Gambling may be prohibited in baseball, but Brandon Phillips has a tip for those who like to place futures wagers. “We’re the team to beat in the National League Central in 2010,” the Reds second baseman said.

No, Phillips wasn’t kidding. He said it with a straight face, even though the Reds are wrapping up their ninth consecutive losing season. And yes, Phillips has the reputation for saying just about anything when he gets excited. Still, it’s a free country, and everyone is entitled to voice their opinion, so why not at least let Phillips give his rationale on why he thinks the Reds can get to the postseason in 2010 for the first time since 1995?

“For one thing, we have a pretty darn good team when we’re all healthy,” Phillips said. “The problem is we never had our whole team together this season. Then I look at all the guys who have been called up when we’ve had to use the disabled list and those guys can play. So, I figure when we get to spring training next year, it’s going to be very interesting. We’re going to have all our regulars healthy. Then we’re going to have all the guys who got thrown into the fire this year and that’s going to give us better depth. That’s why I look at it and say we’re the team to beat. We’ve got a lot of good players.”

We won’t know until this time next year if Phillips’ logic is sound. However, at least he sounds convincing. Reds manager Dusty Baker also has an optimistic outlook for a team that is 75-82, which is progress for a franchise that last had a winning season in 2000, when it dropped a tie-breaking play-in game to the Mets for the NL Wild Card. However, Baker’s hopefulness comes from his belief that the Reds might be on more even economic footing with their division rivals when next season begins. The Reds opened this season with a $73-million payroll, which was fifth in the six-team division behind the Cubs ($134 million), Astros ($102 million), Brewers ($80 million), and Cardinals ($77 million) and ahead of only the always-thrifty Pirates ($48 million). Owner Bob Castellini isn’t expected to raise the payroll significantly next season but Baker is hopeful other NL Central team will curb spending in a tough economy. “Hopefully, some of the other clubs have spent so much money that they can’t add any more money,” Baker said. “I’ve heard it’s a sub-par free-agent year. That might make it better for us, too.”

With the Reds having little financial flexibility to add a significant player in the winter, Baker is hopeful a move made at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline this season will pay off big. The Reds raised plenty of eyebrows when they traded for third baseman Scott Rolen despite being 45-56 and 9½ games behind the Cardinals. However, Rolen had asked Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi to send him to a team closer to his home in Indiana, and the Reds looked at the trade as a two-year move. The Reds’ biggest need is a right-handed hitter with power, and Rolen was once that player. However, he is clearly in the decline phase of his career at 34 years of age, and he has managed just a .259 EqA and two home runs in 144 at-bats since the trade. Still, Baker believes Rolen can be a difference-maker in 2010. “He will be with us from spring training and he’ll be adjusted to being back in the National League again,” Baker said. “I think he can be a big player for us.”

The Reds’ offense needs a boost as it is just 12th in the NL with an average of 4.1, runs scored a game; take out the park effects and use team-wide Equivalent Average, and they’re 15th in the league, ahead of only the Giants. The unit hasn’t had many bright spots except for first baseman Joey Votto continuing his march toward stardom, with a .325 EqA in his second big-league season. Retread outfielder Jonny Gomes posting a .295 mark after being non-tendered by the Rays in the offseason.

More happily, the Reds sit in the middle of the pack in pitching, standing eighth in the 16-team NL by allowing 4.5 runs a game despite losing ace Edinson Volquez to Tommy John elbow surgery in May. Arroyo has 5.3 SNLVAR and closer Francisco Cordero (3.16 WXRL) heads a strong bullpen that has also gotten significant contributions from right-hander Nick Masset (2.71) and ageless left-hander Arthur Rhodes (2.55). “We’ve really missed Volquez because the rest of our pitching has been so good,” Phillips said. “He was our ace. He was our guy. If he doesn’t get hurt, it’s a different story for the Cincinnati Reds in 2009.”

