The 2011 Cincinnati Reds finished 79-83, which put them in 3rd place in the NL Central – 17 games behind division winner Milwaukee and 11 games behind Wild Card winner St. Louis. This came just one season after they won 91 games in 2010, and won the division (though, that record was a bit deceptive, as they had the best record in baseball against teams with a losing record, and were below .500 against winning teams). The Reds are unique in that they are in one of the smallest television markets in all of professional sports (only Milwaukee is slightly smaller in all of baseball), yet they are one of the most historic teams in the sport (they lay claim to the oldest team still in existence). Their history allows them to remain relevant in such a small area, along with the fact that the closest team in any sport with any amount of following is over 100 miles away in Indianapolis (and beyond that, there’s no one within 250 miles with any amount of following – Bengals? no; Browns? not really; Cavs? not without LeBron).
So, it’s this history and reasonable amount of popularity in the region that has allowed a team in the second smallest television market to spend money equivalent to those more in the middle of the pack – over the last 4 years they’ve averaged $73.85 million in payroll. And, currently, the Reds already have $56.6 million locked up for 2012, before they ever offer arbitration to anyone. This money will cover 10 players (Bronson Arroyo, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Scott Rolen, Yonder Alonso, Ryan Hanigan, and Miguel Cairo), plus the $1 million buyout of Francisco Cordero‘s contract. The Reds also have a handful of pre-arbitration eligible players that will be able to make significant contributions in 2012 – including starting CF Drew Stubbs, starting pitcher Mike Leake, reliever Sam LeCure, and platoon outfielder Chris Heisey.
It will certainly help to be rid of Cordero’s contract, as well as Edgar Renteria and Ramon Hernandez (a total of over $15 million in payroll in 2010). And, much of the help the Reds will be getting to replace them will be coming from their farm system. We could see as many as five rookies get significant playing time in 2012. The most likely one is Zack Cozart, a shortstop who had an .825 OPS in the minors last season, and who can steal bases and play the position well. He’ll compete with Paul Janish for the starting job, and the loser will likely still play a significant role off the bench (unless, of course, the Reds decline to offer Janish arbitration, and choose to give the job to Cozart right away). Devin Mesoraco (the #2 catcher prospect in baseball, and #20 overall) is the reason Ramon Hernandez is expendable – he’ll compete with Ryan Hanigan for the starting catcher position. Todd Frazier and Juan Francisco have excellent potential, but there are questions about where they should play. Their natural position is at 3B, but both Rolen and Cairo are clogging up that position. Depending on how they perform in spring training, I could see the Reds sending out some feelers to see how interested someone might be in acquiring Rolen. His $6.5 million in payroll in 2012 isn’t an outrageous number, but it would certainly be nice for the Reds if they didn’t have to pay it. Frazier can play a few other infield and outfield positions, and Francisco can play the outfield. So, even if they aren’t starting, they would certainly be useful off the bench. And, lastly, Brad Boxberger will likely begin the year in the bullpen in Cincinnati. In 55 games split between AA and AAA ball in 2011, he posted a 2.03 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, a 3.32 K/BB ratio, and 13.5 K/9 ratio, while allowing just a .157 opponents’ batting average.
And speaking of young talent, the Reds may actually have too much at a couple positions. At the catcher position, Hanigan is only 30, and Mesoraco is just 23. Meanwhile, the Reds have the #7 catching prospect in all of baseball in their AAA system (Yasmani Grandal). It’s nice to think he would be useful if someone were hurt in 2012, but outside of that, you’re losing a lot of potential in a guy that’s stuck at the AAA level, who’s a switch-hitter batting over .300 with an OPS over .900, and was the #12 overall pick in 2010. The Reds also have a log-jam at 2B. Phillips is just 30, and the Reds are reportedly working on an extension for him. If that extension goes any beyond 2013, then they will need to decide who’s more important to the future of their franchise – Phillips, or the #1 2B prospect in all of baseball, Billy Hamilton (who stole 103 bases in A-ball last season!). I say they shouldn’t hold on to Phillips and his fat contract any longer than they have to – as soon as Hamilton looks ready, bring him up. And, as for the catchers, why not trade one of the two prospects? They’re going to be ready for the majors at virtually the same time, and you aren’t going to have room for both. Decide which one is going to be the catcher of the future, and trade the other.
Why make a trade? Because the pitching needs some serious help in 2012. The biggest hole I see is the closer position. I understand not wanting to pay Cordero $12+ million, but being ready to trade for the right guy might be worth it. For example, if Pittsburgh was willing to part with Hanrahan, or if the Cubs would consider trading Marmol, you should jump on it. Those guys will cost a little more than half what Cordero would have, and either team would likely love to have a guy like Grandal in return. Other than a trade, Cincinnati’s best bet is Heath Bell. If you give him a 3-4 year deal worth something in the $30-40 million range, you can make sure the first year or two are in the $8 million range, so that the brunt of his contract dollars comes after a couple of your higher-priced players have moved on and been replaced with young talent. After a trade or signing for a legit closer, the Reds still need another solid, reliable reliever with experience. Koji Uehara makes a lot of sense for a couple years at around $4-5 million each. This would really solidify a bullpen that already could have a guy like Bell or Hanrahan, and Boxberger, as well as LeCure and Bill Bray.
The talk in Cincinnati is about moving Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation, but my advice would be to slow that train down a little. The guy’s fantastic out of the bullpen, but hasn’t given any indication that he has the stamina to put it all together for 6 or 7 innings. When he comes out of the bullpen, he throws as hard as he wants – but, he can’t do that for more than an inning or two. And, he’s essentially a 2-pitch guy, that has a below-average 3rd pitch. How many starters do you know that don’t have at least 3 pitches they can rely on throwing for strikes? And, the Reds have a decent starting rotation without Chapman in there, if they can stay healthy: Arroyo, Cueto, Leake, Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey. I could perhaps see Chapman competing with Bailey for the #5 spot in the rotation, but he certainly shouldn’t be considered ahead of any of the other four. I would say leave Bailey in there at #5, because Chapman is more valuable coming out of the bullpen.
So, the starting lineup for Cincinnati in 2012 won’t look much different from 2011: 1. Stubbs – CF; 2. Phillips – 2B; 3. Bruce – RF; 4. Votto – 1B; 5. Alonso – LF; 6. Rolen/Frazier/Francisco; 7. Cozart/Janish; 8. Hanigan/Mesoraco. The starting pitching might not look any different, and the bullpen could use the adjustments mentioned above. All in all, this would cost around $76-79 million – a very reasonable budget for a competitive team in Cincinnati.