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.
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.
Reds General Manager Dan O'Brien is hoping to make his mark this year.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
"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."
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.
Almaraz just returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. He signed about 20 players at each stop.
THE O'BRIEN FILE
Position: 16th general manager in Reds history.
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.
"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.