In March of 2022, Joey Votto and Jesse Winker were sitting in the batting cage at the Cincinnati Reds’ spring training complex in Arizona, and they were talking about hitting homers off of left-handed pitchers. Winker was coming off of an All-Star season, and he expected to follow that up with another standout year on a Reds team that was looking to build off of a competitive 2021 season.
Then, Winker was called into Reds manager David Bell’s office. He learned that he was getting traded to the Seattle Mariners along with third baseman Eugenio Súarez. Winker was shocked and emotional. On that day, the Reds’ rebuild began.
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Now 15 months later, returning to Great American Ball Park as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, Winker has a different perspective on the trade that changed his career as well as the trajectory of the Reds.
“They got so many guys back in these trades,” Winker said. “You have to do that. It took me a minute to understand the business side of this game.”
The Reds’ vision behind that trade has also become clear. While the Reds suffered through a 100-loss season last year, the Winker trade also set the stage for Jonathan India, Hunter Greene, Tyler Stephenson and Nick Lodolo to step into leadership roles.
Starting pitcher Brandon Williamson, the centerpiece of the Mariners trade, started for the Reds on Friday night against the Brewers. Right fielder Jake Fraley, another piece of that deal, was batting cleanup. Connor Phillips is one of the Reds’ best pitching prospects. In hindsight, as Winker has hit .216 over the last two years and Suárez has hit .231, the trade has been a clear win for the Reds.
When the Mariners trade happened, it devastated the clubhouse and had a direct correlation to the Reds’ 3-22 start last year. It broke up the core of the Reds’ 83-79 team from 2021. It created a lineup full of position players who had no experience playing together.
But it also gave the Reds a direction. This weekend, they face the Brewers with a chance to climb into first place in the NL Central.
“I believe in making tough decisions, doing what you believe in, making adjustments and not being afraid to change the plan,” Bell said. “I believe in having a plan, trusting that process. At the time, it was really difficult. Things don’t last forever. Every player that has been here, it was very tough to lose a lot of those guys.”
Before the Winker trade, the Reds were stuck in the middle. Winker, Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle were nearing the end of their contracts. The Reds had an aging roster with starters like Tyler Naquin, Kyle Farmer and Eugenio Suárez.
The Winker trade gave the Reds a chance to build around their young core. With a clearer picture 15 months after the trade, Winker sees how it was a pivot point for the Reds.
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“It was a baseball decision and a baseball move,” Winker said. “You have to do what you have to do when you’re running a team. They got a bunch of talent back. It was the same thing when they traded Luis at the deadline.”
When he played with India and Stephenson, Winker said he recognized how they can become franchise cornerstones. Winker has watched the Reds and seen impressive young players like Matt McLain, Spencer Steer and the young starting pitchers. On Twitter, he has seen the highlights of top prospect Elly De La Cruz.
“I’m happy for David (Bell),” Winker said. “Obviously I’m happy for the guys there as well. They got a good group of guys that I still know over there, like India and Joey. Everyone else, it seems like they’re having a great time and playing good ball. For the city and for the fans, I’m happy. They deserve guys that play hard and try to win. That’s a good baseball team over there with a lot of exciting pieces. It’ll be cool to see them.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Jesse Winker returns to GABP with new perspective on last year's trade