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Reds begin hunt for offensive firepower

Lack of payroll flexibility may limit club in free agency

Hot Stove Tracker

CINCINNATI -- The end of the World Series means one thing to fans of the teams that weren't playing in it: The Hot Stove season is here and teams can begin in earnest to make improvements.

Expect the Reds, who didn't reach the postseason during a disappointing 2014, to seek a more immediate rebound from the 76-win season that left them fourth in the National League Central. However, general manager Walt Jocketty has a difficult task during these coming months, as Cincinnati needs to make upgrades to win next year while lacking payroll flexibility.

"We won't be going for the high-dollar guys, I can tell you that," Jocketty said on Thursday night.

First-year manager Bryan Price helmed a roster far below 100 percent with several key players injured -- Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips -- and others who performed well below expectations. While a healthy Votto and Phillips and a return to form by the likes of Jay Bruce should help, Jocketty would like to have more production.

"We have to do something different offensively," Jocketty said. "We need to get more guys on base to put us in a better position to score runs. Our runners on base were down quite a bit this year."

Cincinnati ranked 14th out of 15 NL teams this season with a .296 on-base percentage. In 2013, the club was second in OBP at .327.

Who the Reds pursue, and the route they might take, remain under wraps.

"We've got some basic ideas and plans we've put together," Jocketty said. "But really until you start talking to clubs and see what their interest level is about, moving certain guys or their interest in our guys, it's hard to really determine it."

Here is a look at the Reds' situation this offseason:

Free agents
Outfielder Ryan Ludwick, infielder Ramon Santiago and infielder Jack Hannahan.

It's expected that neither Ludwick nor Hannahan will return. Santiago has already expressed a desire to re-sign with Cincinnati, and the club -- particularly Price -- was pleased with the veteran's bench contributions and is entertaining the idea of bringing him back. Santiago is also a good character person in the clubhouse. Beginning on Tuesday, free agents are allowed to sign with any club.

Looking short term to next season, the Reds have a big need for offense and an opening in left field. Jocketty would prefer to land a player or players who have a higher on-base percentage. The bullpen regressed as a group in 2014 and also must be improved.

Looking to the long term, the club must decide where it's headed with its four starting pitchers set to hit the free-agent market after 2015 -- Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon -- and decide who it might try to sign to a multiyear extension.

Video: [email protected]: Cueto picks up 20th win in last game

Potential targets
Considering some of the big multiyear contracts that have already stretched their $100 million-plus budget, don't expect the Reds to be suitors for any of the top-level free agents. For more offense, Jocketty will likely look in either of two directions by seeking trades for younger club-controlled players or offering shorter-term contracts to veteran players -- especially in left field, where impressive prospect Jesse Winker could be only a year away. No free-agent names have been connected to Cincinnati yet, but players like Michael Cuddyer or Nori Aoki would fit the bill among available veterans.

Video: Reds prospect Jesse Winker possesses a sweet swing

Trade assets
This is where it gets really interesting with the Reds. The aforementioned starting pitchers could all be potential pieces -- with Cueto and his already-exercised $10 million option likely bringing the largest possible return if he were moved. A young power pitcher like Latos, who is third-year arbitration-eligible, could also be an attractive option for teams despite his injury-filled 2014 season. For a team that wants to contend, it would be easier if the Reds kept their strong rotation intact.

"But I'm not sure we'll be able to. We may have to move maybe one of them," Jocketty said. "We haven't determined that yet. We're still trying to see if we can retain all of them and go forward and build off of what we have."

One potentially dynamic trade asset is closer Aroldis Chapman, who is two seasons away from free agency and coming off of his best season.

Bottom line
Look for the Reds to attempt to make moderate improvements but not pull off the blockbuster move.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.
Read More: Cincinnati Reds, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Aroldis Chapman, Joey Votto, Alfredo Simon, Mat Latos