WESTERN HOMES: The Reds were terrible last year (72-90), this we know. They have a good farm system according to Baseball America, whose book ranks them third overall this year. They're sort of going for it this year. They signed Francisco Cordero to a big deal and they brought in Dusty Baker, not much known for his development of young players, to manage. It's possible they might have something here -- it doesn't take much past a .500 record to contend in the NL Central and a true rebuilding program in Cincinnati might take two or three years. Is there any chance of the decision backfiring?
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: They have some actual players. And young ones, too -- Adam Dunn is only 28. Anything in positive territory at least gives you a chance in the NL. They don't have any bad contracts, and the Cordero deal was the only risk they took. Their payroll isn't that high, so even if Cordero tanks (and he's not young) it's not going to break the bank.
WH: And they brought in Dusty.
RD: Okay, that's the biggest risk they took.
WH: Thank you. They have some guys that are bench players -- like Ryan Freel -- that Dusty could get Dusty-love for.
RD: From a front-office perspective the only bad things that can happen this year are guys getting hurt or young guys not developing. Both of which are big problems with Dusty.
WH: They have young pitchers they need to protect -- Bailey now, Cueto soon. They also have a bullpen made up of veterans who should only be used in low-leverage situations like Mike Stanton and Gary Majewski mixed with young relievers on their way up -- Jared Burton, Jeremy Affeldt.
RD: The top two guys in the rotation (Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo) aren't that likely to break down. So Baker isn't counting on any of the young pitchers higher than #3. But there's still a risk. It's the "special teams" --bench, bullpen, defense -- and health that will probably determine whether the Reds contend or lose 90 again. They'll score runs and not get killed in the first six innings.
WH: We could see a repeat of the Nomar/Loney situation from L.A. last year at first base in Cincinnati with Joey Votto and Scott Hatteberg. It's not a Dusty-friendly roster to say the least -- it's not like the 2002 Giants where there were no young position players around to confuse him.
RD: Or in center field with Freel and Jay Bruce. I think this could be a legacy-defining tenure for Dusty -- if he gets them to the playoffs and doesn't shred the young pitchers, he'll forever be regarded as a "winner who's got some flaws." But if the team implodes and the young guys regress, what does he have going for him?
WH: You don't have to be terrible while you restock your farm system -- it would be better for the Reds if they had a couple kinda good seasons before such time as the prospects arrive and they can have really good seasons. Fans in Cincinnati have shown they will support consistent winners -- and only consistent winners.
RD: If they really turn it around and contend, it won't matter how they got there. But a flash in the pan year followed by several more losing seasons could be disastrous.
WH: Okay, speaking of disasters... this season, if they're out of it at the deadline, do they look to move Adam Dunn?
RD: Is he completely against signing there long-term? Or is there no way they can afford him?
WH: I couldn't tell you what Dunn himself thinks... I imagine with Griffey's deal coming off the books eventually they could afford him if they made a priority of it.
RD: How much is he going to get? He's getting $13 million on his team option this year.
WH: I don't think he's going to get Matt Holliday money because of his strikeout totals and low average. The downside of those are overstated... he's a very valuable player. He's worth $15 or $16 million for sure. I think Cincinnati has always undervalued Dunn somewhat but I doubt that they can afford to let him go.
RD: If they offered him 6 years, $90 million, would he get anything better anywhere else? I don't think that's a bad deal for an elite 28-year-old hitter. He's a homegrown player... unless of course they plan to lose for the next six seasons.
WH: If they look as bad in the early going this year as they did for most of last season, they may figure they're better off trading Dunn for a few more young pitchers and saving that money in the budget to keep their younger players.
RD: Yeah, but then you're really banking on turning it around right after that. If you let Dunn and Griffey go, the fans have nothing left. The young guys have to get good or there's no reason to go and see the Reds at all. No one is going to pay to see Aaron Harang as a team's #1 star. It doesn't help that he's moderately creepy-looking.
WH: Scott Hatteberg! That's true about Harang, though sad... he's a fine player. How many games do you see the Reds winning this season? I think that they'll be healthier and have better players playing more of the time than last year. I also think that Baker is self-aware enough to at least start out trying to turn over a new leaf with regards to young players. Maybe if he gives guys like Votto and Burton a few chances early on they'll earn his trust and he'll stay a new man all season long. I think they'll win 77, benefiting from the opportunity to beat up on the Pirates, Cardinals, and Astros regularly.
RD: I think it's going to be a binary outcome season.
WH: Ooh. And what does that mean?
RD: Either they really contend and win something like 85 or Dusty screws them up and they win 70. Again.
WH: Well, which is it?
RD: Nothing either Dusty or the Reds has done in the last five years makes me think they're due for a sudden turnaround. So I'm going with 70.
WH: The Vegas line is... hmm... 76.5. Either I missed my calling or I subconsciously absorbed the whole list the first time I glanced at it, because I keep hitting these things dead-on.
RD: Baseball Prospectus has them at 81, probably because they rate guys like Harang and Dunn better than most.
WH: I don't think it's crazy to think that if everything breaks exactly their way they could make the playoffs.
RD: Oh, not at all. They could have 7 real hitters in their lineup and 4 real starters in their rotation, which is enough to contend in either league.
WH: And given their attendance situation the best way to play might be to cross their fingers and hope for the best... I'm with you, Dusty was their biggest risk. He could keep them from fielding that optimum lineup almost the whole season, or he could will them to winning a couple more games than they deserve and into the playoffs. Binary outcome, indeed.