Entering play Tuesday night, the Cincinnati Reds, winners of the National League Central in two of the past three years, owned the second-best record in the National League. And in a time when teams are quick to invoke the mantra of growing talent from within, no one has done it more than the Reds.
They selected their best player, first baseman Joey Votto, in the second round of the 2002 draft. But that's just the beginning. Their catcher, Devin Mesoraco, was a Reds' first round pick in 2007. They also drafted their starting shortstop (Zack Cozart), their starting third baseman (Todd Frazier), their starting right fielder (Jay Bruce), even Chris Heisey, who has played the most innings for them in left field.
Nor is this talent for developing talent a position-player-only phenomenon. Six pitchers have made starts for the Reds this season. They drafted three of them (Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani) and signed the fourth -- their best, Johnny Cueto -- as an international free agent. And the bullpen is led by international free agent Aroldis Chapman, while another three Reds' draft picks (Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek and Justin Freeman) had already logged relief outings.
The result is a young team that not only has the talent to compete for a World Series title once again in 2013, but one that knows each other extremely well. The Cincinnati Reds grew up together.
"I'd say it's unusual compared to most teams," Homer Bailey, 2004 first round pick, said as he considered the makeup of his team's roster. He leaned back in his chair in front of his locker, in the back corner of the Citi Field visitors' locker room Tuesday afternoon, and smiled. "We're a mid-market team, so sometimes, that's really the only option. And I think that does bring chemistry to a ballclub, when people all know each other. I've known Joey [gesturing toward Votto's locker] for a decade now." The two met in the 2004 Instructional League, Bailey said.
In this time of booming television revenue, Bailey's assessment of mid-market limits is no longer true. Votto, for instance, is in the middle of a 13-year, $263 million contract. But the extent of the Reds' in-house talent has made it easy to fill small holes by trading excess draft picks, or making deals such as sending Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal to the Padres for Mat Latos. But mostly, those draft picks have come up and contributed together.
Still, it is so easy to get caught up in the clubhouse chemistry trap. No one accused the early-1970s Oakland Athletics of Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi of getting along, nor the late-1970s New York Yankees of Lou Piniella and... Reggie Jackson of being the best of friends. For those counting, that's six of the ten American League pennants of the 1970s accounted for.
So are the Reds an excellent team because of their collective spirit? Or do the Reds have a strong collection of talent that would excel, no matter how it came together?
Mesoraco isn't sure, but he thinks it helped that the talent produced came to the Reds in bunches.
"It's been pretty cool," Mesoraco said as we chatted in front of his locker. "It's kind of come in waves, Jay and Joey and Homer and those guys first, then me, Frazier and Cozart all came up together, pretty much. We were all drafted in '07, played a couple of years together. And I think if you play together, you're familiar with the way you play. Everybody knows each other's games."
Cozart went a step further, saying that he believes his time playing through the minors at shortstop, with third baseman Todd Frazier next to him, has made both of them better defensive players, with the advantage of familiarity playing out constantly.
"It happens almost every day," Cozart said, standing just outside the clubhouse Tuesday. "I go out there and position myself, I look where Frazier is, and I have a good idea where he's gonna be. I think it works both ways. It helps, if we have a shift on, I don't have to yell at him. He sees where to go, and that makes it easier.
"If 80 percent of the team isn't homegrown, it sure seems that way," Cozart continued. "You get familiar with guys. I played with Frazier pretty much every year."
Bailey sees it is as much a question of self-policing effort on the field as it is the particular moments in a game. No one wants to let his teammates down, according to Bailey, because they all knew each other before they were major leaguers.
"We all knew each other when we were broke," Bailey said, laughing. "Now we know each other when we're making money. We all went peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together. So it's like, 'Don't give me that s**t. I knew you back when.'"
For his part, Reds manager Dusty Baker believes there's a commonality to his group that makes them better collectively, and perhaps even easier to manage.
"I don't know if it's easier," Baker said, pondering as he sat in his visiting manager's office at Citi Field Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by a few reporters. "But consistency is a key over time [building a club]. I was on the Dodgers like that, I came in to a locker room that was like that. And most of the guys I played with had been taught the same way to play, came from the same mindsets on how to play." Those Baker Dodgers teams, by the way, went to the playoffs four times in eight years, and won the 1981 World Series.
According to Baker, the Reds actually face a problem most teams would love to have, which is how selective they have to be in adding to a mix that's mostly been developed as one.
"It's actually harder to add players from outside," Baker said of his team. "Some players, you can tell, come from places, for instance, take the Minnesota Twins," and I wondered if Baker was going to single them out for abuse. Just the opposite, though. "Their players are fundamentally sound. Whereas some other organizations, you can tell that offense is the only thing that's important, or defense isn't important. You know, that's more difficult, over time, to kind of change."
But still, the Twins are 18-23, and production is production, right? Joey Votto, after all, would be a star on any team fortunate enough to have his 170 OPS+. Same with Homer Bailey's 131 ERA+. How to quantify a collective edge? Mesoraco says you can't.
"It's hard to put a number on that," Mesoraco said. "You have to have good players to win ballgames, first and foremost. And we have that. But at the same time, if everybody gets along, it makes things easier, as opposed to not looking forward to coming to the field, that kind of stuff can kind of wear on a team. Guys become individual players.
"But I think the main part is really having good players."
Still, if that World Series comes, Cozart believes it will be more meaningful for him because of his time developing with his teammates.
"As a core group, to be around each other all the time, in Dayton, in High-A, on long bus rides, having that camaraderie, makes you want to win it that much more," Cozart said, and you could see him go to a place, mentally, where he was picturing a World Series victory. "We want to win it for the Reds, and the fans, but we want to win it for ourselves, too. Because we've worked hard, and we've played together for a long time.
"I think that helps, big time. I think you saw that with the Giants, with that core group of pitching, and it's why they've been successful. And I think it can work for us, too."
If they do win, Cozart knows exactly where Frazier will be.
"Yeah," he said, laughing. "He'll be on the dogpile."