So as a disappointing 2011 draws towards it's close, what will we be talking about when April comes along next year?
1) Sink or swim time for this year's Louisville Bats. We're looking at a lot of position players competing for spots on this Reds club. Will Mesoraco and Cozart be handed the catching and shortstop jobs, or will they split time with Hanigan/Janish/new signings? Will Alonso find a position he can play competently enough to justify being on the roster? Has Sappelt shown enough promise to fill the LF and leadoff holes, or even make the 25-man out of spring training this time? Can Francisco leave his K/BB issues behind and become the power bat that the club needs? Do Valaika and Frazier have important roles, or are they cheap replacement parts, shuffled between AAA and the majors? Can any of these 3B prospects replace Rolen if the need arises? The season hinges on how well these guys can come through.
2) The time for the Aroldis decision has come. Does Chapman embrace the role of closer, or will he return to Louisville to train for the starting role? He's already tried it once, and after his test run in the MLB this season, it's time to make a final decision and never look back, lest he never find a true role. As a starter, he could either be a Justin Verlander hammer, a Homer Bailey portrait of unfulfilled potential, or an Edinson Volquez crash and burn. As a closer, he would likely be a dominant force, but his utter breakdown earlier this season suggests that he may not be as consistent as the elite.
3) Trades and transactions may play a crucial role. After the failure of making no moves in the offseason or at the trade deadline, can we expect Walt to be an active mover and shaker? We have the pieces to be either a buyer or seller: Alonso, Bailey, Grandal, and Hamilton will all have teams drooling and willing to trade a major piece, while dangling Votto or Stubbs will demand a massive return.
4) Bruce, Stubbs, and Bailey need their breakout seasons. Each saw a regression in 2012: Bruce in consistency at the plate and defensive value, Stubbs in strikeout rate and plate discipline, and Bailey in failure to progress and injury once again. Can they be what we needed them to be last season? 2011 hinged on him living up to their potential; 2012 may determine if they ever will.
5) The health and consistency of the rotation will be tested once again in 2012, and there will be immense pressure on each one to perform. Cueto now carries the role of TOR starter; can he prove his astounding performance this year was no fluke? Has Volquez finally figured it out in Louisville, or is he once again fool's gold? Can Bailey stay healthy and improve? Is Wood capable of figuring it out and returning to the rotation, or does he have a place with the Reds at all? Is Chapman in the long-term picture? And most importantly, will Arroyo give us hope that his contract isn't on the verge of becoming an albatross? Everybody has something to prove next season, and nothing is set in stone.
6) Phillips and Votto's roles in our long-term plans will see some resolution next year. Part of the Phillips question will be answered in the offseason, depending on if we accept or decline the option. We don't have any reliable 2B prospects above low-A at this point; should we offer a LTC if he gives us a discount, or let him walk and concentrate on extending Votto? He will be much harder to keep; most of his recent quotes point towards him leaving Cincinnati after his contract is up, and he will fetch a Fielder-esque return in free agency. We also have multiple 1B prospects in the system capable of assuming the mantle once our MVP has left town. Is he still worth pursuing?
7) The closer is a big question mark for 2012. Cordero's option is outlandish and certain to be declined, but without him, we lose our best 9th inning option and our most reliable bullpen arm from last season. Should he be resigned for less? Do we have anybody in-house worth taking a risk on (including Chapman)? Or should a trade or offseason signing be in the cards? It's a crapshoot at this point.
8) Our farm system will be vastly transformed. Between graduating multiple prospects, watching a number of raw international signings develop, and a promising draft class, we'll see a shakeup of talent. With Mesoraco, Chapman, and likely Alonso graduated, who will top the prospect list? Will we develop any true mid-level pitching prospects? Who will assert themselves in the low minors? Who's a trade piece, and who's untouchable? Also: watch as our new AA affiliate, Pensacola, opens its doors!
9) As much attention as they get here in Sun Deck, it goes without saying that the manager/GM situation isn't fully. Does the end of Jocketty's contract means that he is no guarantee for the long-term? Could Baker be on the hot seat if the Reds fail to perform again? After his failure in Chicago and this season, he could be on a shorter leash than we realize.
10) Some have said that 2012-2013 is our window for the Joey Votto era. Is next season our time to reclaim the division with the talent we've amassed? Will the Brewers and Cardinals retain their key players, or will we see guys like Fielder, Pujols, Carpenter, and Berkman hit the road? Are we the team to beat, or are we on the outside looking in?
Stay tuned, Reds fans! There's a lot to get excited about for next year.