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Reds aiming to go deep in '14 October hunt

Reds aiming to go deep in '14 October hunt

Reds aiming to go deep in '14 October hunt

CINCINNATI -- It was clear from the final out in the Reds' National League Wild Card Game loss to the Pirates that the sting from another early elimination in the postseason wasn't going to fade quickly.

A few days after that defeat -- and a six-game losing streak to end the season -- manager Dusty Baker was dismissed. A successor has yet to be named.

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Whoever takes over in the Reds' dugout will inherit a team that has been good enough to win 90 or more games in three of the last four years. But it hasn't been great enough to do more with its October opportunities. That pressure to win now will remain over the new guy.

2013 season wraps
2014 outlooks

That pressure is on the players that remain as well. They are determined to figure out how to go deeper in the playoffs.

"It's all about finding whatever that next step is," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "Winning in the regular season is fine. Good teams do that. But the great teams win in the postseason and win championships. We need to find out what's missing."

In the practical sense, important parts of the team are likely to be missing in 2014 and Cincinnati will need to find replacements. Center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who was exceptional in the leadoff spot, will likely ride off to free agency after one season unless the Reds can find the money to bring him back. Starting pitcher and workhorse Bronson Arroyo, who has never missed a start in his career and has logged 200 innings or more in eight of his last nine seasons, is also a free agent and isn't expecting to return.

What general manager Walt Jocketty and the new manager will have is a strong returning core in the lineup, rotation and bullpen. What the club probably won't have after payroll exceeded $100 million for the first time, is a ton of flexibility to spend a lot on free agents.

That means it will be up to the existing group -- led by Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Johnny Cueto -- to find another way to meet what should again be some very high expectations in 2014.

"We will try again. Hopefully, we can be a champion next year," Cueto said.

This is where the Reds' roster stands as the club heads into the offseason:

Free agents: OF Choo; RHP Arroyo; LHP Zach Duke ; INF Cesar Izturis ; LHP Manny Parra ; RHP Nick Masset

Arbitration eligible: RHP Homer Bailey (third year), LHP Aroldis Chapman (first year) C Ryan Hanigan (third year) OF Chris Heisey (second year), RHP Mike Leake (second year), RHP Sam LeCure (first year); C Corky Miller (first year); OF Xavier Paul (first year); RHP Alfredo Simon (second year).

Rotation: The Reds will be banking on Cueto being a healthy ace for a full season next year after three stints on the disabled list with a strained right lat. Mat Latos stepped up well in pitching like a No. 1 starter most of the year. Mike Leake continues to dispel doubters after a nice 14-win season. Lefty Tony Cingrani showed to be a strong and more cost effective replacement for Arroyo. The question is what happens with Bailey. The Reds will probably offer a long-term deal, something Bailey has shown little interest in signing. Instead of taking a hit in arbitration, it wouldn't be shocking if the club looked to move him to add more talent and free up payroll space. One X-factor: would a new manager try to convince closer Chapman to accept a move to the rotation?

Bullpen: Assuming he stays where he wants, Chapman would again anchor the relievers in the ninth inning. There are plenty of options to set him up. LeCure proved worthy of late-inning work and J.J. Hoover had an impressive year overall after a tough start. Lefty Sean Marshall will need to put shoulder issues behind him. Jonathan Broxton will be starting the calendar year rehabilitating from forearm surgery, making it unclear what he can contribute next season. Alfredo Simon was a multi-inning horse that also stepped into a bigger role this season.

First base: Votto is locked in for years to come but will be coming off of his worst year defensively. He led all Major League first basemen with 14 errors, something that frustrated the former Gold Glove Award winner.

Second base: Phillips once again showed versatility by moving around the order - this year it was from second to the cleanup spot after Ryan Ludwick's Opening Day injury. Phillips cracked the 100-RBI mark for the first time, but wasn't the same at the plate after being plunked on the left forearm by a pitch in June.

Shortstop: Zack Cozart turned in a very respectable season and will be back. Cozart brings strong defense to the table, but he and Phillips will have to work at improving their complete of double plays -- where the duo ranked near the bottom in the league. Offensively, Cozart improved after being moved out of the No. 2 spot and drove in 63 runs with 12 homers. A product of his role in the second spot, Cozart tied for the league lead in sacrifice flies and was second behind Arroyo in sac bunts.

Third base: Frazier struggled at times offensively, including an 0-for-31 skid and his batting average dipped to .234 from .273 in his rookie 2012 season. But he duplicated last year with 19 homers and set a new high with 73 RBIs. Defensively, Frazier was fantastic and did an excellent job replacing frequent Gold Glove Award winner Scott Rolen.

Catcher: The tandem of Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco figures to return. The Reds will need more offense from this spot in general, especially from Hanigan after he batted only .198 while limited to 75 games because of injuries. Hanigan remains an excellent defensive catcher and Mesoraco made significant strides in this area in his second big league season. He improved his game-calling skills and blocking and throwing and could be worthy of even more games to catch next season.

Outfield: Bruce continues to trend upward offensively and had a strong year with 30 homers, 43 doubles and 109 RBIs while provided Gold Glove Award-deserving defense. On the other side, Ludwick is under contract for next season and should be fully recovered from the right shoulder surgery that cost him four months on the DL and rendered him less effective in September.

Without Choo in center field, the job will seemingly go to top prospect Billy Hamilton. After his September call-up, Hamilton's base stealing prowess did not disappoint and his defense was strong for a first-year outfielder converted from shortstop. The big question will be his hitting. Hamilton struggled in big league camp last spring and batted .256 with a .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A. He did go 7-for-19 (.368) in the Majors but was given optimum matchups by Baker. Cincinnati would normally prefer to bring Hamilton along slower, but may have no choice in 2014 but to let him play every day and grow into the job of a big league leadoff hitter.

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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