ST. LOUIS -- The meetings finally subsided, much to manager Jerry Narron's relief. "I've been sitting in meetings all week," Narron said Friday. "It's got me out of my running routine." Now that the Reds' meetings between the front office and the coaching staff are complete, Narron can get back on the jogging path and the team can get back on the path toward trying to put together a winning ballclub.
General manager Dan O'Brien held the meetings throughout this final road trip of the 2005 season so he could garner player evaluations from each member of the coaching staff. "We spend time going over free-agent lists and roster decisions we have to make as a ballclub," O'Brien said. "We talk about procedural types of things, in terms of how we want to get together. It's very helpful. It's good to get together and hear how we'll do things for next year." So how will the Reds do things next year? That's a topic O'Brien and Narron discussed with reporters not long after the final meeting was held. Call it a sort of "State of the Reds Address." Though he doesn't have an exact number for the 2006 payroll, O'Brien said he expects it to be "in the neighborhood" of the $61.8 million mark of '05. The Reds will no longer be on the hook for the salaries of Danny Graves ($6.25 million) and D'Angelo Jimenez ($2.8 million). But they will have at least seven players -- Adam Dunn, Aaron Harang, Austin Kearns, Jason LaRue, Felipe Lopez, Wily Mo Pena and Javier Valentin -- eligible for arbitration. Ramon Ortiz would also be eligible if the Reds pass on his $4.55 mutual option for next season. All those arbitration possibilities could lead to a hefty price tag for this cash-conscious club, but O'Brien, who will hold further front-office meetings in Sarasota, Fla., next week, didn't seem overly concerned. "We know the key guys who are arbitration-eligible," he said. "We're prepared to go forward with the majority of that group right now." O'Brien wouldn't say whether the team would pick up Ortiz's option, nor was he prepared to make a final determination on infielder Rich Aurilia, who has a $2 million mutual option for next year, or catchers LaRue and Valentin, who have both put up excellent numbers this season, thus diminishing the possibility that they'll both be back. "We need to prioritize our needs in the offseason," O'Brien said. The Reds have already identified their biggest need, and it should come as no surprise that it's pitching. The club entered the final weekend of the season with a staff ERA of 5.12, which ranks second-to-last in the National League, just in front of the Rockies' 5.16 mark. But O'Brien isn't sure how much of that pitching help will come from the free-agent market. "It's a less-than-overwhelming free-agent pitching list this year," he said. "We've got a number of younger players trying to handicap their opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way, especially in the bullpen." This much is known about next year's rotation: Left-handers Brandon Claussen and Eric Milton and the right-handed Harang are in. Paul Wilson will also be in if he's fully recovered from arthroscopic shoulder surgery, but the team isn't etching his name in stone. "We all want him to be ready," Narron said. "But we're not going to put any pressure on him where he might rush it. We want to wait and see how he's doing and how he's progressing." The Reds will have at least one open rotation spot and possibly two, depending on Wilson's progress. Those spots could be filled through free agency or from within. Right-hander Josh Hancock, who missed the vast majority of the season with a right groin injury, will be working as a starter in winter ball in Venezuela and could end up competing for a rotation spot. Right-hander Luke Hudson, who struggled in the rotation this year, left-hander Randy Keisler, who replaced Hudson, and right-hander Matt Belisle, a converted starter who worked out of the bullpen all season, could also find themselves in the mix, O'Brien said. As far as the lineup is concerned, the Reds have only a handful of question marks. The composition of the outfield will get the most attention this offseason, as O'Brien must decide whether he wants to keep all four of his outfielders -- Dunn, Pena, Kearns and Ken Griffey Jr. -- or explore the trade market for them. A year ago, he made it clear the Reds would open camp with all four on hand. But this time around, with all four expected to be healthy in the spring, he's not as sure. "I would say we're more likely to be open-minded [about trades]," O'Brien said. "It's not something we have to do, but there's been significant interest in our outfield situation." O'Brien wouldn't say if he'll try to lock Dunn up with a long-term contract, though he did praise the left fielder for proving he can be a run producer with back-to-back seasons of 100 RBIs. Another point of instability is second base. The Reds could keep Aurilia aboard for the job, or they could give it to Ryan Freel, who's made 48 starts at the position this season. "There's no doubt that Ryan Freel is going to get time at second base," O'Brien said. "But in the opinion of the staff and Jerry, they still feel, in the long run, that his greatest value to the team is his ability to play multiple positions." First base is obviously locked up by Sean Casey, and the left side of the infield is taken care of by Edwin Encarnacion at third and Lopez at short. In fact, the emergence of young players such as Encarnacion, Lopez, Harang, Claussen, Belisle and Todd Coffey is the biggest positive O'Brien will take from this season. "From a young-player standpoint, we've had, I think, a number of questions answered this year that needed to be answered," he said. And an even larger number of meetings to pore over those answers.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.