Offseason decisions: The Reds need a starterby Joel Luckhaupt
December 02, 2011
One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
Following a sudden return to national prominence in 2010 after a decade of darkness, it was easy to understand why many Reds fans were optimistic about a resurgence of the Big Red Machine. Besides having an MVP moving into his prime, the team featured a bevy of young talent that looked ready to blossom. Sure there were holes and question marks, but the team also employed a general manager with a history of making the right moves at the right time.
And then nothing happened. Well, that’s not completely true. Stuff happened. A lot of stuff happened to other teams especially. But the Reds stood pat. Collared with a tight budget, the team made minimal moves during the offseason outside of buying out the arbitration years of a few of their young players with guaranteed deals. Oh, and they signed Bronson Arroyo to an extension. Oops.
Not surprisingly, the 2011 Reds looked as stagnant on the field as their front office looked during the offseason. They were never more than eight games over .500. They were never worse than six games under .500. They never won more than five games in a row, which they did in the first five games of the season. They never lost more than six games in a row. Of the 103 different 60-game stretches during the season, 95 saw the Reds win between 27 and 31 games. They never got crazy hot. They never got disastrously cold.
The result was a 79-83 record and a third-place finish in the NL Central. It was their 10th losing season in the last 11 years.
The 2011 Reds were adequate. That’s all. Nothing more. Nothing less. Depending on how you look at glasses partially filled with liquid, being adequate can be a good thing or a bad thing for the Reds heading into this offseason. On the plus side, being adequate means that the team does not need a major overhaul to be competitive. On the down side, asking fans which problem is in most need of fixing will give you seven different answers.
The only thing that is clear is that the Reds can’t afford to be complacent like they were last offseason.
Unfortunately, the starting pitching
The 2011 Reds spent most of the season either first or second in the NL in runs scored, finishing second to the Cardinals with a 735 total. Their defense was the only one to rank in the top two in the NL in DRS, UZR, TotalZone, DER and RZR. It’s not hard to see where the biggest hole for the Reds is right now, is it?
The strange thing is that many felt that the team’s depth at starting pitching was going to be a strength heading into the 2011 season. They had as many as eight viable candidates for the rotation, and that was with Aroldis Chapman slated for the bullpen. But volume does not make up for mediocrity, and despite a breakout (though injured) year from Johnny Cueto and a successful sophomore season from Mike Leake, the Reds staff was the only NL team to fall in the bottom two in each of FanGraphs' defense independent categories (FIP, xFIP, tERA and SIERA).
The Reds front office, at least in words, appears to realize that an upgrade is needed in the rotation. Whether those words turn into action remains to be seen. Budget constraints mean that the team will not be a player on the free agent market. However, any time a pitcher is mentioned as a possible trade target, the Reds are linked as a possible suitor. If, for some reason, an ace or No. 2 level starter gets floated out to the trade market, look for Walt Jocketty to make a big push and try to land him. Given the pool of No. 3 and No. 4-level starters already in the fold, it’s unlikely the team will go after just any old pitcher, though. The Reds still have the volume, but they need more than mediocrity.
If trade time does come, the Reds have a couple of decent hitting prospects to offer. First baseman Yonder Alonso is ready to hit at the major league level, and if it weren't for Joey Votto, he'd be starting every day for the Reds. The team may try Alonso in left field again in 2012, but if a good deal comes along, look for the team to trade him.
Another valuable prospect who could be made available is catcher Yasmani Grandal. Grandal was the Reds' first-round pick in 2010 and has already seen limited time in Triple-A. He's a well-rounded, switch-hitting catcher—something you don't find too often in the big leagues—but with Devin Mesoraco ready to take the majority of starts behind the plate for the big league squad, Grandal could be had in the right deal.
The Reds also have a mix of polished, though not high ceiling, players in Triple-A as well as some high upside, though still a ways away, guys in A-ball who could be packaged in a deal but aren't likely to be centerpieces. And of course, they've got several No. 3 or No. 4 starters such as Homer Bailey or Travis Wood who might attract some interest from a team that thinks a change of scenery could do those players some good. The team is not stacked with trade options, but there is enough quality that getting a deal done isn't a ridiculous notion.
Perhaps the biggest addition the Reds will make to their rotation won’t be via transactions, though. The team has already said that left-handed flamethrower Aroldis Chapman will be moved to the starting rotation next season after spending all of last year in the bullpen. Will he be able to handle the transition? That remains to be seen, and the move has not been without its bumps already.
Chapman pitched in the Arizona Fall League and was supposed to move from there to winter ball in Puerto Rico. However, shoulder soreness in Arizona has made the team gun-shy about sending him to another competitive league, so Chapman will continue on a strength and conditioning plan in Arizona before moving down to Florida to work on getting stretched out to start. If the 23-year-old Cuban can continue to develop his pitches and transition well to the rotation, it could be a major boost to the Reds' shaky starting staff.
