Traditionally, a Cincinnati Reds offseason includes the signing of an overpriced free agent, i.e. Eric Milton or Willy Taveras, and misplaced hope for the upcoming season.
Furthermore, the men of the Queen City usually attempt to fill major holes in their roster by acquiring “has-beens” and hoping that these players miraculously have career years.
This offseason has been a bit different, and the upcoming season may merit a hint of optimism.
The last major acquisition the Reds have made in recent memory was the Ken Griffey Jr. trade after the 1999 season. When rumors began to float around that the Reds were in the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes, no one gave them a chance to sign the 21-year-old, left-handed Cuban and free agent pitcher armed with a 100 mph fastball.
Pundits predicted Chapman would sign with one of the big-market teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets or Phillies. However, the Reds ended up on top by giving Chapman a six-year, $30.25 million contract on Jan. 12.
Clearly, the Reds are taking a huge gamble. Chapman is a classic example of a pitcher with a big, live arm, but one who is also dogged by control issues. In 327 career innings for Holguin, his Cuban team, Chapman struck out 365 batters but walked 203.
Coming into the offseason, the Reds had a gaping hole at shortstop. As the winter months wore on, popular opinion was that the Reds were going to spring training with Paul Janish, a slick-fielding but offensively-challenged shortstop, as the starter.
Then, way out of left field, the Reds signed veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera to a $3.02 million, one-year contract. The 35-year-old Cabrera has lost a step or two defensively, but is a significant upgrade offensively over Janish.
Also, by trading outfielder Willy Taveras, who was due $4 million next year, to Oakland along with infielder Adam Rosales, the Reds opened up enough money to sign Cabrera.
The last objective on the Reds’ offseason list would be bringing back outfielder Jonny Gomes. As a platoon player last year, Gomes hit 20 home runs in 281 at-bats and brought much-needed right-handed power to the lineup. Re-signing Gomes would also add experience to a young outfield that includes Chris Dickerson, Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce.
Without a doubt, the 2010 season is a make or break year for manager Dusty Baker. The Cincinnati Reds manager enters the last year of his contract having gone 74-88 and 78-84 in his first two seasons. Considering Baker was hired by General Manager Walt Jocketty’s predecessor Wayne Krivsky, it’s hard to see Baker returning if Cincinnati has another disappointing season.
In Baker’s first two seasons, he has had a significantly different roster to manage each year. In 2008, the Reds still had sluggers Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, whose personalities dominated the clubhouse. In 2009, the Reds were an extremely young team led by Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips.
However, the offensive problems that have plagued the Reds for much of the past decade still ring true today. Their mantra a few years ago was to rely on the home run ball to win games. Last year, with a precocious but young ball club, the team relied on small ball. Yet, they ranked No. 11 in the National League in runs scored and No. 15 in batting average.
Since the Reds did not make a big trade to acquire a power bat, Baker will fill his lineup card everyday hoping to get increased production from his young players. First baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips are entrenched in the three and four spots, while third baseman Scott Rolen will likely bat fifth.
Baker would be wise to utilize center fielder Stubbs’ speed and Cabrera’s contact skills at the top of the lineup. The Reds have not had a legitimate table-setter since Barry Larkin, and Stubbs’ blazing speed and bunt skills have the potential to make some noise in the leadoff spot.
The biggest question mark in the Reds’ line-up surrounds Bruce. After bursting onto the big league scene in 2008, the right fielder suffered a sophomore slump in 2009, batting .223 with 22 home runs and 58 RBIs. However, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel for Bruce. He batted .326 over his last 18 games, in part due to a stance adjustment following a stint on the disabled list.
The Reds’ clear strength is their pitching staff, specifically the bullpen. Closer Francisco Cordero anchors a bullpen that ranked near the top of the NL. Cordero is joined by flame-throwing right-hander Nick Masset and screw-ball lefty Daniel Ray Herrera.
The first four spots in the Reds starting rotation appear to be set in stone with Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Aaron Harang and Homer Bailey, while the fifth spot is up for grabs between a cast of characters including Matt Maloney and Micah Owings.
The Reds appear to be heading in the right direction. For the most part, their young stars have taken their major league lumps. They have proven veterans looking to rebound from injury-plagued seasons. Jocketty is an aggressive GM with a track record of success.
However, the fact remains the Reds have not been to the playoffs since 1995. Come August, if the Reds can stay healthy and get production from all 25 guys on the roster, they just may be able to keep Cincinnati fans focused on a pennant race instead of Bengals training camp.