As the trade deadline nears, there's a concerted effort among baseball fundits to sort teams into two distinct categories: buyers and sellers. But this binary is oppressive and studies have shown that team identity is a social construct. There's a gray middle space every season in which a team's playoff odds may be low among contenders, yet they're still decidedly in the race with 60-70 games to play. This is where the Reds find themselves.
Cool Standings gives them a 15.3% of winning the division and 17.7% chance of making the playoffs - a grimmer playoff outlook than three whole teams in the NL Central alone and a total of seven in the NL. Baseball Prospectus is less optimistic, giving the Reds a 9.6% chance based on simulated seasons. Vegas odds put the Reds at a 12/1 chance of winning the NL pennant, ahead of the Pirates but behind the Brewers and Cardinals. With money on the line, the Reds are projected as a third-place team. In general, the odds depict the Reds at the very bottom of the Upper House of the National League - mediocre, but still in the conversation.
Despite the lengthening odds, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Reds are still just 4 games back and have the best run differential in the division and third-best in the NL. Four games back takes on a different meaning when your team occupies fourth place, but even though they haven't done it in what's starting to seem like an eternity, the Reds can take back-to-back games from the Pirates and find themselves, with some luck, just two games back of first. If you think the Pirates pitching staff is destined to collapse under the weight of its own peripherals - and that the Brewers negative run differential will catch up with them - the four-team race becomes a much more manageable two.
The Reds need to first get out of the Twilight Zone. By that, I mean the strange phenomena that are making them lose. Poor performance in close games, demoralizing deficit in walk-off victories, a recent complete lack of hitting with the bases loaded. Mostly, for this to get better, involves wishing and hoping. But there are also some moves that can counteract the bad luck - or what, in some cases, appears to be bad luck but actually might be a fixable problem.
The Reds should embrace both aspects of their dual nature as buyers and sellers, prepping for next season and keeping things interesting for as long as possible in 2011. There may even be a few moves that have a chance to do both.
Drink the Hi-C
Dusty is getting closer on this. Going with a younger, "unproven" starter is an early sign of turning the calendar over to next year, but Heisey is only unproven in that he's made just a half-season of major league starts. He's hit well enough in the majors, with power this season to go with good LF defense, that he'll probably improve LF output getting a minimum of five starts per week while giving the Reds a read on next year.
Fortify the bullpen
Poor bullpen management continues to a problem for Dusty. Cordero isn't going to be unseated as the closer, but the bullpen as a whole could be improved simply by finding an arm that can outperform Jeremy Horst or Jose Arredondo, while taking some innings from overworked relievers. It doesn't have to be Heath Bell. It just needs to be someone durable, who will be a net positive. Hopefully, it's even someone good enough to spot-close for Cordero, with upside to be considered as closer next season.
Try to get a starting pitcher
The market is bad right now and some sucker is probably going to grossly overpay. The Reds need a front-end starter now and for the future. But they shouldn't be duped into giving up important pieces of their 2012 lineup to rent Kuroda. Or shelling out for anyone but Jimenez. Between now and the beginning of 2012, the Red might instead want to consider trading their MLB-ready talent for a near-MLB-ready SP who has upside in '12.
Shop Miguel Cairo and Ramon Hernandez
I really hate writing that sentence. I'm a fan of both players and both have been great this season in their roles. Trading them feels like packing it in. This isn't something I particularly want the Reds to do, but it's a relatively bold decision they could make that has risk and reward for the remainder of the season. Cairo has gone from minor league deal to very affordable 2 WAR utility-man. Maybe there's no market for him, but he's at the peak of his value, so he might sweeten a trade or a contender might be willing to overpay. With Rolen's heir needing on-the-job training more urgently, Todd Frazier could be called up and take a greater share of starts at 3B.
Ramon was arguably the second-most valuable catcher in NL over the first half, even in a 50% role. But he's at the end of his contract and there are at least several teams who would fall all over themselves for his services, especially San Francisco. The Reds won't want to change their batteries mid-season and this might be the right decision. And Hernandez speaks Spanish, while, as far as I know, Mesoraco does not. But if they get real improvement to the pitching staff in return, they have to listen hard to offers.