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The NL Central Offseason Revue Pt. 2: The Red Menace

Um, I think Jocketty is the one on the left.
Um, I think Jocketty is the one on the left.

I decided I'm going to try and do these in order from best to worst in the division; unfortunately, that now means I have to try and come up with preseason predictions before the offseason is even half over. Not a great idea on my part, really; I should have done them in alphabetical order or something. Oh, well. Too late for such considerations now, I suppose.

Of all the teams in the Central, perhaps none is so enigmatic as the Cincinnati Reds. Every spring for god knows how many  years now we've heard the constant refrain, "Look out for the Reds this year. This is the year they finally turn that corner." Now, to be fair, we hear much the same thing about the Pirates, but predictions of Pittsburgh's rise are always couched not in terms of contention, but in terms of near-winning baseball. Thus, even as the predictions are made, our natural inclination toward Piratic indifference kicks in. The Reds, on the other hand, are a different story.

See, the thing about the Reds is this: they have some really, really good players. Players I would love to have on my team. They stole Brandon Phillips from their in-state rivals just a couple offseasons back, right from under the Cards' noses, even as Junior Spivey was busily reminding us not all reclamation projects end up reclaiming anything. Sometimes the ship stays sunk. (By the by, I'm proud to say I was one of the people hoping and advocating for the Cards to bring in Phillips. Sadly, our voices were not heard.) The Reds have some outstanding young arms. Their closer is one of the better ones in the business. (Still not worth his contract, but that's another issue entirely.) The right fielder is the guy the Cardinals really wanted in 2005; they chose Colby Rasmus specifically because he was the most similar player to Jay Bruce in the draft. There is some real talent here.

Yet somehow, year after year, those cries which warn us of the approaching Cincinnati domination always turn out to be wrong. Every year the Reds find some way not to win. It's gotten to the point I almost fear the offseason when no one cautions against the Reds; perhaps the spell will then be broken and this long-benighted franchise will step fully into the light. Or, perhaps not.

Either way, a little insurance can't possibly be a bad thing.

This is the year, folks. Watch out for the Reds.

Cincinnati Reds 2009 Record: 78-84, 13 games out of first

Pythagorean Record: 76-86 (673 runs scored, 723 allowed)

It was another disappointing year for the Reds, who came into the 2009 season with one of the most promising teams Cincinnati has seen in years. There was tons of optimism, and rightfully so; the Reds' rotation was immensely talented and young, just beginning to come into its own. Unfortunately, the struggles of youth and the injury bugbear combined to rob the Reds of their pitching bite, and the offense simply wasn't good enough to compensate.

Offense:  After years of watching the Dunn/Griffey led Reds mash their way through the division while failing to hold anyone to less than seven runs per game, the 2009 Reds were a positively anemic change of pace. The Cardinals were not a particularly prolific offensive team, but the Reds made them look positively potent by comparison. (I'm feeling quite loquacious this morning, by the way. Does it show?) The Cardinals scored 730 runs, 57 more than the limp-lumbered lads from Cincy. Nearly six wins worth of offensive production is nothing to sneeze at.

While the Reds' problems at the platter in 2009 were legion, one can point to two areas in particular which acted as anchors around the necks of the Redlegs. On the one hand, you have the outfield. Then, on the other hand, you have the infield.

One of the more glaring issues for the Reds was the appallingly average sophomore slump of Jay Bruce, who followed up what was a very encouraging debut season with, essentially, the exact same performance. Not that that's the worst thing in the world, mind you; Bruce's OPS+ was 97 in '08 and 100 in '09, making him exactly league average, but this is Jay F. Bruce we're talking about here. He's young, yes, but you still don't expect him to be duking it out with Skip Schumaker  for the title of Averagest HItter in all Baseballdom.

The good news, for Cincinnati fans at least, is this: Jay Bruce is still a better hitter than what he's shown in the majors. I feel completely confident in saying I still expect Bruce to be a star, given time to grow and better health. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the rest of the Reds' outfield. This is, after all, a team which paid Willy Taveras actual, honest to god money to post a .559 OPS over the course of 400+ at-bats. Laynce Nix proved a source of superfluous Y's and steroid speculation, but little else. (Well, except against the Cardinals, that is.) He did put up an OPS+ of 98, but from a left fielder, you've got to expect a bit more thump. The lone real bright spot for the Reds was Johnny Gomes, who hit quite well in the Great American Bandbox, to the tune of an .879 OPS. Unfortunately, Johnny Gomes plays defense like Chris Duncan using an oven mitt. Still, beggars can't be choosers, I suppose.

