Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine stands tall among the most celebrated dynasties in baseball history. Winners of two World Series, four pennants, and six division titles in the 1970s, those Reds were famously a squad that repeatedly triumphed despite rarely enjoying elite-level starting pitching, but succeeded with a deep bullpen (heavily relied upon by manager Sparky “Captain Hook” Anderson), and especially with glittering team defense and a massive, multi-faceted, relentless – yes, machine-like—offensive attack.
While the pinnacle of this ball club’s great run was its back-to-back World Series winners of 1975-76, their first big year was 1970. I distinctly recall the Sports Illustrated cover article that spring, profiling the Reds in honor of their blistering start on the way to a runaway division title and pennant, and giving the “Big Red Machine” nickname widespread recognition. Cincinnati hadn’t finished as high as second place since 1961, and it was the 1970 edition with which they burst back into national prominence.
Through the 1960s, the Reds hadn’t been a bad team, but despite a core of stars they always seemed to find a way to be an ingredient or two short of close contention. And as we’ll see, that frustrating status was largely self-inflicted: Had the Cincinnati Reds simply shown more restraint in the trading market, their home-grown talent was more than enough to have them churning out victories with mechanized precision well before 1970.
What might have been: Element No. 1
Sep. 16, 1961: The Reds traded pitcher Claude Osteen to the Washington Senators for a player to be named later and cash. (On Nov. 28, 1961, the Senators sent pitcher Dave Sisler to the Reds, completing the deal.)
We’ve examined before an elaborate theory that attempts to explain this baffling transaction, and showed how the theory fails. Given that, there simply is no persuasive justification for this one: The simple truth is that the Reds just blew it, giving up on the 21-year-old southpaw Osteen despite consistently strong minor league performance, exchanging him instead for the marginal 30-year-old journeyman Sisler.
It would emerge as one of the more egregious giveaways in trading history. Let’s assume that Vice President/General Manager Gabe Paul did not, in one of the final acts of his decade-long stint in Cincinnati, commit this blunder. Let’s assume that the Reds held on to Claude Osteen.
What might have been: Element No. 2
Ah, yes, the dreaded “unknown transaction” (so designated by baseball-reference.com): The vague classification of a minor league deal so trivial that the dedicated researchers who compile transaction history haven’t been able to locate any contemporary recording of it. These kinds of deals, it must be acknowledged, very rarely involve a future star.
But this one did. A little over a year after the Reds tossed the 25-year-old Cuellar onto the scrap heap, he’d make his way to the majors, and just a couple of years after that, he’d blossom as a star.
In contrast to the case with Osteen, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable for the Cincinnati organization to lose patience with Cuellar. He’d been in their system for six seasons (interestingly, all of them at the Triple-A level), and had some good years and some not so good; at this point he sure wasn’t projecting as a star (though it is a good question why in those six years at Triple-A the Reds hadn’t given him more than two-game sip of coffee in the big leagues).
And it’s fair to point out that not only did the Reds’ organization filter out Cuellar, but so in turn did the Tigers and the Indians. And the Cardinals, who brought Cuellar to the majors in mid-1964, would trade him away in mid-1965. Certainly, it’s only in retrospect that these discardings became questionable.
But it’s also true that organization after organization was seeing enough in Cuellar to pick him up, and the Astros saw enough to stick him into their starting rotation in early 1966. At that point they immediately yielded dazzling results.
So, in our best “what if” spirit, let’s assume the Reds hadn’t casually dumped this young left-handed screwball specialist, but had instead promoted him to the majors and invested in a couple of years of big league development. Let’s assume that it was then while wearing a Cincinnati uniform that the colorful Cuban harnessed his wicked stuff and achieved his breakthrough.
