Well, we can finally close the book on the 2014 regular season for the Cincinnati Reds. It goes without saying, but this campaign has to go down as one of the most disappointing in recent memory.
Hopes were high entering spring training as the club returned many of the same roster pieces that led to playoff berths in the two seasons prior. The main change consisted of a shakeup in the coaching staff. This was led of course by Bryan Price transitioning from pitching coach to skipper.
Unfortunately, Price was dealt a numerous amount of curveballs (no pun intended) in his first season at the helm. And they came in the form of injuries, sub-par play, and just plain bad luck (most one-run losses in MLB with 38). It all added up to a fourth place finish and the least amount of wins in a season since 2008.
To be fair, this club sustained an unbelievable amount of injuries to to its core group of players. First, Joey Votto was a virtual non-factor by missing exactly 100 games. Brandon Phillips missed roughly a month and continues to decline in productivity at the dish. Jay Bruce missed a little time but still managed to appear in 137 games. However, he recorded the worst season of his career, failing to crack the 20-homer mark and boasting an on-base percentage well below .300. Ryan Ludwick failed to live up to expectations, too, smashing just nine home runs and hitting just .244 in over 400 plate appearances. He and the rest of the offense served as a constant reminder of how badly the Reds needed to add a run-producing bat in the offseason (or at trade deadline). Oh, well. Live and learn, right?
Although there is plenty of bad to take away from the season, there is also plenty of good. For the most part, the pitching staff performed remarkably, led by Cy Young Award candidate Johnny Cueto and his 20 victories. Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon each turned in respectable showings while Mat Latos and Homer Bailey were effective when they were healthy enough to play too. Oh, and let us not forget the breakthrough seasons Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco enjoyed, both of whom earned trips to the All-Star Game.
One would also be remiss not to mention how dominant Aroldis Chapman was after suffering the scary accident in March. At age 26, the southpaw tallied one of the most impressive seasons as a reliever in Reds history. The same cannot be said for poor J.J. Hoover, though, who was downright atrocious at times in 2014, compiling an unsightly 1-10 record and 4.88 ERA. But I digress.
To say the Cincinnati Reds have some decisions to make this winter would be a vast understatement. The time has finally come where a good portion of the team's roster is beginning to near free agency. And it is almost a guarantee that the Reds will have to part ways with at least a few of their aging veterans. The means in which the club will do so remains to be seen.
Is the window of opportunity to compete for division titles and postseason success closed for the Reds? I don't think so. At least not yet. But I feel confident to proclaim that the window feels smaller now than it ever has in the past handful of years. Simply put, the Reds don't have the prospects and financial means to replace the key pieces they are most assuredly set to lose soon. And common sense tells us that voids will be left if pieces cannot be efficiently replaced.
Furthermore, the cold reality is that the previously financial stable Reds are no longer financially stable. They are already on the hook for $48 million to four players in 2015 (Bruce, Votto, Phillips, Bailey). And they owe a whopping $64 million to those same four players in 2016. For a club whose payroll doesn't exceed much more or less than $100 million, owing a high percentage of the payroll to just a handful of players is not a great model for success. Yes, even with a more lucrative television contract on the horizon. And the front office could soon realize the consequences of their willingness to shell out huge contracts very soon.
That's the bad news. The good news is the Reds do have some chips to play with in the form of valuable assets. Johnny Cueto's trade value has never been higher. Neither has Aroldis Chapman's. Trading one or both could certainly land the Reds a nice package of affordable young talent. Alas, young talent this cash-strapped franchise desperately needs an influx of.
But then there is also Mat Latos and Mike Leake. Both pitchers will be eligible to hit the free agent market at the conclusion of the 2015 campaign. And unless owner Bob Castellini discovers a new fruit to add to his produce business, the Reds aren't likely going to be able to afford both of their services, especially if they choose to keep the likes of Chapman or Cueto around too.
So, what can Reds fans realistically expect from their team in the coming seasons? Should fans get used to the idea of mediocrity again for awhile? Or can fans still hold out hope that the Reds are primed to get back to the postseason?
In all honesty, if you were to look in a crystal ball, the outlook looks rather hazy at this juncture in time. A lot will hinge on the strings general manager Walt Jocketty opts to pull this winter. And a lot will also depend on how key cogs Votto and Bruce bounce-back from forgettable years.
Of course, the days of the Chicago Cubs being a non-factor in the division appear to be over as well. Their mild late season surge, fueled by their infusion of a loaded farm system, suggest they aren't too far away from emerging from the National League Central Division cellar. Consider the Cardinals are in a good position long term, the Pirates have managed to turn things around, and the Brewers remain competitive, the Reds seemingly have their hands full trying to stay above water in the ultra-competitive division.
In conclusion, is it gloom and doom time at Great American Ball Park? Of course not. However, the dark days of losing may soon be upon us if a major shakeup doesn't occur quickly in the organization. With the recent announcement of Jocketty's two-year extension as general manager, it doesn't appear that shakeup will come at the top, leaving Jocketty on the hot seat to make sense of all the difficult maneuvers the Reds must make to rise from the ashes of a sad 2014 season.