The opportunity for the Cincinnati Reds to win a pennant this year is real. General Manager Walt Jocketty did a fantastic job over the last 12 months of assembling talent at a reasonable price. Now, the pressure is on him to make Trade- Deadline adjustments so his team can edge the St. Louis Cardinals and win their first title since 1995. Here are the three most pressing moves that need to be made to ensure this happens.
1. Fire Dusty Baker immediately. This may cause some head scratching, but the Reds are winning despite Baker's stubborn, 1960s- style managing. Though a master of the media and a great people person in general, Baker has three flaws that have cost the Reds dearly in a number of games:
a. Just like he did with Corey Patterson in 2008 and Willy Taveras in 2009, Baker is stubbornly starting Orlando Cabrera and batting him at the top of the lineup. Baker has always been in love with speed at the top of the lineup and not the most important trait at the top of the lineup- the ability to get on base. Patterson's numbers in 2008 were a remarkably poor .205/ /238/ .344 (batting average/ on- base percentage/ slugging percentage). Taveras' were a slight improvement, but still an awful .240/ .275/ .285 in 2009. Somehow, without much attention, Cabrera has matched Taveras at .243/ .283/ .329 including an unsightly .207/ .241/ .291 against right handed pitching. And he is hitting 1st or 2nd in the lineup! It is hard to say which is worse- Cabrera's bat or Baker's decision to play him. Paul Janish has the vastly superior glove at shortstop and the difference is just as great at the plate: .296/ .397/ .463. But Janish is not the only possible replacement for Cabrera; anyone who is an above average fielding shortstop who can hit .220 is an improvement (Triple- A shortstop Zach Cozart) because Cabrera's range at short is so limited. Cabrera seems to be a very positive person who helps in the clubhouse so he may have some value on the bench, but certainly not in the starting lineup.
b. Baker caves in to individual player greed and ego. He has a need to put individual accomplishments before the team. He is popular amongst his players because he lets pitchers come back in to pitch after long rain delays in the 5th inning to get a win (Aaron Harang) only to blow up and lose the game. He lets his rookie pitcher, Mike Leake, who was supposed to be under a strict innings count, stay in the game against the Phillies where the Reds led 7-1 in the ninth to get his first complete game. Instead, Hall of Fame sluggers Greg Dobbs and Cody Ransom hit home runs sending the game into the 10th where the Reds lost the gmae. Similarly, he stubbornly continues to send Francisco Cordero out to close games depite the fact that Cordero's performance has been on the decline. His strikeout rates per nine innnigs are: 9.98 (2008), 7.83 (2009), 7.52 (2010). His home run rates per nine innings over the last three years are: 0.77, 0.27, 1.11. Finally, his hits allowed per nine innings over the last three years are: 7.81, 7.83, 9.07. Baker needs to say "No" to his players more- "no" to Cordero is any tight situation and "no" to players who want to stay in the game to achieve a stat.
c. Finally, Baker gives up outs, the most preciouse commodity a team has, at an alarming rate. There is a proper time and place for the bunt- late in a game when the score is close- and Baker does not understand this. He has called for a bunt after his leadoff man has reached in the first inning, a move that ignores all statistical probabilities (bunting along a runner from first to second actually decreases a team's odds of scoring from .907 to .720) and is a backwards strategy for a game (what if the oppoent scores four runs in the bottom of the first while you played for a single run?). This includes asking one of his best hitters, Brandon Phillips, to bunt Cabrera to third after a lead- off double. Phillips was bunting despite the fact that there is no better hitter on the team that can shoot the ball to right field! Baker asked for the same thing from Cabrera after a Phillips lead- off double in a game in which the Reds had Matt Maloney pitching against Johan Santana- did Baker play for one run because he expected the Mets to be shut out by Maloney? Why play for one run? And possibly the worst bunting call of them all- Baker had a pitcher bunt with one out and runners at first and third. What!?! We would rather have second and third and two outs than a runners at first and third and one out? Baker's teams are consistently amongst the top of the league in sacrifice bunt attempts including being number two in 2008 and number one in 2009. It seems as though Baker is still managing in the 1960s when offense was at a disadvantage due to the height of the mound and bunting was more important. Times have changed, but changing is one of Baker's weaknesses.
2. Acquire bullpen help. The addition of Bill Bray has helped, but the Reds still need a new closer and a right handed set up man. The ideal target would be Joakim Soria of the Kansas City Royals. The flamethrower has a reasonable contract ($3 million in 2010, $4 million in 2011, $6 million in 2012, $8 million in 2013, and $8.75 million in 2014 with affordable $750,000 buyouts the last three years), great numbers (11.06 K/9, 2.31 BB/9, 1.03 HR allowed/9, 7.97 HA/9 and a 2.31 E.R.A.) and is on a team that is rebuilding. A backup plan would be the Marlins' Leo Nunez. The Marlins seems to be always selling players and since Nunez is making $2 million this year and is eligible for arbitration next year, he is a prime candidate to be moved. His numbers are 9.08 K/9, 2.21 BB/9, 0.25 HRA/9, 7.12 HA/9 and a 2.95 E.R.A. Compare those numbers to Cordero's (listed above). It could be the difference in two or three more wins which could be the difference in the NL Central championship. Other possible arms to consider: veterans Clay Hensley of Florida and Brandon Lyon of Houston and Shawn Camp of Toronto.
3. If Baker is not going to be fired, at least bench Orlando Cabrera. Just because Cabrera is a veteran and "you know what you are going to get by looking at the back of his baseball card" (the most ignorant saying in the baseball community) does not mean he is productive. See Ken Griffey Jr. for further proof.
For the first time in over ten seasons, the Reds have enough talent and depth to win the NL Central. They are at a competitive disadvantage in other areas- namely at shortstop, in the bullpen and with their manager. Those are not hard holes to fill and adjustments are possible and badly needed. Reds fans are starving for a meaningful September- let's give it to them while there is a chance.