The offseason hasn’t really even begun yet, for most MLB teams, but the Cincinnati Reds are already having a weird offseason. It started when, seemingly the day after giving manager Dusty Baker a vote of confidence, GM Walt Jockety dismissed Baker, and promoted pitching coach Brian Pryce to that job. It continued with the early whispers that second baseman Brandon Phillips, a Reds fixture who had a tumultuous and poor 2013, might be traded. It now seems poised to really take off, as Cincinnati signed catcher Brayan Pena late last week. Pena will presumably back up Devin Mesoraco, the Reds’ erstwhile top prospect, who finally stayed healthy and on-track enough to emerge as the primary backstop in 2013.

That probably spells the end of Ryan Hanigan’s time with the Reds, which is a somewhat more momentous statement than it may appear.

Hanigan, Phillips and a Delicate Balance

Catchers have a huge impact on a team’s run-prevention efforts. One way they do so is by shaping and sizing the strike zone, buying a strike here and there by framing pitches just off the corner of the plate, or just high or low. With the caveat that these numbers are not 100 percent indicative of true talent, and that the samples are small, I can report that Hanigan was some 12 runs better than Mesoraco in this one (seemingly small) facet of the game in 2013.

Moving on from a defensive catcher this refined because of a bad half-season at the plate is a surprising move, but the Reds have their reasons. For one, the lineup really needs more right-handed punch, someone who can consistently thump lefty hurlers. Mesoraco provides that. Hanigan does not. It’s a trade of a glove for a bat, essentially, not unlike the one they made last winter, when they gave up defensive whizzes in center field and at shortstop for a glorious year of Shin-Soo Choo at the top of their lineup. Choo was a nightmare in center field, but the Reds won 90 games anyway, and when they faltered and fell short at season’s end, it wasn’t because of Choo’s poor defense.

Another reason for the move is monetary. The Reds are one of the big-league franchises whose budget, while not spartan, is also not flexible. They often have a number they need to meet, and since Mesoraco is little more than a rookie (despite being 25 years old; catchers develop slowly, and Mesoraco more than most), the team can pay him the league-minimum salary. Hanigan might cost $2 million or so next season, which isn’t much, but the difference is there.

Hanigan’s departure might be a ripple effect, too, of what’s happening at second base for the Reds. I don’t want to spend too long staring at Brandon Phillips’ 2013. I dug into that more in this piece, from when the rumors first popped up. I will note, though, that Phillips is 32, and will turn 33 mid-season in 2014. Click on the link referring to catchers aging, and read through that piece. Second basemen are one of just two positional groups that show something other than the normal aging curve, and the gist is that they tend to decline fast and hard at precisely Phillips’ current age. Whether the Reds find a taker for Phillips or not, second base is likely to be a less productive position for them in 2014 than it was in 2013, helping necessitate the choice to get more offense from behind the plate.

The Two Musketeers

Shin-Soo Choo’s free agency leaves the Reds with some financial flexibility, but a gaping hole in a lineup that already had some. In 2013, the Cincinnati offense revolved around Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Those three were stars. Superstars, really. No team relied as heavily on a trio of hitters as the Reds did, but it got them into the playoffs (I guess. Does the Coin Flip round count as the playoffs, if you lose?).

Without Choo, there’s a disproportionate added demand on Votto and Bruce. It’s especially glaring because, though he certainly is one of the league’s best hitters, Votto doesn’t hit for violent power. He can’t create offense all by himself. Bruce can, but with such a poor aggregate OBP in the lineup around him, too many of his homers are going to be solo shots.

The 2010 Reds—heck, even the 2012 Reds—are gone. The 2013 roster of guys who batted at least 200 times looked like this:

Cincinnati Reds, Batting, 2013

Player

Batting Average

On-Base Percentage

Slugging Average

Joey Votto

.305

.435

.491

Shin-Soo Choo

.285

.423

.462

Jay Bruce

.262

.329

.478

 

 

 

 

Brandon Phillips

.261

.310

.396

Todd Frazier

.234

.314

.407

Zack Cozart

.254

.284

.381

Devin Mesoraco

.238

.287

.362

Derrick Robinson

.255

.322

.323

Chris Heisey

.237

.279

.415

Xavier Paul

.244

.339

.402

Ryan Hanigan

.198

.306

.261

That’s a pretty clear cut line. Losing any of those top three almost requires replacing one, unless you’re convinced that Frazier or Mesoraco is going to take such a step forward as to fill in that blank row in the table themselves. I don’t think it’s fair to forecast that, even for Mesoraco, although that’s far from impossible.

Despite their strong offensive reputation, the Reds’ offense is their weakest attribute, and I have a hard time making a rosy projection about it going into 2014, too.

Why They’ll Still Be Good

Despite potential problems with run-scoring, though, I think the Reds will compete once again in 2014. That’s thanks to their ptiching staff, which is hard not to like. Even with Bronson Arroyo seemingly gone as a free agent, Cincinnati has one of the strongest prospective rotations in the National League, in Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani. The highest ERA among those five in 2013 was Bailey’s 3.49.

That’s not to say there are no warts here. Leake doesn’t strike out enough batters to support a 3.37 ERA for much longer. Cueto had injury issues all through the early stages of the season. Latos hit a wall late in the year, and given his funky delivery, that might augur badly for his durability next season. Cingrani is a lefty who lives on his fastball, which is a tough model for sustainable success as a starter in MLB.

Happily, behind that strong-but-vulnerable starting unit is a relief corps worthy of its name. The Reds have enough bullpen depth to take some real burden off the starters, and their shutdown trio of Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton is as good as any in the NL at this moment.

With Cozart, Phillips (for now) and Bruce anchoring a strong defense, and the possibility of the blindingly-fast Billy Hamilton in center field, that pitching staff should be more than enough to make the Reds, after accounting for park effects, one of the five best run-prevention teams on the circuit. That will keep them in contention, and they’ll go as far as their offense will carry them after win No. 81.

The X Factor

The most fun thing about the Reds, of course, is Hamilton. It might well turn out that he can’t hit enough to play every day in the Majors, but his defense and baserunning make him a useful bench piece, at worst, and the most exciting, thrilling player in baseball, at best. He could steal 100 bases next season, and I’m not sure he needs to secure a full-time lineup spot in order to do so.

If the Reds had known that Phillips would become a problem off the field, in however small a way, and that he would backslide so badly on the field, they probably would have moved Hamilton to second base in the minors this season, instead of out to center field. It would be easier for Hamilton’s bat to not hurt the team if he were a viable middle infielder, but that ship has essentially sailed. His bat is as ready as it will be, and Cincinnati can’t afford to squander any of his prime (which will be brief, since he’s so reliant upon speed) by sending him back to Triple-A to figure out a new defensive spot.

That’s sort of the story here. The Reds’ last year and a half of moves show a lack of foresight, and frankly, a lack of cherence. It looks less and less like Jockety had a grand plan, and more and more like he’s been lunging in various directions, putting the team together piecemeal. Firing Baker was probably the right call, but when you comb over the team in a granular way, it doesn’t feel like a brushstroke in a masterpiece. It feels like a tacked-on square in a quilt of indeterminate shape. If that quilt ends up having a square with a trophy in it, it won’t be by dint of masterful design.

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