With Mark Sheldon's recent confirmation that the Cincinnati Reds may well have parked their offseason boat in dry dock already, it appears - for the moment, at least - that Walt Jocketty and the front office have settled on a roster they feel is complete enough to start the 2014 season. While there's still the chance that a pitching-starved team that misses out on the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes may tempt Walt into a trade involving a current starter, the more likely outcome involves another minor move or two (akin to a Grady Sizemore minor league deal) and loading the bus to Goodyear with an already familiar cast of characters.
On the surface, that reeks of a lack of urgency, a complacency set to doom the 2014 squad to a repeat third place performance and early playoff exit, at best. The context of the 2010-2011 offseason is still fresh in mind, and it's easy to see the indifference to the successes of both the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals as blind faith, blatant overconfidence, ignorance, or some blessed combination of the three. But baseball, as we all know, is a very fickle game whose history is rife with unexpected surprises and disappointments, and while the 'on paper' ledger currently dictates that the Reds face an uphill climb to the top of the NL Central next year, there's ample room for things to break the right way.
So what is Walt banking on? What is it he's legitimately hoping for, and on whom is he rolling the dice? How realistic is success in the scenario he's scripted so far? What the heck is he thinking?
For the Reds, the bulk of the realistic expectations fall on the shoulders of four men, none of whom I believe is Billy Hamilton. While Hamilton and his electric ability will feature prominently in 2014, Walt's most recent comments to Mark Sheldon make it seem as if he's not going to be counted upon as Shin-Soo Choo's replacement, but rather as a solid, regular contributor whose speed and defense will be well above average. Instead, I think Walt will turn pin his expectations to Johnny Cueto, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, and Todd Frazier in hopes that the four of them can carry the Reds back into division title contention.
In Frazier, Walt will hope to get in his third season what the former number one prospect in the system has flashed glimpses of in his first two years. An offensive output anywhere near his rookie year coupled with the hot corner defense displayed in his follow up campaign would yield a legitimate 4 WAR player, a cog in any team with title aspirations.
In Votto, Walt will hope that Steamer and Oliver's relatively dismal projections are proven wrong, and that the Reds 1B can again be an otherworldly slugger as opposed to just a firmly elite one. If Votto, whose slugging percentage dipped below .500 for the first time last season, can up that back anywhere close to his career mark of .541, the middle of the lineup again will have one of the most dangerous bats in team history as an anchor.
In Cueto and Phillips, the hopes and expectations are for improved health and dependability. Cueto is obviously being counted on for more than the career low 60.2 innings he threw at the big league level last season, and while it's asking too much for him to replicate his stellar 2012, Walt will certainly be hoping for 30 starts and no nagging injuries. With Phillips, the hope will be that he neither suffers any freak injuries nor tries playing through them. Phillips, who will turn 33 this summer, isn't likely to be both a prime offensive producer and a 160 game player, but Walt will hope that limiting some of his PAs through the use of Skip Schumaker at 2B will allow his production to age more gracefully than what his 2013 numbers suggest.
More than anything, though, Walt will be using 2014 as a way to see what he has in Hamilton and Devin Mesoraco, as he'll be looking to see whether they've got what it takes to be cornerstones for the forseeable future. They'll both be given ample plate appearances this season, and whether or not they show what prospect gurus have raved about will go a long way towards the decisions Walt will make in the upcoming offseason, too. Knowing he's got a capable C and CF under team control cheaply for several years would go a long way towards wanting to extend one or two of Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, or Mike Leake.
There's potential out there, though, and it's the kind that needs to be defined before hundreds of millions of dollars are committed to pitching extensions. If this season shows that there are still holes in CF and C to go along with the one in LF, that may prompt Walt to shy away from a pricey extension in favor of a trade to deepen the roster. If Hamilton and Mesoraco show they can be Michael Bourn and A.J. Ellis, holding on to aging, expensive starting pitchers makes sense for a calculated championship run, but if they end up looking more like Dee Gordon and J.R. Towles, it wouldn't make a ton of sense to invest in pitchers when the offense has glaring needs the farm system cannot readily replace.
So yes, in a way, 2014 can be viewed as a soft rebuilding year, one featuring a roster much younger and less proven than the one fielded in 2013. That's not necessarily a crisis, though, as it's something often done by many other successful franchises. The Tampa Bay Rays operate this way nearly every single year, and they've either traded or let walk guys like Carl Crawford, James Shields, and Matt Garza only to replace them with unproven players their front office has trusted. Similarly, the St. Louis Cardinals have waved goodbye to Albert Pujols to all smiles, and they've not panic-replaced guys like Chris Carpenter and Rafael Furcal in recent seasons, instead trusting that their prospects can carry the load.
It's not a sexy strategy, and it doesn't sell tickets. It doesn't wow the casual fan, and it doesn't make writing cheery, optimistic articles easy for those who spend time trying to. Still, it just might work, and it's better to find out what you've got when you still have options than it is to depend upon unproven players with no support system in place.