The virtual 1962-69 Cincinnati Reds (Part 1)

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.

We’ll apply the same rules we always do in this exercise: We can’t invent any transactions the Reds of the 1960s didn’t actually make, but we can negate some of the ones they did. Let’s begin.

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

Before the 1963 season: The Reds sent pitcher Mike Cuellar to the Detroit Tigers in an unknown transaction.

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.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

What might have been: Element No. 3

Dec. 4, 1964: The Reds traded infielder-outfielder Cesar Tovar to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Gerry Arrigo.

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:
{exp:list_maker}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 {/exp:list_maker}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

Dec. 9, 1965: The Reds traded outfielder Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.

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.

So

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.

Nov. 8, 1967: The Reds traded outfielder Art Shamsky to the New York Mets for infielder Bob Johnson.

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.

Jan. 11, 1968: The Reds traded outfielder Dick Simpson to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Alex Johnson.

Cincinnati would come out far ahead on this one. But we don’t have Simpson, so we can’t trade him. No go.

Jun. 11, 1968: The Reds traded pitchers Milt Pappas and Ted Davidson and infielder Bob Johnson to the Atlanta Braves for pitchers Clay Carroll and Tony Cloninger and infielder Woody Woodward.

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.

Nov. 21, 1968: The Reds traded shortstop Leo Cardenas to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Jim Merritt.

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.

Jan. 9, 1969: The Reds traded pitcher Ted Abernathy to the Chicago Cubs for catcher Bill Plummer, outfielder Clarence Jones, and minor league pitcher Ken Myette.

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.

Next time

We’ll see how this all plays out.


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evan
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evan

Great choice for this type of study.  I don’t know what the Reds will do with all of those outfielders, though.  And you didn’t even consider Curt Flood, whom the Reds dealt away around 1958 or so.

Ctwink
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Ctwink

Kind of off topic, but what is the reason that you now link to Fangraphs.com for player stats when Baseball-Reference.com is far and above superior to it?

Northern Rebel
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Northern Rebel

I’m as big a numbers guy as any fan, but this kind of analysis is what I love the most!

Brilliant job Steve, I look forward to more of this kind of reporting.

Dave Studeman
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Dave Studeman

Ctwink, we’re big fans of both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs.  We have a link exchange deal with Fangraphs.

Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna
I came up with the “elaborate theory that attempts to explain” the Osteen-for-Sisler trade, and though I’m sticking to my guns on its main points, I have to concede that no competent judge of talent could have deemed Osteen so inferior to the Reds’ two other stud minor-league pitchers, Jim Maloney and Sammy Ellis, that Osteen should be traded for a marginal relief pitcher.  Osteen posted excellent AAA numbers in 1959 and 1961, and even though his 1960 major-league stats were unimpressive, he was only 22 when he was traded and for three years he had been achieving much success… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
Kahuna Tuna, Thanks for the excellent comments. I hadn’t made the Dave Sisler/Dick Sisler connection with the Reds.  I guess I’d say this:  while it wouldn’t be shocking if the truth were that the Reds acquired Dave on his brother’s recommendation and/or out of some notion that having them both on the team in ‘62 (one as a coach, one as a player) would be seen as a fan attraction—stranger things have happened—but if that is the case, it still remains a blockheaded transaction.  I’m quite sure that most Cincy fans didn’t give the slighest rip about Dave or Dick… Read more »
Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna

Sorry for the mistake at the end of the first paragraph.  Osteen was not the PTBNL — Dave Sisler was.

Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna
Thanks for your comments, Steve!  I raised the point about Dick and Dave Sisler not as any kind of defense for the trade, just as a possible after-the-fact rationale.  I mean, it was such a dumb move that it practically begs for alternative explanations. I can’t really imagine that the Reds thought having both Sislers on the team would attract much fan interest.  Really, to me it looks more as if Dick Sisler approached the front office and made a strong pitch for getting Dave as the PTBNL, and the brass went along with the idea and resolved to justify… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
Sure, and here’s the other thing about it, I guess the main thing:  the issue isn’t so much that Dave Sisler turned out to be the PTBNL.  The issue is that there was a PTBNL at all, or more directly that Osteen was traded to the Senators in the first place. Because, if not Sisler, who exactly were the Senators supposed to send to the Reds as fair payment for Osteen?  The only guy on their roster conceivably good enough would be Chuck Hinton, and (a) good as he was, Hinton was a 27-year-old rookie in 1961, who hadn’t yet… Read more »
Northern Rebel
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Northern Rebel

You guys are awesome!

As a Sawx fan, I remember the political broughaha sorrounding Don Zimmer and Bill Lee, that put Lee on the bench, and probably cost Boston a World Series title.

I’m still pissed about Sparky Lyle, for Danny Cater!  :o(

Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna
Lyle for Cater — another dumb, dumb trade. Three other first baseman traded after the 1971 season were Lee May (Reds to Astros — the Joe Morgan trade), Dick Allen (Dodgers to White Sox), and John Mayberry (Astros to Royals).  The Red Sox couldn’t have obtained any of these guys for Sparky Lyle alone, but they certainly would have been better off packaging Lyle for a worthwhile first baseman than swapping him straight up — within their own division! — for a 31-year-old journeyman 1B/3B/OF with a career 103 OPS+. The Sox made a big trade just after the 1971… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“they certainly would have been better off packaging Lyle for a worthwhile first baseman than swapping him straight up — within their own division! — for a 31-year-old journeyman 1B/3B/OF with a career 103 OPS+.” Absolutely.  But the deeper issue, just as with the Reds and Osteen, applies here:  the real problem wasn’t that the Red Sox didn’t get enough value in return for Lyle, it’s that it was a dumb idea for them to be trading him at all, especially for a first baseman. The Red Sox didn’t need to expend resources to trade for a first baseman.  They… Read more »
Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna
I’ll take issue with part of your last comment, Steve.  Although Lyle certainly was “already one of the better young relievers in baseball,” to the Sox he was not irreplaceable.  I think the Red Sox, in 1971-72, saw Bill Lee as a younger version of Lyle.  (I leave aside the question of whether they were right to hold this view.)  Both were left-handed, and at that point, they both were relievers.  They’d had very similar 1971 seasons; Lee had shown himself to be very durable, had bumped up his K/9 rate and looked ready to take over a closer’s role. … Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
I’d only have considered trading Lyle if the offer was a great one, and of course we agree that Cater was anything but. But beyond that I disagree that shopping Lyle around made sense for them.  If the issue was that, with the emergence of John Curtis along with Pattin rendering Gary Peters surplus in the starting rotation, then it was Peters as the surplus talent they should have been shopping around.  If I’ve got a well-established young Lyle, an up-and-coming Lee, and a declining Peters as my three LHPs competing for two roster spots, then I see Peters as… Read more »
Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna
As for other players on the Senators’ roster whom the Reds might have wanted, it’s worth noting that, less than three weeks after nabbing Dave Sisler, the Reds traded veteran catcher Bob Schmidt and former Cubs minor-league pitcher Dave Stenhouse to the Senators for well-traveled relief pitcher Johnny Klippstein (who spent a mediocre 1962 with the Reds before being sold to the Phillies) and 28-year-old reserve 1B/OF Marty Keough, who hit fairly well with occasional power for the Reds in a utility role until 1964.  Keough was sort of the pre-Shamsky Art Shamsky. Were any of these baseball commodities as… Read more »
Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna

I would describe Dave Sisler’s age at the time the Reds acquired him as “an old 30.”

Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna

Steve, I have a question related to your article.  Would you have undone the Reds’ October 10, 1967 trade of Deron Johnson to the Braves for Jim Beauchamp, Mack Jones and Jay Ritchie?  Johnson hit poorly in 1967 and 1968, but he came back to reestablish himself as a legitimate major-league slugger through 1973.  He’d be a nice power bat off the bench and an acceptable utility/platoon 1B/3B/OF for your alterni-Reds.