On the infield, things were a bit more of a mixed bag. The right side of the Reds' gamut of grounder grabbers was brilliant, with Joey Votto establishing himself as a legitimate force (OPS of .981 for the season), and Brandon Phillips turning in another of his usual five-tool showcase performances. The left side of the infield, however, oy. Not so much. Paul Janish and Adam Rosales took the lion's shares of at-bats at shortstop and third base, respectively, and both posted OPS's in the low .600s. (Janish took the low .600s thing to the extreme, posting a .601.) Jerry Hairston played a fair amount at various positions all over the diamond and was a little better, though he still wasn't inspiring shock and awe in too many opposing pitchers.

Now that's the bad news. The good news (again, for Reds' fans), is that there will be different faces at several positions for 2010. Drew Stubbs, the Reds' uber-athletic Mike Cameron clone, came up late in the season and displayed a wide base of exciting tools in center field. Stubbs has speed, he has power, and he can go get it with the best of them in the field. The only thing holding him back is his tendency to take lots and lots of empty swings. Sort of a center field version of Tyler Greene.

The other big upgrade the Reds can count on is, of course, our old buddy Scott Rolen. Rolen came over from the Blue Jays in a midseason trade and played quite well for the Reds, hitting .270/.364/.401 and playing defense which was nearly Rolenesque. The Rolen of old is gone and he's never coming back, but the new model is still a substantial upgrade over what the Reds were trotting out most of the season.

Starting Pitching

What was supposed to be the biggest strength for the Reds ended up helping to drag them down. As the year opened, there were some touting the Reds' 1-2 rotation punch of Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto as the best in the National League, and perhaps one of the best in all of baseball. Sadly, Volquez succumbed to injury, having Tommy John surgery in early August, and Cueto seemed to take a step backward from his rookie campaign, even though he ended up with a lower ERA for the season. Cueto started off hot, then imploded in the late summer months, allowing an opponent's OPS of 1.026(!) in July and .938 in August. He did turn things around a bit at the end of the season, pitching better in September, but it wasn't enough to wash away the sins of the previous two months.

As strange as it sounds, Bronson Arroyo actually had sort of an okay year. Sort of. Kind of. He went 15-13, 3.84, gave up less hits than innings pitched (214 H in 220.1 IP), and struck out almost twice as many batters as he walked. Now, as to how he did it, I honestly have no idea. Every time I saw Arroyo, he was being yanked out of the game after giving up five runs in two and a third. He's basically Swamp Gas II: the Swampening at this point for me. Homer Bailey continued to frustrate those of us who believe prospect ranking should count for something, damn it, by not turning into Nolan Ryan, but there were positive signs. While his overall numerical profile doesn't inspire much confidence, Bailey did pitch extraordinarily well in September, going 4-1, 2.08 and striking out 42 batters in 43.1 innings while walking 19. Let's put it this way: if Walt or Dusty decide Homer's just not going to work out up there, I would be more than happpy to take him off their hands.

Elsewhere in the Reds' rotation, Aaron Harang was bad again, Micah Owings was a really good hitter, and Kip Wells gave Cincinnati a taste of the 2007 Cardinal magic.

The rotation could very well still be a strength in 2010 for the Reds. If Bailey really has turned a corner and Cueto can find a bit of his early-season magic after Memorial Day, Cincy could have a nice tandem atop the rotation. Add Volquez possibly returning for the stretch run, and that's an intriguing trio. And as much as it pains me to say it, you could probably do worse than Bronson Arroyo and the Harangutan for your 4th and 5th spots. (Then again, for what the Reds are paying those guys, they could also do miles better.)


And now we come to the real strength of the Cincinnati Reds: their bullpen. (I'll take 'Sentences I Never Expected to Speak' for $600, Alex.) After years of wandering in the desert, searching for relievers, the Reds seem to have finally found the guys to put the kibosh on any late-inning uprisings.

Francisco Cordero is not worth his contract. We'll just get that out of the way up front. Nonetheless, he's a very, very good pitcher even as he enters his mid 30s, posting a 2.16 ERA last season. He could fall off a cliff, but I don't think he will. I think we're just going to have to put up with him being good for the near future. Maybe we could get Spiezio to sober up and just pinch-hit during series with Cincinnati...

The biggest difference for the Reds between 2009 and past seasons was the emergence of Nick Masset and Danny Ray Herrera, the Screwball Kid himself, as legitimate setup men. In the past, even when the Reds had a player who could shut the door at the end of the game (remember when Todd Coffey looked like a good pitcher for like three months? Wasn't that weird?), there was nothing in the way of a bridge to get there. With Masset and Herrera, the Reds finally have that bridge.

The rest of the Redleg relief corps was solid but nothing spectacular. Arthur Rhodes was good, making me wish the Cardinals had more Rhodehouse and less Diner, but secondary LOOGY certainly isn't anything to get too very upset about.

Offseason Priorities

To be honest, I'm not sure how much Walt Jocketty and the rest of his communist cronies are going to be doing this offseason. The very same thing that makes the Reds such an intriguing team is the thing which makes them so difficult to improve. The Reds are a transitional team, and  the opportunity cost of bringing in marginal upgrades may just prove to be a bit too steep. Add in the fact Cincinnati appears to have very little breathing room in terms of payroll, and I think it will likely be a relatively quiet offseason for Jocketty and Co.

