The Reds have won 90 or more games and made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. It has been a nice little run of success for the franchise, considering they had not made the playoffs since 1995. They have still not won a playoff series since then though, and it cost Dusty Baker his job after the season.
Diagnosis: Closing Window-osis
It is a rare thing in baseball for a team to sustain excellence and contend for years and years at a time. The Braves in the '90s managed to do it on the strength of a few Hall-of-Famers (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are being inducted this summer). The Yankees of recent vintage managed to do it on the strength of a few soon-to-be Hall-of-Famers of their own (Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter will likely be first-ballot guys, and Jorge Posada has a decent shot, too).
In the absence of multiple Hall-of-Fame-caliber players though, most teams experience ups and downs. Dynasties are exceptions that prove the rule. The Brewers had a recent window of contention with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. They took their shot, surrounding those guys with good, talented players. They made it to the playoffs twice, but never put it all together. Then Prince left, they traded Zack Greinke before he reached free agency, and now the rebuilding process is in full swing, which is to say they're doing a lot of losing. The Phillies are at about the same place in the franchise cycle. They won the NL East crown five years in a row, even winning a championship in 2008. But now, Chase Utley has fought numerous crippling injuries and isn't the player he used to be. Ditto Ryan Howard. Roy Halladay retired. They have missed the playoffs two straight years now and it doesn't look to be getting better for them any time soon.
The Reds, however, are still very good. They have Joey Votto, who is one of the best in the game. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are All-Star-caliber supporting players. The rotation is one of strongest and deepest around. Former pitching coach Bryan Price was their choice to take over the managerial vacancy left by Baker, and he seems to be well-respected and positive. They will probably be a serious contender in the NL Central in 2014.
But their wave may be cresting. Homer Bailey is scheduled to be a free agent after 2014. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake are looking at free agency after 2015. That dominant rotation isn't going to be together much longer. Brandon Phillips isn't as young as he used to be (he'll be 33 in June). If the Reds are going to win a World Series with these guys, they better get to doing it already.
Key Stat: .423
That was the rate at which Shin-Soo Choo reached base last season. Going into 2013, the Reds had a problem with on-base percentage at the top of the order so they went out and traded for Choo. He was everything they could have asked for. He took over the leadoff spot and killed it.
But Choo was just a one-year rental, and the Texas Rangers gave him a bunch of money to go play for them, so the Reds are facing the same problem all over again, trying to find some guys to get on base in front of Joey Votto. Billy Hamilton is slated to take over centerfield/leadoff for Choo, but it's not very likely (like, at all) that he will get on base like Choo did.
Breakout: Billy Hamilton and Tony Cingrani
Speaking of Hamilton, look for him to do some really crazy things in 2014. The 23-year-old is the fastest player in baseball right now -- heck, maybe ever -- and his feats of derring-do have already spawned numerous hagiographic stories. Bards used to write songs about guys like him. He looks to be the Reds' starting center fielder on opening day, so keep a look out for him. He'll be the reddish blur next to Jay Bruce.
Of course, you can't steal first base, as the old proverb says. Hamilton struggled quite a bit in Triple-A last season, getting on base at only a .308 clip. He'll have to do better than that if he wants to take full advantage of his spacetime-warping speed.
Tony Cingrani is another intriguing breakout candidate. Cingrani filled in for the oft-injured Johnny Cueto last season, logging just over 100 innings. The lanky lefty was dominant, posting an impressive 2.92 ERA while striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings. The concern with Cingrani has always been that his stuff doesn't really add up. He has nice fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s, but his off-speed offerings have always been lackluster. With the likely departure of Bronson Arroyo (he's now a free agent), Cingrani will get a chance to show what he can do with a full-time rotation gig.
Breakdown: Brandon Phillips
If Brandon Phillips had posted his 2013 season in 1983, he probably would have been an interesting MVP candidate. He won his fourth Gold Glove at second base and drove in 103 runs for a team that won 90 games. Those RBIs wallpaper over what could be a precipitous decline for the aging All Star. He hit only .261/.310/.396, his worst production since his first year in the Queen City back in 2006. He hit fewer doubles, stole fewer bases and struck out more than he has in a good long while. Phillips will be 33 in June, which is getting towards ripe for a middle infielder -- and the Reds owe him $50 million over the next four seasons.
Prescription: Build it up or break it up
The 2014 season looks to be ... well, it looks to be really something for the Reds. They still have the pieces to make a deep run in October, but one gets the sense that 2012 and 2013 were probably their best chances.
With the departure of Choo, they now have an untested and raw center fielder in Billy Hamilton and an old, injury-prone left fielder in Ryan Ludwick. He's 35 and he missed pretty much all of last season with a torn labrum. He's a guy who relies on his power to be any kind of decent ballplayer coming off a major injury that kills power, and the Reds are relying on him. Yikes. If they really want to go for it, they should get another outfielder. The problem, though, is that they don't really have the assets on the farm to trade for one, they owe Ludwick another $13 million, Hamilton needs to play in order to get better and there don't seem to be any reasonable fits available on the market right now. Aside from all that though, this plan is brilliant.
Of course, it's impossible to tell if and when a player is really "available." It's possible that there are a few teams out there who seem perfectly content with the way things are, but would be willing to deal if the right offer were presented. I recommend the Reds dangle closer Aroldis Chapman and see if they can pry a good, young hitter out of the woodwork.
Chapman is one of the most electric spectacles in baseball right now. He throws over 100 mph and strikes out everybody. But at this point in his career, it looks like he is staying in the bullpen and he is about to get pretty expensive. He is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter and could earn up to $5.4 million. Add that to the $5 million roster bonus he received because of his indecipherable contract and suddenly one begins to do the math: How much are you paying him per save now?
Or, they could go in the opposite direction. They could trade off a few expensive veterans in order to streamline the payroll and restock the organization with some much-needed young talent. Homer Bailey is set to be a free agent after the 2014 season, and though he and the Reds have been in negotiations on a long-term extension, it might make sense to deal him. An extension for Bailey would cost a lot -- both in terms of money and opportunity. If they sign him, that means they most likely won't be able to keep Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, too. They may be able to keep two, or maybe even just one. In that case, they must choose wisely.
Either way, they need to do something. The Reds have been curiously inactive this offseason, which must be disquieting for Reds' fans. Their biggest moves so far have been the addition of Skip Schumaker to the bench and the trade of part-time catcher Ryan Hanigan. Sure, this team is pretty good as it is, but both the Cardinals and Pirates were better last season and the Reds haven't done anything to change that. They need to either make some changes to get better for 2014 or make some changes to get better for 2015 and beyond. Doing nothing is getting worse.