After the Reds fired Jerry Narron on July 1st, it was widely believed that the Cincinnati brass wanted a big-name skipper to lead the club.
Even after Pete Mackanin had a successful run as interim manager—41-39 with a team that had been 20 games under .500—some observers still speculated that the Reds would try to make a splash with their new hire.
It turns out they were right.
Owner Bob Castellini and general manager Wayne Krivsky denied the rumors, but it was clear that the front-runners for the job were high-profile candidates.
The Reds finally got their man in Dusty Baker.
The 58-year-old Baker has a career record of 1162-1041 in 14 years as a big league manager.
He also has the respect of players around the league; in his press conference, Baker said that several players had already contacted him with a desire to join the Reds.
Many detractors have brought up Baker's stubborn loyalty to veterans over youngsters, and his seeming inability to manage a pitching staff.
Still, everywhere he's been, Dusty Baker has been a winner—and he's done it the right way.
Two things stand out to me here:
First, the Baker hiring validates the idea that Castellini is much more ready to spend money than his predecessors.
Since Marge Schott sold the franchise in the mid-1990s, Reds owners have been unable or unwilling to dole out the cash necessary to build a winner. A stingy owner—especially in a small market like Cincinnati—is a recipe for mediocrity.
See: the Reds the past 12 seasons.
Second, it shows that Castellini and Krivsky believe that their ball club is ready to win immediately.
Like, next year.
Otherwise, they would have kept Mackanin or hired a young guy like Joe Girardi to start a rebuilding project. Dusty Baker isn't interested in rebuilding—so he must be thinking along the same lines as the guys who hired him.
There were plenty of other jobs Baker could have had, but he chose the Reds. Does he know something the rest of us don't?
What I'm about to say may seem like the bogus ramblings of a biased fan, but...
The Cincinnati Reds aren't that far away from being a good baseball team.
I know, it's a shocker. I mean, they lost 90 games last year and haven't been to the playoffs since 1995. How can they be ready to win now?
Well, take a look at the pieces they have in place.
The front of the rotation is set with Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo—along with two hot prospects in Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto.
Bobby Livingston and Matt Belisle should compete for the other spot, plus any other free agents that are brought in.
While the bullpen suffered through another bad season, the Reds staff looks to have some order at the back end, with Jared Burton and David Weathers holding down the eighth and ninth innings in the second half of last season.
With Eddie Guardado and Bill Bray healthy again, the bullpen will be fine with a few additional pieces.
The lineup, meanwhile, is dynamite—and there's tons of depth.
Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey, and Josh Hamilton make for a solid regular outfield. Ryan Freel, who always gives maximum effort, may have been made expendable by the emergence of Norris Hopper and Jeff Keppinger.
Jay Bruce, the Reds' top prospect, will almost certainly get a chance to show his skills next year.
The infield has similar depth, to the point that former All-Star shortstop Alex Gonzalez may be traded to make way for Keppinger and a couple of other young players. Scott Hatteberg may not be brought back, but Joey Votto proved in September that he's more than ready to pick up the slack.
And Brandon Phillips, the Reds' first 30-30 player since Barry Larkin, will be the future face of the franchise.
Put all of this together with Dusty Baker, and the ingredients are there for a successful season—especially in the National League Central.
The Cubs are still good, but they struggled against the Reds this year—and have major holes in their lineup.
The Cardinals have some big-time issues with their pitching staff, and are getting old defensively.
The Brewers are a good team, but that bullpen is schizophrenic, and chemistry problems sprang up at the end of the season.
The Astros are a year away from competing. And the Pirates are still the Pirates.
In other words: The Central Division is wide open. There's no reason the Reds couldn't make the playoffs.
Still, adding Dusty Baker doesn't fix every problem. There are still a number of things the Reds have to do during the offseason to make this a playoff team.
First, they'll need to decide whether or not to pick up Dunn's $13 million option.
Two months ago, I would have said that the team should let Dunn walk. But after his best statistical season ever, his value has skyrocketed—and $13 million is a bargain in the current market.
Still, some would argue that the club could buy good pitching with that money. That point is negated, in my opinion, by this fact:
Eric Milton is no longer under contract.
Quite possibly the biggest waste of payroll in baseball history, Milton was the highest-paid player on the Reds' roster this year. When he wasn't serving up bombs, he was on the DL—making $13 million.
That money can now be used to shore up the middle relief or get a starter or two.
Wayne Krivsky obviously has a lot of work to do this offseason. That said, the hiring of Dusty Baker says that the Reds are committed to winning now.
And while his hiring as manager doesn't complete the picture, Baker may just be the piece that allows the rest of the puzzle to fall into place.
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