The Enquirer's John Fay cranked out a bit on new Cincinnati Reds OF Marlon Byrd yesterday, and he highlighted a commonly quoted phrase we've become oh-so-familiar with every offseason since the emergence of the current team's core: the way he plays the game. The preponderance of Walt Jocketty and the front office bringing in aging veterans rounding out their final contracts has become something of a meme here at Red Reporter, and him saying "We take a lot of stock in guys like that" may well be the understatement of all understatements. Most every veteran brought in to be a "professional" came at a cut-rate price to a franchise that has been largely cash-strapped for years, but this front office has been as dedicated to spinning those moves as positives as they've been predictable in making them. Ryan Ludwick had such sought-after character that a 1-year, $2 million contract was all it initially took to land him, and the aspects that the Reds are reportedly so enamored with about Byrd made him available for a meager 1-year, $4 million commitment (in addition to Ben Lively, of course). So while Walt keeps insisting that some non-quantifiable personality trait makes these acquisitions some game-changer that's mysteriously undervalued by other franchises, the reality is that there's been a franchise-approved mentality that aging, cheap players on short-term commitments are the best way to try to tweak a team in need of a tweak that has little to no payroll flexibility. Byrd may pan out (as Ludwick Volume I did, for instance), or he may just be the latest in a long line of players brought in to provide something on the field that has already passed them by.
Byrd's professionalism and work ethic has had him in 7 different uniforms since 2009, for what it's worth, so even if his clubhouse presence is highly valued by the Reds, it certainly hasn't been valued too much elsewhere. There's no shame in calling a spade a spade, Walt, so quit trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
Fay's colleague at the Enquirer, C. Trent Rosecrans, then took a look at what Byrd provides to a Reds lineup that was bent, broken, and largely blank in 2014. The gist: if 2014 Byrd manages to show up early and often in 2015, the lineup next season will undoubtedly be better than it was in that last, miserable season, but he alone doesn't make a wince-inducing lineup a strong one. Call me crazy, but what Byrd's bat provides in 2015 isn't more than the fourth or fifth most important development that must take place for this team to win games, and you could even argue that it's not nearly that high up the ladder. Joey Votto must play nearly every day, and he must play at nearly the level he played at before leg issues dragged down his production. Jay Bruce must be the Jay Bruce of old (and that includes his defense, too). Bigger than anything, though, is what Billy Hamilton can provide at the top of the order, especially since the team seems 100% tied to the idea that he's a must-leadoff batter. Even if Votto, Bruce, and Byrd produce, a leadoff issue akin to what the Reds had with Hamilton during the last half of 2014 is enough to drag down offensive performance into Padreian levels. I'm still seriously worried that the Reds do not have a leadoff hitter on their roster, and with Byrd now acquired to be the primary LF, there's not even a hole on the roster available to go track one down. Let it be known that I sincerely hope I'm way, way wrong.
Projection systems aren't an end-all, be-all by any means - and among them, Steamer isn't usually the best or most accurate - but it's worth noting that Steamer doesn't project a single non-Votto Red to have an OBP over .318 in 2015, and that's just plain bad. Just for reference, Steamer does project 192 players to have an OBP of at least .319 next season. Yikes. Byrd, for reference, gets a .294 OBP projection.
Aside from LF, the other major place where the Reds needed major work prior to 2015 lay in their bullpen, which ranked between 25th and dead last in all of baseball in most every major statistic last season (except for strikeouts) in what was an unexpected and gut-punchingly disappointing season. So far, the only major move made this offseason that's had any effect on the bullpen was the trade of Alfredo Simon to the Detroit Tigers, since he'd been the best non-Aroldis Chapman bullpen arm the team had featured for several years prior to his starter-cameo last season. Combine that with the late season trade of Jonathan Broxton, the departure of Mat Latos that may force Tony Cingrani into the rotation again (and out of the bullpen mix), and that unit now appears as a not just battered, but also depleted. A quick glance at MLBTR's Free Agent tracker shows that most all of the big-name relievers have found homes, but there are still a few names out there that may interest the Reds in non bank-breaking fashion. Among them: Burke Badenhop, who spent his high school and college years in Ohio and had a solid 169 ERA+ in 2014; lefty Joe Beimel, who rebounded after a few lost seasons to post a 166 ERA+ in Seattle last season; former Red Jared Burton, who is two years removed from a stellar 2012; former Toronto closer Casey Janssen, who struggle last season after compiling 80 saves over the previous three seasons; Francisco Rodriguez, just no; and Rafael Soriano, who may well be the only real exciting reliever left (despite his consistent velocity decline).
Keep in mind that the net salary change from the Chris Heisey, Simon, Latos, and Byrd deals (with Logan Ondrusek's non-tender included) was some $13 or so million, and while arbitration raises to several other players will eat into that flexibility, there still should be enough money in the banana stand to make reliever upgrades. And, of course, there's still the chance these improvements come via trade.