The Reds could lose center fielder Shin-Soo Choo as a free agent and seem hell-bent on trading second baseman Brandon Phillips.
That’s a lot of offense to subtract from a team that isn’t terribly deep in impact hitters to begin with.
Choo was second in the National League with a .423 on-base percentage last season. Phillips, despite finishing with a career-low .706 OPS, was fourth in the league with 103 RBI.
The biggest question for the Reds, then, is whether they should sacrifice pitching to address their offensive needs.
The answer is no.
Better they should find offense through free agency, either by re-signing Choo or adding lesser alternatives (upgrading the bench with Skip Schumaker was a good start).
Better they should keep right-hander Homer Bailey for his final season before free agency and end the debate over left-hander Aroldis Chapman, who should remain the closer and not start.
The idea, as always, is to outscore the opponent. The Reds actually were quite balanced last season, finishing third in the NL in runs and fourth in runs allowed. But if circumstances dictate that they place a heavier emphasis on run prevention, so be it.
Replacing Choo with Billy Hamilton in center field would be a major downgrade offensively but a major upgrade defensively. As for duplicating Phillips’ .873 OPS with runners in scoring position … well, probably not even Phillips could do that.
Phillips has won a Gold Glove in three of the past four seasons, but he will not be easy to trade, not with $50 million left on his contract over the next four seasons, not when Robinson Cano and Omar Infante are free agents and Ian Kinsler and Howie Kendrick are available in trades.
Then again, second base is a position of great flux around the majors – nearly half the clubs are mulling changes at that spot. If Bailey will not sign long-term, the Reds could attach him to Phillips to expand their trade possibilities and coax a better return. Then again, such a move would be self-defeating if the Reds did not get back enough talent.
The Reds are in the same position with Bailey that the Tigers are in with right-hander Max Scherzer. The only way to justify trading such a pitcher would be to exact a return greater than the value of the player’s performance in his free-agent year and the draft pick the team would receive by making him a qualifying offer.
Hard to do.
The Reds already are replacing free-agent righty Bronson Arroyo with lefty Tony Cingrani. They conceivably could replace Bailey with Chapman, but that only would lead to other problems.
Never mind that new manager Bryan Price was a proponent of moving Chapman to the rotation last spring or that other club officials view Chapman as a physical freak who could pull off such a conversion.
Another season just passed with Chapman as a reliever, and there should be no turning back.
Yes, a pitcher is far more valuable to his team throwing 200 innings than 65 to 70.
Yes, other relievers have successfully transitioned to the rotation, namely Ryan Dempster and Derek Lowe.
But let’s not complicate this. Chapman prefers to close. He appears better suited emotionally to close. And the Reds need him to close, considering their alternatives.
Jonathan Broxton, coming off surgery to repair a torn flexor mass in his right forearm, might not be ready for spring training. The Reds could turn to another internal option such as J.J. Hoover, Alfredo Simon or Logan Ondrusek, but such a move would disrupt their well-constructed bullpen.
Adding a free-agent closer? Chapman, projected to earn $4.6 million in his first year of arbitration by Matt Swartz of MLBTradeRumors.com, is more affordable than any who are available – and better than any of them, too.
Remember, the Reds are trying to win. They probably do not want to add to the stress of bullpen management for Price, who is a former pitching coach but first-time manager. Oh, they always could invent a closer, but when teams do that it often is by accident, not because of any grand plan.
Reinventing Chapman as a starter actually could weaken the Reds in both the bullpen and rotation. It might take Chapman a full season to re-acclimate to starting. And who knows whether he would even succeed?
Chapman is easily flustered and does not always handle adversity well. As a starter he would be more vulnerable to irritants such as bunts, stolen bases, hitters who take pitches. As a reliever, he’s electric, a ninth-inning shot of adrenaline. Really, this choice should be easy.
Preserve the pitching, fix the offense – it will be easier said than done. The potential loss of Choo looms over the Reds’ entire offseason, but keep in mind that the team can sign another outfielder who received a qualifying offer – say, Curtis Granderson or Nelson Cruz – with no net loss in draft picks. They would pick up one if Choo signed somewhere else.
The trade of Phillips figures to yield either salary relief or a player with a comparable contract, and the expected trade of catcher Ryan Hanigan should bring a quality piece of some kind, most likely a prospect. Right-handed hitting should be a priority – the Reds’ righties ranked next-to-last in OPS in the NL last season, and the subtraction of Phillips only would exacerbate the problem.
It’s a complex equation, one of the most complex any club faces this offseason. Then again, teams rarely go wrong when they protect their pitching. First and foremost, that’s what the Reds should do.