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.
2008 record: 74-88
Finish: Fifth place in National League Central, 23.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs
2008 opening-day payroll: $74.1 million
2009 estimated opening-day payroll: $75 million
Don't underestimate the savvy or the motivation of general manager Walt Jocketty. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team that dumped him after a long, mostly successful reign, is a bona-fide divisional rival of the Reds. And Jocketty, in his second season in Cincinnati, is reshaping his new club to have more in common with the Cardinals than red uniforms.
He dumped plodding outfielders Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. during the season. And though the Reds didn't get a whole lot in return unless pitcher Micah Owings does a 180, it's worth noting that neither player has found a taker this offseason and both are certain to get less money than they anticipated.
The new center fielder and leadoff hitter is Willy Taveras, nontendered by the Rockies and a bargain for Jocketty at $2.25 million in 2009 and $4 million in 2010. Tavares, who made $1.95 million in 2008, would have been in line for at least $3 million through arbitration after leading the majors with 68 stolen bases. His on-base percentage was a subpar .308, but it was .367 in 2007 – maybe he'll split the difference in '09.
Every-day catcher Ramon Hernandez was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles for Ryan Freel, a versatile player who was expendable because the Reds resigned Jerry Hairston Jr., who has even more versatility and can play shortstop until it is clear that Alex Gonzalez is completely recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him all last season. Hernandez is better offensively than behind the plate, and Jocketty might do well to sign a glove-first backup catcher before spring training.
Jocketty has had several discussions with Yankees GM Brian Cashman about acquiring Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady to play left field and add middle-of-the-order pop. But the Reds aren't keen on trading top prospects, making a deal less than likely.
Underpinning the Reds' hopes is a handful of young players in key roles. Starters Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto and sluggers Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion are the building blocks of a team that might be only another two or so emerging talents from challenging for a wild-card berth.
Second baseman Brandon Phillips is a premier all-around offensive force. Starters Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo have enjoyed periods of success and of intense frustration, but all in all they are assets to the rotation. Francisco Cordero is an above-average, if overpaid, closer.
The Reds have a lot of work ahead, however, to change a losing culture that has resulted in eight consecutive seasons worse than .500. In 2008, they had the lowest batting average with runners in scoring position in the league, gave up more home runs than any team and surrendered 96 more runs than they scored.
To realistically become a contender this year, the Reds could use a middle-of-the-order hitter to play left field. It so happens that the deposed Dunn fits the description, but he made $13 million last year and Jocketty won't come close to offering a figure that high. That's also why talk of signing Bobby Abreu is unrealistic.
Maybe the answer could be Owings, whose career batting average of .319 with 16 extra-base hits in 116 at-bats
Next: Tampa Bay Rays