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Returning core could keep Reds on top in 2013

CINCINNATI -- It wasn't even 30 minutes after the Reds were given a devastating exit from the playoffs by the Giants in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Rookie shortstop Zack Cozart already had designs of next season.

"I will be using this experience," Cozart said. "We have a good core group of guys here. We'll be back next year. I'm ready to get to Spring Training now. You don't realize how cool it is to be here until you don't have to show up the next day. It's hit us like a ton of bricks."

The Reds will head into the winter with many of their main players already under contract for next season. Two of them, first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips, were signed to long-term deals in April. Right fielder Jay Bruce, ace Johnny Cueto and veteran right-hander Bronson Arroyo also have contracts, and the rest of the rotation and most of the bullpen is under club control.

"We have a group of guys, myself included, that are in a good portion of their career where we can be consistent and players that the team can count on," Votto said.

Even after winning 97 games and the NL Central title, Cincinnati was reminded just how hard it is to reach a World Series. Besides needing a significant dash of luck, the elite teams are often ones with the fewest holes.

The Reds had their share of shaky spots that didn't hold up well during the season.

Expect general manager Walt Jocketty to explore upgrades at the leadoff spot and possibly add a consistent run producer. The leadoff spot combined to produce a .208 average with a .254 on-base percentage. Imagine how much damage Votto could do if he had runners on base more often in front of him.

Although Cueto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey all displayed ace form down the stretch, it wouldn't be out of the question for the Reds seek another strong starter that could give them an elite rotation. Whether that question involves simply moving closer Aroldis Chapman into the rotation is something that is sure to be discussed.

Whether the upgrades are possible remains to be seen until the Reds have an idea about their 2013 budget. Also, Jocketty has generally been reluctant to part with prospects. But when he does, he goes big, as evidenced by last winter's five-player deal that brought Latos from the Padres for Yonder Alonso and Edinson Volquez.

This is where the roster stands as the club heads into the offseason:

Contract issues

Free agents: 3B Scott Rolen, INF Miguel Cairo, RHP Jonathan Broxton and C Dioner Navarro
Mutual options: OF Ryan Ludwick ($5 million)
Player options: RHP Ryan Madson ($11 million)
Eligible for arbitration: RHP Bailey (2nd year), LHP Bill Bray (3rd year), OF Chris Heisey (super 2), RHP Latos (1st year), RHP Mike Leake (1st year), RHP Logan Ondrusek (super 2), RHP Alfredo Simon (1st year), OF Drew Stubbs (1st year) and INF Wilson Valdez (2nd time)
Non-tender possibilities: Bray, Valdez


Stepping into the primary role for the first time in 2012, Ryan Hanigan emerged as one of the league's best defensive catchers. His 3.05 catcher's ERA was the lowest in the Majors and he caught 11 of the Reds' 12 shutouts, including Bailey's no-hitter on Sept. 28. Hanigan also established career highs in games played, hits and doubles.

Hanigan's backup, Devin Mesoraco, struggled and was demoted in late August for 10 days. Mesoraco still has some growing to do at the position, but he remains in the club's plans. He did a good job mainly working with Bailey and Leake, but others weren't comfortable with him behind the plate, namely Chapman. The Reds were fortunate that Minor League signee Navarro stepped up when Mesoraco faltered. Navarro could be part of the depth if he's retained.

First base
Votto is locked in, especially after he signed a 10-year, $225 million extension in April that guarantees his stay in Cincinnati through 2023. Votto endured the first serious injury of his career when he needed two arthroscopic surgeries to repair torn knee cartilage, and he was clearly not 100 percent upon returning. Votto did not have a homer after his Sept. 5 return. In the postseason, he hit .389, but had no homers, extra-base hits or RBIs.

Second base
Phillips, signed in April to a six-year, $72 million deal, might have been the club's most valuable player, especially while Votto was out. Among Major League second basemen, Phillips ranked fifth in homers and fourth in RBIs and slugging percentage. He also led the Reds with 52 multihit games while maintaining an elite level of defense with an endless supply of spectacular plays.

Cozart had an overall successful rookie year, but it wasn't without some ups and downs. He was among the NL rookie leaders in multiple offensive categories and demonstrated great defense and range to make plays both routine and difficult. Prospect Didi Gregorius, a September callup, is considered right around the corner. Gregorius can play good defense in the Majors right now, but he still must catch up as a hitter. Backup Valdez did not hit well, but made most of the plays when he filled in for Cozart.

Third base
The hot corner is a position in transition heading into next season, because it's likely that Rolen, a free agent, will either retire or not return if he decides to keep playing. The Reds found a capable replacement in Todd Frazier, who filled in for much of the first half for Rolen and produced strong offensive results. While Frazier's defense is a step below Rolen's elite level, he was very competent and should improve with more experience and stability at one spot after moving around all over the field most of his pro career. Don't expect the job to simply be handed to Frazier. It's easy to envision a veteran being acquired to push the competition at the position.

While prone to streaks -- both good and bad -- Bruce, the starting right fielder, had his best season yet for the Reds and will be looking to be more consistent once again. The other two spots could be interesting. Stubbs had another difficult year at the plate, but his defense is extremely valued. Top prospect Billy Hamilton is converting from shortstop to center field in the offseason, but he is still at least a year away from challenging for a roster spot. Heisey was a capable replacement in center field and left field but has not yet emerged as a regular. If Ludwick has his option exercised, his power would be welcomed back in the middle of the order after his strong first season in Cincinnati.

Starting pitching
The Reds could not have asked for more from their starting five, especially since they went through the whole season without having to make rotation changes. Every pitcher made their assigned starts without injury in the regular season and four of the five pitched 200 innings. While Cueto had a disappointing injury in the playoffs, his status as ace is cemented following a 19-win season and 2.78 ERA.

At 35, Arroyo had a solid and consistent season. Bailey came on very strong down the stretch, namely his no-hitter in the final week. Latos won 14 games in his first year with the Reds and was arguably as good as Cueto in the final several weeks of the season. Latos' Game 5 meltdown and loss should make him better going forward. Leake started 2012 poorly, but he pitched well enough to be back next season. Looking beyond, lefty prospect Tony Cingrani, a September callup, is coming fast and could push for a spot.

Relief pitching
The Majors' best in bullpen ERA in 2012, the Reds 'pen will have most of its arms back in 2013. One question is whether the club will continue with Chapman as closer following a dominating year and 38 saves. Chapman was originally signed to be a starter and expected to be in the rotation, but he might be too good to be taken from the closer's role. Nick Masset, who missed all of 2012 with a shoulder injury that required surgery, will be back. Sean Marshall, Sam LeCure, Jose Arredondo and Ondrusek should return. Rookie J.J. Hoover was impressive, and could be a future closer.

Cincinnati Reds, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Cozart, Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, Ryan Hanigan, Mat Latos, Ryan Ludwick, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Joey Votto