By Marc Normandin
The Reds are in a difficult position heading into the 2014 season. Sure, they made the playoffs last year, long enough to be eliminated in the NL wild-card round by the division-rival Pirates, but this is clearly a team with issues. After losing Shin-Soo Choo to free agency and then the Texas Rangers, and at the same time those Pirates and the NL champion Cardinals restocked and reloaded, things won't be any easier for Cincinnati in the coming year.
The key to their season is something they might already be exploring: trading Homer Bailey. There have already been rumors that the starting pitcher would be dealt, and Reds' general manager Walt Jocketty is on the record as saying it will be "difficult" to extend him. The key now -- besides the obvious, finding the appropriate trading partner -- is to find the right package for him, one that could help tip the scales in the Reds' favor in the upcoming season. Bailey needs to be turned into offense.
Why offense? After all, the Reds finished third in the National League in runs scored in 2013. Runs aren't everything of course, at least not when we're talking about predicting future runs, and that's where the Reds could be in trouble. As mentioned, they've lost Choo, who was second among qualifiers on the Reds in OPS+ at 143, which was also good for eighth in the Senior Circuit. He was also one of just three above-average hitters in the entire Reds' lineup, alongside Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Todd Frazier, with an OPS+ of 96 (where league average is 100), came in fourth, with Brandon Phillips (92), Zack Cozart (81), and Devin Mesoraco (77) rounding out the qualifiers. While Frazier has been a bit better than that in the recent past, Phillips is likely in the downswing of his career, and neither Cozart nor Mesoraco are known for their offense.
Breaking it down further, the Reds were only average or better at three of the eight positions in the lineup in 2013. Thanks to Choo, Votto, and Bruce, center, first base, and right field were locked down. The offense at catcher was atrocious, though, 22 percent worse than the league average, and the Reds received the same caliber of offense out of the offense-first position of left that they did out of glove-first shortstop. When they faced American League teams, the extra bat did them no favors, as their designated hitters combined to bat .189/.273/.324, or 35 percent worse than your average DH.
How did they even get to third in the NL in runs scored with such a top-heavy setup? Timing was their friend in 2013, as they hit very well with runners in scoring position relative to their overall production. As a club with runners in scoring position, the Reds batted .254/.363/.380, eight percent better than their standard production and six percent better than the NL average, good for second in that league. It's not something you can necessarily count on to be reproduced, especially when one of the players who was on base as often as Choo is no longer around, so they need to fill in the blanks elsewhere.
They can address some of their deficiencies internally, at least in theory. Ryan Ludwick only played in 38 games in 2013 thanks to injury, and batted .240/.293/.326 in that time. Back in 2012, Ludwick hit a slightly better .275/.346/.531, more than making up for any issues he has with the glove at this stage of his career. If he can get back to being a useful stick -- not even necessarily to his excellent 2012 levels, but back to being an above-average hitter -- then the Reds will have seen a significant upgrade in left, since in 2012 the position combined to bat .250/.313/.374.
They are also going to use prospect Billy Hamilton as the center fielder, and presumably leadoff man, going forward. Hamilton won't be able to replicate Choo's offense -- we are talking about stepping into the shoes of one of the game's most productive hitters since he became a regular - but he's certainly capable of stopping the bleeding to a degree. Hamilton will be all of 23 years old, and should be a singles and steals machine: while he's hit all of .280/.350/.378 in the minors, he has also stolen 395 bases in just 502 games, including 155 thefts in 2012 and another 75 against Triple-A backstops in 2013. In the 12 major-league games he played before the Reds closed out their last regular season, Hamilton swiped another 13, and was caught just once. If he's on base, his already legendary speed and base running instincts are going to help him to more bases than his slugging suggests he should see.
These two come with major caveats, of course. Ludwick's only good season in his last three came in 2012, and he's hitting a combined .252/.323/.424 with a 105 OPS+ since 2010. He has a history of playing poorly if he's hurt, so if he can't manage to stay healthy during his age 35 campaign, the Reds could once again be in trouble in left. As for Hamilton, while his wheels are certainly ready for the majors, he didn't exactly blow away Triple-A last summer, batting .258/.308/.343 in the International League. Granted, the International League isn't known for its offense like its Pacific Coast cousin, but seeing that line next to the league average of .255/.328/.384 isn't highly encouraging, even if it comes with all of those stolen bases attached. He could certainly take the leap, but coming down from a season like Choo's in center, on a team that has seen no significant lineup upgrades, it's a significant risk to take.
That's where Bailey comes in. The Reds already have Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, and Tony Cingrani in the rotation. They are not without pitching prospects -- 2011 draft pick Robert Stephenson ranked higher than Hamilton in Baseball America's latest organizational top-10 and finished 2013 in Double-A, while Michael Lorenzen and Carlos Contreras also concluded their 2013 seasons there. They might not be MLB-ready right away or anything, but that's what depth signings like Chien-Ming Wang are for: It's also a problem the Reds could solve post-Bailey trade (the Red Sox and their dozen pitchers between MLB and Triple-A would like work, for instance) or even within the Bailey trade itself.
It's clear the Reds need to bring in another bat, and Bailey is their best chance of doing so this late in the offseason, with the budget Cincinnati is working with. If they can't move him prior to the season, they'll have a hell of a rotation for their opponents to contend with, but a whole lot is going to have to go right, as it did in 2013, for them to make up for the loss of Choo and the obvious holes in the lineup if that happens.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.