next Reds owner, I’d shout “Sell the Team” from the top of the Great American Tower. But I remember when Carl Lindner owned the Reds. The Lindner family was much wealthier than the Castellini family and spent far less on the Reds. Before that, the club’s owner was an embarrassment and forced to sell the Reds for expressing racist and anti-Semitic comments. So, it can get worse. Has been. Not hypothetical.

Ask fans of the Cleveland Guardians if they’d take the Castellini clan over Paul Dolan. The Dolan family has ten times the wealth as Reds ownership but spent only $45 million – about a third of the Reds 2021 payroll – on its club last year. Ask Pirate fans what they think of their billionaire owner, Bob Nutting, who has slashed Pittsburgh’s payroll to less than half what it was five years ago. Put the same question to fans of the Marlins, Mariners, Royals, Rays or a half-dozen other teams. They’d gladly trade their owners for ours.

“Sell the Team, Bob” feels good, but it’s a course fraught with worse outcomes.

To be clear, the Reds are an utter disaster

That’s not meant to exonerate the current crowd. Far from it. Reds management has been an utter disaster since October 2020 when Dick Williams quit right after the team made the postseason.

Gone is the gumption that over a few seasons traded for Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Anthony DeSclafani and a guy who won the first Cy Young Award in a Reds uniform. The boldness that paid up for Nick Castellanos has exited stage right. The foresight that hired David Bell, Derek Johnson, Caleb Cotham, Kyle Boddy? Vanished and nowhere to be found. Sure, not every deal, draft pick or move worked out, but at least the front office had a heartbeat and modern ethos.

In stark contrast, the 2022 Reds are rudderless and adrift.

The Castellini family has no strategy. They didn’t have a plan going into the 2021 season for shortstop or the bullpen and still didn’t have a clue at the 2021 deadline. “Get healthy first.” and “Let’s see where it goes.” – were laughable. To that pathetic recent record, add failure to extend Jesse Winker, Luis Castillo or Tyler Mahle.

Audacity? Forget it. Vision? Not on Joe Nuxhall Way.

If I were as detached as the Castellini family from having a successful plan, I’d avoid talking to fans, too.

The focus on success with the ownership group

In his scripted interview with Paul Daugherty last spring, Bob Castellini declared with pride that he’d never made a capital call to the ownership group. That’s the gang who has profited from the franchise’s value growing from $260 million in 2006 to $1.1 billion in 2021. Castellini wore that claim like an honor badge.

Here’s an idea. How about keeping faith with fans by spending enough money to make the team competitive? Brag on what you’ve done for us and your public trust, not your rich pals. Care more about producing a positive win-loss rate and NL Central titles than a championship-caliber rate of return.

Lately, the Castellini family has been a champ at one thing — cutting payroll. Instead of following through with the plan Williams had put together in 2019 (get the pitching) and 2020 (get the hitting), ownership lost its nerve and bailed. Out of concern for the bottom line of their rich co-owners, the Castellini family made overly conservative and unnecessary payroll cuts that likely cost them another postseason appearance.

As it turned out, revenues came in much higher than they budgeted. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out the club made money in 2021. Not that they would admit it. Or be forced to disclose it.

Until the past two years, my main beef with the Reds wasn’t that the club was cheap. The Reds play in one of the smallest markets. Baseball’s bargaining agreements rank every team’s “market score” for the purpose of setting revenue sharing priorities. In the most recent CBA (2017-2021), the Reds ranked dead last (p. 239). And yes, those folks know that people drive in from Dayton, Lexington, Indianapolis and Huntington.

There’s nothing wrong with fans wanting everything. But expecting the Reds to spend like the Dodgers or Yankees isn’t realistic. Until recently, the Castellini family had kept the organization right around league average in payroll. In 2020, the Reds had committed to spend a club record $149 million on player salary.

No, my issue with ownership through most of the 2010s had been they didn’t keep up with the times. The Reds had become antiquated.

Bob Castellini ran the team like a mom-and-pop store instead of a modern, billion-dollar civic responsibility. They were more than a half-decade behind the sport’s move to analytics in the front office. Even when they did start prioritizing new data, it was more by accident, with the hiring of Williams, who proved to be a Trojan Horse of sorts. Williams, by virtue of his blood ties with an ownership family, was allowed latitude to make significant moves forward.

Williams didn’t get everything he wanted, but his last name enabled him to fight the resistance to progress and drag the Reds into modern baseball. Those headwinds came from ownership and the lingering influence of his predecessor who remains on the payroll today.

A simple, three-part plan to fix the Reds

Nonetheless, when Phil Castellini takes the reins of the Cincinnati Reds, he’ll have the opportunity to do things his way. I have an unsolicited suggestion for him – a simple, three-part plan for getting the Reds moving in the right direction.