Thanks for the discussion here!  I’m looking forward to reading Part Two.

Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“Would you have undone the Reds’ October 10, 1967 trade of Deron Johnson to the Braves for Jim Beauchamp, Mack Jones and Jay Ritchie?” No. First of all, under the rules of the game as established, the only trades we’ve directly undone were those four identified that took place between 1961-65.  The subsequent undone deals follow directly from the initial four. The Oct. 1967 Deron Johnson deal doesn’t.  It stands alone, and as such I let it go. That said, it was a hell of a great deal by the Reds.  I have no idea what Paul Richards (the Braves’… Read more »
AlbaNate
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AlbaNate

This was interesting, and I always love reading about the Reds of this era…but it seems to me that you could do this with almost any team. Leave in the good trades, undo the bad ones, and many if not most teams could really have something.

Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

“it seems to me that you could do this with almost any team. Leave in the good trades, undo the bad ones, and many if not most teams could really have something.”

You’d think so, but it doesn’t turn out that way.  I’ve devoted a whole lot of research to the trading history of every team in every era, and it turns out to be only a few teams in a few eras in which this analysis results in a dramatically different virtual result from the actual result.

Northern Rebel
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Northern Rebel
Thanks for responding to my post, Steve, and you also Kahuna. In ‘68,Yaz won the batting title, hitting .301. Danny Cater hit .290, and finished second. Sabermetrics were just a gleam in many people’s eyes back then, and batting average still ruled. It is one of the reasons Rod Carew was allowed to achieve the 3000 hit mark, despite being a first baseman with a substandard OPS and secondary AVG for the last few years of his career. In this pitcher dominated era, they hadn’t figured out the value of walks, And power, hence Carew being regarded as a better… Read more »
Kahuna Tuna
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Kahuna Tuna
Well, Horace Clarke fit the role of leadoff hitter as Ralph Houk understood it in those days:  Little power (therefore probably a middle infielder), makes contact, steals some bases, durable.  “Uses up a whole lot of outs” seems not to have been factored in. Besides, given the personnel on those 1967-73 Yankees teams, who else would have put up better numbers out of the leadoff spot?  Gene Michael?  Jerry Kenney?  (Houk tried both of them briefly in 1971, but went back to Horace.)  Today’s managers might go with Roy White, but back then White’s extra-base power meant he had to… Read more »
Paul
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Paul

How about the Tony Gonzalez trade to Philadelphia? fairly useful player for another 8 – 10 years….

I think Zimmer had it in for Lee AND Fergie Jenkins…probably cost him a run at 300 W’s. I guess the Phillies would like to have THAT trade back

Bob Rittner
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Bob Rittner

Clarke did steal bases and succeeded about 72% of the time.

BobDD
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BobDD

I don’t know why you’d cancel the Alex Johnson deal, because if it only took Dick Simpson (a fifth outfielder) to get him, then they could have easily substituted another career minor leaguer/bench player.

Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

Simpson in 1967-68 was far more than a “career minor leaguer/bench player.”  Yes, the Reds had deployed him in a defensive replacement-heavy mode, but the whole reason behind their acquistion of him back in 1965 was the gaudy minor league power-hitting stats he’d displayed along with his defensive chops.  Simpson was considered a guy with exceptional tools, a potential breakout.

But all that said, the rules that we follow in this exercise are quite definite:  if we don’t have a player on our virtual team, we can’t accept any deal that took him in trade.

Red Nichols
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Red Nichols

Face it, guys.  Bill Lee was just too much of an individual for the managers of the era to deal with.
Great piece, Steve, as usual. Lots of fun to speculate on this stuff. As for Claude Osteen, who knew? I was shocked when he resurfaced with the Dodgers as a certified star.
And Dave Sisler was a goddam dawg, any way you slice it. Don’t care who his pappy was.  .  .

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