Is the Price Right?

One year ago Bryan Price was preparing for his debut as an MLB manager. Injuries short-circuited his first season as Reds skipper and he’s looking to put that behind him and the team in Year Two.

Coming into the 2015 season the Cincinnati Reds are one of the more enigmatic teams in baseball. Will they return to postseason contention status that they enjoyed prior to 2014 or did last season’s losing record indicate closure of that window? During the offseason they shed payroll by trading away a couple of pitchers like a rebuilder and brought in a veteran outfielder in a deal typical of someone that fancies themselves a contender. All during that time the team is preparing for the second season of Bryan Price’s career as manager and with year one in the books the best description of his job thus far is, well, uncertain.

Taking over a contender and leading them to a 76-86 record isn’t going to look good on any manager’s record. On the other hand, though it’s an excuse it’s a darn good one, his options were often limited during a season that was ravaged with injuries. No facet of his roster- lineup, bench, rotation, or bullpen- escaped the injury bug. The offense struggled which could have been predicted if anyone had known that former MVP Joey Votto would finish with the same number of homers as utility infielder Kris Negron who wasn’t even on the 40-man roster at the beginning of last season.

Price took over the position with a pristine record as Cincinnati’s pitching coach and the Reds team ERA has been around mid-three in each of the last three seasons. Perhaps it was rumors that he might have a chance for his first managerial job by returning to his former employer in Seattle that expedited predecessor Dusty Baker’s departure with one year remaining on his contract. Price was a man they wanted to keep in the organization and keep him they did. Now the jury is still out if he’s the right man to manage the team.

Add in another puzzler: Consider a team coming off a season where they scored the third fewest runs in the NL while posting the third lowest rotation ERA. One might assume that most concerns are with the lineup. Offseason comments aside, they would have preferred having Latos return atop their rotation with Johnny Cueto, but budget constraints forced the trade of him and all-star Alfredo Simon. Meanwhile the lineup contains five returnees that have earned all-star recognition in the past couple of years, a rookie of the year runner-up, and 2010 all-star Marlon Byrd. There should be plenty of bats to return to 2013 levels when they were third in the NL in runs scored… permitting.

Health is often difficult to predict and Price did not have any previous experience as a physician on his resume, which brings us back to pitching. Before last season he brought in new coach Jeff Pico to help him and after one year performance on the mound was solid in the rotation. The bullpen, well, not so much. How much of that be credited to/blamed on Pico is unclear and he will be back in the Reds dugout this year. Hopefully that’s a good omen for a relief unit that struggled with the highest ERA of all NL teams that don’t play their home games in Coors Field.

That’s not so say that Price’s non-pitching strategies were above suspicion because they were anything but. There was an initiative for more aggressiveness which at times looked like folly. The Reds had a lot of runners cut down on the base paths, hence the departure of third base coach Steve Smith. There’s a learning curve to any new job and hopefully for Reds fans Price will enter year two much further into it.

Coming off a season with a good rotation and struggling bullpen means turnover should be made in the pen right? Well, unfortunately payroll limitations are often a fact of life for small markets, especially ones that have locked in some lucrative extensions to players like Cincinnati has in recent years. Right now the opening day rotation looks like Cueto, Mike Leake, Latos trade return Anthony DeSclafani (5 MLB starts), Cuban defector Raisel Iglesias (zero MLB experience) and non-roster invite Jason Marquis. Homer Bailey should return soon, but this team no longer has the luxury of using Leake as a five-man. Want some more double-talk? Even though Cueto led the league in innings pitched last year his 2013 campaign still gives reason for durability concern.

Meanwhile the bullpen was a mess last season, save for closer Aroldis Chapman’s normal domination and Jonathan Broxton who was dealt away at the trade deadline. They should improve at the expense of the rotation from adding Tony Cingrani to replace oft-injured southpaw Sean Marshall. Jumbo Diaz was a pleasant surprise last season and will try to sustain that across his first full MLB season at the age of 31. Also, performances two years ago give reason to believe that J.J. Hoover, Manny Parra, and Sam LeCure are better than their 2014 versions.

Basically, this team returns back close to the top of the NL standings if the lineup stays healthy, the bullpen returns to pre-2014 form, and there’s some more Price (or perhaps now Price/Pico) magic in the rotation. The good news is that all of these if’s are in the realm of possibility. The bad news is that there are three chances for one to blow up. If two of them don’t come through they’ll likely shop Cueto and Chapman before the trading deadline, try to figure out how to shed Byrd’s contract, and pull the trigger on a full blown rebuild with prospects like Robert Stephenson and Jesse Winker.

They have two elite pitchers that should return some talent. Walt Jocketty has a splendid track record as a GM which should grant him more amnesty than his predecessor. In Wayne Krivsky’s defense, had Jocketty not already been in the organization as an advisor he would have been less expendable and perhaps his efforts at rebuilding the dormant Cincinnati farm system might have made said advisor position more attractive to Jocketty. Regardless, a fire sale would kick off some speculation on the manager’s future.

In keeping with the theme of uncertainty, one year from now Price should have either an atta-boy or a new career as a pitching coach for some other lucky team. It might not be a fair deal, the bench is thin and significant injury to the lineup could get messy. However, that’s often the nature of the job. Baker might have been criticized for his lack of control or vulnerability to being outfoxed, but like him or not his tenure as Reds skipper was more successful than the ones before him and thus far the one after. There has been only one year after though, and the ingredients could be in place for Price to put it safely in the rear view mirror. Whether or not that materializes remains to be seen.

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