1. Hire a smart, modern, outside person to run the baseball organization.

That person doesn’t need to have been a President of Baseball Operations elsewhere, nor have the same last name as one of the Reds owners. He or she doesn’t need to have started in the Reds mailroom. Turn the front office over to an outsider with a fresh vision for how to put a team together. To an executive who has been with a successful, data-driven club.

The Brewers hiring of 30-year-old David Stearns as general manager in 2015 is the template. Stearns had been an assistant general manager with the Houston Astros over the years they’d gone from winning 55 games to 86 and headed even higher. Under Stearns, the Brewers have made the postseason the past four years, winning the NL Central twice in that span. And they did it spending less than the Reds.

2. Return to the payroll plan from 2020.

Call on the ownership group to boost payroll in 2022 and 2023. If that means borrowing in the short-term, well, interest rates are about as low as they come. A friend of mine who’s an executive in the banking industry and I were talking about the Reds last week. He pointed out another reason the “rich get richer” is their easy access to cheap money. Borrow it from a bank, or even better, an insurance company. There’s plenty of below-prime money out there to be lent to the well-to-do. Part of signing up to be in the ownership group is knowing you may be asked to chip in from time to time.

3. Get the hell out of the way.

Those smart people you’re going to hire (see point 1) know a lot more about winning baseball games and structuring an organization than you do. Bring them in and follow their advice. Don’t sit in on baseball meetings. Give the front office a fair budget (see point 2) and allow it to do its best under that constraint.

Your dad admitted he blocked trades to keep popular players in town. You must break free of that quaint but misguided notion. The bigger picture remains that fans come to the ballpark, tune in to broadcasts or stream games online because of success. If your front office wants you to trade Billy Hamilton for a minor leaguer named Shane Bieber, do it. Winning baseball games fills seats and sells swag.

Meddle less than your dad, not more.

Conclusion

Phil Castellini will soon have his chance to run the Reds based on his own vision, not his father’s. It may not feel that way quite yet, but the opportunity of a clean slate will present itself. The Reds can reach new, winning heights if he abandons the “break-even-payroll” policy that has proved to be a crippling straitjacket and pretext for failure. I’ve said before, there are no small markets, only small visions.

The past few years of muddle caused by uncertain family succession and roles has led to paralysis. Initiative has been replaced with indecision. Dawdling has trumped dealing. The front office is more creaky than creative.

But worse than being rudderless is steering the wrong direction. Those old voices. That old thinking. The bias against change. Retrenchment would be awful for the win-loss and profit-loss columns. Trust me, winning baseball games against brilliant organizations is hard. Try doing it by following ideas that are decades out-of-date.

Ancient Greek mythology warned sea travelers about sirens. The sirens were creatures with sweet voices that lured sailors to their demise. Odysseus tied himself to the mast of his ship so he wouldn’t steer it off course to follow the siren songs.

Phil Castellini doesn’t need to lash himself to the centerfield flagpole. But he does need to be clear-eyed in the shallows. The Reds principal owner must quit taking advice from former general managers who have been out of touch with modern baseball for 15 years and former players who stopped learning about the game when they hung up their cleats.

Ownership transition is coming for the Reds. The club’s trajectory under the next generation of Castellini leadership can go in divergent directions.

I’m not optimistic. But as a fan, ever hopeful.

Fix the team, Phil.

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

4 Comments

  • kmartin

    I know this article was not about the lockout, but if I recall correctly, didn’t the lockout start on December 2 and then there were no negotiations for the entire month of December? Ridiculous if this correct. I just read no baseball until at least April 14.

  • jwalker

    I would rather have the Dolans. The Guardians win more games than the Redlegs and seem to have a pretty good minor league system.

  • Bill

    Steve, I agree with your underlying thesis and your recommendations are spot on. One aspect you didn’t cover is how the pandemic affected the Reds payroll over the last two years. For a team that spent aggressively just prior to COVID the impact almost certainly led to substantial borrowing to cover the losses. When I looked at the Brave’s 2020 financial statement, I calculated they were paying about 5.5 percent interest on their debt as a whole–that’s not an overwhelming rate, but it’s well above where prime rates were. Once the pandemic losses have been absorbed, I expect the Reds to boost their spending again. But as you astutely point out, if the CEO (or other owners) continue to intervene in the baseball decisions, the Reds will continue to underachieve. MLB structurally favors large market teams and this new CBA will continue to add to the advantage. The Reds simply can’t afford to poorly run when they begin every day at a significant resource disadvantage.

  • Brian Van Hook

    Well said. You don’t have to spend like the Dodgers, but maybe try thinking like them — and the Rays, etc.