Reds general manager Walt Jocketty had a clever line when John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer asked him if the team had targeted a specific area to improve.
"It depends on which day," Jocketty said.
On Thursday night, I posed the same question to Jocketty with a slightly different twist, asking him to identify the team’s biggest need.
"A hitter," Jocketty said.
A leadoff man? A middle-of-the-order slugger?
"All of the above," Jocketty said, chuckling.
"Ideally, you’re always looking for that guy who can mash in the middle of the lineup, put (Brandon) Phillips in a different spot, put (Scott) Rolen in a different spot.
"It’s important to have a good leadoff guy. But right now if we could find the right RBI guy, that’s what we’ll be looking for."
Jocketty’s assessment nicely sums up the paradoxical Reds, who host the Braves this weekend (MLB on Fox, Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).
The Reds rank second in the National League in runs and 14th in rotation ERA, and they need a hitter?
In the six games since the All-Star break, the defending NL Central champions have completely reversed their identity, their rotation producing a 2.65 ERA and their offense tying the Dodgers for the NL’s fewest number of runs.
Phillips and Rolen, the team’s most frequent cleanup hitters, both are miscast in the fourth spot. Rolen, forever banged-up, struggling with a .279 OBP and .676 OPS, barely belongs in the sixth spot.
Another ill-fitting part, leadoff man Drew Stubbs, leads the NL in strikeouts. The addition of a top-of-the-order spark such as the Astros’ Michael Bourn or Athletics’ Coco Crisp would help, but as Jocketty indicated, other needs are more pressing.
Pitching, for example.
"If the right guy comes available, either a starter or reliever who I think will upgrade the club, we’ll pursue it," Jocketty said.
The Reds’ lack of a top-of-the-rotation starter was an issue last season, especially in the Division Series, when the team was swept by the Phillies in three games. Right-hander Johnny Cueto, who has a 1.98 ERA in 14 starts, has developed into a reasonable facisimile of an ace. But with the disintegration of righty Edinson Volquez, it’s easy to understand why the Reds would explore deals for Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, Rays righty James Shields and others.
Exploring is one thing. Completing a deal is another.
"On the top guys that are supposedly available, mentioned to be available, if clubs can hit a home run, they’ll do it," Jocketty said. "If not, they’re not going to do it. And it’s tough for clubs to give up a pile of prospects to get it done."
The Reds are one of the few teams that can build such a package. They’ve got young starting pitchers (lefty Travis Wood and righties Homer Bailey and Mike Leake). They’ve also got a bevy of major-league ready position prospects (catcher Devin Mesoraco, first baseman/outfielder Yonder Alonso and third baseman Juan Francisco, among others).
Problem is, the Reds lack the revenue potential of division rivals such as the Cubs, Cardinals and Astros, and need young, affordable talent for their own club.
The team’s average home attendance of 27,285 is more than 8,000 less than that of the Brewers, who play in a comparable market. On Friday, the Reds announced that fans who purchase season tickets for 2012 will receive free tickets — free — to all 24 remaining home games.
On one hand, Jocketty said he "hates" trading prospects. On the other hand, he grasps the opportunity at hand.
"One club told me that we seem to have duplication at every position, whether it’s at Triple-A or guys who are a little bit lower," Jocketty said.
"We do have a lot of depth. If the right deal comes around, I’ll pursue it. But the right deal hasn’t come to us yet, one that we feel comfortable doing."
Jocketty said he spoke with manager Dusty Baker on Thursday about the lack of quality hitters available. Quality starting pitchers are just as scarce. Relievers are plentiful, and the Reds have checked in on the Padres’ bullpen arms and a number of others.
Beggars can’t be choosers. Talented as the Reds are, they’re only 40-47 after their 8-3 start.
"We haven’t played up to our capabilities, and I’m not sure why," Jocketty said.
There you have it.
If the Reds’ season is a mystery, how can their approach at the trading deadline be anything but the same?