You could say that a deficit of 19.5 games (that's how far the Reds are behind the Cardinals as of this morning) isn't likely to be made up in a year--especially not when there are three more teams between you and first place--and you'd be right. But the Reds have some intriguing young players and have been dragged down by some pretty devastating injuries, so it's worth taking a look.
2010 Reds now under contract, with 2009 WAR
C Ryan Hanigan (0.9)
1B Joey Votto (2.7)
2B Brandon Phillips (2.3)
3B Scott Rolen (3.0)
SS Paul Janish (0.6)
LF Chris Dickerson (1.8)
CF Drew Stubbs (Rookie)
RF Jay Bruce (1.0)
Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Aaron Harang (4.18)
Bronson Arroyo (5.10)
Johnny Cueto (4.75)
Homer Bailey (5.23)
Micah Owings (5.75)
Bullpen: Francisco Cordero (3.18), Nick Masset (3.84), Danny Herrera (4.05)
Bad, but filled with promise. Stubbs should be a hell of a player. Bruce is having a nightmare of a season, but was the top prospect in the game not two years ago, and he's been terrific in right field. Phillips plays good D and can hit better than the league-average line he's put up so far. Votto is a stud who missed a bunch of games this year, and his defense (by UZR) looks pretty bad for 2009, but was +10 runs (roughly +1 win) in 2008; a rebound by him should be expected and will make a huge difference.
Harang has taken a bit of a step back from his "unheralded ace" status of a couple years ago, but is still a solid pitcher, and all of the other four starters have shown signs that they can be very good pitchers (some more likely to be than others, but it's all possible). This is a team, however, that will badly miss Edinson Volquez, who is expected to miss most of the 2010 season. Their bullpen is full of guys with pretty ERAs; most bullpen ERAs can't be trusted, but given the sheer number of them, you have to figure they can find three or four talents in there that can anchor their 2010 'pen in front of Cordero.
Then again, they could just decide to blow the whole thing up any day now. Their odds are long, and Harang, Arroyo and Cordero are all pretty expensive. But let's just say they decide to go for it. And anyway, why would they have picked up the last year and a half of Rolen's contract if they weren't going to go for it?
What They Need to MAKE Happen
1. Get an impact player at catcher or shortstop. Impact catchers are hard (okay, impossible) to find on the open market. Bengie Molina wouldn't be a bad gamble at the right price (decent defensive skills and an OPS close to average qualifies as "impact" by catcher standards), but I'm sure someone (very likely his current club, the Giants) will overvalue his veteran leadership and RBIs and drive him well out of reasonable range.
At shortstop, I'm sure they can get the recently departed Alex Gonzalez back for a song, but that's approximately one song more than he's worth at this point. His defense has been good, but his bat has completely vanished, and comebacks by middling shortstops at age 33 aren't good bets (even if the bat comes back, the defense slips--see Guzman, Cristian).
So unless someone like Molina falls into their laps or they can swing an improbable trade for an underutilized catcher on someone else's team (I'm looking at you, Chris Iannetta), the focus should be on getting a better shortstop. The best of the free agent class is likely to be Marco Scutaro, though Miguel Tejada is out there too, and there are several likely to be available in fairly minor trades who could give you a +2.5-win-or-so performance.
2. Separate Dusty Baker from Willy Taveras and Everyone Like Him. I'd be all for firing Dusty Baker--the man just doesn't know what he's doing--but if you can't do that, you've got to purge your team of all possible gutsy, toolsy players so that Dusty can't be tempted to actually use them. Taveras is a blindingly fast runner, an excellent defensive center fielder, and an overall crap player because he can't hit to save his life. He'd be a fine pinch runner/defensive replacement, but Dusty would use him way more than that. Drew Stubbs needs to be the center fielder of both the future and the present for this team. No more Taverases and Corey Pattersons, anywhere, ever. Unfortunately, Taveras is owed $4 million for 2010 for some reason, so if he's healthy, he'll likely be given every opportunity to win a spot on the team. So come to think of it, just fire Dusty already.
3. Find a platoon partner for Chris Dickerson. The Reds have two reasonable options for left field: Dickerson and Laynce Nix. Nix has shown some nice power and both have played good D, but Dickerson is the better player, and both are lefties who can't hit lefties. It would be ideal if the Reds could move Nix for a similar bit player who bats right-handed. Dickerson is a career .289/.388/.460 hitter against righties. If they were able to pair someone like the Tigers' Ryan Raburn (.242/.355/.516 vs. LHP this season) with that, they could have the equivalent of something like a $10-12 million player for the cost of essentially two minimum salaries. (I have no particular reason to believe that Raburn would be available, but guys like him certainly will be--many are likely hidden away in AAA because of their inability to hit righty pitching.)
What They Need to HAVE Happen
1. Jay Bruce needs to get good fast. This was a guy that was projected as something like a .300/.350/.550, 40-HR hitter with good D in the outfield corners, and quickly. The defense has been there in '09, but the offense has been offensive, with 18 homers but a .207 batting average and a .287 OBP through Saturday. On one hand, there are all kinds of reasons to expect him to bounce back; he's very young, he's walking more and striking out less than in 2008, and he's been victimized by an almost unbelievably low .202 BABIP, so there's no question that a lot of it is bad luck. On the other hand, though, his line drive and ground ball rates have plummeted while his fly ball rate has shot through the roof (35.2% in 2008, 49.6% in 2009), which isn't conducive to getting a lot of hits. He's very likely to be a productive player in 2010 regardless, but getting back to hitting the top half of the ball every now and then would probably help a lot.
2. Scott Rolen needs to stay healthy. It's hard to believe Rolen will be just 35 years old in 2010; in some ways, he's seemed old since pretty much the day he arrived with the Phillies 13 years ago. From 2004-2008 he played 142, 56, 142, 112 and 115 games, and if he plays every remaining game in 2009 he'll still end up in only 132 for the year. But when he's on the field, he's still a star. He plays excellent defense -- if not as excellent as five or six years ago when he was the best-fielding 3B anyone who missed Mike Schmidt's prime had ever seen -- and is currently hitting .312/.368/.466. Much of that was in the tougher American League, and there aren't a lot of markers to suggest that he's benefiting from a lot of luck, so .300/.370/.480 or so would be a reasonable expectation from a healthy Rolen in 2010. This is a team, as I've said, whose status as a contender kind of on the brink as it is, so they badly need every game they can possibly squeeze out of Rolen.
3. Either Johnny Cueto or Homer Bailey needs to fulfill his potential. A year or two ago, they were two of the better pitching prospects in the game, and while Cueto has been much better than Bailey in the majors, neither one has come close to doing what people thought he could do. One of those two guys needs to take the leap and form a strong 1-2 with Harang. The good news is that in his last two starts, Bailey is 2-0 with 11 hits, 5 walks, 11 strikeouts and an 0.60 ERA in 15 innings; the bad newses are that (a) Cueto has seemed to get worse every month he's been in the majors, and (b) those performances dropped Bailey's ERA all the way from 7.53 to 6.04.
The Reds are going to have a tough time avoiding the 90-loss mark this year, and they're not going to emerge from Spring Training '10 as anything like favorites. But if all these things happen and they get a couple more little breaks here and there, I can see them winning something between 85 and 90. And is it really that hard to see 87 wins or so being enough to win the Central?
9 hours ago