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Reds like what they see in weakened NL Central

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Reds like what they see in weakened NL Central
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The Reds paid a high prospect price to obtain righty Mat Latos, who went 9-14 in his third major league …

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Cincinnati Reds.

2011 record: 79-83
Finish: Third, NL Central
2011 final payroll: $80.8 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $85 million
Yahoo! Sports' offseason rank: 12th
Hashtags: #summeroflarkin, #solongprinceandalbert, #keeponrolen, #onroadtomesoraco, #startchapman, #over,yonder

Offseason action

Sixteen years since they last won a playoff game, having staggered backward in 2011 after their only division title in that time, the Reds have a plan again to win the NL Central:

First, have Albert Pujols leave not just the division, but the league.

Then, have Pujols take Prince Fielder with him.

Then, hey, when's opening day?

Actually, it's April 5 against the Miami Marlins, and by the time the Reds get there, they might be onto something.

In a division that took some free-agent hits and with the Reds nearing some contractual deadlines themselves, this winter bore the look of an organization intent on doing something about it.

No, he didn't bomb the NL Central with the huge free agent, but general manager Walt Jocketty spent some prospects, waited out the closer market, retooled his bullpen and bench, and circled a solid core with enough to be dangerous again.

Seven players – six of them prospects and five of those in the organization's top 22 according to Baseball America – were sent to either San Diego (for starter Mat Latos) or Chicago (for dependable reliever Sean Marshall).

When closer Francisco Cordero signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, Jocketty upgraded with Ryan Madson for a year. He signed Ryan Ludwick, whose production flattened at Petco Park, to compete with Chris Heisey in left field. He added Willie Harris and Wilson Valdez for depth.

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Overall, the cost was steep for the farm system, which had become one of the best in the game, and still will produce the club's projected starters at catcher (Devin Mesoraco) and shortstop (Zack Cozart) in '12.

Reality check

If the Reds indeed are working against a deadline, it would be Joey Votto's contract, which expires after the 2013 season, and to some degree Brandon Phillips' contract, which runs one more season.

The idea is to extend both, but Votto's market was defined in a winter in which Pujols received $254 million and Fielder took $214 million; and if we learned anything from those, it's that NL Central markets probably can't – or won't – support them.

The hope in Cincinnati is that Votto is a different kind of star who'd rather avoid the strain of places such as New York, Boston, L.A. and Chicago. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. The fact is, the Dodgers and Cubs will be in much different places by then, and so too Votto.

All of which leaves the Reds two years to make something of Votto in the middle of their order, which will be easier with the middle of orders in St. Louis and Milwaukee gutted.

As Votto was putting together the best two seasons of his career (he was the NL MVP in '10, an underappreciated sixth in '11), the Reds in that time led the league in scoring. They'll again be an offensive beast – with Votto, Jay Bruce, Phillips, a healthy Scott Rolen, a bounce-back Drew Stubbs – and they'll again be at the mercy of a pitching staff that wasn't as strong as those in St. Louis and Milwaukee.

It's why Jocketty had to go get an ace, and why he spent prospects so freely on Latos, who'll lead a rotation of Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and, perhaps, someday, Aroldis Chapman.

[ Fantasy: Four Pressing Questions for Cincinnati Reds ]

Yes, after a season-and-a-half as a reliever, Chapman will be re-remade into a starting pitcher. In that case, he'll need a third pitch, he'll need better command of the two pitches he does have, and he may need some more time in the minors to do it.

The bullpen – anchored by Madson in the ninth, flavored by lefties Marshall and Bill Bray – could be the best in the division. That'll be important, because the rotation – even with Latos – is nothing special.

Savior

You know, you hate to lay so much on a 24-year-old man with a 27-29 career record, who's spent his big-league life in one of the greatest pitchers' parks ever, who's never been an opening-day starter or even thrown 200 innings in a season (in part because he started 2011 with a sore shoulder). But, if this is to be the Reds' time, then it must be Mat Latos' as well.

Jocketty spent a good piece of his future (and made it a good piece of the Padres' future) for Latos, a fun and somewhat quirky kid with a power arm and love for the strike zone.

While that strike zone might not be so inviting at Great American Ball Park, Latos is fearless in that way, and so a great fit for the Reds.

They'll need health from Cueto, a return to 2009 from Arroyo, consistency from Bailey and growth from Leake, too.

But the pitcher who can change everything is Latos.

Reds in Haiku

A journey of miles
Begins with a single step
On a Dusty road

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