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February 22, 2024

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Sports analysis: Outlook for three MLB teams

With the NBA and NHL seasons winding down and the start of the NFL season still months away, the dog days of summer are almost officially upon us and fans of two local teams have plenty to be excited about. On the other hand, Cleveland sports fans are wondering when the Indians will actually be relevant again, but seem more concerned regarding the future of LeBron James to actually care.

Following Memorial Day weekend, the Cincinnati Reds are one of five teams that finished with losing records in 2009 currently with a winning record. These losers-turned-winners have won 23 of their last 32 games and lead the National League in virtually every offensive stat.

The Reds finished April at 12-11, yet now sit atop the Central Division at 30-22; they were the beneficiary of a weak May schedule, where they went 14-4 against teams under .500 and have just four wins in 10 games against teams with winning records. It is hard to believe they will keep playing at the same pace when they start to face tougher pitching later in the year.

That is not to discount the success the Reds have enjoyed so far. The Reds have not had a winning season since 2000 and have been without a playoff berth since 1995, so the early success has been a welcomed change in Cincinnati. Fans enduring the turmoil of the Reds for so many seasons can certainly appreciate the way the current team was constructed, with several key contributors being brought up through the farm system and 10 players on the current 25-man roster having less than three years of MLB service time.

The appreciation comes from teams needing to develop their own players because there is no profitable amateur league that plays at a level near Major League Baseball. A player that is considered good enough to play in the major leagues in his first year out of college is extremely rare.

As a result, each team invests millions of dollars on their player development. Many major league teams have at least six minor league affiliates, and each spends money in upkeep in the form of coaches, supplies and management. By the time a young prospect gets to the majors, a team has spent a lot of money to get him there.

Still, developing players through the minor leagues is the most cost-effective method for a franchise to consistently win more games than their payroll would imply, and the Reds rank in the bottom third of baseball in payroll.

Players need three years of major league service time before arbitration and six years before they can finally hit free agency, and free agent’s salaries are so large because most players that start in the minor league fail sometime between A-ball and the majors. The few players that are successful enough to get all the way through the process are worth a good amount of money.

A successfully developed player is an extraordinarily expensive one, requiring not only the money invested to develop him, but all the failures that statistically accompanies one’s success. If a player is drafted as the future of any position, it may be three seasons before he replaces a current player. That is why in baseball, a developed player is expensive in terms of time and money.

The Reds patience is paying dividends, and they have seemingly mastered this art of player development, as evidenced by contributions from Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Joey Votto and Drew Stubbs, to name a few. Cincinnati has an explosive offense and good defense that if they can continue to pitch well, they can remain competitive this season and certainly end their long playoff drought within the near future.

The Detroit Tigers are once again in a highly competitive divisional race with the Minnesota Twins, and Miguel Cabrera and Justin Morneau should be the leading candidates for American League Most Valuable Player. Cabrera, rededicated to the sport after alcoholism plagued him toward the end of last season, is second in the AL in home runs and leads the majors in RBI.

The Tigers started the off-season in cost-shedding mode, shipping out high-paid players Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson in a three-team trade; while Austin Jackson has been a huge surprise, his line drive percentage and batting average on balls in play lead the majors, but it is unrealistic for those rates to continue.

Still, the Tigers have not received the contributions they expected from Max Scherzer, save his 14-strikeout performance this past weekend, and have been plagued by some injuries.

The bullpen has been the best in the American League, and the Tigers finally have a dominant closer, but the bottom third of their lineup is the team’s Achilles’ heel.

Detroit ranks fifth in payroll this season, and has shown the willingness to bring in pieces at the trade deadline if it does not mortgage their future. Detroit has the power pitching and just enough hitting to win a short series in the post-season, and the division should be a two-team race through September.

Tigers fans hope the outcome is better than last year, when they lost a one-game playoff to the Minnesota Twins in a thrilling 12-inning affair. Expect all these factors to even out and to see the Tigers near or on top of the division throughout the season.

While fans of the Reds and Tigers are set for pennant races this summer, the Cleveland Indians are on the opposite end of the spectrum and have sunk into Major League futility.

The Indians are last in the major leagues in attendance, averaging fewer than 16,000 fans a game and are on pace for their lowest home attendance since 1992. The figure is down nearly 6,000 fans per game at this point last season, despite a record in 2009 just one game better than this season through the end of May. Through 22 home games, they have already drawn the eight smallest crowds in ballpark history.

The Indians rank last in the American League in pitching with a 4.89 ERA and the bottom third in hitting with a .246 average. Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera are both injured, and in an already to-be-forgotten season,

Cleveland should look to take a page out of the Reds formula for success and let their young guys shine. Baseball America ranked the Indians farm system as fifth best in the majors, and several of their prospects are almost major-league ready. Carlos Santana was acquired for Casey Blake and was MVP of the Eastern League in 2009 and has been tearing up Triple-A pitching with the Columbus Clippers, who hold the International League’s best record at 33-20.

Carlos Carrasco, acquired as the centerpiece from Philadelphia in the Cliff Lee trade, should get another shot in the majors at some point this season and Jordan Brown should make his big league debut at some point this year.

Cleveland has stocked its farm system with several other prospects at the lower levels of the minor leagues, so the rebuilding process figures to be long-term, but right now they have very little major league talent to really build around, which will impede their ability to actually become relevant in the division.

All three of the area teams have storylines to watch for during the upcoming summer; for Cincinnati and Detroit, their regular season may end with the spraying of champagne in the clubhouse in celebration of a playoff berth. Unfortunately for Cleveland, that chapter won’t be written this season; their youth movement is a long-term process, and that strategy usually means some rainy days before the sunshine.

Editors note: Former BG News sports editor Colin Wilson contributed to this column.

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