Reds have reasons for optimism

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series is in reverse order of team quality and continues at No. 27 with the Cincinnati Reds.

Left-handed pitcher Aroldis Chapman signed a six-year deal with the Reds.
(Al Behrman/AP Photo)

2009 record: 78-84
Finish: Fourth place, NL Central
2009 final payroll: $72.7 million
Estimated 2010 opening day payroll: $73 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

Days later the image is still fresh, and its incongruity is no less shocking. Aroldis Chapman(notes) was supposed to be in a Yankees or Red Sox jersey, not with a big C on his chest.

And there he was, the Cuban kid freezing his every piece off in Cincinnati, about to sign the most shocking deal of the offseason: a $30.25 million contract with the mid-revenue Reds, a deal that goes even higher the sooner Chapman arrives in the big leagues.

Considering Cincinnati’s considerable investment, it shouldn’t be long. Chapman brings not only a 100-mph fastball but an air of excitement missing in Cincinnati. The Reds, seemingly in payroll purgatory, suddenly have some life to them with starters Aaron Harang(notes) and Bronson Arroyo(notes) about to find new homes via trade or free agency after – or during – this season. Yes, closer Francisco Cordero’s(notes) contract remains an albatross, and re-signing catcher Ramon Hernandez(notes) with an easily vested option smacks of desperation.

Chapman gives the Reds a renewed sense of optimism in the same way Stephen Strasburg(notes) does for Washington.

Whether Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is dabbling in creativity or pushing himself into a corner is the great debate in Cincinnati, where a strong enough core exists to envision the Reds making noise. Maybe not this year, and maybe not soon enough to save manager Dusty Baker’s job, but the Reds have six years of Chapman in a soft division, and in a place that hasn’t seen playoff baseball in 14 years, that constitutes hope.

REALITY CHECK

Joey Votto(notes) is a superstar, especially if he’s conquered the depression that sidelined him last season. Brandon Phillips(notes) has power, speed and plays second base about as well as anyone not named Utley. And, sure, Cordero is a good closer, if not an eight-figure-worthy one.

Otherwise, the Reds are a mish-mash of unproven kids and position-clogging veterans, a team whose GPS is constantly recalculating. As such, 2010 should be a good transition season. Arroyo and Harang should fetch solid prospects at the trade deadline, and the Reds may finally figure out what exactly they’ve got in three players whose hype has far exceeded their production.

Outfielder Jay Bruce(notes) was the best prospect in baseball two years ago. Last season, he hit .223, and neither his power nor his walk rate could atone for his atrocious average.

Starter Johnny Cueto(notes) was the hit of spring training two years ago. He looked like an absolute star in April 2008. He evened out the rest of the season and didn’t improve much in 2009, posting a below-league-average ERA with a lower strikeout rate.

Homer Bailey(notes) was the best pitching prospect in baseball three years ago. He gave up nearly 1½ baserunners an inning last year – and that was, by far, his best showing in the major leagues.

Cincinnati could be OK if one lives up to expectations. With two, it would make noise. And all three, plus the late-season return of Edinson Volquez(notes) from Tommy John surgery and the emergence of Chapman, would turn the Reds from afterthought into legitimate contender.

REDS IN HAIKU
Thirty mil for a
Rookie? The new Reds slogan:
In Chapman we trust

NEXT: Washington Nationals

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010