Ask any ardent fan of the Cincinnati Reds about the 2010 MLB season, and they'll talk about it like it happened just yesterday. For a franchise that had nothing but Al Leiter nightmares to hang their hat on from the end of the 1995 season through the end of 2009, the emergence of a collective core of mostly homegrown talent at exactly the same time was exciting itself, but to watch the talent turn into wins and an NL Central title so quickly was etch-in-memory worthy.
In hindsight, though, it wasn't something to be wholly unexpected. That core consisted of former 1st round draft picks in Homer Bailey, Drew Stubbs, and Jay Bruce, with Bailey and Bruce considered by some as the best pitching and hitting prospects in the game's minor leagues, respectively. They were buoyed by Top 100 prospects in Joey Votto and Johnny Cueto, and 2B Brandon Phillips was fresh off a 20/20 season and already had a Gold Glove and a 30/30 season to his name. In fact, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick noted immediately before the 2009 season that there was a buzz around this talented group of Reds, and SI's Cliff Corcoran astutely picked Cincinnati to win the Central in 2010 despite their 78-84 record the season before.
Five years is an eternity in baseball, though, and when Cincinnati takes on the Chicago Cubs on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball later today, the bevy of current Reds still around from that 2010 season will see a similar, if not more formidable version of themselves in the opposing dugout. At least, the few Reds still around five years later that aren't on the DL as part of the Reds' rash of injuries, that is.
While the Reds' emergence came somewhat under the radar, what Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer have put together in Chicago has been nothing of the sort. They've combined a patient and productive system of drafting and signing young, toolsy players with a shrewd ability to pick up key prospects via trade, and that has formed a young squad with the talent to make 29 other front offices cringe. With Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro signed long-term and the likes of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler rounding out the lineup, there's enough cost-controlled production there to make that a viable powerhouse on the budget of the Tampa Bay Rays; couple that with the cash that the major-market Cubs will have at their disposal, and Chicago's North-side club looks poised to be an NL Central beast for years to come.
And, well, that's just one of the many problems facing the Cincinnati Reds at this point.
I had the chance to speak with ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer Buster Olney about the state of the Reds as they prepared to take the Sunday night national stage, and he, too, sees the writing on the wall for the most recent successes of these Reds. Not surprisingly, Olney mentioned that the rest of baseball sees it, too, and that has other teams keeping quite the watchful eye on how Walt Jocketty chooses to maneuver between now and the July 31st trade deadline that looms just over six weeks away.
Easily the highest profile piece the Reds could move is Johnny Cueto, but despite the recent strong performances following his 13 day layoff (including the 7 inning, 0 ER win over the San Diego Padres), other clubs have significant concern about the status of his elbow. Cueto is set to be a free agent after the 2015 season and is making a relatively modest $10 million in 2015, but since any team picking him up at the deadline would be doing so with only 12-15 starts (should they make the playoffs) with him under contract, any elbow issue that could cause him to miss even a start or two could make the difference in whether pursuing the 2014 NL Cy Young runner-up is worth the prospect loss it would take to pry him from the Reds. Team's aren't required to divulge the intricacies of MRI results and medical procedures until any official deal is ready to sign, though, which means brinksmanship may very well be in play.
That said, Olney reiterated that the Los Angeles Dodgers "love" Cueto, and given the attrition they've seen in their starting rotation behind Clayton Kershaw and the presumption that Zack Greinke will opt-out of his contract after 2015, a trade for Cueto (and even a possible extension) shouldn't be seen as shocking should it materialize.
As for the other Reds starter nearing free agency, Mike Leake could end up quite the test-case this off-season given his age, track record, and the deep, deep pool of starting pitching that projects to be on the market along side him, according to Olney. With the likes of Cueto, Greinke, David Price, Doug Fister, and Jordan Zimmermann - among others - set to be free agents, too, the Reds will have a significant decision facing them as to whether they choose to extend a Qualifying Offer to Leake should they choose not to trade him at the deadline. The 1 year, $16ish million it would entail should he accept could be enough to push their payroll far beyond their fiscal ability, and considering what the starting pitching market will look like in the 2016 off-season vs. the 2015 off-season, Leake may see it prudent to postpone his free agency by a year since he'll still only be 28 years old at the end of the 2016 season. Being the third or fourth highest profile free agent at that point may be much more lucrative than being the eighth or ninth most attractive option in 2015, for instance.
Olney brought up Kyle Lohse's situation prior to his signing with the Milwaukee Brewers as an example of a deep pitching market and QO tag suppressing what otherwise would've been a giant contract. Leake will be at that point at a much younger age, though, so he'll have to weigh that worst-case scenario with another success story for a comparable pitcher, as Olney brought up Rick Porcello's 4 year, $82.5 million extension as an example of how a pitcher's young relative age boosts their value to some teams in contract negotiations.
Perhaps the most interesting topic we discussed was the curious case of Devin Mesoraco, a player whom Olney holds in quite high regard. "Maybe more than any player in the game right now," Olney opined, Mesoraco looks like "he'll be a manager one day." Olney lamented the fact that Mesoraco's hip injury has derailed the successes he experienced in his breakout 2014 season, also drawing comparisons to the hip injury that befell Mike Napoli several years ago and how a position change helped keep his potent bat in big league lineups. The way Devin sees the game, calls the game, and thinks about the game always seem to come out when he speaks to the media, according to Olney, and it's clear that the Reds catcher (LF?) isn't just a talent on the field, he's also a player who eats, sleeps, and dreams about the game.
As for Sunday night's game, the Reds will limp out in Wrigley to face Cubs' pitcher Jon Lester, the posterboy for the financial prowess Hoyer & Epstein have at their fingertips. Lester would tell you himself he's "looking for better results so far" in 2015, according to Olney, who cited the former Boston ace's trouble holding on baserunners in his early season outing against the Reds as just one example of how Chicago's $155 million signee has struggled in 2015.
One player who presumably could play a big part in exploiting that is Billy Hamilton, who has obviously struggled this season in much the same way as he did in the latter half of his 2014 rookie season. "He's not that good of a bunter," said Olney, who noted that Hamilton's inability to keep the ball on the ground is hampering his ability to use his speed to aid in getting hits. Olney mentioned Juan Pierre as a player who was able to realize his weaknesses early on and tailor his game to highlight his strengths, many of which line up with Hamilton's. At this point, I think it's safe to say that most everyone who follows the Reds (and even those in the team's front office) would be ecstatic if Hamilton could find a way to emulate Pierre's career arc, since the speedy CF looks less and less capable of being an everyday leadoff hitter by the day.
Anthony DeSclafani will take the mound opposite Lester tonight as the Reds attempt to salvage a split in the four game series. First pitch is set for shortly after 8 PM EST on ESPN.
Many thanks to fellow Vanderbilt alum Buster Olney for taking the time to talk baseball with me, which was an opportunity I never foresaw when I stumbled across Red Reporter nearly eight years ago. Follow him on Twitter at @Buster_ESPN for insights into what the Reds, among others, will be up to as trade season heats up this summer. And - if you're lucky - you'll get to hear all about the Commodores taking their 2nd consecutive College World Series title.