Instead, it has been the same old story for the Reds this year. However, Phillips isn’t the only one in the clubhouse who believes 2010 holds promise. “Trading for Rolen showed that Bob Castellini and (general manager) Walt Jocketty believe we can win next year,” Arroyo said. “We’re going to get a chance to prove ourselves. It’s time for all of us to step up. We’ve lost for too many years here, and I think everyone knows it’s either time to starting winning next year, or management will blow this team up and start over again.”

One of the great things about winning is that it usually helps everybody get along better. That is the case with the Cardinals, as manager Tony La Russa and GM John Mozeliak have greatly improved their relationship this season while their team has clinched the NL Central title. La Russa was stung when Jocketty, his close friend, was fired as the GM following the 2007 season, and Mozeliak was elevated from assistant GM. It did not help their frosty relationship that La Russa publicly admitted he was not happy that Mozeliak did not add any help via in-season trades last year as the Cardinals finished 86-76 and in fourth place in the division.

However, Mozeliak has made so many positive moves this season that he has to be considered a strong candidate for Executive of the Year. He bolstered the lineup greatly by acquiring left fielder Matt Holliday from the Athletics, and he dealt for Indians super-utilityman Mark DeRosa and Red Sox infielder Julio Lugo while also signing right-hander John Smoltz as a free agent after he was released by the Braves.

“We’ve always had a very professional relationship,” Mozeliak said. “I’ve always been interested in what he thinks, and interested in what he wanted to see us do. We’ve communicated very well but I do think perhaps he has a greater appreciation now of our desire to win. Not that he doubted it, but if there was any question about ownership and myself and whether we would do everything possible to win as long as it made sense, I think Tony knows we are driven to win.”

Mozeliak said that the reason the Cardinals did not make the kinds of moves last season that they did this time around was because owner Bill DeWitt and rest of management did not feel they had the makings of a contender. That changed this year, though, as the Cardinals felt the division was wide open, particularly after the two-time defending champion Cubs faltered early and never took control.

For his part, La Russa said he never disliked Mozeliak or felt he had to prove his worthiness as a GM. “I’m loyal to a fault,” La Russa said. “Last season I answered media questions. When asked if we were good enough I would say, ‘No, we need some help.’ But I understood when we didn’t get anything done. There wasn’t a lack of trying. So I never held it against Mo or anybody. It’s not my style to agitate the front office. There are times when it isn’t realistic to get that help. We’ve never said, ‘Win at all cost.’ I never did that to Walt Jocketty, I’ve never done that to Mo or to Bill DeWitt. Look, I don’t understand the financial part. If your hands are tied, you can’t do something stupid and damage the franchise. I understand that. When we backed off our budget, I never complained. They knew what they’re doing here, and my attitude was ‘we’ll make do.’ And I think it’s a great story that we got Matt and Mark and these other guys, because the fans helped make it happen. Our attendance was higher than expected. Bill responded by adding payroll, and Mo went out and got us what we needed.”

Yankees GM Brian Cashman likely won’t join Mozeliak as a candidate for Executive of the Year, because the team with the highest payroll in the game is expected to win. Furthermore, Cashman went on an unprecedented free-agent spending spree last winter when he doled out $423.5 million in free-agent contracts to A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira.

However, now that the Yankees have clinched the American League East title and are headed back to the playoffs a year after their run of 14 consecutive post-season appearances ended, Cashman is at least getting plenty of credit in his own organization. “With the personalities of the guys we brought in here, the front office did a lot of homework in the offseason,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I think the way last year ended left a bad taste in all our mouths, and Brian went out and did something about it.”

As usual, Cashman declined to take credit for the Yankees bouncing back to win the division this season after finishing third in the division behind the Rays and Red Sox in 2008. Cashman believes the credit should go to managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner for giving the allowing him to outbid the rival Red Sox and offer Teixeira $180 million after already investing $245.5 million in Sabathia and Burnett. “That was a huge approval by Hal,” Cashman told the Bergen Record‘s Ian O’Connor. “We’re not here without that piece, Teixeira, with a lot of others. I’m just thankful for the Steinbrenners because it’s their money in the middle of this.”

