Dusty Baker, Scott Rolen

Springtime Storylines: Have the Reds built themselves a World Series contender?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Cincinnati Redlegs.

The Big Question: Do the Reds have the pieces to compete for the 2012 World Series title?

Before closer Ryan Madson underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, the answer would have been “definitely.” Now? Well … it’s still “definitely.”

Madson looked like the steal of the offseason at one-year, $8.5 million and would have been excellent in Cincinnati’s ninth-inning role. But a reliever can only do so much. In his best season with the Phillies — 2011, when he registered a 2.37 ERA, 9.2 K/9 and 32 saves in 34 chances — he was only worth 1.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to FanGraphs.

For comparison’s sake Miguel Cairo, a light-hitting utility infielder, was worth 1.9 fWAR last year.

The Reds will survive the loss of Madson. And if Sean Marshall continues to shut down hitters like he did during his last couple seasons with the Cubs, they might even forget about the former Phillly right-hander.

Cincinnati has one of the best first basemen in the sport in Joey Votto, one of the best second basemen in Brandon Phillips and one of the best right fielders in Jay Bruce. Mixed together with developing contributors like center fielder Drew Stubbs, shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco, the Reds undoubtedly have a winning recipe. And if their starting rotation can be somewhat steady, they should be right near the top of the National League Central standings when it comes time to award postseason bids.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Reds posted a 20th-ranked 4.16 staff ERA in 2011. So they decided to do something about that this winter, trading first base prospect Yonder Alonso, right-handed prospect Brad Boxberger, catching prospect Yasmani Grandal and right-handed starter Edinson Volquez to San Diego for Padres ace Mat Latos. A 24-year-old right-hander, Latos registered a sparkling 3.47 ERA and 185/62 K/BB ratio in 194 1/3 innings last season and a 2.92 ERA and 189/50 K/BB ratio in 184 2/3 innings the year before.
  • Votto was signed to a 10-year, $225 million contract extension on Monday. It’s a crazy amount of money, especially for a small-market team like the Reds. And it’s safe to wonder whether a farm system that was decimated by the Latos trade will produce enough cost-controlled talent over the long term to support continued winning. But the Reds have locked up their star first baseman, and that’s something that neither the Cardinals nor Brewers — the Reds’ primary National League Central foes — can boast.
  • Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman was stretched out like a starter this spring and responded with excellent results, posting a 2.12 ERA and 18/2 K/BB ratio in 17 Cactus League innings. And yet he’s being pushed back into a setup role for the duration of the 2012 season. The 24-year-old flamethrower was signed to a five-year, $25.5 million contract in January of 2010 and was expected to grow into an ace. But the Reds have stunted that growth. And it’s awfully hard to understand why.

How Are They Gonna Do?

The Reds’ lineup is loaded with big-time run producers and the Latos upgrade should be massive. Bruce and Votto are capable of MVP-type years and Phillips seems destined to shine brightly in what is likely to be his farewell season in Cincy. This team will come within a win of the National League Central title — falling just short of the first-place Cardinals — before settling for Bud Selig’s new “second” Wild Card.

Cardinals, Dexter Fowler agree to a five-year, $82 million deal

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs reacts during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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The Cardinals have officially signed outfielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Fowler will also get a full no-trade clause.

The Cardinals gave Fowler a bigger deal than many speculated he’d get, as some reports predicted he’d get something in the $52-72 million range. His skills, however — he’s a fantastic leadoff hitter who plays a premium defensive position — definitely earned him some major dough. Fowler hit .276/.393/.447 with 13 homers, 48 RBI and 13 steals over 125 games in 2016 for the World Series champion Cubs.

For the Cardinals, this will allow Matt Carpenter to move down to the middle of the batting order and will shift Randal Grichuk to left field. It also takes a prime piece from the Cardinals’ biggest rival. For their part, earlier this offseason the Cubs signed former Cardinal center fielder Jon Jay. So that’s fun.

Are the Cardinals about to go on a free agent binge?

John Mozeliak AP
Associated Press
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The Cardinals have always emphasized building from within. In the 2016-17 offseason, however, they may end up being one of the bigger free agent buyers. At least according to some informed speculation.

St. Louis is already in agreement with Dexter Fowler. But Derrick Goold and Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch write today that the Cardinals “could become more aggressive than previously believed,” with Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion as “possible pursuits.” Worth noting that separate reports alleged some interest on the part of the Cards front office in free agent third baseman Justin Turner.

The Cardinals are already losing their first round pick due to the Fowler signing, so any other top free agent won’t cost them more than the money he’s owed. And as far as money goes, the Cardinals have a great deal of it, despite being a small market team. They have a billion dollar TV deal coming online and Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia are off the payroll now. Spending big on a free agent or three would not cripple them or anything.

Encarnacion or Trumbo would be first baseman, which wold fly in the face of the Cards’ move of Matt Carpenter to first base (and, at least as far as Encarnacion goes, would fly in the face of good defense). Getting either of them would push Carpenter back to second, displacing Kolten Wong, or over to third, displacing Jhonny Peralta. If you’re going to do that, I’d say that Turner would make more sense, but what do I know?

Either way, the Cardinals may be entering a pretty interesting phase of their offseason now. And an unfamiliar one as, quite possibly, the top free agent buyer on the market.