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October 4, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Cincinnati Reds

by Baseball Prospectus

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 79-83, fourth place
Current record: 77-84, fourth place

Dusty Baker sure wouldn't mind having Barry Bonds at the fourth slot in this lineup.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: Edinson Volquez appeared poised to lead the Reds' staff into the future, but he lasted just nine starts before requiring reconstructive elbow surgery. This set the tone for the Reds, who hovered around .500 before a total collapse after the All-Star break. Willy Taveras was brought in to make an impact at the top of the Cincinnati lineup; instead, he mustered just a .275 on-base percentage. Jay Bruce missed two months and struggled to get on base in the months that he did play. The Reds had major problems producing runs against left-handed pitching; only six teams had a lower OPS against left-handers than Cincinnati's 712.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: Simply put, how do they get better given their budget dynamics? The Reds opened the 2009 season with a payroll of $73 million, and presumably Bob Castellini is not going to go all Steinbrenner and pump in another $20-25 million. The Reds already have enormous obligations to four veterans: Francisco Cordero ($12 million), Aaron Harang ($12.5 million), Bronson Arroyo ($11 million), and Scott Rolen ($11 million). That's $46.5 million to players who are not presently high-impact types, which leaves little wiggle room for the Reds as far as next year's budge. Their best chance for improvement might be in the powerful right arm of Homer Bailey, who had a tremendous year of progress in '09, getting better and better; he went 3-1 with a 2.41 ERA in the month of September. Maybe he could be what Volquez was supposed to be. "I think they might be as far away from seriously contending as the Pirates, or maybe even farther," said one scout who watched Cincinnati as it closed out its season.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

The Reds haven't posted a winning season since 2000, but they came into the year with a PECOTA forecast that gave them around a 20 percent shot at the playoffs (12.1 percent division, 7.6 percent for the NL Wild Card). That modest projection acknowledged what most observers already knew-this team would feature a nucleus of promising young talent and older mainstays, but also a few gaping holes. On the offensive side, Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion both projected to rank among the majors' top 50 in EqA. Alas, they both missed significant time with injuries. As a result, the Reds' offense currently ranks 15th in the league in batting average, OBP and EqA, and a park-aided 11th in scoring at 4.1 runs per game.

Despite an acceptable 4.5 runs per game allowed-which owes something to a much-improved defense-Baker's harrowing reputation with young pitchers reared its head. Volquez wound up undergoing Tommy John surgery after just nine starts and Johnny Cueto fell apart. Arroyo and Harang rebounded, though the latter was a victim of miserable run support (3.4 per game).-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Key stat: .245 AVG/.301 OBP/.354 SLG

That's the combined showing of all Reds batting in the top two lineup spots, constituting 24 percent of the team's total plate appearances and proving that Baker's ideas about what make an offense work are completely out of touch with reality. During a ghastly stretch in which the team lost 45 out of 68 games, Taveras batted an appalling .216/.230/.243, and the lineup's production shriveled to 3.6 runs per game. Once Taveras mercifully went on the disabled list with a quad strain in mid-August, Baker reacted by locking rookie Drew Stubbs (.260/.313/.438 overall) in the leadoff hole and weak-hitting shortstop Paul Janish (.215/.297/.308 overall) in the second slot. Despite this rather appalling second act of managerial malfeasance, the Reds have gone 26-15 since Taveras went down, though that performance has more to do with a pitching staff that's held opponents to 3.8 runs per game via strong finishes from Arroyo, Bailey, and Cueto.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

ESPN.com Rumor Central

Depth Chart: Reds fans are convinced the team needs to acquire a big bat-and GM Walt Jocketty said recently he'll keep an eye out for one-but they need to consider what remains in-house if people are healthy. Bruce missed more than 60 games and Votto nearly 40, and Rolen has been dinged up, and regardless of what you think of Jonny Gomes, he's hit 20 homers in just 278 ABs. In a full season, each could slug 30 homers (especially in this park), and that's without mentioning Brandon Phillips. Rumor Central thinks the Reds will be quiet. Look for them to turn to their system or bench for solutions, with guys like Paul Janish, Drew Stubbs, and Ryan Hanigan helping at short, center, and catcher.

Free Agency: We mentioned Gomes, a guy with 20 homers and no idea where he'll land next year. Well, he's arbitration-eligible, and the Reds simply need to tender an offer to keep him around. Expect them to.

Who 2 Watch 4: Drew Stubbs, CF

The most surprising aspect of Stubbs' big-league debut has been the power. One of the best all-around athletes in the game, Stubbs had shortened his swing in order to cut down his disturbingly high strikeout rate-and that led to just three home runs in 107 Triple-A games this year. The power (and the strikeouts) have returned, with his home park helping, but he does so many other things well, including drawing walks, stealing bases and playing a Gold Glove-caliber center field.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap
Signed: 33 of 51
Spent: Just under $5 million.
Hit: Brian Pearl, RHP (269th overall): Pearl signed for $90,000 and has reportedly touched 96 mph in the Pioneer League. He was a potential first-round pick when the spring began, and ranked 56th on Keith Law's Top 100.
Miss: Not that it was a horrible pick, but Mike Leake was not the best player on the board with the eighth overall pick. He may not have even been the best college arm who might have signed for near-slot money and was available at the time, with right-hander Alex White and lefty Rex Brothers still up for grabs.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

With Votto, Phillips, Bruce, Stubbs, Cueto, Bailey, and a rehabbed Volquez, the Reds can still claim a promising young nucleus. Alas, Baker's work this year shows that he may be the biggest obstacle to the team's success, and with one more year on his deal, he's not going anywhere. Trading either Arroyo or Harang is certainly an option; the two players have about $28 million remaining on their deals via 2010 contracts and 2011 buyouts, so moving one of them might create an opportunity for a midlevel signing. Still, it's difficult to envision this team breaking out of the middle of the pack without keen vision and bold steps.-Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Jay Bruce,  Prospectus,  Reds,  Drew Stubbs

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