The two big opportunities for the Reds to make upgrades are at shortstop and left field; unfortunately, upgrading at either of those spots is easier said than done this winter. The Reds lack the financial capacity to get into the bidding for either of the big LF prizes, Holliday or Jason Bay, and most of the other players available would represent a middling upgrade at best. The Reds have two players in their system, Todd Frazier and Chris Heisey, who both could see time in left in 2010. Frazier is a third baseman by trade, but earns his keep mostly with the bat, and could see outfield time a la Allen Craig just to get him into the lineup. Heisy is a speedy, plus-defense type with a line-drive swing and fair on-base skills. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Reds bring back Gomes as a LF/1B guy on days when Votto isn't playing and try to work one or both of Heisy/ Frazier in slowly with ABs in left.

Shortstop, on the other hand, might be a bit more interesting. There aren't a whole lot of guys out there, but there are a couple decent names. If the Reds were looking for an offensive upgrade, either Miguel Tejada or Felipe Lopez could offer a bat for a fair value. Of course, both have significant questions surrounding their abilities to play shortstop, but hey, I said offensive upgrade. If Cincinnati decided to go more for a defense-first guy, Orlando Cabrera can still pick it with the best of them. Regardless, I think shortstop is the most likely position to look toward if the Reds are going to make a move this offseason.

I'm sure Jocketty and Baker would like to pick up a more dependable arm for depth in the rotation, but I'm not sure they'll have the payroll to do so. The Reds are already paying Harang and Arroyo gobs of money; they may try to deal for an arm but I don't see a signing there. The bullpen actually needs the least help of all; they may sign a guy to replace Rhodes if he leaves or something like that, but I think the relief corps is largely set.

The Bottom Line

Do I think the Reds are going to be better than Milwaukee? I must, since I did them before the Brew Crew, right? The answer is a decided and unequivocal maybe. I think the Reds have the potential, certainly, to improve more than probably any other team in the division, simply based on their young talent base. I think the Brewers largely are who we think they are, a team of tremendous offensive talent and very, very limited pitching resources. The Reds, on the other hand, have a lot of untapped potential on both sides of the equation, and depending on how things break, they could vault up the standing in the Central or remain the same enigmatic bunch of underachievers they have been for years now.

I think the addition of Scott Rolen was a cataclysmically bad one, but, paradoxically, I also believe he'll make the Reds better in the coming season. He should provide just enough offense while helping the pitchers out significantly.

In the end, the success or failure of the Reds' 2010 season will likely have little to do with what, if any, moves Walt Jocketty makes this winter. Rather, the fate of the first season of the new decade (eat it, Matty!), will hinge largely on the three pillars upon which we've been told Cincinnati's new glory would be built for years: Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto. If those three are the players they were thought to be on the way up, the Reds could very well make some noise. If not, it could be another very long summer in the home of the world's shittiest chili.

The Baron's Playlist for the 16th of December, 2009: the Christmas Catalogue

(In no particular order, by the way)

  1. "Fairytale of New York" - The Pogues
  2. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" - Brenda Lee   (listen closely; she's actually saying fucking pie. Seriously.)
  3. "You're All I Want for Christmas" - Brook Benton
  4. "A Change at Christmas (Say it Isn't So)" - the Flaming Lips
  5. "Merry Xmas Everybody" - Slade
  6. "Jingle Bell Rock" - Bobby Helms   (this is the song that will one day force me to pull to the side of the road and cry when my mother is gone)
  7. "White Christmas" - The Drifters   (sorry, but this one is way, way better than the Bing Crosby version) 
  8. "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" - John Lennon and Yoko Ono
  9. "Blue Christmas" - Elvis Presley
  10. "Happy Holidays" - Alabama   (I really, really hate Alabama, but I loved this song when I was a kid listening to the old True Value Hardware Christmas records) 
  11. "We're Going to the Country!" - Sufjan Stevens
  12. "Peace on Earth/ Little Drummer Boy" - David Bowie and Bing Crosby
  13. "Marshmallow World" - Dean Martin
  14. "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" - Nat King Cole   (another True Value special) 
  15. "Frosty the Snowman" - The Ronettes
  16. "Jingle Bells" - Glenn Miller
  17. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" - Frank Sinatra
  18. "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" - Gayla Peevey   
  19. "Christmastime is Here" - The Vince Guaraldi Trio   (sadly, this song underwent one of the worst remasters I believe I've ever heard just a couple years ago; find the old, unremastered version.) 
  20. "Christmas Wrapping" - the Waitresses   (this song is utter crap. I fucking love it.) 

I'm going to stop at 20. It's tough for me to do, but I'm going to do it.