In an interview that ran here in March 2017, Dick Williams went in depth on innovation, infrastructure, and the rebuild his team had begun a year-and-a-half earlier. The Cincinnati Reds’ then GM — he’s now the President of Baseball Operations — told me, “In another couple of seasons, we expect to be competing again.”
The timeline was met. Baseball’s oldest professional franchise, as suggested by moves they made over the offseason (and confirmed by Williams), is no longer focusing primarily on the future. The focus is on the here and now.
Williams expounded on the moves the team has made, and on what it takes to build a sustainably strong organization, at the onset of spring training.
Williams on moving on from the rebuild: “We’re now in a period of payroll growth. A few years ago we stepped back and looked at which areas of the business we needed to invest in away from major league payroll, and we were able to accomplish a lot of those goals. We significantly increased the resources we were providing to player development. We added coaches. We added new roles in analytics. That had been the focus. Now we’re ready to really focus on the talent we’ve got at the major league level.
“We obviously have a lot of room for improvement coming off of last year, but we knew that we were going to have some payroll to spend, and the farm system is stronger. We anticipated going into this winter with a focus on adding talent to the major league level, to help us compete.
“I wouldn’t say that [the current free-agent environment] is having an impact. Certainly not dramatically. Most of our additions this offseason have been through trades. I think we’d have followed the same path regardless of where the free-agent market was as a whole. We’d have still been focused on smaller free-agent signings to fill holes, as we like the core we’re returning from last year. We’ve felt like we were in a little more control of our destiny.”
On hiring a new manager: “The move toward this year really began with our managerial change last April [Jim Riggleman replacing Bryan Price on an interim basis]. That provided us with a lot of time to prepare for the managerial search we conducted when the season ended. We felt it was important to cast a wide net, and do a lot of research, so that we’d be ready to hit the ground running. That ended up being to our benefit, as a lot of new hires were made around the league. We were able to get in front of a lot of the candidates the industry ended up having a strong interest in. Guys who were our finalists — Rocco Baldelli, Charlie Montoyo, Brad Ausmus — got some of the other jobs.
“We were considering our internal options as well, but it was definitely time to consider bringing someone in from the outside. We’d done a decent amount internally. Bryan Pryce was an internal promotion. A decent amount of our coaching turnover had been internal. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say our managerial search was focused on needing an outsider. It was more about getting the right leadership qualities, and the right style. We determined that what was important to us was getting someone who could create the right culture and would have a genuine focus on the health of the organization.”
On the leadership and culture they were looking for: “We’ve evolved to the point where the major league team isn’t its own silo anymore. Everybody talks about wanting to have a connection between different departments. We structured a lot of our interviews, and a lot of our questions, to determine if the people we were talking about leading our major league team were comfortable with the idea of creating that culture. They would cross all boundaries and unite the organization around common themes. They would create healthy communication channels and take us in a new direction. They would be open-minded and encourage individuals to be themselves. David Bell said the right things. He said things that really spoke to us.
“In an interview process, everybody comes in open-minded. They know to say, ‘Hey, I’m open to the new analytics; I’m open to new ways of thinking.’ For me, there’s a difference between people who are open-minded and people who are aggressively proactive about pushing the boundaries of what we look at and where we go. There are people who say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I hear that; I’ll listen to new ideas.’ And then there are the ones who are out there figuring out the new ideas. That’s where the coaching staff really comes in. We were looking for people who are aggressively open-minded.
“David Bell is the right person to be that centerpiece. The coaching candidates we talked to were drawn to him. It was a testament to the unique person he is that we were able to attract a major league hitting coach, and a major league pitching coach, that came from organizations that were in the postseason last year. They came to join David because of his personality and the vision he was preaching. From there we built out a coaching staff we’re really happy with.”
On adding new voices and ideas to the coaching staff: “When there’s a lot of turnover in an organization, there’s a tendency to oversimplify and say, ‘We got rid of these guys and brought in good guys, so everything is going to be OK.’ It’s not that simple. We had a lot of really good baseball people, really smart baseball people. I just think that it was important for [Bell] to be able to build a coaching staff that could be completely aligned with his vision.
“The people we brought in are from a mix of organizations. Minnesota [Jeff Pickler]. Milwaukee [Derek Johnson]. The Dodgers [Turner Ward]. Donnie Ecker came from the Angels. Caleb Gotham was actually working for an agent. J.R House was with the Diamondbacks. We’re hopeful that new voices, and new approaches, will benefit our players.
“Caleb Cotham got up the other day and gave a very technical talk about spin — what are the differences of spin and how do they affect the flight of the ball? He talked about the physics part of pitching. Today’s players need to hear that type of information. They can connect it to something visual. We talked a lot about the cues we could use with different pitchers, recognizing that with every guy it’s going to be a slightly different language. It will be a different cue, or a different phrase, that’s going to help that pitcher understand what he needs to do to get better.”
On other impactful additions: “We’ve changed the overall structure of our coaching staff. We’ve got the three pitching coaches [Johnson, Cotham, and Lee Tunnell]. We’ve added Jeff Pickler as a game-planning coach. We’ve added a major league analyst, James Brand, to the traveling party. Bo Thompson, who was our video guy, has more advance scouting responsibilities now. Julio Morillo is going to do more of the video. We’ve also hired an associate coach, Rolando Valles, who was the liaison to Latin players, and was in player development, for the Brewers for 11 years. He’s served as a pitching coach in recent years as well. He’ll help on the advance side.
“There’s also Cristian Perez, who will be one of our bullpen catchers but also a part of our advance scouting team. He came out of MLB’s diversity fellowship program. Cristian is really sharp — he’s a Duke grad — and will help with the analytics as well. We’ve added a lot of guys to the staff who can sit down in front of a computer and communicate important information to the players.
“We’ve added in the analytics department itself. For one thing, we’ve continued to add project managers. When you add two or three people to the analytics department, whether they’re developers on the front end — kind of the user interfaces — or whether they’re on the back end on the database side, you need to have that project-manager-level person who can prioritize projects and allocate people’s time. We hired Samantha Rack as a baseball analytics developer, and we also added Missy Booker in the role of baseball analytics coordinator.
“We’ve actually hired a number of women in the past year. Three of those new hires are in player development. We hired a medical administrator, Erika Sperl. We hired Becky Schnakenberg, who is bilingual, as our coordinator of minor league wellness. She’s in charge of cultural assimilation, some of the mental aspects of the game as well as language skills. We also hired a full-time coordinator of minor league nutrition, Ashley Meuser.”
On building a successful organization: “I’ve done a lot of work on what makes organizations succeed and fail. There’s a lot of great literature out there on that. At the end of the day, the smartest people don’t always win. You can be smart and win, but smarts alone don’t make it happen. What it takes is a true commitment to creating a healthy organizational environment. Most people will tell you that’s their goal, but the reality is, it’s really hard to live that day in and day out. We wanted to find people who understood that and had concrete ideas of how they would go about doing that. That’s one of the reasons we hired David Bell. He had a plan, and so far it’s manifested itself into creating a positive, energetic environment.
“There are a lot of smart people who fail at business. If you look at a lot of the companies that have invented great products, there was more there than a good idea. You can’t just have a collection of smart individuals. Again, there has to be that teamwork, that trust, the ability to work together seamlessly. Creating a great, lasting business starts with leadership being able to put a priority on organizational health. That’s not something you can just talk about. You have to live it every day. That’s what we are striving to do, and the changes we’ve made play a part in that.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.