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Friday, November 16, 2012
Reds and Cards in recovery mode

By Jerry Crasnick

The stakes are significantly higher in a presidential election than in a baseball postseason, of course, but the pain of finishing second must surely be equally acute in politics and sports. For some historical perspective, we bring you a conversation between George McGovern and Walter Mondale several years ago, in which the two former candidates lamented their respective Electoral College thumpings in 1972 and '84.

"George, how long does it take to get over a big loss like this?" Mondale reportedly asked McGovern.

Replied McGovern: "I'll call you when that happens."

Jay Bruce
Jay Bruce and the Reds looked dazed as the ninth inning of Game 5 closed in on them.

Losing a playoff series might not elicit that degree of long-term psychic damage or emotional scars -- there's always Wait 'til Next Year! in baseball -- but it can produce some sleepless nights and chronic dyspepsia until time and space begin to intervene. Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty and St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, former colleagues in the Cardinals' front office, could have an interesting discussion this winter about the challenges of moving beyond disappointment. They both know how it feels to be road kill for the 2012 world champion San Francisco Giants.

Jocketty experienced one of his biggest career letdowns in October, when the Reds took a two-games-to-none lead over San Francisco in the National League Division Series only to implode at home in Great American Ball Park. Johnny Cueto suffered an untimely oblique injury and Mat Latos gave up a huge grand slam to Buster Posey in the series finale, and suddenly 97 wins and an NL Central title were rendered meaningless as Cincinnati went down to San Francisco in five.

Jocketty watched most of the World Series on TV, but he was too emotionally drained to tune in for the league championship series between the Giants and Cardinals.

"You know what the hardest thing is? Working so hard to put this thing together," Jocketty said during the recent general managers meetings in California. "We started last fall having meetings about our pitching and other ways to improve, and everything fell into place. We started off really well, ended up winning 97 games and got into the playoffs. We went up two games to none -- and then boom, it was over.

"Now we have to start all over again, and you don't know if you're going to get to that point again. That's what's really frustrating. I know fans are upset. But how do you think we feel [in the front office]? We put our heart and soul into this thing."

The Cardinals have their own depressing tale to tell. On the verge of a second straight World Series trip, St. Louis blew a 3-1 lead over the Giants to lose the NLCS. The Cardinals had momentum, karma and home-field advantage in their corner … until Barry Zito shut them down in the pivotal Game 5 at Busch Stadium and San Francisco steamrolled them 15-1 in the final two games at AT&T Park.

As the NLCS came to a close, the Cardinals could only watch the train wreck that was the last three games.

If Mozeliak has fewer misgivings than Jocketty, it's because 2012 was supposed to be a season of transition in St. Louis. Mike Matheny replaced Tony La Russa as manager, and the Cardinals entered a season without Albert Pujols in the starting lineup for the first time since 2000. They still managed to win 88 games and post a run differential of plus-117, second best in the NL to the Washington Nationals.

"Anybody who's been in this game a long time realizes you don't get to sip from the cup every year," Mozeliak said. "But anytime you get close to that, expectations rise. And when you have expectations and it comes to an end, the disappointment becomes that much [greater].

"Maybe I'm looking at it through a different set of lenses than Walt, but we had a lot of uncertainty coming into this year. We won the World Series in '11 and we had high expectations. But we also had a new manager and a new pitching coach, and lost our most famous player since Stan Musial. When I look back at 2012, it was a success and a building block for all of us in the franchise. There's not really a bitter taste in my mouth."

Several weeks after having their respective spirits crushed, both Mozeliak and Jocketty have picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and begun making plans for 2013. The hangover has eased, and they're focused on what they need to do to move forward.

Leadoff hitter blues

The Reds enter the offseason with two pressing items on their agenda. If they decide they want to move closer Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation, they'll ratchet up their pursuit of Jonathan Broxton or Ryan Madson in hopes that one of those two righties can fill the ninth-inning role in 2013.

Jocketty also is intent on adding a leadoff hitter. With lots of Zack Cozart, and a little of Brandon Phillips, Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey in the No. 1 spot, Cincinnati's leadoff hitters ranked last in the majors with a .208 batting average and a .581 OPS. "We need somebody to set the table," Jocketty said.

Walt Jocketty
Walt Jocketty has a plan for 2013. The question is whether he has the resources to execute it.

