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If Choo departs, Reds have work to do to replace him

CINCINNATI -- Change has already begun for the Reds, and you can expect even more of it to come now that the Hot Stove season has kicked into gear.

On the heels of a disappointing National League Wild Card Game loss against the Pirates to end the season, Dusty Baker was soon replaced and Bryan Price was promoted from pitching coach to manager.

Now with the World Series over, free agency is ready to open for business. Five days after the end of the World Series, players can begin to sign with other clubs at midnight ET.

The Reds expect to lose two key contributors in leadoff hitter and center fielder Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo to the free-agent market. The club would like to re-sign Choo, and it's expected to make him the $14.1 million qualifying offer needed to get Draft-pick compensation. With Choo figured to be one of the big prizes on the market this winter, and represented by agent Scott Boras, Cincinnati has long odds to compete in a bidding war against big-market teams.

Arroyo, the longest-tenured Red since his arrival in 2006, isn't expected to get a qualifying offer. Choo might be replaced by Cincinnati's No. 1 prospect and speedy center fielder Billy Hamilton. But it remains to be seen if Hamilton can get on base enough to satisfy to demands of the leadoff spot. Lefty Tony Cingrani is the best bet to replace Arroyo in the rotation.

Cincinnati needs an offensive jolt, but it has little payroll flexibility to spend freely on the market. The club has 11 players already under contract for 2014 worth a total of $74.6 million. Even with Choo and Arroyo coming off of the books and with Joey Votto's annual salary dropping from $19 million to $12 million, nine arbitration cases and the built-in raises in some contracts will quickly add up.

Don't be shocked if general manager Walt Jocketty explores trades to free up payroll and add more depth of talent. Speculation has already been rampant that second baseman Brandon Phillips, who has four years and $50 million remaining on his contract, could be moved this winter. Jocketty denied he was already shopping Phillips, but the GM did not rule out making a deal if it would help the club.

With Price in place, the next order of business for Jocketty is for the two men to assemble a coaching staff. Player moves will then follow.

"We'll talk about the team and some of the plans," Jocketty said. "Ideally, what I'd like to do is get his coaching staff together. Maybe some time before the Winter Meetings, we'll get together with Bryan and his staff and my staff and organize a process for the offseason. He'll have a lot of input."

Contract issues

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

Eligible for arbitration: 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); OF Xavier Paul (first year); RHP Alfredo Simon (second year).

Non-tender possibilities: Miller, Paul

Areas of need

Leadoff hitter? If the Reds aren't ready to give Hamilton the job of replacing Choo, a new leadoff hitter will be needed. Whoever it is, there will be tough shoes to fill, even after only one season of Choo. He was second in the NL in on-base percentage (.423) to Votto and reached base safely 300 times.

No. 2 hitter: Behind Choo and ahead of Votto, the Reds' No. 2 spot was one of baseball's least productive with a combined .228 average and a .281 on-base percentage.

A team leader: This is an entirely subjective category, but intangibles and a clubhouse leader was clearly missing among the Reds in 2013. Veteran Scott Rolen filled that type of player need from 2009-12, and Ryan Ludwick was also that guy in 2012 but was injured most of '13. With accountability being a theme already in a Price administration, there will need to be a player who can hold his teammates accountable as well.

2014 payroll

The Reds' 2013 payroll was a franchise-record $106 million, and while the team has shown a willingness to spend money, it rarely does a big free-agent splash to sign someone from the outside. If the Reds want to become serious players for Choo, or any other player, money will have to free up somewhere else. Payroll is not expected to zoom much further upward.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.
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