The Reds signed Gary Matthews, Jr. to a minor league contract today to play center field for Louisville. Somehow, I don't think that's the move that's going to push the Reds past the Cardinals (who they only trail by a half game after the Cards loss tonight). That being the case, what should the Reds do?
Obviously the bullpen has been horrible this season, but they've looked better since calling up Jordan Smith from AA Carolina. The Smith call-up was a surprise move, but the 24-year-old righty has looked very good, striking out four and walking no one in 4 2/3 innings of work. His 4.20 FIP suggests his 1.93 ERA isn't likely to last, but that wasn't going to happen anyway. Besides Smith, Logan Ondrusek and Nick Masset have shown signs of life lately. Throw in the amazing season Arthur Rhodes is having, and the bullpen may not be as bad as they looked in the first half of June.
Of course, the Reds also have an embarrassment of pitching riches down on the farm, although they seem to be grooming all the top talent to join the rotation. It was big news this week when Aroldis Chapman was allowed to pitch in relief during Edinson Volquez's rehab start for Louisville. Chapman seems to me to be an ideal candidate to log some innings in the bullpen this season. He's young, so the Reds will look to limit his innings. To this point, he hasn't shown the pitch efficiency to be able to work deep into games. His electric fastball would play a tick faster coming out of the pen. Letting him throw every few days and get his feet wet in the bullpen seems like the right move to me. Oddly enough, the other starter I would consider moving to the bullpen for the season is Edinson Volquez. He's been outstanding in his rehab starts, and the Reds appear to be intent on giving him a spot in the rotation. It seems to me that Volquez could be better served by more cautious use coming out of the pen this season. Plus, like Volquez, his electric stuff would play well from the pen.
Shortstop and Leadoff Hitter
Besides the bullpen, shortstop seems to be the glaring hole. It's not just that Orlando Cabrera is having a rough year; it's also that Dusty Baker keeps running him out there as the leadoff man. I'd give Paul Janish a shot to see what he can do, batting eighth (or ninth, if you want to use your lineup more efficiently). We know his glove is better that Cabrera, and he's got more upside. If you play Janish though, who should hit leadoff then? Honestly, I don't care. There are plenty of options that are better than Cabrera. I'd suggest letting Chris Heisey give it a shot. If you're not willing to push either Stubbs or Gomes aside, let him play in place of Bruce once every week or two, in place of Gomes once a series, and in place of Stubbs once a series. His OBP is trails only Votto and Hanigan, and while that isn't likely to last, he's done all you can ask of him given the time he's been getting. Plus, he's been solid in the field. Gomes is terrible out in left, so the pitching staff would welcome that move. Even playing him in center ahead of Stubbs might not be so bad. Everything I've heard suggests that Stubbs is a great defender, but his UZR certainly doesn't suggest that he's anything more than average so far this year. (Granted, half a season is a small sample size for UZR.) Personally, I'd rather see Heisey and Janish get a shot now, and shift Cabrera and Stubbs to the bench.
So, is that it? Call up a few pitchers and shuffle the lineup, and the Reds are good to go? I don't think so. I think there's still one hole that needs to be addressed. I think the Reds need an elite top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Forget St. Louis. If the Reds do get past the Cardinals or claim the Wild Card, do you really want to go into the post-season with Harang-Cueto-Arroyo as your starting rotation? I think not. The funny thing is, the rotation has been solid. Plus, there's great depth. The Reds are planning to skip Mike Leake a few times as the season wears on in order to limit his innings, but they've still got Sam Lecure pitching OK and Homer Bailey and Edinson Volquez coming back from injury at some point. Throw in Travis Wood and Matt Maloney in Louisville, and you could make a case that the Reds have nine decent starting pitchers. If I was Walt Jocketty, I'd be looking to swap some of those decent starting pitchers for a big-time ace. I'd seriously consider a half-year Cliff Lee rental. If he likes playing for the Reds, they could sign him long-term. If not, let him go, take two additional first-round picks in next year's draft, and hope Chapman is ready to take his spot in the rotation next year.
What might it take to acquire Lee? His contract is favorable, so he'll command some top prospects. Of course, he would just be a half-year rental, so that lessens the cost a little bit. Supposedly the Mariners want a significant catching prospect included in the package of prospects. Devin Mesoraco has had an excellent season so far, even showing some pop with a .567 SLG (although just a .267 OBP) for AA Carolina. Plus, the Reds just drafted Yasmani Grandal in the first round, so they wouldn't have to look far to find their replacement. If Mesoraco and Grandal are too green for the Mariners liking, perhaps they could be interested in Ryan Hanigan. He's not going to be a star, but he's been solid splitting time with Ramon Hernandez. (I'd hate to lose Hanigan, but for Cliff Lee, you'd do it in a heartbeat.) The Mariners probably would want a couple of other good prospects too. Yonder Alonso is blocked at first base here, but he would easily top Casey Kotchman's horrendous .254 OPS thus far. I imagine he'd make a great trade chip. Throw in Matt Maloney (or Travis Wood or Sam LeCure, although I'd prefer to see Maloney be the one to go) to take Lee's place in Seattle's rotation, and we ought to be pretty close to a deal. I'm not a prospect evaluator, but it sounds pretty fair to me. The Reds would be giving up a lot of talent if they lost Mesoraco, Alonso, and Maloney, but they'd be getting Cliff Lee for the rest of this year, and two new draft picks to re-stock the farm with for next season.
I really like where the Reds are positioned right now. They've got a tough schedule coming up, but they're playing well with just a few exceptions. The bullpen has shown signs of life, and the Reds have more than enough pitching depth in the organization to cure any problems that creep up there from within. Orlando Cabrera is a bad shortstop and an awful leadoff man. I don't really see any appealing shortstop options on the trade market, so I'd move Janish to short and give Heisey a shot to see if he can hold down an outfield spot while hitting leadoff. Other than that, I think this team has what it takes to be a contender.
Of course, being a contender simply gets you into the discussion. It takes more to put you over the top. I think what the Reds will need in September is a front-of-the-rotation starter, and I'd like to see the Reds try to put a package together to go out and get the best one on the market. I'm not sure if a package of Mesoraco, Alonso, and Maloney is enough to pry Cliff Lee away from the Mariners, but I sure would like to see the Reds try to offer something like that.