When you go all-in for a playoff run, end up losing in the Wild Card game, then fire your longtime manager and let your two big free agents walk away and sign virtually no one. You better bet that you are going to have a lot of question answer, especially if you expect people to still treat you as a contender.
Will replacing Dusty Baker actually make a difference?
So much has been made about Dusty Baker and his managerial stint with the Reds. It is hard to bash a guy who delivered so many playoff appearances, but it is so easy to slam a manager that was so clearly tactically challenged.
For all of his virtues, it is just impossible to ignore the failings of Baker in the age of statistical analysis. All of the misguided sacrifice bunts, all of the abused starting pitchers and all of the willful ignorance of on-base percentage added up to turn Baker into the poster boy for managers stuck in the Dark Ages. Many of his in-game decisions were downright indefensible and certainly cost the Reds a number of wins over the years. As such, one would think replacing him with a manager who is even a little below average at in-game tactics would be a big improvement.
That discounts though the rest of what Baker brought to the table. The Reds didn't hire Dusty because of his strategic brilliance, but rather in spite of it. Baker always traded on the fact that he was a preeminent players' manager. Players liked him and he ran a tight a clubhouse. Even when the players do something reprehensible like go into a public tirade against a local beat reporter, Dusty was always there to have their back and deflect criticism. That counts for something.
The question is how much does it count for. Did it balance out or even surpass his bad on-field decision making? If so, then maybe the transition to Bryan Price isn't going to be the evolutionary step forward that so many have hoped for.
Will the Reds have to break up their rotation?
The Reds have a great rotation with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani. The problem with great rotations is that they are usually pretty expensive. That's a big problem for a team in a small market like the Reds. What that means is that sooner or later the Reds are going to have to break up the band.
They already surprised the baseball world a bit when they inked Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million extension. That portends to create a problem when it comes to keeping Mat Latos, who is headed into his final arbitration year in 2015, and Johnny Cueto, who the Reds have a $10 million team option for in 2015. Of lesser concern is Mike Leake, who is also entering his final season of arbitration in 2015.
The Reds have maintained a payroll right around $105 million the this year and last, but they are already have $78 million in payroll commitments in 2015 before those three pitchers are taken into consideration. Unless they find a few million bucks stuffed under their mattress, that means someone is going to have to go. The question is when will that be.
If the Reds are right in the thick of the championship hunt, they'll certainly want to hold onto everyone, but if they start falling behind the Cardinals and Pirates, things could get interesting. Moving a high end arm like Cueto or Latos as non-rental players at the trade deadline could fetch them a substantial return as well as help create the much needed financial breathing room in 2015. Let's not forget, this is a team that spent the offseason trying to pawn off Brandon Phillips and his big contract on anyone who would take it, so they will be motivated to create that payroll space. Even a trade of a lesser pticher like Mike Leake could make the Reds the belle of the trade deadline ball.
Is Billy Hamilton ready?
So much of the season seems to be riding on the fleet feet of Billy Hamilton. That represents a huge risk for the Reds because there is a very real question about whether or not Hamilton is actually ready to be a quality contributor at the big league level this year.
Hamilton has a grant total of 22 MLB regular season plate appearances and is coming off a Triple-A season in which he posted a .308 OBP. They are now going to ask him to man center field despite being relatively new to playing the outfield and take over at leadoff for Shin-Soo Choo, one of the elite leadoff men in all of baseball. And he has to do this for a team that is facing an "advance in the playoffs or bust" mandate. No pressure or anything.
There is no doubt that Hamilton's legs are up to the task. His ability to burn up the basepaths is something that hasn't been seen in the majors in decades. Those legs should help him at least be an adequate center fielder, especially since he is replacing a badly out of position Choo. But those legs can only help so much with getting on base. He'll collect his fair share, and then some, of infield hits but the rest of the package just isn't a given.
If he can start walking closer to the 16.9% rate that he walked at in Double-A in 2012, bump his average up a bit from the .256 he hit in Triple-A in 2013 and work through his issues from the left side of the plate, then Hamilton could be a deadly weapon for the Reds. But if he continues to perform in the batter's box like he did in 2013, or worse, than Hamilton could be a drag on the Reds' already middling offense. Speed can only do so much.