After worst season in 6 years, Reds can't afford to keep status quo any longer

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CINCINNATI — After their offense went flat in the closing weeks of the 2013 season that ended with a wild card loss in Pittsburgh, the Reds decided they had to change.

No, not the players. The batting coach. And the manager.

They fired Dusty Baker after a third playoff appearance in four seasons — their best stretch of success since the days of the Big Red Machine — and figured that Cincinnati could go deep into the postseason with the same group of players and different leadership.

An 86-loss season proved them wrong. Now, it's time to start changing the cast of players.

The Reds finished ahead of only the Cubs in the NL Central with a 76-86 mark that was their worst since 2008, when Baker and general manager Walt Jocketty took over. Jocketty got a two-year extension on Saturday, and manager Bryan Price has two years left on his deal, so those guiding the team won't change.

The cast of players could see some significant moves.

"We don't know what next year's going to bring — what guys are going to be here — but if we have our main core back and some guys step up off the bench, I think we'll be pretty good," third baseman Todd Frazier said. "Hopefully, we can keep our core together. We'll be fine."

It's going to take some maneuvering.

The Reds have three everyday players locked into big deals. Jay Bruce will make $12 million in 2015, second baseman Brandon Phillips will earn $12 million and first baseman Joey Votto will make $14 million. All three were hurt and had subpar years.

Starters Homer Bailey ($10 million) and Johnny Cueto ($10 million club option) would push the payroll to $58 million for those five alone. The Reds ranked 11th in the majors this season with a $114 million payroll.

The biggest question is what to do with Cueto, who is entering his option year and became the first Reds 20-game winner since 1988. He's in line for a big contract that the Reds can't afford unless they shed some of their other financial obligations.

They also need to upgrade an offense that was last in the majors in hits and batting average during the second half of the season.

They got impressive seasons from Frazier, catcher Devin Mesoraco and rookie center fielder Billy Hamilton. But Bruce (.217, 18 homers, 66 RBIs), Phillips (.266, 8, 51) and Votto (.255, 6, 23) were hurt and struggled.

Injuries affected the roster from the first day of spring training, when starter Mat Latos had surgery to repair torn knee cartilage. The Reds opened the season with eight players on the disabled list, including Latos, Mesoraco and closer Aroldis Chapman, who was hit above the left eye by a line drive and needed surgery.

The injuries continued throughout the season. Votto, who has a 10-year, $225 million deal through 2023, went on the disabled list twice with strained muscles above his left knee and didn't play after July 5.

"The biggest thing is health," Mesoraco said. "It wasn't just the injuries. It was who got hurt. The guys we missed made it tough."

The Reds struggled to put everything together until right before the All-Star break. After falling 8 ½ games back, they won 13 of 19 going into the break, pulling to within a game and a half of first place.

Instead of making trades to bolster the middle of the bullpen and acquire a right-handed hitter, the Reds maintained the status quo. They went 25-42 after the break, matching the club record for second-half futility. The 1933 team also had 25 wins after the All-Star game, the Reds' fewest in a non-strike season.

"There was a lot of positive individual stuff, and there was a period of time from late June to the All-Star break where we played some pretty dynamic baseball," Price said. "We were outstanding defensively.

"I know if we can get healthy, we'll be back in the middle of it."

They need to do some dealing, too.


Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

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