This obviously may change by the time spring training rolls around, but if I had to pick a dark horse playoff team in 2009, the Cincinnati Reds would get a lot of consideration.

First and foremost, the Reds offense posted a .278 BABiP in 2008, which was the worst figure in all of baseball. Second baseman Brandon Phillips went from .300 and .304 BABiPs in 2006 and ’07 to a .277. Edwin Encarnacion from .307 and .322 to a .264. Consequently, both of these key figures posted sub-par numbers in 2008. Expect a rebound.

Secondly, there’s that youth movement that’s taking shape in Cincy. In addition to Phillips and Encarnacion, the Reds are stacked with young talent – Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey. While it’s highly unlikely that all these players blossom into stars, there’s probably at least two of them who ought to be cornerstones of the franchise for years to come, plus a couple of solid major leaguers. With another year of baseball under their belts, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Volquez wasn’t the only standout in the bunch next season.

But simply waiting for players to mature or rebound won’t be enough. Their team defense was bordering on atrocious in 2008. Not only did their pitchers have to deal with the worst Defensive Efficiency Ratio in MLB (percentage of balls in play that were fielded – basically BABiP from the pitching aspect), the infielders had a .769 Revised Zone Rating (well below the league average .783). When you pitch in a home run happy park like the Great American, you want to keep the ball down. But in the Reds’ case, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing since far too many of the ground balls went through the porous defense.

So the first recommendation would be to find a good defensive shortstop. Jeff Keppinger started 101 games at short and had an OPS+ of 70 and an equally awful .797 RZR and 27 Out of Zone plays. He was hurting them offensively and defensively. With Rafael Furcal spurning Oakland’s offer, he’s still available. If he’s too costly, someone like Cesar Izturis would still be an upgrade.

For left field, the Reds have options. One, they can let Chris Dickerson try and prove that he’s no fluke (he probably is). Two, they can move Edwin Encarnacion there. He was among the worst defensive players in the National League in 2008 but his offensive potential is still too intriguing to give up on him entirely. Moving him to left would allow the Reds to improve defensively in left field (where Adam Dunn started 110 games) and at the hot corner. On the free agent third basemen front, the only name that makes sense is Casey Blake. But I have a feeling he’ll end up signing a deal that exceeds actual value.

There’s also a hole in center field. Mercifully, the Reds decided to just let Corey Patterson go, thus preventing Dusty Baker from giving him another 392 plate appearances despite the fact that the man had an OPS+ of 48. No, that’s not a typo. 48. Jay Bruce also spent some time here in 2008 but his future as I understand it is probably in RF. The future CFer for Cincy could be 24 year-old Drew Stubbs, known for his great range in the outfield. But Stubbs still strikes out too much to project as a star. And although he may one day be ready, he’ll probably struggle big time facing big league pitching. So it makes sense for the Reds to target a defensively capable CFer to a short term deal (Jim Edmonds or Mark Kotsay, anyone?).

And unless they trade Homer Bailey, their rotation should be set – Aaron Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Cueto, and Bailey. I expect Volquez’ numbers to regress a bit, but both Arroyo and Harang (especially if the defense behind them can be improved) should be better. Also, with Jeremy Affeldt signing with San Francisco, the bullpen could use another arm.

Regardless, their primary goal ought to be improving their defense, specifically at short, third, and left. Both the Rays and Brewers were in similar situations last year and a few changes made a big difference for them. So with a bit more luck and better gloves, the Reds could make some noise in the NL Central next year.

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