On the Beat
by John Perrotto
Gambling may be prohibited in baseball, but Brandon Phillips has a tip for those who like to place futures wagers. "We're the team to beat in the National League Central in 2010," the Reds second baseman said.
No, Phillips wasn't kidding. He said it with a straight face, even though the Reds are wrapping up their ninth consecutive losing season. And yes, Phillips has the reputation for saying just about anything when he gets excited. Still, it's a free country, and everyone is entitled to voice their opinion, so why not at least let Phillips give his rationale on why he thinks the Reds can get to the postseason in 2010 for the first time since 1995?
"For one thing, we have a pretty darn good team when we're all healthy," Phillips said. "The problem is we never had our whole team together this season. Then I look at all the guys who have been called up when we've had to use the disabled list and those guys can play. So, I figure when we get to spring training next year, it's going to be very interesting. We're going to have all our regulars healthy. Then we're going to have all the guys who got thrown into the fire this year and that's going to give us better depth. That's why I look at it and say we're the team to beat. We've got a lot of good players."
We won't know until this time next year if Phillips' logic is sound. However, at least he sounds convincing. Reds manager Dusty Baker also has an optimistic outlook for a team that is 75-82, which is progress for a franchise that last had a winning season in 2000, when it dropped a tie-breaking play-in game to the Mets for the NL Wild Card. However, Baker's hopefulness comes from his belief that the Reds might be on more even economic footing with their division rivals when next season begins. The Reds opened this season with a $73-million payroll, which was fifth in the six-team division behind the Cubs ($134 million), Astros ($102 million), Brewers ($80 million), and Cardinals ($77 million) and ahead of only the always-thrifty Pirates ($48 million). Owner Bob Castellini isn't expected to raise the payroll significantly next season but Baker is hopeful other NL Central team will curb spending in a tough economy. "Hopefully, some of the other clubs have spent so much money that they can't add any more money," Baker said. "I've heard it's a sub-par free-agent year. That might make it better for us, too."
With the Reds having little financial flexibility to add a significant player in the winter, Baker is hopeful a move made at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline this season will pay off big. The Reds raised plenty of eyebrows when they traded for third baseman Scott Rolen despite being 45-56 and 9½ games behind the Cardinals. However, Rolen had asked Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi to send him to a team closer to his home in Indiana, and the Reds looked at the trade as a two-year move. The Reds' biggest need is a right-handed hitter with power, and Rolen was once that player. However, he is clearly in the decline phase of his career at 34 years of age, and he has managed just a .259 EqA and two home runs in 144 at-bats since the trade. Still, Baker believes Rolen can be a difference-maker in 2010. "He will be with us from spring training and he'll be adjusted to being back in the National League again," Baker said. "I think he can be a big player for us."
The Reds' offense needs a boost as it is just 12th in the NL with an average of 4.1, runs scored a game; take out the park effects and use team-wide Equivalent Average, and they're 15th in the league, ahead of only the Giants. The unit hasn't had many bright spots except for first baseman Joey Votto continuing his march toward stardom, with a .325 EqA in his second big-league season. Retread outfielder Jonny Gomes posting a .295 mark after being non-tendered by the Rays in the offseason.
More happily, the Reds sit in the middle of the pack in pitching, standing eighth in the 16-team NL by allowing 4.5 runs a game despite losing ace Edinson Volquez to Tommy John elbow surgery in May. Arroyo has 5.3 SNLVAR and closer Francisco Cordero (3.16 WXRL) heads a strong bullpen that has also gotten significant contributions from right-hander Nick Masset (2.71) and ageless left-hander Arthur Rhodes (2.55). "We've really missed Volquez because the rest of our pitching has been so good," Phillips said. "He was our ace. He was our guy. If he doesn't get hurt, it's a different story for the Cincinnati Reds in 2009."
Instead, it has been the same old story for the Reds this year. However, Phillips isn't the only one in the clubhouse who believes 2010 holds promise. "Trading for Rolen showed that Bob Castellini and (general manager) Walt Jocketty believe we can win next year," Arroyo said. "We're going to get a chance to prove ourselves. It's time for all of us to step up. We've lost for too many years here, and I think everyone knows it's either time to starting winning next year, or management will blow this team up and start over again."