For the Cincinnati Reds, the 2014 season has already been a great success in many ways.
Billy Hamilton has played like a budding star through one hundred games, as have both Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco, meaning that three positions that were question marks before the season began now appear to be locked up cheaply for at least three years. Alfredo Simon has emerged from the depths of the bullpen to look like a very capable front-line starter, and he's making just $1.5 million while still under team control for the 2015 season. Zack Cozart still can't hit, but FanGraphs thinks he's saved more runs on defense than any infielder in all of baseball aside from Oakland's Josh Donaldson. Aroldis Chapman shrugged off the wicked comebacker that fractured his skull to throw harder than ever before.
Most importantly, perhaps, Johnny Cueto has returned from a lost 2013 season to again prove he's one of the absolute best pitchers in all of baseball.
Yes, the Reds sit at just 51-50 and in 4th place in the crowded NL Central, 5.5 games back of the division leading Milwaukee Brewers and 4 games back (with 3 teams they'd need to jump) in the race for the 2nd NL Wild Card spot. Yes, they've just opened the 2nd half of the season with an 6 game laugher of a losing streak. Yes, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips have been relegated to the shelf for a pivotal late season stretch. But in the grand scheme, from a "window" perspective, the front office seems to have a lot more known quantities at the big league level than they did just three months ago, and when the bargaining begins in earnest as next week's trade deadline approaches, that's a damn solid bit of knowledge for Walt Jocketty to have in his back pocket.
Oh, but what do you do with that knowledge?
Swing so hard you end up on one knee like Brandon Phillips.
One route the Reds could take is to leverage what little they have to offer from the minor leagues into a big-time acquisition that could put the 2014 team back in the thick of things with an eye towards a big postseason run. Walt may look up and realize that each of Cueto, Simon, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake will be entering their last seasons under team control in 2015, and balking at an opportunity to add to a team in the chase is simply not an option.
Heck, he may look up and acknowledge that it might be the last time he'll ever have a chance to make a run with his hands on the wheel, as the 63 year old GM is in his last season under contract, too.
There's a rub there, though. Some 17 teams feel they're within striking distance of the now-expanded Wild Card, and prying away substantial pieces will be damn near impossible.
The perfect fit, really, is Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays, as the 2B/OF would add a potent bat to the lineup, the positional versatility desperately needed for the month-plus before Phillips and Votto return, a salary that wouldn't break the bank, and an option to stick around as the everyday LF for 2015 at - again - a salary that's dirt cheap given his talents. Aside from an awful May that saw him dislocate his thumb and OPS just .464, he's flashed his typical on-base skills again in 2014 an has an OPS of at least .774 in each of the other three months in which he's played.
The Rays, however, don't seem to be cooperating with the rest of the league these days, as their recent hot streak has them just 4.5 games out of the second AL Wild Card, meaning they may be buyers rather than sellers with one week to go before the deadline. Trading Zobrist would bring in a haul of prospects, but since he's set to make just $7 million in 2015, he's also the kind of cheap star they'd love to have for next year's run. It would probably cost the Reds a pretty penny, especially with both Jesse Winker and Robert Stephenson off the table.
A decent backup option would be Boston Red Sox OF/1B Daniel Nava. An awful, awful 75 PA to start the season saw him optioned to Triple-A for a month earlier this season, but the 31 year old has hit .322/.400/.373 in 135 PA since being recalled in May, and that's on the heels of a stellar 2013 where he hit .303/.385/.445 in 536 PA for the World Series champs. He's not arb-eligible until 2015, so trading for him would keep him under the Reds' control through 2017, and he'd slot nicely in LF for those years after filling in at 1B for the time being.
Other realistic options of varying degrees include: Philadelphia Phillies OF Marlon Byrd, who's sporting a .796 OPS at age 36 in the 1st year of a 2 year, $16 million contract (that has a vesting option for 2016); and New York Mets 2B/OF Daniel Murphy, who is hitting .287/.335/.406, making $5.7 million in his 2nd arbitration year, playing pretty awful defense, and isn't David Murphy or Donnie Murphy.
Or, the Reds could go big and try to pry Carlos Gonzalez away from the dumpster fire that is the Colorado Rockies, though he's suffering through his worst season since his rookie year (.250/.301/.439), has battled knee tendinitis, had a "fatty mass with tentacles" removed from his finger via surgery, is owed $53 million through 2017, and would cost Robert Stephenson.