There was much speculation that Cashman would be fired last season when the Yankees were shut out of the postseason. However, he agreed to a three-year contract and said that he stayed with the Yankees because wanted to “change the story.” So has Cashman rewritten the story now that the Yankees are headed back to the postseason? “No,” he said. “We really need to run the table. We have a chance to do something special, and I just hope we’ll play our best baseball when it counts, in October.”

The Angels clinched their fifth AL West title in six seasons Monday night, but this one was different than the rest said right-hander John Lackey, who has been there through the whole run. “They never get old,” Lackey said. “You’ve got to celebrate, for sure. We’ve been together since the middle of February. It’s a long journey, and a lot of things didn’t go as planned.”

The overriding aspect of the entire season for the Angels has been the death of right-hander Nick Adenhart. The 22-year-old was killed along with two friends in an automobile accident four days into the season on April 9. Angels manager Mike Scioscia talked to his team about Adenhart for several minutes following the clinching victory before the celebration began. “It was definitely very emotional,” reliever Kevin Jepsen said. “It was Scioscia saying, ‘No matter what happens, everywhere we go Nick is with us.’ He’s been with us the whole way and he’s pulling for us. He was part of this team. He can’t be here to celebrate but he’s in our hearts.”

Adenhart is so embedded in his former teammates’ hearts that center fielder Torii Hunter says the Angels are more driven than ever to win the World Series. “Nick Adenhart should be here celebrating with us, but the Good Lord took him,” Hunter said. “Now, we’re just celebrating in his name. He’s a very important part of the team. We’re playing hard for him. Trust me, he’s here in spirit and love. We’re going to try to bring his ring back home for him and give it to his parents.”

Six series that could mean something this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Nationals at Braves, Thursday-Sunday (October 1-4)
Garrett Mock vs. Tommy Hanson, 7:10 p.m. (MLB Network); Livan Hernandez vs. Derek Lowe, 7:30 p.m.; Ross Detwiler vs. Jair Jurrjens, 4:10 p.m. (Fox); J.D. Martin vs. Tim Hudson, 1:30 p.m.

Marlins at Phillies, Friday-Sunday (October 2-4)
Rick VandenHurk vs. Joe Blanton, 7:05 p.m.; Anibal Sanchez vs. Cole Hamels, 4:10 p.m. (Fox); Josh Johnson vs. J.A. Happ, 1:35 p.m.

White Sox at Tigers, Friday-Sunday (October 2-4)
Jake Peavy vs. Edwin Jackson, 7:05 p.m. (ESPN); Freddy Garcia vs. Justin Verlander, 7:05 p.m.; John Danks vs. Rick Porcello, 1:05 p.m.

Royals at Twins, Friday-Sunday (October 2-4)
Lenny DiNardo vs. Francisco Liriano, 8:10 p.m.; Zack Greinke vs. Nick Blackburn, 4:10 p.m. (Fox); Luke Hochevar vs. Brian Duensing, 2:10 p.m.

Giants at Padres, Friday-Sunday (October 2-4)
Barry Zito vs. Kevin Correia, 10:05 p.m.; Matt Cain vs. Wade LeBlanc, 10:05 p.m.; Jonathan Sanchez vs. Edwin Mujica, 4:05 p.m.

