CINCINNATI -- As the free-agent market prepares to open in earnest by the end of the week, don't expect the Reds to be heavy shoppers this offseason.
It's not that Cincinnati doesn't have real needs and holes to fill, because it certainly does.
General manager Walt Jocketty has identified his top concern: landing a consistent right-handed hitter or hitters, including one for left field. It's highly possible that the Reds might investigate catching help and potentially a shortstop. The rotation also lacks a proven left-handed starter.
The timing of supply and the Reds' demands is not in sync in this year's market. There are few desirable right-handed-hitting outfielders out there. For a team that had a $74 million payroll last season that's not likely to jump significantly, you can forget about Manny Ramirez. The rest of the crop comes with question marks -- lots of them.
The real world of troubling economic times has affected everything in this country, and baseball isn't likely to be spared.
"It will be a very interesting market. The economy might affect it, we'll see," Jocketty said. "It's hard to predict what the market will be like. Has it changed our strategy or payroll number? No."
Coming off a World Series championship for the Phillies, Pat Burrell is a left fielder within reach. But Burrell has stated he'd like to return to Philadelphia. He's also a right-handed facsimile of the left fielder the Reds parted with over the summer -- Adam Dunn. Like Dunn, Burrell can be streaky and strikes out a lot, and he plays below-average defense.
Other names in the left-fielder group include the aging or aged likes of Moises Alou, Jay Payton, Jason Michaels, Juan Rivera and the young but often injured Rocco Baldelli. Fans likely would yawn at those options.
The potential names are less predictable, but the trade market is probably the Reds' best bet to fill their right-handed outfielder need. Although Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto are likely off the table, they have some depth in starting pitching and the farm system has been replenished with desirable prospects in recent years.
"We've looked at some of the free agents," Jocketty said. "It's hard to get one, because you don't know where you stand with them. We'll pursue a trade first. But if we can pursue a free agent that doesn't cost a lot, then you wouldn't have to give up anything."
The Rockies are dangling a prize in left fielder Matt Holliday, who is entering the final year of his contract. Holliday is also represented by mega agent Scott Boras, who is likely to steer Holliday to free agency next offseason. The return in players to get Holliday would be quite steep and the cost to keep him beyond 2009 is sure to be even steeper.
"We're looking at every potential right-handed, run-producing hitter," Jocketty said. "I don't want to mention names."
Jocketty indicated earlier this fall that the Reds were pleased enough with Ryan Hanigan's rookie year that he has a good chance to be next year's starting catcher. That means the chances of pursuing a veteran backup are greater. If they end up pursuing a starting backstop, Jason Varitek is the biggest free-agent name, followed by Ivan Rodriguez.
The Rangers are a team flush with four catchers in Gerald Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teegarden and Max Ramirez. Cincinnati and Texas hooked up last offseason for the Volquez-Josh Hamilton trade, which was a success for both clubs.
Should the Reds pursue a shortstop, it would be as insurance in case Alex Gonzalez won't be 100 percent again after he missed all of last season because of microfracture surgery on his knee. Gonzalez is making $5.375 million in 2009, the final year of his three-year contract. Don't expect the Reds to carry two shortstops in this pay range. The Reds have Jeff Keppinger and Paul Janish as alternatives.
The Reds' rotation is deep, with Volquez, Aaron Harang, Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and several young contenders for the fifth spot. There are, however, no experienced lefties in the mix. Jocketty wants to take a look at veteran free agent Mark Mulder, whom he traded for when he was the Cardinals GM. But Mulder has barely pitched the past two seasons because of shoulder injuries.
The Reds could also seek relief help if they aren't successful retaining three of their own free agents -- David Weathers, Jeremy Affeldt and Mike Lincoln. The club has made overtures to all three, and to utility player Jerry Hairston Jr.