Un-plug Walt's alarm clock.
Big time mid-season reinforcement is on the way in the form of Jack Hannahan, whose defensive prowess and infield versatility is the perfect fit for the depleted Cincinnati infield.
Jack will instantly provide left-handed pop (he went 4 for 4 with 2 doubles last night for Triple-A Louisville!), he has extensive experience at 3B and 1B, and at age 34 will provide the kind of quality veteranitude needed to help right the ship after back to back sweeps to start the 2nd half of the season.
Hannahan will be an instant upgrade over Brayan Pena (his career OBP of .316 is light years - light years! - better than Pena's .290 mark), and will be the perfect gap-bridger until Votto's quad injury recovers enough to hit 12 September dingers to lead the Reds to the playoffs for the 4th time in 5 years.
This team has all the parts necessary, and the only thing that's standing between them and a showdown with the Texas Rangers in the 2014 World Series are a few nagging injuries, so there's no need whatsoever to break down the ship and shuffle things all over the place. The Reds were 7 games over .500 and just a game out of a playoff spot, like, 18 seconds ago! There's no need to panic and give away prospects like Zach Vincej when just a little bit of patience is all this team needs.
Dink a bit, dunk a bit, close your eyes and hope.
The Reds could choose to buy just a little and sell just a little, perhaps choosing to sell high on Alfredo Simon and or Jonathan Broxton while also looking to pick up a minor piece for 2014 like, say, a Sean Rodriguez or a Sam Fuld.
Host a stock the bar party and invite nothing but really rich friends.
In the comments section of an article a few days ago, someone mentioned that if the Reds hypothetically wanted to trade for David Price, it would take at least Robert Stephenson, Jesse Winker, and Michael Lorenzen, and perhaps more. That's the top two pitching prospects in the Reds system and the top hitting prospect the farm can boast, and it's likely that all three will end up being Top 100 prospects by season's end (with Stephenson Top 20 and Winker Top 50).
That's a boatload of talent in exchange for a top flight pitcher who is in his prime, due roughly $5.5 million for the remainder of 2014, and under team control for 2015 at a salary likely to push $20 million.
Walk with me here for a second.
Price, 28, has a Cy Young under his belt and has posted single season ERA+ numbers of 123, 115, 150, and 108 since 2011, in which time he's thrown 777.2 innings with a 3.11 ERA and 747 strikeouts, totaled 15.1 WAR, and hit the DL with a muscle (triceps) injury that required no structural surgery. If the Rays trade him, it's been postulated that they could receive three Top 100 prospects already at the Double-A level, and perhaps even more.
Well, the Reds have a 28 year old who has posted single season ERA+ numbers of 170, 136, 148, and 171 since 2011, in which time he's thrown 582.1 innings with a 2.50 ERA and 473 strikeouts, totaled 14.8 WAR, and hit the DL with a muscle (lat/oblique) injury that required no structural surgery.
And Johnny Cueto's only due about $3 million for the rest of 2014 and is under team control for 2015 for just $10 million thanks to a glorious team option tacked onto his contract.
Next to Billy Hamilton, there's not a Reds player I enjoy watching play baseball more than Cueto, but the idea of adding another Robert Stephenson, another Jesse Winker, and another Michael Lorenzen - and perhaps even more - is a damn intriguing idea. It may punt 2014, and there's no denying that, but it wouldn't ruin 2015 and it may well open up some very rosy skies to 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Trading Cueto could blow up in the Reds faces the way the Padres must feel in the wake of trading Latos. But it could turn into Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and Chris Tillman like when the Baltimore Orioles picked them up in exchange for Erik Bedard.
No, the Reds don't have to trade Cueto, but with Homer Bailey already extended and Cueto, Latos, Leake, and Simon eligible for free agency after next season, there's little chance that more than one more of them is signed to a long-term contract. It's likely that he'll be gone sooner than later, and the Reds could opt to strike now to maximize their return.
Unless there's a feasible move to be made that can lead to a 39-22 finish to the season, which is what it would take to get to 90 wins, maybe you call the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, and San Francisco Giants and tell them there's a dreadlocked ace on the market for a small fee.
It's a tough call to make, but no tougher than going 84-80 and missing the playoffs with the highest payroll in the NL Central.