Major Decisions Await the Cincinnati Reds

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Cincinnati Reds fans can only hope 2014 was an anomaly. Over the past five seasons, this revamped pitching staff has shown itself to be of the most effective in baseball—a statement that in their 146-year history, not many Reds teams have laid claim to.

Despite finishing 10 games below the .500 mark, there was not a single Reds starter that underperformed within the starting rotation. In fact, Alfredo Simon and Johnny Cueto over-performed so highly that they have nearly guaranteed themselves enough money on their next contract to sustain themselves for life. What a game it is.

The current starting five sits as so: Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon. Sans Bailey, the future of each man in the rotation is not guaranteed in Cincinnati beyond 2015.

It has served in hushed undertones throughout this past season that eventually, the contract needs of the remaining four starters in the rotation will need to be addressed. Bailey has 5 years and at least $96 million left on his long-term deal that will keep him in Cincinnati through his prime. Whether that deal makes sense economically is no longer here, nor there, but it does serve as an interesting barometer for his teammates to stack up against.

One by one, the dominoes will begin to fall. When Max Scherzer and Jeff Samardzija sign gluttonous contracts on the free agent market in just a few months, both Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos will have an idea of where their value lies. Unfortunately for the Reds, barring an unforeseen influx of cash, one of the two will have to depart.

There is little doubt that the most complete pitcher in baseball at the moment is Clayton Kershaw (despite his Postseason inefficiencies). This past year, he signed on with the Los Angeles Dodgers for seven more years at $215 million. Kershaw may unanimously win the Cy Young Award this year, but not that far off his pace will be Johnny Cueto. That type of contract would be the largest a Reds pitcher has ever seen.

The economics of the situation can be depressing. Beginning in 2016, Bailey will make $18 million a season, slightly increasing until maxing out at $23 million in 2019 during his age 33 season. Yes, the same Bailey with a career 58-50 record and 4.17 ERA. (But, those two no-hitters!!!!!!!)

It is unlikely there is a more competitive pitcher in baseball than Mat Latos. If there is, it’s more than likely Johnny Cueto. In an ideal fantasy world, the Reds will be able to extend both men. But, should that happen, it would more than likely mean neglecting future obligations. Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier and Billy Hamilton are all on the cusp of needing team-friendly long-term deals; whereas if the Reds re-up both Cueto and Latos, that money may not be available.

The good news amongst a laundry list of gloom is this: the Reds will have one final go of it in 2015. While it would be a humongous calculated risk, they could conceivably opt to not move any of the four pitchers (Cueto, Leake, Latos, Simon) and play out the season. Wherein lies the danger with that scenario is in buying power. All four of the pitchers are incredibly more attractive in December than they are in July—not to mention the return possibilities will be sizeable.

If I can put the GM pants on for a moment, this would be my plan of attack: shop Johnny Cueto. While that is painful to type into the keyboard and watch appear on screen, it must be done. Certainly sure to command nearly $200 million in free agency, should the Reds somehow be able to swing a super prospect like Joc Pederson from the Dodgers, the trigger must be pulled. Next, re-sign Mat Latos to somewhere in the ballpark of a 6-year/$150-175 million deal. Once finding a pitcher that can not only win in Great American, but also thrive, it’s time to put pen to paper for the long-term.

What happens with Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon is more of gray area. I’m not entirely sure the Reds will want to answer Leake’s salary demands, which will more than likely outweigh what they believe his value to be as a #4-5 starter in their rotation. The same goes for Simon.

Over the next few months, there will be mock trades drawn up in basements from Louisville to Lima, but only the front office holds the key to what is the most important off-season in the history of Cincinnati Reds baseball.