Top order of business: Find leadoff man
Halfway through the Hot Stove season, both the Reds and free agent Michael Bourn are in danger of being stuck without chairs.
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty has made no secret since his team was bounced from the National League Division Series in October that he wants to improve the lineup at the leadoff spot.
In the past couple of weeks alone, potential candidates have been plucked at a dizzying pace. Before the Winter Meetings, the Twins dealt Denard Span to the Nationals and then wrapped up their week in Nashville, Tenn., by sending Ben Revere to the Phillies.
During the Meetings, free agent Angel Pagan re-upped with the Giants with a four-year, $40 million deal while Shane Victorino went to the Red Sox for a reported three-year, $39 million contract. And in what would have been a long shot anyway, it was learned that longtime and oft-injured Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore had microfracture surgery on his knee in September.
This all leaves the Reds with limited options.
On the trade market, there are few viable candidates. One name that repeatedly comes up in rumors is Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler. Jocketty did not engage with Colorado in trade talks during the Meetings, but that could always be a fluid situation.
Fowler, a switch-hitter, batted .300 last season with a .389 on-base percentage, but has much better numbers at Coors Field than elsewhere. He is second-year arbitration-eligible after he earned $2.3 million in 2012.
The Rockies are very much in need of starting pitching. The Reds have a nice cadre of starters but are reluctant to move any of them.
A's outfielder Coco Crisp has a .274 average and .329 OBP over an 11-year career. Crisp, who became expendable when Oakland acquired Chris Young from Arizona, will be in the final year of his contract and earn $7 million in 2013, with a $7.5 million club option for 2014.
Also in the American League are Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Indians corner outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and Alejandro de Aza of the White Sox. But trades won't come easy, with major pieces demanded in return.
To get Span, Washington parted with its No. 2 prospect, and a top 50 overall, in pitcher Alex Meyer. Philadelphia netted Revere, but besides costing it fifth starter Vance Worley, it had to give up its No. 1 prospect and a pitcher in Trevor May.
Anyone the Reds add would have to be a center fielder, after free-agent left fielder Ryan Ludwick was re-signed Monday to a two-year, $15 million contract with a mutual option for 2015.
This brings the Reds back to Bourn, who is represented by agent Scott Boras. Last season, another Boras client, closer Ryan Madson, saw his market demand dip by January. Cincinnati managed to get a bargain by signing Madson to a one-year, $8.5 million contract.
The type of contract has been coined a "pillow contract," and the person credited with creating the term was Boras.
"Basically, you lay down, it's comfortable, it's soft, it's there," Boras said last January. "But it's not with you all the time. That's a one-year contract. Your pillow ... you leave it, you come back, it's there. Short-term, you use it for a little bit, then you move on."
Bourn, 30, batted .274 with a .348 on-base percentage and 42 steals in 155 games for the Braves last season and is a .272 hitter with a .339 OBP lifetime over seven seasons.
Madson moved on to the Angels after he missed all of last season with an elbow injury. Nonetheless, could Bourn fall softly into the Reds' laps?
Over the weekend, Jocketty seemed skeptical it could happen again.
"[Bourn] would have to really fall," Jocketty said. "I don't think so."
And during the Winter Meetings, Boras still viewed Bourn as a "franchise" type of player.
"I think there are a number of teams that feel Michael Bourn is the centerpiece of what they want to do," Boras said to assembled reporters.
That team doesn't currently seem like the Reds. Last season, while their leadoff batters combined for a .254 on-base percentage, they won 97 games and the National League Central by nine games over the Cardinals. No matter who is leading off, advancement in the playoffs is not guaranteed.
And everybody who watches the Reds knows the answer to their leadoff issue could be only a year away. Top prospect and center fielder Billy Hamilton could be in the Majors by the end of 2013 or early 2014.
The question Jocketty and ownership will be asking about acquiring any leadoff hitter will be: is it worth it?
When the dual game of musical chairs ends, we will then know what the Reds' answer was.