Sunday, February 15, 2004

O'Brien looking to turn it around

As spring training opens, new Reds GM has rebuilding plan in motion

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dan O'Brien has been on the job as Reds general manager for 3½ months and the average Reds fan has probably barely noticed.

He hasn't made a trade.

He hasn't signed a big-name free agent.

And he's hardly made a blip on sports-talk radar.

But quietly, O'Brien has reshaped the structure of the Reds baseball operation.

Reds General Manager Dan O'Brien is hoping to make his mark this year.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
When pitchers and catchers report Tuesday - the symbolic opening of spring training in Sarasota, Fla. - they'll be greeted by a revamped staff with a different philosophy.

"When he was hired, I asked for a list of the things he wanted to do in the first 90 days," chief operating officer John Allen said. "He's accomplished all of them."

The reason O'Brien hasn't been in the headlines much is because the Reds are going for the long-term fix. O'Brien was hired to transform the scouting and player-development departments. He's done that. But the moves he's made aren't likely to yield results at the big-league level for three or four years.

"It doesn't happen overnight," Reds assistant general manager Dean Taylor said. "It takes time and patience."

Spring training preview
O'Brien looking to turn it around
Here's the drill: It's back to basics
Locked in, if not loaded
You'll know it's a good spring if ...
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Five Reds on the spot
Five young Reds to watch

The erosion of the Reds scouting department began under Marge Schott's ownership. Schott spent big on the big-league club, but cut back on the player-development budget and scouting.

"All scouts do is watch games," Schott once said.

Since Allen took over as chief operating officer following the 1999 season, the Reds have re-emphasized developing home-grown talent. But former general manager Jim Bowden was a quick-fix, big-splash guy. He tried to win immediately. He brought back Deion Sanders twice, signed older pitchers in hopes of reviving their careers, kept Wily Mo Pena on the roster and made an average of 11 trades a year over his last five years on the job. He hoped to hit the lottery with some of his personnel moves.

O'Brien's mandate has been to rebuild the organization from within.

One of O'Brien's moves that got little attention - hiring Vern Ruhle as the pitching coach at Billings, a rookie-league team - impressed Chris Welsh, a former Reds pitcher who is now a television analyst. Ruhle has spent the last seven years as a pitching coach for the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets.

"There's a lot of credence to the fact that you need one of your best pitching coaches at the low minor-league level," Welsh said. "To get someone like Ruhle, who has experience as a big-league pitching coach, is huge."

Other moves could also pay off. For instance, O'Brien divided scouting into three departments: amateur, professional and international.

Johnny Almaraz, a sort of super scout under Bowden, was named to head the international department.

Position: 16th general manager in Reds history.

Age: 49

Education: Graduated from Rollins College with a double major in business and economics. Earned a Rhodes Scholar nomination. Master's degree from Ohio University in sports administration.

Family: Married for 24 years to Gail, a Miami University and Ohio State law school grad. She has been a professor in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Texas-Arlington since 1997.

Athletic career: Played baseball at Rollins. Did not play professionally.

Like father: His father, also Dan, is a long-time baseball executive.

Career path: Started in sales with expansion Seattle Mariners in 1976. Spent 15 years with Houston Astros, rising to director of scouting and player development. Was with the Rangers 1996 to 2003.

Ohio connection: Lived in Columbus from 1962-73.

Almaraz just returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. He signed about 20 players at each stop.

"I think I signed really good kids," Almaraz said. "Hopefully, in three or four years, we'll see some of them with the Reds."

No one is talking a quick fix in RedsLand. And that's despite the fact that the Reds may be in as bad a shape as they've been in 50 years. The team suffered through its third straight losing season in 2003, finishing 69-93.

If the Reds finish below .500 in 2004, it would be their fourth losing season in a row. That's something that hasn't happened since the Reds went from 1945-55 without a winning season.

Prospects for turning it around this year aren't good. The club will start the year with a payroll in the $48 million range. Only four teams - Tampa Bay, Kansas City, San Diego and Milwaukee - had lower payrolls than that last season. Three of the four finished last in their division.

The payroll was slashed $11 million after the Reds struggled in their first year in Great American Ball Park. The team played miserably and finished one game out of last place in the National League Central Division. Manager Bob Boone and Bowden were fired in late July. Then several of the team's top players were traded away in moves that saved $13.3 million in payroll.

After a long search, O'Brien was hired in late October to clean up the mess. He is the son of a general manager and a career baseball man.

When the Reds hired O'Brien, 50, they made it clear they were looking for a long-term plan. The plan changed constantly in the 111/2 years Bowden was GM.

O'Brien has a three-year contract but knows some of his decisions won't have an effect for four or five years.

The Reds' future hinges on O'Brien's success. The baseball decisions - save for a few high-level calls - are his.

"He has free rein," Allen said. "The baseball operations is his department. That's key."

One of O'Brien's first decisions was the hiring of a new manager. Dave Miley was named the Reds manager in December 2003 as O'Brien began rebuilding.

