It’s the time of year for all teams to attempt to improve their club with personnel moves and there has been some activity already during the winter meetings in San Diego. Cincinnati has pulled off some big deals in recent years, but thus far they’ve done nothing more noteworthy than moving out utility outfielder Chris Heisey. One thing for sure is that GM Walt Jocketty is keeping his eyes open and he won’t be bashful to pull the trigger if the price is right.
Unfortunately the Reds will be handicapped more by payroll limitations in what could be a closing of a chapter of playoff contention after they struggled through an injury-plagued 76-86 campaign. Lucrative contract extensions over the past few years will take its toll on the small market payroll and most of their starting rotation, which has been the strength of their team, is eligible for arbitration. They did exercise a club option to keep 20-game winner Johnny Cueto at a bargain, but he’s eligible for free agency in 2016.
The first thing to do is assess the current personnel and prioritize holes that need to be filled. The immediate question mark glaring is left field after they opted out extending Ryan Ludwick’s contract and dealt away Heisey. There’s also good reason to have concerns on the bullpen outside of Aroldis Chapman. They shipped out Jonathan Broxton at the trade deadline and rookie Jumbo Diaz, who was not on last year’s opening day 40-man roster and made his MLB debut at the age of 30, was their most reliable set-up man. Of course the most perplexing factor is how many of their 2014 weaknesses will be remedied by better health? It’s a safe bet they won’t have as many injuries next season, but overly-optimistic to think that all of them will disappear.
The easiest solution would be to sign free agents to fill holes and not sacrifice talent in a trade. However, that route is limited by players available and their ability to outbid other teams on the open market. Rumors predict that one of their starting pitchers will be moved to provide some payroll flexibility. Without knowing what strategies are in Jocketty’s head or ownership’s budget it’s hard to speculate precisely who is in their cross-hairs. There have been reports of talks “without much progress” which means they could be legit or just posturing to improve their ability to leverage a better deal before going after the real target.
Though they may not partake, they will probably look at the free agent market and Nori Aoki for their left field hole. He slashed .285 AVG/.359 OB, but he doesn’t really fit the bill for their need, a right-handed power hitter. Last season after moving to a pitcher-friendly park in Kansas City he hit only one home run and would be more of a top-lineup hitter that would push Brandon Phillips back into the cleanup spot instead of a middle lineup guy to release him from it.
Perhaps a better solution would be Mike Morse who is testing the market after spending last season with World Champion San Francisco. He hit sixteen homers which could easily improve because he cracked the 30 HR level back in 2011 for Washington. He’ll turn 33 before opening day, but perhaps he could regain some of his thump from younger years if he called Great American Ball Park home. Overall his slash line with the Giants was an attractive .279 AVG/.336 OB/.475 SLG while defensively he’s seen most of his action in the outfield corners. Last year he split time at first base, but while in left field he kept a fielding average and range factor per nine innings around the league average.
Shortstop is another spot that could use some offensive improvement, but it probably won’t steal much attention away from other needs. Zach Cozart should be in the opening day lineup for the fourth consecutive season and the last Red before him to do that in two consecutive years was Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. Cozart flashes good leather in the field and has hit around .250 with double digit homers in two different seasons. That may not get him an all-star appearance, but it would be very tolerable if he gets pushed down to the eighth spot in the lineup.
As for the bullpen, Chapman was again dominant when he was able to pitch. Unfortunately for Reds opponents, that was whenever needed after he recovered from a line drive to the head suffered in spring training. Unfortunately for the Reds, any closer has his value compromised when his team cannot hand him a lead. Diaz worked himself into some high leverage situations by the end of the year and he should have an inside track on eighth innings.
With Chapman closing there’s a need for another southpaw to set up and injury has limited 32 year-old Sean Marshall to only 31 games combined over the last two seasons. Perhaps Tony Cingrani would be a good fit if the veteran can’t come back. He’s no stranger to the bullpen after being a lockdown collegiate closer at Rice. He had an impressive rookie campaign after Cincinnati fast-tracked him to the MLB level as a starter in 2013, but he spent over half his season on the DL last year. The big knock on Cingrani is an overdependence on his fastball and limited secondary offerings isn’t as big of a handicap for a reliever. However if one of the starters is traded it will probably pull him back to the rotation.
They’ll probably roll the dice on Manny Parra, J.J. Hoover, and Sam LeCure to return to pre-2014 form. LeCure was a nice contributor to the great bullpen dependability enjoyed in Cincinnati for two seasons and remained effective until June last year. Parra grew into his reliever role nicely in 2013 after coming over from Milwaukee. Hoover might have made some think he could be closer material before he suffered through a 2014 season that Reds fans hope was an anomaly. Alfredo Simon did a great job filling in for injuries in the rotation last year which was rewarded with his first all-star appearance, but that did mean that the pen had to sacrifice a reliable set-up man. Cuban Raisel Inglesias could work his way onto the mix somewhere.
The most likely avenue for a head-turning trade would be via a trade. Recently the Reds were linked in rumors to Red Sox outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. He’s got plenty of power to fill the need, but his on-base percentage probably won’t ever be much north of .300. Perhaps having only one year left on his current contract would make him easier both for his current team to deal and for Cincinnati to add. Justin Upton and Matt Kemp would be great fits, but their asking price would not make them much more than wishful thinking.
This is the most challenging time for making decisions in Cincinnati since Jocketty assumed the GM position. After a fifteen year absence from post season their playoff run in 2010 made it clear to make deals to sustain contention. Last year’s losing season may make some wonder if they are reaching a crossroads and need to consider rebuilding. Fewer injuries could silence those notions, but their core is getting older. If they again get only six home runs from Joey Votto and Jay Bruce can’t figure out how to hit against a shift, there’s not much reason to expect them to improve on an offense that was fourteenth in the NL in scoring runs.
On the other hand, there are enough names to make out a potent lineup card with five recent all-stars and a runner up for Rookie of the Year. The rotation is there (for now) and if the bullpen returns to previous form it could have them challenging for their third division title in six years. That is a lot of "if's" and it’s easy for someone who doesn’t pay the bills to opine, but the rebuilding process can take a long time and it would be a shame to throw in the towel now. Any big time move this offseason will be interesting and perhaps revealing on their plans. In the meantime Reds fans should keep their fingers crossed for better health and hope for one more chance for this team to come together to for another October run.
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