What might have been: Element No. 3
All along, the Reds’ handling of Tovar was, well, puzzling. After signing him at the age of 17 and immediately making him a first-string second baseman in the minors, the Cincinnati organization spent six years failing to promote this blazing-fast Venezuelan to the major leagues, while he was compiling the following offensive resumé as well as demonstrating extraordinary infield-outfield defensive versatility:
- Batting averages of .297 or higher four times, as high as .338, and with as many as 19 homers
- Leading his league in stolen bases three times, with totals of 40, 56, and, get this, 88
- And in addition to leading in steals, leading his league in runs scored three times, hits once, doubles twice, triples once and batting average once
Even though Tovar's final two seasons starring in the Reds' system were at the Triple-A level, this performance wasn’t deemed sufficient to warrant so much as a single inning in the majors. Instead the Reds swapped Tovar for Gerry Arrigo, who was, to be sure, an intriguing young pitcher: a hard-throwing 23-year-old lefty. But he was one with dubious control, and a minor league track record that paled in comparison to Tovar’s.
Arrigo would immediately struggle in Cincinnati. He pitched very poorly in 1965, and during the 1966 season, in which Tovar was emerging as a standout regular in Minnesota, Arrigo would be sold by the Reds to the Mets, who thought so much of Arrigo that three months later they sold him back.
Let’s assume that the Reds hadn’t failed to make use of Cesar Tovar, and that he was on their roster through 1969.
What might have been: Element No. 4
The Big One; a deal so notorious that more than 40 years later it remains high on everyone’s short list of All-time Bad Trades.
We’ve discussed before how clever a maneuver it was on the part of the Orioles. From the Reds’ point of view, the deal was prompted by Cincinnati Owner/GM Bill DeWitt’s concern that Robinson, his franchise player for a decade, was “an old 30” (along with a not-so-subtle undertone of discomfort with Robinson’s strong personality—read whatever racial implications into this you deem appropriate), as well as the opportunity to shore up the pitching staff following a season in which the Reds led the world in runs scored but finished fourth.
In such a circumstance, leveraging hitting surplus into pitching help was a fine strategy. But DeWitt, shall we say, whiffed on the execution: He guessed wrong in the estimation that decline was imminent for Robinson (strike one), he guessed wrong that the value garnered in this exchange was somewhere close to equivalent (strike two), and in any case he guessed wrong that Robinson’s contribution to the Reds—in terms of tangible play as well as intangible leadership—was indeed a surplus and not an essential (grab some pine).
Let’s assume that DeWitt had slept on this one, and woke the next morning seeing things in a clearer light. Let’s assume that Frank Robinson was still on the Reds’ roster in 1966-69.
Cancelling these four deals would be more than enough to significantly improve the Reds' fortunes over the course of the decade. But with that scenario unfolding, there would be a few more trades that, for one reason or another, we'll erase as well.
This one made little sense at the time. Johnson was a useful ballplayer, one of the best-hitting utility infielders of his (or any other) era. But a utility infielder was all Johnson was, and moreover he would be 32 years old for the 1968 season, while the power-hitting Shamsky would be 26. And while Shamsky had performed poorly in 1967, he'd been so spectacular in a limited role in 1966 that it seemed premature to be exchanging him for someone with so much less future potential. And, anyway, our Reds, with Tovar on hand, wouldn't have the infield roster spot for Johnson. So we'll nix this one.
Cincinnati would come out far ahead on this one. But we don't have Simpson, so we can't trade him. No go.
This deal turned out all right for the Reds. Carroll would prove to be a fine relief pitcher for several years, Cincinnati's one lasting benefit from the Frank Robinson trade. But he was, of course, not nearly worth the cost of surrendering Robinson.
But in any case, we don't have Pappas (or Johnson), so no deal here.
A reasonable exchange that didn't turn out too badly. But our Reds, with Osteen and Cuellar in the rotation, will have no need to be expending resources to acquire additional left-handed starters.
This was one of the more incomprehensible trades in history. Abernathy, after being picked up cheaply in the 1966 Rule 5 draft, had put together back-to-back brilliant seasons for Cincinnati, re-establishing himself as one of the elite firemen in the game. Moreover, pitching overall had been the Reds' weakness in 1968; the last thing they needed to be doing was dumping one of their best pitchers.
But dump him they did: This package from the Cubs was nothing but marginal spare parts, meeting no imaginable Cincinnati need.
We'll just say no, thanks, to this riddle.
We'll see how this all plays out.