An “awful franchise”

On May 20, 2018, the Reds were finishing up a home series with the Chicago Cubs on a sunny Sunday afternoon. They had lost 10-0 to the Cubs the night before and were in the process of losing again, 6-1. Manager Bryan Price had been fired a month before. The Reds record would stand at 16-32 by day’s end.

During the television broadcast, Thom Brennaman was provoked at the mention of the Tampa Bay Rays trying out a strategy of using a relief pitcher as opener. He laughed, referred to the Rays’ experiment as “staggering” (as only a true wordsmith would) then launched this broadside:

“Tampa Bay has just been an awful franchise outside of really a handful of years when they hit the lottery, did a great job of drafting some players, giving some guys a chance.”

Shocker there, for Brennaman to be unprepared and not know what he was talking about. It’s a shame the broadcast wasn’t interrupted by something happening in the game, say a drive into deep left field.

But the commentary continued without a bit of reflection on the local franchise. The 22-23 Rays were “scuffling bad” and “looking up at basically the entire baseball world” and had as a “bottom line, their way is not winning baseball and they are not winning championships.”

I’ll remind you, the local guys were 16-31. One team the Rays were not looking up at that day was the Cincinnati Reds.

Fact check

Let’s do a bit of research.

• Since 2008, when the Rays rebranded under new owner Stuart Sternberg, they have had the fourth best record (1280-1064) with a .545 winning percentage. Since 2007, when the Reds rebranded under Bob Castellini, the team is 1181-1323 with a .471 winning percentage.

• Over that stretch, the Rays have made eight trips to the postseason. Only three clubs — the Dodgers, Yankees and Cardinals — have more. The Reds made the postseason four times if you count the one-game play-in in Pittsburgh when Johnny Cueto dropped the ball. Under Castellini, the Reds have played in 11 postseason games, winning no series. Under Sternberg, the Rays have played in 60 postseason games including two World Series.

• Since the day Thom Brennaman dubbed the Tampa Bay franchise as awful, their record has been 403-275 (.594). Meanwhile, the Reds have been 308-366 (.457).

• The Rays have lost 90 games just once since 2008. The Reds have lost at least 90 games five times (one season they lost 100). The Rays have won 90 games eight times (one season they won 100). The Reds have won 90 games three times and not since 2013.

• The Reds booth mentioned winning championships. Well, since Sternberg bought the Rays, they’ve won the tough AL East five times, including three of the past four seasons. They finished second three other times. Since Castellini bought the Reds, they won two NL Central championships, none since 2012. They haven’t finished higher than third any other season.

Awful, indeed.

That day in the Reds TV booth it was easier taking shots at a Rays team playing a thousand miles away than it was directing truth at power about the franchise a few hundred yards in front of them.

A real path forward

If you’re looking for an explanation how the Rays could have sustained this level of success with one of the league’s lowest payrolls, look no further than the owner’s box and the way the club operates. Stuart Sternberg doesn’t meddle in the club’s baseball decisions.

The Rays may not spend much on player payroll relative to other franchises, but they outspend everyone when it comes to being smart. According to numbers compiled in 2022, the Rays lead the majors with 37 baseball operations analysts and data engineers.

That’s the ticket. Hire a bunch of brilliant folks and turn them loose in identifying players.

Tampa Bay columnist John Romano wrote: “You know why the Rays have so many innovative strategies? Because owner Stu Sternberg is not constantly looking over their shoulders tallying up every success and failure.”

Rays GM Erik Neander said: “Stu is stable and the trust he has in us and the confidence he has in us to do what we think is best without fear of the outcome in any individual case opens us up to a lot of the success we have. He deserves a lot of the credit for giving us the room and the patience to follow through on what we think is best.”

Sort of ironic the Reds are now said to be copying the Tampa Bay Rays. The Reds slashed payroll by trading away established players for young prospects. That is not how the Rays built their team. Fifteen of the 26 players on the Rays active roster were acquired by trade, but all had either played in the majors or were ready to go. Not a single player on the Rays roster is someone they traded for as a prospect and developed.

Yet, here are the Rays, in town and with the best start in baseball. They’re throwing an opener in tonight’s game.

Like the Cincinnati weather, if you don’t approve of what Reds ownership is doing, just wait a while. They’ll change course. Over the past ten years, we’ve watched as they’ve lurched from one failed strategy to another.

But we know by now the one thing they won’t try. And it’s the essential thing.

If the Reds want to follow the Rays’ path to success — instead of using it as pretext to prioritize investors and put off accountability — everyone with the last name Castellini must quit interfering in baseball decisions.

That family’s constant meddling has been, you might say, awful.

Steve Mancuso

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.