PEORIA, AZ - Starting pitcher Mat Latos #55 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches during the spring training game against the Seattle Mariners at Peoria Stadium. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
It's not like Walt Jocketty was in an arcade this offseason, just wasting time and playing Ikari Warriors, when a Pujols-to-the-Angels text made Jocketty think, "Saaay, maybe we should try this year." The Cincinnati Reds won the Central in 2010. They were supposed to contend last year. The plan was almost certainly to build a team that would contend in 2012. This isn't a team that was sneaking up on a lot of people.
But no matter where he was, whenever Jocketty heard the news that Albert Pujols was gone, something happened. Maybe his eyes got a little bigger. Maybe he sat up straight and cocked his neck to the side, like a dog hearing a high-pitched whistle. I'd like to think he started giggling and rolling around on the floor. Something happened. And it might have been then that a switch flipped and the Reds decided to really go for it.
Well, it's not like they chased Prince Fielder around with sacks of cash. They're still a team in the bottom-half when it comes to payroll. For the Reds, really going for it means spending a little bit of money and exchanging their two best trade chips in the same deal. That's a lot for them. And that's how they acquired Ryan Madson and Mat Latos.
Madson is broken. He'll collect $9 million from the Reds without throwing a single pitch, like a corn farmer given a subsidy not to grow corn, except more painful and rehabby. That was the Reds' big expenditure of the offseason. It's already been a complete failure.
But the biggest move by far was the trade for Mat Latos. That was the Reds going for it in the short term, even if Latos will be around for a while. The Reds have Joey Votto at first base, and they're enamored of Devin Mesoraco behind the plate. Both are great building blocks to any present and future lineup. The problem, then, was a good one. They also had Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal at those two positions, and a position switch didn't make sense in either case. Here's what I'd figure they'd do:
Trade Alonso for an outfielder, shortstop, or starting pitcher
Trade Grandal for an outfielder, shortstop, or starting pitcher
Mix and match, maybe get two of the holes filled in one deal. That seemed like the prudent plan. Instead, the Reds sent them over in the same deal for Mat Latos. They turned their quantity of quality into one pitcher.
But he's a good pitcher. He's a supremely underrated pitcher, perhaps because he played in San Diego. Latos is signed through 2015, which fits the Reds' overall plan -- there's no 20-year, billion-dollar TV deal in the works just yet, so they'll need to get below-market-value players wherever they can find them. But he also helps now, which is just fine for the period in which the Reds know they'll have Votto around.
And he's now the entire offseason. With Madson out, Latos represents the Reds' attempt to improve a 79-83 team from the outside. Well, except for Sean Marshall, who should step in as closer with Madson out. Boy, they're probably glad they made that trade. Everything else will have to come from the inside.
With the exception of shortstop, every position for the 2010 Reds was filled with an above-average hitter. It was a bruising, powerful team. They scored nearly 800 runs and enjoyed great health up and down the lineup. The 2011 Reds weren't so lucky. Votto wasn't as good as his MVP season (because no one could be), Drew Stubbs took a step backward, Scott Rolen had an especially injurious season, even by Scott Rolen standards. Left field was something of a sinkhole unless Chris Heisey was hitting home runs. And shortstop was an absolute and total sinkhole.
So where should they be better?
Should do worse
Catcher (Mesoraco instead of Ramon Hernandez)
Your mileage will vary. You might think that Mesoraco can put up the .282/.341/.446 line that Hernandez did last year. But it's a ridiculously tricky team to predict. Even the dried-up husk of Scott Rolen should be better than 65 games and a .279 on-base percentage, but by how much? Is it fair to predict improvement for Bruce and Stubbs just because they get credit for being young enough to improve?
They should improve, though. Not to 2010 levels, but they'll score a little bit more than the 2011 version. Which leaves it up to the pitching. Which means we're back to that Mat Latos deal again.
It's not all on Latos, of course. Johnny Cueto isn't going to have a 2.31 ERA again, but he's been quite good for the last two seasons. Mike Leake was fantastic after the shirt-pilfering incident and his first minor-league stop -- his walk rate dropped dramatically and any problems he had, he had during that froggy May. And the Madson injury puts Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen (where he probably belongs) and Homer Bailey back in the rotation (where he probably belongs).
There isn't a whole lot of great things to say about Bronson Arroyo's pitching, so here's a video of him singing a Goo Goo Dolls song. He allowed 46 home runs last year. That's a four in front of a six. Maybe he's good for 35 this year. Baby steps.
Add it all up, and it's a team that needs a breakout/insane performance to contend. That's not as unlikely or dismissive as it might seem. They'll need Latos to be a Cy Young contender, or Bruce to put it all together and get some MVP votes, or Stubbs to be Mike Cameron at his best. All of which are entirely possible. But if Latos doesn't crack the 200-inning mark for the first time, or if Bruce is just really, really good again instead of transcendent, and if Stubbs is just Stubbs, it'll be hard for them to make up the 11-plus games that separated them from the playoffs last year.
Add them to the list of teams that are extremely capable of making the playoffs without being overwhelmingly likely to do so. They have the league's best hitter and a lot of prime-age talent behind him. That's a foundation that at least three teams in their own division would kill for.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
Ryan Ludwick has declined in each of the last three years, and he isn't a great complement to the right-handed hitting Heisey. I understand the Reds looking to get a contingency plan for Heisey, but surely they could have found a better fit. A left-handed hitter like Kosuke Fukudome or Johnny Damon would have been a great pick.
I'm still fascinated by Homer Bailey, who has improved his control beyond his years and still has the stuff that made him a top prospect. His ERA trend makes him seem like he'll be easy to predict, like an SAT math question ("Complete the sequence: 4.53, 4.46, 4.43 … "), but the other signs are positive. He just needs to stop allowing so many, well, you know.
Hit-and-run plays. Sacrifice bunts. Dusty Baker. Other than that, give me breakout seasons from Mike Leake and Jay Bruce both. I think what Leake has done without more than a few innings in the minors is already amazing, and the prospect hounds did a Clockwork Orange thing with me, holding my eyelids open and forcing me to appreciate Bruce's tools for a few years. I can't go back now.