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Central casting: Reds looking for a leading man

Central casting: Reds looking for a leading man

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CINCINNATI -- Finding a quality and lasting leadoff hitter has eluded the Reds for several years. They have tried numerous players -- including such free-agent busts as Corey Patterson and Willy Taveras, and others, including Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper.

This year it was Brandon Phillips, who was mostly successful but likely more suited to hit toward the middle of the order.

The leadoff spot requires a catalyst who can start rallies, be prolific at reaching base and score a lot of runs. And once again, it's one of the few places in the Reds' lineup that is unsettled as the team prepares for its offseason maneuvers.

"Offensively, we might like a true leadoff hitter or another run producer," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "We will try to refine what we have."

If the Reds do add a leadoff hitter, it would probably be either a shortstop or left fielder -- the only positions that can be considered somewhat in flux for the time being.

This past season the Reds used seven players at the top of the order, but the three used most often were Phillips, Orlando Cabrera and Drew Stubbs.

The season started with Stubbs -- who is the team's fastest player and also has some home run pop -- at the top, but his 168 strikeouts and lack of bunting skills don't lend to the spot well. Cabrera took over in May and fared reasonably well, but he doesn't have a high on-base percentage, and there is a good chance that his $4 million option won't be picked up.

The Reds went 43-29 after Phillips became the permanent leadoff hitter in late June. It worked well most of the time, but Phillips wasn't the same at the plate after he was hit on the hand by a pitch on Aug. 25, and he struggled down the stretch. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Reds had their only sub-.500 stretch (14-16) in September/October.

There will be a top-of-the-lineup hitter on the free-agent market this winter -- a plus-.300 hitter who gets on base a lot, steals bases and has some pop. But that player is Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, who many expect to command upwards of $100 million with his next contract.

That means he's too rich for the Reds, who will not pursue any high-priced free agents. Cincinnati had a $76 million Opening Day payroll this season. Don't expect a large jump.

"It's going to increase a little bit," Jocketty said.

Instead the Reds will have to explore cheaper options. It's still early for either free agents or the trade market to have fully developed. One who is expected to be available on the free-agent market is the veteran left fielder Scott Podsednik, who split this season with the Royals and Dodgers and batted a combined .297 with a .342 on-base percentage and 35 stolen bases.

Coco Crisp, generally a center fielder, could be a free agent if the A's decline his $5.75 million option. Crisp batted .279 with a .342 OBP and 32 steals in 2010.

Making a trade for a leadoff hitter could be the best option for the Reds, especially since they have a rich surplus of starting pitching and prospects. The rotation has at least eight candidates who will vie for five spots, and young corner infield prospects Juan Francisco and Yonder Alonso are blocked from having starting jobs in the Majors.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Mark My Word and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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