Offseason Outlook: Cincinnati Reds

The Reds had a seemingly successful season in 2013, but an early exit from the playoffs, apparent tensions in their clubhouse, and the possible departure of a star outfielder have led to uncertainty about their future. The Reds still have a strong core in place, but they could go in a number of directions this offseason, some of them franchise-changing.

Guaranteed contracts:

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Free Agents

The 2013 Reds won 90 or more games for the third time in the past four seasons, but that doesn't mean that all is well in Cincinnati. The team fired manager Dusty Baker after the season, frustrated that it couldn't handle the Pirates in a regular-season-ending three-game set in Cincinnati or a one-game playoff in Pittsburgh. (The Reds quickly replaced him with pitching coach Bryan Price.) Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who set the table brilliantly with a .423 on-base percentage, is a free agent. And on top of all that, the team will reportedly try to trade star second baseman Brandon Phillips.

Phillips' situation is unusual. The Reds owe him $50MM through 2017. He's getting older, is coming off a down season, and is developing a reputation as a clubhouse problem, so the Reds aren't likely to get much for him. Nonetheless, his contract, while far from great, isn't terrible, given the escalating cost of wins on the free-agent market. One would think that a good, but aging, second baseman with a long history with the Reds would have more value with his current, contending team than with potential trade partners. But the Reds, fed up with Phillips' attitude, apparently feel that isn't the case.

Phillips aside, the Reds appear set in the infield. Joey Votto is one of baseball's best hitters, and he's signed long-term. (Very long-term — he'll make $25MM per year from 2018 through 2023.) Shortstop Zack Cozart and third baseman Todd Frazier are coming off solid seasons, thanks in part to their good gloves. Cozart isn't a strong offensive player, so he'll need to keep fielding well to be effective, but his 2013 season was certainly good enough to pencil him in at shortstop next year. With Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan, the Reds will likely stand pat at catcher; those two combined for just 0.4 WAR in 2013, but there's reason to hope that Mesoraco, at least, will improve, due to his youth.

Jay Bruce will man right field, and Ryan Ludwick will likely occupy at least a platoon role in left, with the Reds hoping for a full recovery from the shoulder injury that limited him in 2013. If Choo departs, Billy Hamilton would be the obvious candidate to replace him. Hamilton demonstrated down the stretch that his world-class speed is a tremendous weapon. Between his baserunning and the fact that, unlike Choo, he's a legitimate center fielder, it's not ridiculous to hope that the gap between Hamilton and Choo might not be that big, although Hamilton's .308 on-base percentage at Louisville last season is a warning sign. If Choo signs elsewhere, the number of options that would obviously improve on Hamilton is fairly limited, barring a kamikaze pursuit of Jacoby Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson in free agency. Perhaps signing a cheap center fielder, like Rajai Davis, Andres Torres or Franklin Gutierrez, or a trade for someone like Peter Bourjos, might make sense as an insurance policy. In any case, the Reds' decision to extend Choo a qualifying offer will be a no-brainer.

In the rotation, the Reds will have Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani. Those five could be the basis of a very good rotation, but the Reds will need depth — as it stands, Pedro Villarreal or Greg Reynolds would be the next up if someone got hurt. The obvious solution would be to re-sign Bronson Arroyo, but he doesn't seem likely to return, and maybe that's for the best. Tim Dierkes predicts that Arroyo will receive a two-year, $24MM deal on the open market, and that seems like a lot to pay for a righty whose fastball barely cracks 87 MPH, who doesn't get many ground balls, and who will be 37 before the start of the 2014 season. Given that the Reds already have five solid rotation options, the better solution might be to hope that Arroyo settles for less, or to look for someone cheaper as their depth option.

The bullpen looks relatively set, with a core of J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Jonathan Broxton, rubber-armed Alfredo Simon and a healthy Sean Marshall backing up star closer Aroldis Chapman. The Reds did have mediocre lefty Zach Duke pitching in key situations down the stretch, so it might not be a bad idea to pursue another left-hander to complement Chapman and Marshall — re-signing Manny Parra, who was effective in 2013, might make sense.

Despite a capable pitching staff and a lineup that's reasonably well-stocked with players who are at least decent, the coming offseason could mark a turning point for the Reds. Baker's firing indicates that they aren't satisfied where they are, and in a tough NL Central  (with a perennial powerhouse in St. Louis, a suddenly-relevant Pirates club and a rebuilding Cubs team that could be strong sooner rather than later), maybe they're right not to be. It wouldn't be a shock, then, to see the Reds pull off some outside-the-box move this offseason, along the lines of their signing of Chapman a few years back. (For example, the Reds didn't end up signing Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero, but they did scout him extensively.)

In any case, the outcome of the Reds' offseason may hinge on Choo and Phillips. Choo's suitors could include everyone from the Cubs to the Mets to the Astros. GM Walt Jocketty has said that re-signing Choo might be tricky. But the Reds might be able to manage it, perhaps by saving money in a Phillips trade and allowing Arroyo to depart via free agency.

For Phillips, one destination could be Atlanta, with the Braves potentially shipping Dan Uggla and a prospect to Cincinnati. Uggla's home-run power would likely play well at the Great American Ballpark, but he would be a big defensive downgrade, and he hit .179/.309/.362 last season. The Reds would have to make up the difference between Phillips and Uggla elsewhere on the diamond, and that wouldn't be easy. Phillips may give the Reds headaches, but by attempting to trade him, they may just be creating another one. Despite playing a corner outfielder in center field, the Reds led baseball in defensive efficiency in 2013. Their fielding was a boon for their pitchers, who posted an ERA nearly half a run lower than their FIP. It would be odd if the Reds began their offseason by replacing one of their most valuable defensive players.

The Uggla rumor might be an unlikely one — he wouldn't save the Reds money, at least not through 2015, so swapping him for Phillips would be an unambiguous step backwards for the Reds that wouldn't give them much chance of making up for it in the short term. But in any case, the Reds will have to be creative this offseason. They could sign a starting pitcher, then deal from their rotation depth for help in the outfield. Bailey, who is set for free agency after the 2014 season, is a wild card; the Reds could trade him, or try to sign him to a long-term deal. The Reds begin their offseason with a number of balls in the air, and when April comes, it's unclear who will be around to catch them.

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