Despite the fact that the Cincinnati Reds won 90 games and made the playoffs in 2013, the last two months haven't exactly qualified as one of the greater stretches in the history of the franchise. To painfully recount, that time frame has seen the Reds:
- swept at home by their division rival, the Pittsburgh Pirates, to end their season in 3rd place in the NL Central.
- handed defeat by those same Pirates in a slow, predictable, agonizing game in front of a rejuvenated PNC Park.
- shed themselves of manager Dusty Baker despite postseason appearances in 3 of the last 4 seasons.
- have a Qualifying Offer declined by their CF, Shin-Soo Choo, while we all have been inundated with magnanimous amount it will cost to bring him back.
- watch as Free Agent pitcher Bronson Arroyo is linked with every team under the sun except the Reds.
- sign catcher Brayan Pena, leaving writing on the wall for fan favorite and team catching stalwart Ryan Hanigan.
- sign former Cardinal and negative-WAR superstar Skip Schumaker to a puzzlingly expensive 2 year contract.
- definitively and publicly linked - by several major sources - with wanting to trade long time 2B Brandon Phillips at nearly all costs due to their inability to coexist.
For many, the last 50 days has flushed any last remnant of the memory of Jay Bruce's 2010 division-clinching homerun off Tim Byrdak to the nether regions of their brains and replaced it with fear, doubt and, more importantly, regret. For some, outright anger has taken hold at both players who have been accused of underperformance and at management for overpaying them to do so.
The rationals among us will acknowledge that while the "window" open to this core unit is gradually closing, it is not yet shut. Yes, it's blatantly obvious that both the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are good and poised to get better, and yes, the already team record payroll the Reds made rain in 2013 leaves less wiggle room than in previous years.
There are, however, still several reasons to believe the 2014 Reds have a much, much higher ceiling than the last 7 weeks would otherwise dictate.
- Mat Latos and Shin-Soo Choo
The last two Decembers have seen Walt Jocketty tap the resources of the farm, couple them with members of the Reds few of us held in high regard, and parlay them into major league pieces that have provided phenomenal returns. In 2011, Jocketty send Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, and Brad Boxberger to the San Diego Padres in return for Mat Latos, and so far, it's been one of the best trades in team history. Since the start of the 2012 season, Latos has accumulated 3.5 bWAR more than the total of the four players for whom he was traded, and he's done it while making roughly $6 million fewer than their total salaries. As for Choo, he provided 2.2 bWAR more in the 2013 season than the players the Reds gave up in order to land him (Drew Stubbs and Didi Gregorius), and including the cash the Cleveland Indians sent to the Reds to offset salaries (and the removal of Gregorius' league minimum salary) the Reds actually reduced their overall commitments by nearly $500,000 in that deal as well.
There are two morals to this. First, while Jocketty has been criticized by many (me included) for his willingness to dole out extensions, his ability to make trades should not be overlooked. Second, just because we've soured on certain players and believe they have no trade value (read: Stubbs and Volquez) doesn't mean there's not another GM out there who still covets them. If someone out there really likes Brandon Phillips or Ryan Ludwick, Walt will find them.
- Johnny Cueto
The Reds' resident ace followed up his breakout 2012 campaign with a stutter-stepped attempt rife with nagging injuries, and he ended it with a thud of a performance in the Wild Card play-in loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Thirteen months ago, he had just wrapped up a nearly 6 WAR season that saw him finish 4th in the National League Cy Young voting, and the then 28 year old and his contract that slated to pay him no more than $27 million over the next 3 seasons were one of the most impressive packages in all of baseball; now, following a back injury that seized him from Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS and a hard-to-heal lat injury that ruined his 2013 season, the willingness to count on him as an ace-caliber starting pitcher has seemingly been discounted.
It's easy to overlook the fact that last season's injuries may actually have let his arm and shoulder rest, and that there's a pretty good chance we may see a Johnny Cueto that's as good as ever. Lost in his multiple DL stints in 2013 are the facts that his WHIP was actually better than in 2012, that his K/9 was his best in 5 seasons, and that his ERA+ was a rock solid 136. As always, there's still an injury risk with him, but there's also a chance the 2014 Reds can roll out a starting rotation that, with a healthy Cueto, can be even better than the phenomenal years of 2012 and 2013.
- Billy Hamilton
Never in my lifetime have I been as simultaneously excited and petrified about a baseball prospect as I am with Billy Hamilton. Watching Aroldis Chapman's erratic and electric beginning gave me but a fraction of both, as did watching Tony Cingrani's all-fastball approach when he first emerged, yet neither caused me to question both ends of my emotional spectrum the way Hamilton's ability to change games with his speed has. The cynic in me watches him, looks at his AAA stats, and has nightmares of Willy Taveras; the Pollyanna in me sees part Luis Castillo, part Brett Butler, and wants to trust the prospect mavens who routinely ranked him among their Top 20 in all of baseball following his brilliant AA campaign.
Hamilton may strike out more than we hope and get on base less than we dreamed, but as Zack Cozart has shown us, it's still possible to be a crucial component to a winning team by supplementing those fallacies with great defense and, in Billy's case, spectacular baserunning.
Joey Votto and Jay Bruce
The lefty swinging cogs of the Reds' core just wrapped up a 2013 season that saw them both finish in the Top 10 of the NL MVP voting despite neither finishing with a season OPS above their career averages. For Jay, this marks his second consecutive Top 10 MVP finish, and for Joey, it's the third time in the last four seasons he's finished in the Top 6 (the obvious omission being the 2012 season that saw him finish 14th after his knee injury forced him to miss some 50 games). They're two of the most well rounded stars in the NL today, and neither had a season in 2013 that would qualify as their offensive best.
If one of them improves even marginally, look out; if they both manage to up their rate stats to even their career marks, this team features the two most imposing bats collectively of any in the NL Central.
So no, the Reds did not ride into the 2013 sunset with enough warm and fuzziness to snuggle comfortably into our Winter hibernation without the need for a Hot Stove. They failed to reach their own expectations, let alone ours, but they're still in a situation to rectify that, and soon. Fear not the endless depth of the Cardinals' farm system or the MVP lauding being heaped on the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen, for the Reds still have a full tank of gas, a half a pack of cigarettes, and despite the fact it gets dark at noon between now and that beautiful morning when pitchers and catcher report 85 days from now, they'll be wearing sunglasses.