Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Surprise, You're Fired

We’re approaching the end of January, a time when news around the Major Leagues is typically at a lull. The big name free agents are in their new uniforms, and most incomplete trades are shoved into the “unfulfilled rumor” bin. The only light at the end of the tunnel for diehard baseball fans is a daily countdown for pitchers and catchers. But sometimes we get lucky and an interesting story pops up to spark the mid-January calm.

Lucky are the baseball fans that crave any kind of developments around the league. Unlucky for Dan O’Brien, who was relieved of his duties as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds on Monday. This development comes directly on the heels of MLB approving Bob Castellini’s purchase of the club.

Seeing that pink slip on your desk always sucks, but it’s quite a ball tap when your firing is number one on the new boss’s priority list. I’d even feel bad for O’Brien if he had accomplished more than nothing during his tenure in Cincy. Seriously, when your crowning achievement is blowing $25.5 million on Eric Milton (and outbidding the Yankees in the process), a new owner has every reason to show you the door.

The deeper I looked at the Reds over the past few years the lesser my opinion of O’Brien became. Two years may not be a ton of time in which to build a team, but O’Brien barely even mixed the cement. Most of his trades were miniscule and had no real bearing on the play of the team, and his lack of free agent signings just meant more of the same year in and year out.

Other than the Milton gaffe, the only move of consequence O’Brien made came earlier this off-season when he swapped Sean Casey for Pittsburgh lefty Dave Williams. Excuse me while I scratch my head on this one. Casey may have had an off-year in 2005 as far as power goes, but he still had a .371 OBP, which was .032 points higher than the team average, which ranked fourth in the National League. His .423 slugging percentage was .023 points behind the team average, which ranked first in the NL. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather shave some off the slugging percentage and hold on to a guy who gets on base more. You know, for a little balance.

Cincy was the top run-scoring offense in the National League, so surely they’re in need of pitching, right? But they were that desperate to send a bat like Casey’s to the Pirates for a nobody like Williams? The choice seems odd when you look at the Pirates staff and see names like Oliver Perez, Zach Duke, and Sean Burnett. A bold prediction: Williams has an ERA between 4.20 and 4.50 with around six strikeouts per nine and four walks, while Casey hits somewhere around .280/.370/.450.

O’Brien’s weightiest mistakes stem from moves he didn’t make. At last year’s trade deadline, surely he could have received some compensation for Junior Griffey. Players like Griff are at their peak value on July 31st, and cellar-bound teams are always smart to sell off these players to the highest bidder, especially when the player is 35 years old and hasn’t played over 120 games since 2000. But O’Brien stuck with Griffey, who ended up going out after 128 games. Surprise surprise. Now the Reds are stuck with Griffey, who will most likely befall the same fate as he has every year since moving to Cincinnati.

There have been whispers – all right, shouting matches – regarding the Reds intent to trade slugger Adam Dunn. I realize the issues involved: he strikes out a lot and is going to be owed quite a sum of money in the near future. But instead of focusing on his strikeouts, why don’t the Reds focus on what he does well, which is get on base and mash the ball? They’re not going to get adequate compensation, as evidenced by the failed dealings of Miguel Tejada and Manny Ramirez. Dunn isn’t free-agent eligible until after the 2007 season, so the Reds are better off keeping him via arbitration until trade deadline 2007, when his value will likely be its highest. Or they could actually hold on to him and make him a centerpiece for the team. But with the state of baseball now, that’s highly unlikely.

The case for O’Brien becomes harsher when we look right at the results. He took over the team following the 2003 season, when the Reds finished 69-93 and went through three managers. After making zero substantial moves in his inaugural off-season (a half if you count signing Cory Lidle), O’Brien dished Todd Jones and Cory Lidle for a pile of nothing, but managed to finish with 76 wins. The GM was well on his way to writing a best-selling book: The Sit On Your Ass GM Method.

In the winter of 2004, however, O’Brien broke his own rule. He decided it was time for a consequential move to bolster the pitching staff, so he topped the Yankees offer of 3 years, $21 million and locked up Eric Milton for 3 years and $25.5 million. Milton rewarded O’Brien’s keen sense of a good deal by going 8-15 with a 6.47 ERA. His name was brought up a sporadically in trade talks, but it seems that O’Brien’s asking price of a bag of ranch Doritos was a bit too steep for the current market.

A few days later, O’Brien broke the rule again by signing shortstop Rich Aurillia. The problem O’Brien hadn’t accounted for: what happens when this Felipe Lopez character is ready to for the big time? Oh, that’s easy, we’ll just move Aurillia to second. But little did O’Brien realize that Major Leaguers have these massive egos and don’t like changing from what they’re used to (see Bonds, Barry). This lead to Aurilia crying to the media about his desire to leave the team witch which he had just inked a deal. Hats off, O’Brien.

Even with the resurgence of Junior Griffey, the Reds finished 2005 with three less wins than in 2004. So the team was better off making no moves than making O’Brien’s moves. There’s a new owner in town you say? And he has no connection to O’Brien whatsoever? Nah, his job couldn’t be in jeopardy. Just ask him.

"I was somewhat surprised by the move. It's not something that was in my mind 24 hours ago."

One day, I want a GM to come out and say, “look at the moves I made and look at the results. I obviously failed as a general manager. This move was deserved.” Unfortunately, there are no real men running major league franchises.