In 2012, the Cincinnati Reds wreaked havoc upon the National League Central division, en route to a 97-win season, good for the second best record in all of baseball, and a full 9 games better than the second place, 88-win St. Louis Cardinals.
In 2013, things flipped. The Reds still managed to go 90-72, earning a playoff nod as the NL's second Wild Card, but this time, the Cardinals were the ones on top, as they managed to pull off a major league best 97 wins, just as the Reds had done the year before. Cincinnati also saw the Pittsburgh Pirates go from 79 to 94 wins in just 12 months. Just a year removed from a 97-win domineering campaign, the Reds were now the 3rd best team in the NL Central.
For a Cincinnati team that has built itself around veterans such as Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Johnny Cueto, and Jay Bruce, the Reds only have a limited window to contend before age, financial limitations, and a lack of a fruitful farm system catches up to them. After 2014, they lose prominent starter Homer Bailey, and then the core really starts to unravel after 2015, when Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Ryan Ludwick, and Mat Latos are all slated to hit free agency, while Votto and Phillips will have already marched well into their 30's.
The worst part for Cincinnati is that the club has shown a sense of frugality, rarely going out and re-signing core players, with Votto and Phillips being the lone exceptions, and avoiding big name free agents entirely. Historically in the middle of the pack when it comes to spending, even if the Reds open their wallet, it's highly unlikely that they will be able to retain even a majority of those scheduled to leave over the next couple years.
And it's not like there's a pipeline of talent ready to replace those guys. Outside of top prospect Robert Stephenson, who is just 20, they don't have any top-tier minor leaguers. They have a few pitchers such as David Holmberg, Daniel Corcino, and Ismael Guillon who could wind up contributing as back-end of the rotation starters, but aside from Stephenson, there just isn't much in the way of top-of-the-line pitching talent. Offensively, they are even worse off, as speedster Billy Hamilton represents their best shot at a regular, but even he has tremendous question marks surrounding his ability to hit. Jesse Winker and 2013 first round pick Phillip Ervin could also wind up as everyday big leaguers, but each has yet to reach Double-A.
So, essentially the Reds, barring any major moves in the foreseeable future, have just two more years before the core of their team becomes undone. Even with the window quickly closing and two teams finishing ahead of them in the standings last year, the 2014 Reds are still very capable of contending for a playoff berth, but it is looking more and more likely that they will once again be the odd man out in the NL Central race, which begs the question: Why haven't they done anything?
On November 24th, the Cardinals gave All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta a four-year deal worth a total of $53 million. The move seemingly made the best team in the National League even better, as they filled the one position that had been the franchise's black hole* since their reign over the NL Central began over a decade ago**.
*The last Cardinals shortstop to post an OPS+ of 100 (league average) or better was Edgar Renteria in 2003.
**Since 2004, St. Louis has failed to make the postseason just three times. During that span, they have appeared in four Fall Classics ('04,'06,'11,'13), winning two of them ('06, '11).
The Pirates, after two decades of mediocrity, finally broke their dreaded streak last year, and made the postseason for the first time since 1992, when Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke patrolled the outfield, rather than Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.
Like the Reds, Pittsburgh has made minimal moves so far this winter, with their largest transaction likely being the signing of Edinson Volquez. Unlike the Reds, the Pirates were actually within reason to stand pat as their core is rather young and it's quite sensible to assume that some of their less-experienced players will take a step forward in 2014, negating any sense of decline that is inevitable from some of their more elder occupants.
McCutchen is just 27 and Marte, 25, and they already represent two-thirds of a potentially elite outfield. At 26, Pedro Alvarez has already shown the ability to hit in the middle of the order, and Neil Walker is a solid first division regular in his prime at age 28. This isn't to mention 30-year-old catcher Russell Martin, who's bat is well above average for his position, and his glove ranging in the elite territory. Martin's also shown that he is among the game's premier pitch-framers and is more than capable of handling a big league pitching staff.
Speaking of pitching, the Pirates saw a rejuvenated Francisco Liriano in 2013, and a full season of him in 2014 will certainly aid their cause. Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Wandy Rodriguez have shown that they are well-equipped as number 3 or 4 starters, and Volquez could reap rewards for the Pirates as a reclamation project. They also appear to have the inside track on re-signing AJ Burnett if he decides against hanging up the spikes. Lastly, Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick in the draft less than three years ago, and was lights out (2.91 FIP) after getting called up last June. At just 23, and a season in the big leagues already under his belt, Cole should be expected to take a step forward in 2014, and he could be well on his way to fulfilling his lofty ace potential.