Despite O'Brien's free hand, chief executive officer Carl Lindner often weighs in on the biggest decisions. Brian Graham, one of the candidates for manager, has told people that he was O'Brien's choice for the job. But the GM was overruled by ownership.

"It was an organizational decision," Allen said. "We do things as an organization."

None of O'Brien's hires since Miley has been subject to Lindner's approval.

How quickly the turnaround happens depends on how quickly the players develop.

In the NBA or NFL, things can turn around quickly because drafted players are ready to contribute immediately.

For example, the Bengals picked Eric Steinbach in the second round of last year's NFL draft, inserted him at left guard and improved the offensive line.

The Reds' second-round pick, right-handed pitcher Thomas Pauly, struggled in Single-A ball. If he makes the majors - and that's a big if - it will probably be in three years at the soonest.

Allen Simpson, editor of Baseball America, says the Reds rank in the lower half of the middle of the pack as far as minor-league talent goes.

"I have them anywhere from 17 to 23," Simpson said.

As far as pitching - particularly starting pitching - the Reds have been dealing with a dry well for a generation. The Reds organization hasn't produced a 15-game winner since Tom Browning, who broke into the big leagues 20 years ago. Browning retired in 1995 and last won 15 games in 1990, the Reds' World Championship season.

"I like the approach O'Brien's used," Welsh said. "He got input from all the coaches. He's aware of the problem. Now he's taking steps to fix it."

Most of those steps have been taken in scouting and player development. This offseason, the Reds signed two free agents - pitcher Cory Lidle and veteran pinch-hitter John Vander Wal - for a total of $3.45 million. Unlike Bowden, O'Brien hasn't invited a slew of bargain-basement veteran pitchers to spring training.

"We can't lose sight of the fact that ultimately the development of younger players into bona fide major-leaguers holds not only the key to this season, but down the road," O'Brien said.

To that end, O'Brien has shaken up personnel, philosophy and structure.

"Different style, different leadership," said Brad Kullman, an assistant GM under Bowden and now an assistant in baseball operations under O'Brien. "A lot of the fundamental structure has been changed."

Only one of the top people under Bowden, player development director Tim Naehring, remains in the same job under O'Brien.

Three years of futility
Kullman and Leland Maddox, the other assistant GM under Bowden, remain with the club in lesser positions. Maddox is a scout in the professional-scouting department.

O'Brien brought in Taylor as his No. 2 man. Terry Reynolds from the Los Angeles Dodgers was hired as scouting director. Bill Wood, the former Houston Astros GM, was hired as a special assistant.

"Those are all long-time baseball people with track records," Simpson said. "That's a direct effort to re-establish the foundation."

Seven new scouts and two minor-league instructors were also hired under O'Brien.

"I like some of the people he's hired," Welsh said. "Ronnie Oester was a hard-nosed player, and he's a hard-nosed coach. I like that they hired Vern Ruhle to coach in the low minors."

Oester, a former Red, was estranged from the organization after a debacle in 2001. Bowden had offered Oester the manager's job. Oester wanted more money. But while he waited for a better offer, the job was given to Bob Boone.

O'Brien has brought in Oester as field coordinator for the minor leagues. The Reds also added Gary Allenson as the minor-league catching coordinator. Oester's and Allenson's positions are new.

O'Brien has also instituted a pitch-count limit for the lower minor leagues, which should help limit or prevent injuries to pitchers.

Taylor spent 11 years working with Atlanta GM John Schuerholz, whom many consider the most successful GM during that period.

"John's philosophy is the GM's job comes down to three things: 1) hiring the right people, 2) coming up with a proper evaluation system, so everyone is speaking the same language, and 3) listening to the evaluators you put in place," Taylor said. "Then the GM has to make the final decision on every player move. Dan's philosophy is the same."

Developing players is a two-part process. You have to scout and sign talent, then you have to develop that talent.

"There's the age-old saying that your player-development department is only as good as the weakest scout," Naehring said, "and your scouting department is only as good as your weakest minor-league coach. You've got to be on the same page."

Under Bowden, that was not always the case. The player-development people and scouting people clashed at times.

O'Brien is reluctant to talk about what happened before he got to the Reds. But he did make of a point of saying at his introductory press conference that "the scouting department and player development will work together."

"That's the tricky part for him," Simpson said. "The player-development and scouting people have been going in different directions. They've got to work hand in hand. That fell apart under Bowden. If he can do that, then two, three, four years down the road, they'll be in good shape. They've got enough of a foundation at the big-league level to get by."

Keeping the fans happy in the interim could be tough. But if the Reds are right about O'Brien and he's hired the right people and those people make the right decisions, O'Brien could be the Reds' savior.

We just may not know for three or four years.



O'Brien looking to turn it around
Here's the drill: It's back to basics
Locked in, if not loaded
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You'll know it's a bad spring if ...
Five Reds on the spot
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