Reds might be sellers at trade deadline

Ever since Colorado ace Ubaldo Jimenez hit the trade market, the Cincinnati Reds have been cited as one of his top suitors. For weeks, baseball observers noted that the Reds needed one starting pitcher — at least — in order to prepare for the pennant drive.

There’s only one problem with that: I’m not certain that the Cincinnati Reds are in contention anymore.

The Reds are 3-7 in their past 10 games. They are a fourth-place team, 6-1/2 games back of the NL Central lead. According to the most recent Baseball Prospectus projections, they have a 4.8 percent chance of reaching the postseason — roughly equivalent to the Minnesota Twins and less than three percentage points higher than the New York Mets.

That would be the same Mets team that (A) just traded its All-Star right fielder and (B) swept the Reds in a four-game series at Great American Ballpark.

Of possible trades, Cincinnati star Brandon Phillips told, “We have to do something to change up the attitude.” That’s a fine concept. But is this team really one player away? Or two? Why should Reds owner Bob Castellini add to the payroll — and authorize the trading of prospects — to help a group of players that has underachieved so badly?

There is the argument that Reds management has an obligation to go all-in, in order to capitalize on the momentum that began with last year’s division title. I don’t buy that. First of all, the Reds won one more game in 2010 than the San Diego Padres, who have been readying for the Great Bullpen Sale since before Memorial Day.

The Reds had one very good season. Don’t confuse that with the birth of a dynasty.

Castellini would be in a different position if the Reds were selling out every home game. They aren’t. Entering Thursday, they ranked 10th among the 16 NL franchises in average attendance.

Still, Castellini and general manager Walt Jocketty will do everything they can to avoid punting on the 2011 season. Look at their history: In 2009, despite being 10 games out on July 31, they added expensive veteran Scott Rolen. I criticized the deal, thinking it was premature for a team that was still in the early stages of a rebuild. Well, I was wrong. Rolen was a transformational player, on and off the field, for last year’s division winner.

But this is a different team and a different season. Rolen, playing through constant shoulder pain, hasn’t been the same player. He’s currently on the disabled list. Joey Votto, the reigning NL MVP, is slugging nearly 100 percentage points lower than last year. Drew Stubbs leads the league in strikeouts — and he’s the leadoff man.

The biggest weakness, though, has been the starting rotation. Bronson Arroyo, not even one full season into a three-year, $35 million contract extension, has a 5.58 ERA, the worst of his career since becoming a fulltime starter.

Opening Day starter Edinson Volquez is in the minor leagues. Come to think of it, the guy who started the second game of the season (Travis Wood) is in the minor leagues, too.

The other two pitchers who began the season in the rotation were Mike Leake, who’s been OK, and Sam LeCure, who’s now pitching out of the bullpen.

Homer Bailey, who took the loss in Thursday’s ugly defeat, has maddening quantities of untapped potential — along with a 4.68 ERA. Aroldis Chapman, once seen as a potential high-end starter, is presently a well-compensated middle reliever.

Jimenez can’t fix all of that. He’s a pitcher, not a roster mechanic.

The news hasn’t been all bad. Johnny Cueto has emerged as a legitimate ace, and the return of Dontrelle Willis has quietly been one of this month’s best stories. Before his injury, rookie shortstop Zack Cozart looked like a certain everyday player in the making.

In general, though, this is a team with plenty of talent and not much magic.

I’m not suggesting that the Reds should halt any conversation about Jimenez. I do think, however, that the only way Jocketty should make the trade is if he believes it gives him a better team in 2012 and 2013, not just 2011. And since Jimenez is under contract for two more seasons, that is entirely possible.

One easy move: Jocketty should be able to procure a good prospect by finding a new home for veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez, who is having a productive year and is due only $1 million for the remainder of the season.

And maybe it’s time to trade Stubbs in order to acquire a true leadoff man like Houston’s Michael Bourn, who won’t become a free agent until after next season.

As extreme as this may sound, Jocketty might be wise to see if there’s any interest in a Cueto blockbuster. Like Jimenez, he has an affordable long-term contract. If Jimenez and Tampa Bay’s James Shields stay put, maybe Jocketty could stun everyone in baseball by exacting a big prospect bounty from the Yankees.

That’s highly unlikely. It would be very un-Castellini-like to take that sort of approach. But the Reds need to be creative and introspective right now. They are following one outstanding year with a disappointing one. It’s time for them to figure out which one is closer to their true identity.