The catch is, the Reds are seeking a short-term solution because top prospect Billy Hamilton is coming fast. After stealing a minor league-record 155 bases this season, Hamilton moved from shortstop to center field in the Arizona Fall League. Several scouts described him as raw in the outfield, and in need of work on his routes and reads. But you hear the words "game-changing speed" a lot with Hamilton, and it won't surprise anyone if he's in the majors at some point in 2013.

"He reminds me of an early Willie Davis," an NL scout said, referencing the speedy Dodgers outfielder from the 1960s. "He uses his speed to compensate for his lack of judging ability. He's pretty good at getting to balls. He's just not going to catch them all."

Said another scout of Hamilton: "I saw him score from second base on a ground ball to the third baseman. It's freakish."

After spending almost $300 million to sign Joey Votto and Phillips to long-term deals, the Reds aren't in the mix for free agents Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton -- and even Shane Victorino might be looking at a longer-term deal than Cincinnati would prefer. Jocketty said it's more likely the Reds will try to address their leadoff void through a trade for someone who can be a place-holder until Hamilton arrives from the minors.

Who could that be? One name worth monitoring is Oakland's Coco Crisp. He's signed for $7 million in 2013 with a $7.5 million club option for 2014, and the A's have a surplus of outfielders with Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Crisp, Seth Smith, Brandon Moss and the newly acquired Chris Young in the fold. As a side note, Jocketty was general manager in St. Louis when the Cardinals drafted Crisp in 1999, so he has some familiarity with him through the years. Oakland needs a shortstop, and the Reds have Cozart and prospect Didi Gregorius in the system. But it appears the Reds have no interest in trading Cozart, and the jury is out on whether Gregorius' bat will play in the big leagues.

Billy Hamilton
Billy Hamilton will be the answer to the leadoff question for the Reds … someday.

Cubs outfielder David DeJesus, who has a .364 career OBP in the leadoff spot, also fits the description of an affordable short-term solution. He's signed for $4.25 million next season with a club option for 2014. But a source told that the Reds have yet to approach the Cubs about DeJesus, and Chicago most likely will hang on to him.

Stubbs, 28, is an intriguing case. He's a skilled defensive center fielder with great speed and the ability to hit 25 home runs and steal 40 bases. But he hit a disappointing .213 with a .610 OPS and 166 strikeouts this year. And if he plans to stay in Cincinnati as an everyday player, he needs to resolve his troubling contact issues. Toward that end, Stubbs is working at his home in Texas this offseason with Ronnie Ortegon, a hitting instructor in the Cincinnati system.

"He's got everything you're looking for," Jocketty said of Stubbs. "He's a great center fielder, and he has the speed to make some things happen. But he's going to have to make some adjustments. I still believe he can. But to this point, he hasn't done that."

The Reds also have stayed in touch with the representatives for free agent Ryan Ludwick, who contributed 26 home runs and an .877 OPS last season. But bringing back Ludwick won't address their black hole at leadoff.

Cardinal rules

Like the Reds, the Cardinals are tinkering around the edges rather than making massive changes. The big question marks are in the middle of the infield. If the season began today, Daniel Descalso would play second base, but shortstop is still anybody's guess. Rafael Furcal tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in August, and while he's passed enough tests to make the Cardinals cautiously optimistic that he can avoid Tommy John surgery, they can't be certain. Mozeliak said the winter meetings in December might be the "tipping point" for the Cardinals to decide whether they need to make a move at short.

John Mozeliak
John Mozeliak has pitching to spare, if he can talk himself into giving some of it up.

St. Louis has a wealth of starting pitching, with Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn in the rotation, and Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal as additional options. There have been rumblings the Cardinals could send a pitcher to Cleveland for Asdrubal Cabrera, who conceivably could play second base in St. Louis for a year, then slide over to shortstop in 2014 when top prospect Kolten Wong is ready.

But that's just speculation. Although the clubs have talked, Cleveland is looking for a bigger return than the Cardinals are willing to surrender. The Indians would perk up considerably if they thought they could acquire Rosenthal in a deal. Since he's unavailable, St. Louis and Cleveland don't appear to be a match.

Mozeliak's measured approach to trade discussions reflects his fondness for pitching depth. In light of Carpenter's age and Garcia's health, he likes the thought of having eight starting options instead of five.

"Volatility in pitching can happen so quickly," Mozeliak said. "I'm just very cautious. I'm old-school in the regard that you can never have enough."

That philosophy applies to championship rings as well as pitchers. The Cardinals, like the Reds, took a hit in October and moved on. In the competitive National League Central, there are no such things as red states and blue states. It's just winners and losers, and precious little time to stand still.