For a team that lost 88 games last season, the Reds sure appear to be attracting a disproportionate share of the "if everything goes right ..." dark-horse buzz. It kinda makes sense: They're armed with one of the game's better cores of young, cheap talent. They return 80 percent of their starting rotation. They have a GM who sees the big picture and a manager who ... uh, knows his way around a toothpick? Treats his players like men, as opposed to wolves or robots?
Even with Dusty Baker involved, the Reds look primed for a nice little turnaround, if not their first winning season since 2000. As opposed to the National League's numerous reconstruction candidates, the Reds need only make a few tweaks -- some bullpen depth here, a left fielder there. And so, with only a few days to go before the Las Vegas winter meetings (and the 7,200 "Vegas, Baby, Vegas" headlines and "What happens in Vegas ..." story leads set to accompany them), we lay our cards on the table, blow on the dice, bum some quarters from a slot monkey and attempt to Save This Franchise! ™©®.
Short-term outlook: Pretty darn OK, assuming the expected improvement of the kids and continued development of the next generation. The NL Central doesn't look too imposing, and there's only one crummy long-term contract on the books (Francisco Cordero). This is a situation that can be turned around, and fast.
|Jay Bruce is a solid piece to build around. (Getty Images)|
On the pitching side, Edinson Volquez threw so well as to merit Rookie of the Year votes in his fourth go-round in the majors, while Johnny Cueto should thrive once he learns to keep the ball down. Bill Bray is already one of the NL's best lefties out of the 'pen.
Meanwhile, how many teams have four of their five rotation slots inked in at this point in the offseason? In front of Volquez and Cueto, the Reds will run out the veteran moxietudinousness of Aaron Harang and Bronson "Brandon" Arroyo. It'd be nice to slot in a lefty somewhere (maybe take a flyer on
Liabilities: They're lefty-deficient on the mound and righty-deficient at the plate. Despite the presence of Bray and Cordero (who's going to giggle his head off when this year's free-agent closers end up taking lesser deals than his), the bullpen looks shallow. Josh Roenicke should be ready to assume a role of some sort, but otherwise there's not much to work with.
Edwin Encarnacion is either a nice asset or a festering rash, depending on who's doing the assessing. Me, I have a weak spot for the boy. However frustrating he might be to watch –- the short-attention-span defense, the leisurely trots out of the batter's box -– it's hard to ignore that offensive potential. He doesn't seem the sort who responds to tough love; somebody oughta take him out for a soda and playfully tousle his hair.
Then there's the manager. In a refreshing departure from protocol, Dusty ruined a veteran pitcher -- Harang, who fell apart after throwing four relief innings between starts in a meaningless May game against San Diego -- rather than a young one. If you're a parent of a talented 19-year-old pitcher, what worries you more: Having your kid drafted by the military or by a team that employs Baker? Tough call.
Non-helpful and semi-realistic suggestions:
1. Find a big honkin' righty bat to play left field: This is the one position where the Reds got nuthin', even if they re-up 2008 band-aid Jerry Hairston (whose career highs in slugging and on-base percentage at age 32 totally shouldn't make anyone suspicious). The team could go the free-agent route, but Manny Ramirez and Pat Burrell are better ideas in theory (big righty smash smash hooray) than in practice (forbidding price tag, limb-flailingly inept defense). The underrated Juan Rivera could be a nice fit -- and affordable, too, post-injury -- but GM Walt Jocketty has historically avoided sojourns in free agency.
So that leaves the trade market and three candidates -- right fielders Magglio Ordonez, Alex Rios and Jermaine Dye –- who'd fit snugly between Bruce and Votto in the batting order. The Tigers, Blue Jays and White Sox all could use young pitching, which the Reds are in a position to surrender. They've already had some talks with the White Sox, who are eager to unload the rest of their win-now guys in the wake of the Nick Swisher and Javier Vazquez deals.
On the other hand, any trade for that elusive left fielder would include Homer Bailey, which would be a mistake. Yes, it's impossible to find a recent reference to Bailey not appended with "really, really needs a change of scenery." But he's still only 22 and, as recently as 18 months ago, was considered one of the game's top five prospects. How far had you evolved professionally and emotionally by age 22? Me, I ate croutons for breakfast and skipped work to catch up on Cheers. Don't give up on the kid ...