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.
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2012 record: 97-65
Finish: First, NL Central
2012 final payroll: $88.1 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $107 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 4th
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Having spent three years turning Aroldis Chapman into a high-end closer, a left-hander so dominant he would strike out 122 batters in 71 2/3 innings, the Reds are committed to having Chapman become a starter again.
You know, in that we'll-see-how-it-goes kind of way.
The Reds can hardly lose. As Dusty Baker is fond of saying, Chapman may be the team's best closer and best starter. GM Walt Jocketty appears to have decided a lot of innings out of Chapman is better than a few, though there have been no clues about what might constitute "a lot." More than 71 2/3. Probably not 200. Chapman pitched 118 2/3 innings in 2009 while still in Cuba. As a Red in 2010, he threw 109 (including his time in the minors).
Jocketty could employ Chapman carefully, the way the Chicago White Sox did Chris Sale last season, though Sale pitched so well he reached 192 innings anyway. Perhaps they go the Kris Medlen route. The Atlanta Braves pitched him out of the bullpen until midsummer, put him into the rotation and watched him go 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA over 12 starts.
Either way, the notion Chapman would come out of the ninth inning – immediately or eventually – meant somebody would have to go in. The Reds signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million contract. He did a nice job setting up for Chapman following a trade-deadline deal with the Kansas City Royals. Of course, the Reds seemed to be leaning toward starting Chapman a year ago, then lost Ryan Madson, Nick Masset and Bill Bray to springtime injuries. It worked out – Chapman saved 38 games, the Reds won 97 games and everybody was happy until the fifth game of the division series.
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That success seemed to convince Jocketty not to tamper too much with his roster. He traded away center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius and got back outfielder and leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo and infielder Jason Donald. He re-signed left fielder Ryan Ludwick. As Scott Rolen was likely to retire, he signed third baseman Jack Hannahan to back up Todd Frazier.
While some discussion ensued over whether Choo or Jay Bruce would play center field, Jocketty has said the job is Choo's.
What sticks with a team, sticks like a stubborn doughnut near the barrel of its Louisville Slugger, is a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series, three home games ahead, and an early bounce from the postseason. What sticks is watching the ballclub that limped in and danced out go on and win a World Series. What sticks with a team is winning an organization's first two postseason games in 17 years and following that up with its first three-game losing streak at home all year.
The Reds have plenty to play for, because of what should have stuck to them for four months.
The NL Central will have a slightly different look in '13. The Houston Astros went off to the American League, taking their 29-50 record in the Central with them. The St. Louis Cardinals appear to have lost Chris Carpenter for the season and everybody else finished at least 14 games behind the Reds.
In their mid-market world, they've built a pitching staff that even Great American Ball Park can't bow. Chapman, in perhaps a swing role that would limit his innings, would follow Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo. Cueto won 19 games in '12. Latos was among the best starters in the league in the second half. Near the end of his breakout season, Bailey threw a no-hitter. Arroyo, going on 36, merely shows up, logs his 200 innings and wins his share of starts.
The best road pitching staff in baseball last season? The Reds.
That leaves a lot to work with for an offense that was just average a year ago but has upgraded with Choo in the leadoff spot, 600 major-league plate appearances for Zack Cozart and a healthy Joey Votto. If the knee issues that plagued Votto last season are behind him, Votto's power returns and the Reds' offense changes. As it was, despite missing 48 games and treading lightly in the rest, Votto batted .337 and posted a career-high .474 on-base percentage. His left knee, and therefore his back leg, abandoned him, however, and he hit a career-low (for a somewhat full season) 14 home runs.
The Reds have the arms, the bats and the charisma to win another 97. The front office, Dusty Baker, a strong roster, they appear to have found a good course. Now they have to stick to it.
One of the great arms in the game belongs to Chapman. At 24, he was a terrific closer. At 25, he could be an elite starter.
The transition begins anew this spring, and the coordinators of that – Jocketty, Baker, pitching coach Bryan Price – must choose a plan and stay with it. If they are caught in the middle, well, think Joba Chamberlain.
They must know by now if Chapman's secondary pitches – those beyond the triple-digit fastball and vanishing slider – will come, and stay. They must know if Chapman has the capacity to push two or three times through a lineup, then show up five days later and do it again.
Their duty is to pick a role for Chapman and, like one of those developing changeups he throws, to somehow stay out of the middle.
Ring 'round the Cincy
A rocket full of Posey
And the Reds fall down
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