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September 20, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Cincinnati Reds

by Steven Goldman, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we bid farewell to the Cincinnati Reds, a team many thought would repeat as National League Central champs.

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Signs of hope:
Reigning MVP Joey Votto suffered little drop-off from his career season, once again ranking among the best hitters in the league, while Jay Bruce, still just 24, set a career high in home runs, mostly by dint of a torrid .342/.402/.739 May. Likely free agent Brandon Phillips, one of only two regulars over age 30 (the other being the catching tandem), had his best offensive season. Despite injuries that truncated his season at both ends, right-hander Johnny Cueto maintained an ERA below 2.00 into late August, and Mike Leake had a solid if unspectacular sophomore season. Despite instability at several positions, particularly shortstop, the Reds had one of the tightest defensive units in baseball.

Signs of disaster: The Reds are a team in transition, but it's not clear what their plan is or where they are heading. They lead the National League in runs scored, but that is more a function of generous Great American Ball Park than it is a measure of a great offense. Veteran-loving manager Dusty Baker did not seem to realize this and stuck with underperforming players for far too long before turning to some of his younger alternatives, including shortstop Zack Cozart, who was quickly lost to injury after finally making his debut in July. Similarly, catcher Devin Mesoraco could have come up far earlier if the Reds had dealt Ramon Hernandez, whose contract is up, at the trading deadline. Meanwhile, even though Cueto led the league in ERA for much of the season, the staff never came together. The rotation, exemplified by Bronson Arroyo's 44 home runs allowed, ranked last in the league with a 4.95 fair run average.

Signs you can ignore: Aroldis Chapman's 4.00 ERA. The Reds have turned the potential starter or closer into the world's hardest-throwing irrelevant spot. The potential is still there for him to dominate, if the Reds can get their heads around an expanded role. Yes, Chapman has walked 7.8 batters per nine innings, but fireballing young lefties almost inevitably struggle with command—it's just something the Reds have to let Chapman work through. When batters haven't walked or struck out (he's K'd 13.2 per nine), they've found it darned near impossible to make hard contact, hitting just .151 with two home runs. The Reds are wasting Chapman's time and theirs by keeping him in a very limited relief role. —Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Reds should begin their offseason by not picking up the $12 million club option on Francisco Cordero, instead giving the closer job to Chapman. They should let catcher Ramon Hernandez and shortstop Edgar Renteria also leave via free agency, and hand those jobs to Mesoraco and Cozart, respectively.

Their minor league system is loaded with prospects and general manager Walt Jocketty is in a good position to upgrade his big league roster. The biggest trade piece he has is Yonder Alonso, the Reds' No. 1 draft choice in 2008 out of Miami. Alonso is blocked at first base by Votto, so his greatest value to Cincy is on the trade market.

The bold move the Reds should make is a blockbuster with the Oakland Athletics, giving up Alonso along with Brad Boxberger, Travis Wood, and Dave Sappelt for Gio Gonzalez. The 25-year-old lefty has proved the past two years that he's not only a 15-game winner but also a 200-inning workhorse with one of the game's best curves.

Gonzalez would fit nicely at the top of the Reds' rotation behind Johnny Cueto, and the A's—a team with plenty of pitching depth—need to rebuild their lineup. —Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 92-70

The 2011 season will ultimately go down as a disappointment, but the Reds are going to finish near .500 with a team that has a lot of holes that shouldn't be present next season. Cueto isn't a 2.31 ERA pitcher, but the rest of the rotation drastically underperformed, especially relative to 2010. Bronson Arroyo doesn't have an ace season in him, but he should at least be a serviceable innings-eater in 2012, and ZiPS still sees the odds of Travis Wood bouncing back or even breaking out in 2012. The Reds still have Votto and Bruce and will almost certainly pick up Phillips' $12 million option. Add in Cozart, who is much better at short than either Paul Janish or Renteria, and the recipe for another divisional title does exist in Cincy.

Worst-case scenario: 73-89
The team has enough talent to make a truly terrible season unlikely in 2012, but there are still a lot of question marks to make another disappointing season very possible. After Cueto and Mike Leake in the rotation, there's a great deal of uncertainty. Players like Edinson Volquez, Wood, and Bailey all have a great deal of talent, but injuries and ineffectiveness make it really hard to rely on any of them to get the rotation back to 2010 levels. Scott Rolen was a big part of the 2010 team, but at 37 next year there's a lot of downside risk with him. The Reds could reduce their floor by simply figuring out what to do with Alonso, using him on the team or trading him are a lot more helpful to the 2012 team than letting him start next season in Louisville. —Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Reds will find out a lot about their future in 2012. With two of the top catching prospects in the game, they'll learn if Devin Mesoraco is the answer at the big league level, and if so, learn what the trade market is for Yasmani Grandal. They'll learn if Yonder Alonso can be a full-time player in the big leagues, or if he'll always need a platoon partner because of his struggles against southpaws. Down on the farm, they'll learn if first baseman Neftali Soto is for real or just an all-power/no-approach player in the mold of Juan Francisco and if shortstop Billy Hamilton's second-half adjustments with the bat this year can allow him to become the type of blinding-speed leadoff man we haven't seen since the 1980s. Next season will not be one in which the young talent brings the Reds back to the top of the National League Central, but that's when we'll figure out whether it can. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Johnny Cueto,  Baseball Prospectus 2012,  Reds

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