Like more than a few teams, the Reds are nearing the season’s one-third mark mucking around .500, They’re closer to fifth place than first in the NL Central, but in today’s parity party, half the league is within single three-game series of the Reds.
But the Reds can’t afford to be sanguine about their lot, not when the roster has been an unsettled mess. What started off on paper as a nicely crowded selection of starting pitching options has been undermined by equal doses of injury and ineffectiveness. Homer Bailey is back on the DL with a shoulder injury, this just a few short days after Edinson Volquez was optioned to Triple-A Louisville. There’s also the problem with what their rotation will actually amount to, even in better-case scenarios. Volquez, Bailey, Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo and Travis Wood can all be useful starting pitchers in the major leagues, but if everything goes right, aren’t they all just potentially threes and fours in a big-league rotation?
Then there’s Aroldis Chapman, on so many short lists for best candidates for the National League Rookie of the Year in March. He’s also in Louisville at the moment, and is also on the DL for shoulder trouble. Pitching coach Bryan Price is being credited with fixing a flaw in Chapman’s delivery, but a third of the way through the season the most notable thing about Chapman’s season is that he put more than a third of all batters faced on base via walks or hit batsmen.
The lineup has its own issues. Scott Rolen is off to a slow start, and neither of the shortstops is hitting. Starting left fielder Jonny Gomes has been riding pine for the past week and a half, purportedly getting the benefit of plenty of hands-on instruction from his manager. Maybe that’s so, maybe it’s window dressing, but the simple fact is their starting left fielder has been benched for some combination of Fred Lewis and Chris Heisey.
So Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker haven’t been sitting on their hands, but the Reds should be thinking in terms of what other moves they can make to exploit their depth on the big-league roster as well as within a farm system that provides them with good alternatives. The danger of doing nothing is that they might wind up watching as the Cardinals get out too far ahead, and waiting until July to seriously reconsider their roster could only add to the challenge.
1. Stop messing around with Paul Janish as the starting shortstop. Last year, Janish hit .260/.338/.385 in sporadic playing time. Not shabby for a shortstop, right? Sadly, his minor-league track record suggests that isn’t what he’d do as an everyday player, and both PECOTA and ZiPS expected an OPS around .660. That’s a lot better than his extra-weak .500, but do you really want to wait on a guy who’s expected offensive output is still bad? Happily for the Reds, there’s an in-house upgrade in prospect Zack Cozart, ranked eighth among all Reds prospects before the season by Baseball America. Like Janish, Cozart gets good marks for his fielding, but also happens to bring some power to the plate, having delivered at a .282/.327/.436 clip for Louisville already, while belting 16 doubles and four homers. Power plays well in the Gap, which suggests the payoff of playing the better batter. It beats punting a lineup slot in the DH-less league by playing Janish. Just because Janish had to wait his turn to start doesn’t mean he deserves it indefinitely; these might be the Reds, but this ain’t the Politburo.
2. Stick with Lewis and Heisey in left, but not in a straight platoon -- if Heisey wins the job, let him. Gomes was a nice patch while he lasted and a nifty pickup off the scrap heap, but his comeback from his disappointment with the Rays was overwhelmingly a product of the league’s best home-run park after Coors Field, his defense is ghastly, and last year he hit just .257/.301/.407 vs. right-handers. The Reds don’t need a platoon DH. If they want to swap in some additional lefty power to split time with Heisey, they can always call Juan Francisco back up.
3. Shop a catcher, either catcher. Between Ramon Hernandez’s impending free agency after 2011 or the marketability of Ryan Hanigan’s cheap three-year, $4 million deal that still leaves him a year shy of free agency, the Reds have receivers who can interest needy shoppers at any price point. Before the year’s out, one of them is going to be in danger of losing his job to top prospect Devin Mesoraco (.296/.383/.480 at Louisville), and if the Giants had the courage to contend with a rookie catcher last year, why not the Reds this year? Admittedly, most buyers understand that Hernandez’s power will probably stay in the Gap’s cozy confines, but this is catcher we’re talking about. The Giants are the obvious match (for Hernandez in particular) in the wake of Buster Posey’s tragedy, of course, but that doesn’t make them Jocketty’s mark. Because the real objective should be …
4. Deal from depth to get what they need: an ace starter. Admittedly, these are few and far between, but face it, if you want to go up against the Phillies or Giants in a short series, do you want to repeat last year's rollover? Bailey is now in his fifth year on or around the big-league team, and he still hasn’t broken through. Volquez? His big year was 2008, and whether you feel he was rushed back from rehab or not, it doesn’t look like he’s about to get back to that form any time soon. Arroyo is just a variation on a theme the team already listened to with Aaron Harang -- a nice mid-rotation guy, but just that.The question is who they might be able to get. Chasing after Chad Billingsley -- and definitely not homer-prone Ted Lilly -- to exploit the Dodgers’ cash crunch might make sense, because the $35 million he’s due from 2012-2014 might look like a bargain relative to market pricing. Waiting on the White Sox to fall out or stay in the AL Central race makes sense if you rate Edwin Jackson's upside as highly as so many of his former employers have in the past. John Danks would be the better target, but he won’t come loose easily. If you want to live dangerously, pick up the phone and ask how badly the Mets would like to take some of Johan Santana’s salary off their overhead.
However, assuming recent news about his shoulder is a passing concern, the Reds’ best available target could be Francisco Liriano of the Twins. Given that the Twins need a little bit of everything, perhaps offering Janish (because they don’t have a shortstop who can play shortstop), Hanigan (because he’s cheap and Joe Mauer has got to come out from behind the plate), one of the kid starters, and something talented from the low minors -- and not on the 40-man -- gets this done. If the Twins don’t bite on that, turn the conversation to Todd Frazier, and make it happen.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.