Closing out the game
The biggest downside to a shaky rotation is that it often has detrimental effects on the bullpen. Despite having some quality arms throughout, the Reds bullpen was run into the ground early in the season by a starting staff that struggled to consistently finish five innings. And now, with the likely departure of Francisco Cordero to free agency and Chapman's move to the rotation, the bullpen has become even thinner.
If the Reds do spend any money on a free agent, expect it to be for a reliever, possibly someone to close out ballgames. It is unlikely, though, that they will give out another contract like the one Cordero received four years ago ($48 million) from then-GM Wayne Krivsky. Jocketty’s history shows that he’s much more likely to build a bullpen on the cheap, and given the team’s financial constraints, he might not have a choice.
Filling out the lineup
The Reds could start the season tomorrow and put a sufficient, though not spectacular lineup on the field. Outside of the superstar at first base and above-average players at second base and right field, the team could try to upgrade any other spot on the field if the right deal comes along. The most likely spot for a deal, though, is left field, where the Reds could look to acquire a big, likely right-handed, bat to go in the middle of the order between Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. After trying Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips in the middle of the order for the past two years, it’s clear the team could use a more reliable power-hitter from the right side to help balance manager Dusty Baker’s need to split up the lefties.
A less likely scenario is for the Reds to try to acquire a more traditional leadoff hitter. Phillips performed well in the first spot for the last month-and-a-half of the year, but his history tells us that he’s not the high-OBP speedster most teams desire in that spot in the order. Baker considers Phillips to be one of his most versatile hitters, so if he decides that he’d rather have him in the second or fourth spot in the order, look for the manager to ask Jocketty to try to get him a new leadoff man.
Joey Votto’s (probably) not going anywhere
There has been a lot of talk about the fact that Joey Votto is going to start getting very expensive for the Reds in 2013 and the fact that Votto has made every indication that he wants to test free agency after that season. This has led many to believe the Reds might be interested in dealing Votto this offseason, a belief that has been fed by reports from national media outlets that while the Reds are not actively shopping Votto, they are listening to offers.
As silly as this may sound, Reds fans should hope that the team is listening to offers for Votto. He’s a great player and would be very hard to replace, but every player should be available for a price. Some players might just have a much higher price than others. But with Alonso waiting in the wings and with the Reds looking to possibly upgrade at several different positions, trading Votto shouldn’t be out of the question. The theoretical haul that he could bring in a deal, especially with two years left before he's a free agent, has to be tantalizing enough to consider, even if it's a longshot that some team might meet those demands.
That being said, Jocketty has been adamant that the Reds are not going to trade Votto. In fact, he’s told anyone who will listen that the rumors of any possible Votto deal are patently false. Is he posturing? He could be, but the more likely scenario is that the Reds see 2012-13 as a small window of opportunity to compete. You can spend all your time piling up prospects for the future, but it doesn’t do any good if you never take the chance to cash in, even just a little bit, and go for the ultimate goal of a championship. It may not happen this offseason, but sometime in the next two years, look for the Reds to follow the Brewers' model and go all out to win a title while Votto is still in the fold.
Gold Glove? Check. Silver Slugger? Check. Extension?
Phillips has been very public about his desire to sign an extension and finish his career with the Reds. The 30-year-old second baseman is coming off the best season of his career and is also set to be a free agent after the 2012 season. He's due to make $12 million in 2012 and has said he does not intend to give the team a "homeboy discount." As of now, Jocketty has said that the two parties are far apart, but they're still working on a deal.
The Reds do not have a middle infielder in waiting at this point, with highly-regarded prospect Billy Hamilton just finishing the year in Low-A Dayton and probably still two or three years away. The ideal situation for the team would likely be a two-year extension, but word is that Phillips is looking for a Dan Uggla-type contract. If that's the case, expect the Reds to drag their feet on a deal. With Phillips already under contract via an option the team picked up for next season, they do not need to be in a rush to sign their second baseman.
A year after clinching the team's first division title in 15 years, the Cincinnati Reds are at a crossroads with some fans. Many in the city are jaded by nearly two decades of futility from both of the city's professional sports teams and the Reds risk losing a lot of the goodwill that they built up during the 2010 season. If the team fails to make a push over the next year to really improve the team, it could find itself back with a diminishing fan base quickly. The Reds' window for success with Votto will be open for only a short time. If they are unable to take advantage of it, they'll have a hard time rebuilding the trust with many of the fans again.
Joel is a lifelong Reds fan that somehow fell into his dream job as Statistician for Fox Sports Ohio Reds broadcasts. He's also co-authored a book called The Wire-to-Wire Reds about the team's last World Champion. If you don't like what he has to say, you can find him on Twitter: @jluckhaupt
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