Whereas Cincinnati is lacking in the minor league talent department, Pittsburgh is thriving, boasting one of the best farm systems in the game. Top prospect Gregory Polanco should arrive in the majors sometime this year, and will likely join McCutchen and Marte in an outfield that has the potential to be the best in baseball at some point in the near future. 2010 second overall pick Jameson Taillon is nearly ready as well, and he could wind up sitting aside Cole at the top of the Pirates' rotation soon enough. The shortstop position is really the only major hole on the Pirates' roster. Fortunately for them, highly regarded shortstop prospect Alen Hanson has already reached Double-A, and could wind up in Pittsburgh for the stretch run.
As you can see, it's very conceivable that the Pirates are well set for the near future, and as good as they were last year, they could be even better this year. With Pittsburgh and St. Louis also grasping at the division crown, the Reds road to contention will be a tough one.
So, what have the Reds done this offseason?
Well, they signed a couple backups in Brayan Pena and Skip Schumaker, as well as some bullpen depth in Manny Parra. They also acquired prospect David Holmberg for Ryan Hanigan (who promptly signed an extension with Tampa Bay) in a trade with the Rays and Diamondbacks early last month. Yep, that's about it.
The biggest move the Reds made this winter was a subtraction, rather than an addition. No team can survive the loss of a player of Shin-Soo Choo's caliber without some loss in production, but for the Reds, this loss could be enough to sink their 2014 season. Choo, who signed with the Rangers last month, finished 2nd in the NL in walks last year, reaching base via the walk in an astounding 15.7% of his plate appearances. His .423 OBP and WAR of 5.2 will be nearly impossible to replace, as well as the influx of offense he gave the Reds at the top of the order.
Replacing Choo in center will likely be Billy Hamilton, an easy upgrade defensively (even this guy might be a better center fielder than Choo. Ok, maybe not.), but a massive downgrade on the offensive end of the spectrum. The projection system Steamer believes that Hamilton will hit .249/.305/.338 with a 0.9 WAR in 135 games this year, and even that's generous compared to Oliver's .233/.278/.315 projection. Conservatively speaking, the downgrade from Choo to Hamilton could end up costing the Reds up to 5 wins in 2014.
Just going off last year's numbers, as well as the additions and subtractions (and the factoring in of full-season projections for players lacking a track record such as Hamilton, Holmberg, and Cingrani) made this offseason, Reds players should be expected to combine for a total of 34.8 WAR using this extremely crude formula. Using the baseline of 50 wins for a team full of replacement level players, the club projects to post a record of approximately 85-77 in 2014. A solid (and very rudimentary) number, but that likely won't be enough to land them in the playoffs.
As you're reading this, the Reds could very well be in the process of making some major move that will drastically increase their playoff odds, but just going off the information that we have, the Reds project to be a worse team this year than they were last year, and they have done little to change that. Now, it's easy to say they did nothing, but from their side, what could they actually have done?
The Reds obviously didn't have the financial capabilities to retain Choo, and their pitching staff is already pretty solid. However, the Reds have some glaring holes on offense, particularly in center field and at shortstop.
Outside of the big names of Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury, there really isn't much on the free agent market in terms of quality center fielders. On the trade market, however, there are quite a few potential candidates they could have/can acquired/acquire. The Angels made Peter Bourjos available, and certainly he would've been a solid replacement for Choo had the Cardinals not traded for him. Maybe the Reds implore the Dodgers for Andre Ethier, obviously asking Los Angeles to take on a large sum of money. The Yankees have shown a willingness to deal Brett Gardner, and the Mariners have as well with Dustin Ackley.
At shortstop, the options are less copious, with Asdrubal Cabrera representing the best the trade market has to offer, and Stephen Drew the only top-notch free agent shortstop. Drew would really be a great fit for the Reds, and he's certainly a guy I'd consider signing if I was in in Walt Jocketty's position.
Of course, these are all "what ifs", and realistically, the Reds' brass may have explored all the aforementioned options to no prevail. The Reds have stood pat, but it may not have been by choice.
Overall, the Reds long-term outlook is bleak with a bounty of aging talent, and a multitude of core players likely to enter free agency sooner rather than later, so it is a necessity for them to win now. Unfortunately, the Reds window comes at a time when the NL Central has been the most competitive that it has been in years, and the Reds really haven't done enough this winter to encourage anyone's prognostications of them outlasting the Cardinals and Pirates in 2014.