Rockies at Dodgers, Friday-Sunday (October 2-4)
Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Randy Wolf, 10:10 p.m.; Jorge De La Rosa vs. Clayton Kershaw, 9:10 p.m.; Jason Marquis vs. Hiroki Kuroda, 4:10 p.m. (TBS)

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Cashman shouldn't be considered. He did a good job, but any team that spends the money they did is going to be greatly improved. They added the best hitter - an All-Star and potential Hall of Famer in his prime - along with the two best pitchers on the markey that also happen to be among the best 20 hurlers in the game.
Well, the difference this season is that Cashman's additions have performed to their expectations, unlike in some years (Pavano, Jaret Wright). The Swisher trade has panned out well. The additions of Hairston and Hinske have been beneficial to Girardi's manueverability. So, I think Cashman gets a solid "A" this year.
I don't think it's simply a matter of pitching to expectations. I'm not sure anyone who really understands analysis had very high expectations for Wright and to just a slightly lesser degree, Pavano. So one could easily argue that those two DID perform to expectations. But, there weren't a lot of FA pitchers to choose from that year. There was Clemens (who the Yankees were recently soured on at the time), Pedro, Matt Clement and Odalis Perez among the top starters with Wright and Pavano. Hardly a comparable to a 28-year old Sabathia in the bunch. In both years they signed a couple of the top pitchers, it's just that the quality at the top of the 2008 FA class was a heckuva lot better.
Also, just because you throw gobs of money at a free agent doesn't mean they'll perform to the value of that contract (see Bradley (Milton), et al)
The free agents were huge for the Yankees, and thus their ability to foot the bill was huge too, but another massive aspect of their 100 win season was the turn-arounds of Robinson Cano, Jeter, Matsui, Damon, and the return to health and productivity from Posada. Those are all guys who seemed to be on the downward slope last year, but all of them turned it around and then some. I'm not sure Cashman gets credit for that, but he did sign most of those guys and stick with them.
I'm fine with that. I like Cashman and I'm pleased he's the Yankees GM, but I do think the payroll advantage makes it just about impossible to consider him executive of the year. I doubt he cares much about that in any case. I'd give him a B+ this year. He spent a ton of money on two premium guys, CC and Tex. He spent a ton of money on a second-tier guy, AJ Burnett, and I think that contract will end up sucking. He spent more money than I'd like on a reliever (Marte) who has done little. He made an excellent trade for Nick Swisher, and two smallish but solid trades for Hinske and Hairston. Home-grown guys developed on his watch are contributing (Cano, Joba, Hughes, Gardner, Melky, Robertson, Coke). All in all, it's good work, but hard to separate from the monster payroll.
I don't think comparing Burnett, CC and Tex to Pavano and Wright is comparing apples to apples. They added premium talent this year and got a premium result.
I think from a signing standpoint the comparison is better than you suggest. While there were certainly some analysts (here at BP certainly) suggesting that Pavano and Wright were not going to be as good as their contract-year seasons suggested, they were certainly considered to be the top or near the top of their respective free agent classes. Certainly they did not have the long track-record of CC, but there was reason to believe that they would be decent, if not superstars.
The Wildcard play-in game was in 1999, not 2000.
Yup, the team Greg Vaughn just hauled onto his back and drug along.
I love BP's optimism, (the player not the publication). That said, until Baker is dealt with, I can't share it. It's great that the Redlegs have been playing great in september, but there's no indication that Dusty is going to suddenly figure out that having a sub .300 obp guy lead off every game wrecks your offense. Or heck, having Brandon Phillips as your cleanup hitter doesn't show a deep understanding of the game.
The Jays were awesome last September as well. It lasted all the way through to Mid-May when they fell flat again. Until.....wait for it.... this September!
I like how Baker's plan for the Reds' future success depends on the rest of the NL Central doing nothing and Scott Rolen returning to form. How old school!
The Rolen deal was puzzling to say the least. Is Rolen just a 2010 trade chip (a la Holliday was in Oakland this year)? Is Rolen a better place-holder (less troublesome to move off 3B) for the next 3B in the Reds system?
"...but the Good Lord took him," Hunter said. Good grief.
I know it was a short stay relative to his career with the Braves, but wasn't Smoltz released by the Red Sox before signing with the Cards?