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Richard Justice

Reds trying to shake feeling of underachievement

Reds trying to shake feeling of underachievement

Reds trying to shake feeling of underachievement

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When the season ended, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty was left with one bitter, lingering thought.

"I just felt like we'd underachieved and that we were better than we played the last month of the season, especially the last few weeks," he said.

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Thus, the wheels were set in motion to fire manager Dusty Baker. Is it the right thing? Check back a year from now.

Managers are fired for all sorts of reasons. For the Reds, it was a general feeling that this group of players should have accomplished more.

The Reds made the playoffs under Baker in three of the last four seasons, but lost the Wild Card Game this season and were eliminated in the first round in 2010 and 2012.

They seemed to have enough talent to win a championship. During stretches, they played like a championship team. But when the pressure was cranked up and the bright lights turned on, they were unable to deliver.

"It's frustrating," Jocketty said. "That's certainly a good word. One of these [last] two years, we should have gone farther than we did."

He intended to conduct a long, exhaustive search for a new manager and had compiled a long list of names. He was in the process of narrowing it down when his telephone began to ring.

One team wanted to interview Reds pitching coach Bryan Price for its opening. Then another phoned with the same request. So Jocketty decided to begin his own search by interviewing someone he knew better than any other candidate who'd walk through the door.

He knew Price as a smart, driven man, a man of ideas, a man who might just bring an extra touch of urgency to the clubhouse. Price had a formal interview with Jocketty and his staff, and then he met with Reds owner Bob Castellini.

Search over.

"I was so impressed with him and our owner was that we didn't see any reason to go any further," Jocketty said. "It's his leadership. It's his preparation. He's a very smart guy. He has a way of expressing himself and telling guys exactly what their roles are and how to prepare for 'em. I think that's what our guys are looking for. We just need a little different direction in how we approach things."

Maybe, just maybe, Price will bring a little bit of an edge and a little bit of urgency to the Reds, and maybe that'll be just what the club needs.

The Reds will be different in other ways in 2014. They may still be good enough to win a championship, but Jocketty has some work to do and some decisions to make.

First, there's that rotation. Even with right-hander Bronson Arroyo probably leaving via free agency, Jocketty has five solid starters: Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani.

In first baseman Joey Votto, he has one of the 10 best players in the National League. Right-fielder Jay Bruce isn't far behind.

Jocketty also has two of baseball's most exciting players---Billy Hamilton and Aroldis Chapman. He has decisions to make on both of them.

In the past, he has favored using Chapman as a starter. Now, though, after Chapman has established himself as one of baseball's best closers and after he has said he'd prefer to remain a closer, the math may have changed.

Jocketty said he and Price and their staffs will sit down again in a couple of weeks and figure out how best to use Chapman.

"That's something we have to sit down and think through what's best for him and what's best for the Reds," Jocketty said.

Hamilton is another interesting call. If Reds leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo departs via free agency, Jocketty will be challenged to replace his .423 on-base average.

That said, Hamilton might have been the most electrifying player in baseball when he was on the field for the first time last September.

He's clearly the fastest player in baseball and could end up being the best defensive center fielder. There was a buzz in the crowd the moment he entered games for the Reds, primarily as a late-inning pinch-runner.

Even with teams knowing he'd probably be running, he ran. And succeeded. He stole 13 bases in 13 games, scored nine runs and was caught once.

He became an incredible weapon for Baker down the stretch and has the kind of talent that doesn't come along very often.

But is he ready?

He batted .368 last September, but got just 19 at-bats. That opportunity came after he'd hit only .256 at Triple-A.

Jocketty knows how much Reds fans want to see more of Hamilton. He knows how much he wants to see more.

But for a team in a win-now mode, is Hamilton capable of doing enough offensively to keep him in the lineup?

"Billy will continue to get better and better," Jocketty said. "He can do so many things. He's a great athlete. He's a great center fielder. He's good at baserunning and basestealing. I just think there's a number of things he'll be able to do to help us. It depends on how quickly the bat comes."

Jocketty probably will allow Hamilton to contend for a job in Spring Training, but attempt to acquire a veteran center fielder as an insurance policy.

And there's second baseman Brandon Phillips, who appears to be available after complaining about how he was treated differently than Votto in their contract negotiations.

Jocketty said the matter was addressed when it happened and that it's now forgotten. But the Reds clearly are in a listening mode with Phillips.

Regardless of what happens with Phillips, the Reds are going to contend again and very likely make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Unlike the previous three appearances, they hope to write a different ending.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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