Having appeared in the postseason for the first time since 1995, the Reds are in a position where, if everything breaks right, they could enjoy a sustained run of strong seasons, along the way becoming the powerhouse team the NL Central has been missing as the Cardinals have weakened.
The reason for this is, of course, the team’s extraordinary core of young pitching, almost all of it developed by the organization. With Aaron Harang departing as a free agent, Bronson Arroyo represents the lone extra-organizational veteran on the staff. Everyone else of significance, including Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Travis Wood, and Aroldis Chapman were Made in Ohio, USA, or as close as we come these days, having been signed and developed by the Reds.
Note that I excluded Edinson Volquez from the foregoing list. That is because my first act as Reds GM for a Day would be to shop the undersized right-hander. As good as Volquez can be, the Reds have outgrown the need for him. He dealt with post-Tommy John wildness in 2010, but he’s also always been wild. Even in his last healthy season, 2008, consistency eluded him; if you look only at the numbers on the back of his baseball card, it’s easy to forget that his second-half ERA was 4.60.
With so many respectable candidates for the starting rotation—I count at least eight, including Chapman—the Reds don’t have to depend on Con Edinson for power. Volquez is arbitration-eligible this offseason, and the Reds being a budget-minded organization with several other key players also eligible, including Cueto, Joey Votto, and Jay “Don’t Bring Me Down” Bruce, this is the one place where the Reds can make a deal from strength and save money at the same time.
It is also an opportunity to add talent. Despite his playoff pasting, Volquez’s strong September (1.95 ERA in four starts) should help dispel any concerns about the lingering effects of his surgery, making him an attractive acquisition target who could bring a solid return. Having said that, those four starts came against Pittsburgh, Arizona, Milwaukee, and Houston, so there is no reason for us within our front office of the mind to get overly excited about retaining him.
The Reds can use help at shortstop and left field. There is a potential match here with the Rays, particularly if Yonder Alonso is included in the deal. With Votto’s MVP-level performance in 2010, Alonso is more blocked than Finland in 1939. The Rays are about to part ways with Carlos Pena, and it is rumored that they are looking to deal Jason Bartlett and B.J. Upton. One can take or leave Bartlett—the Reds have other options at shortstop that may be better, though with Bartlett likely to be a Type-A free agent after the coming season, obtaining him could net the Reds a draft pick down the road—but Upton could be quite valuable. With their pitching depth, the Rays could retain or swap Volquez (they have sufficient pitching depth to do without him, and also have their own concerns about arbitration-eligible pitchers), but Alonso gives them an interesting option at first base that they do not have.
The Reds had two glaring problems last year, both of which Upton could solve. First, they had no obvious leadoff man. Dusty Baker tried Orlando Cabrera, Drew Stubbs, and Brandon Phillips in the role, but none did well and the lineup spot hit .244/.306/.378 overall. Second, Jonny Gomes was too much of a presence in left field. Gomes is the National League Marcus Thames, a fine platoon player with .276/.371/.507 career rates against left-handed pitchers, and a defensive nightmare. Worse, he was a power hitter who didn’t hit with notable power. Upton has stagnated, having hit just .250/.340/.399 over the last three seasons, but at 26 there is still hope, and he does some things the Reds could use, like walk, steal bases effectively, and use his speed effectively in the outfield. A pasture patrol comprised of Upton, Stubbs, and Bruce would be one of the better defensive units in recent memory. Upton clearly has problems of concentration, as his frequent clashes with Joe Maddon and his failure to draw a walk in his last two postseasons (42 PAs) suggest, but Baker may be able to reach Bossman Junior where Maddon failed.
Given the general paucity of shortstops around the game, the Reds don’t have world-beating options there, but their in-house choices might do just as well as anyone they can bring in. Paul Janish is a fine defender who can’t hit—it’s probably too much to hope for a repeat of even his .260/.338/.385 rates in 2010. Triple-A shortstop Zack Cozart is going to struggle to hit .250 in the bigs, but he has power that should play up in the Great American Ball Park, and good range. While it would be preferable for the Reds to have a new Dave Concepcion or Barry Larkin, some combination of Janish and Cozart should provide a survivable combination of O & D at the position, and thus this GM for a Day is not prioritizing the pursuit of a shortstop.
The bullpen is a more pressing concern. The unit was middling as a whole, and closer Francisco Cordero seems to be nearing the end of his useful lifespan with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that has declined for three straight seasons. Dealing him and the $13 million remaining on his contract is going to be a problem, so throwing money at an established closer type is likely out of the question. In any case, I believe that closers aren’t born, they’re made, so whichever of my many candidates for the starting rotation that doesn’t stick there will get a chance to demonstrate if their stuff plays up in the bullpen. In the meantime, I’m going to look hard at some of the talented but second-tier relievers on the free-agent market, pitchers such as Grant Balfour and Koji Uehara, who might be willing to come on short-term, reasonably-priced contracts, and can alternately set up or close depending on how bad things get with Cordero.
Finally, I would make every effort to avoid arbitration with Bruce, Cueto, and Votto and sign them to long-term contracts. At 24, 25, and 27, respectively, each should be good for the long haul and remain the center of the ballclub for years to come. It has been over 30 years since the Reds were a year-in, year-out playoff contender, but given the fecklessness of the Astros, Cubs, and Pirates, the forever-on-the-brink nature of the Brewers, and the decline of the Cardinals, they have every chance to finally offer an encore to the Big Red Machine. They earned the chance with brilliant scouting work, and now it’s time to collect the reward.