CINCINNATI -- The World Series is over, and arguably the biggest catalyst for the Hot Stove fire has started: free agency.
The open market of available players is something the Reds and general manager Walt Jocketty have had limited involvement with in recent years. Translated, that means don't expect big spending on superstar players.
Last winter, the Reds had mixed results with lesser name free agents. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, who was signed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract with a $5 million mutual option for 2013, had a rebound season and proved to be a relative bargain. Ludwick on Wednesday declined his 2013 option and elected to become a free agent.
On the other hand, closer Ryan Madson fell into the Reds' lap at a steal for one year and $8.5 million. But the money was wasted when Madson suffered a season-ending elbow injury early in Spring Training. There was an $11 million mutual option that was not exercised by the club.
The Reds achieved success in one respect, by going 97-65 while winning the National League Central. But they also encountered heartbreak with a stunning exit from the five-game NL Division Series vs. the Giants -- after they won the first two games in San Francisco. Once again, expect the club's resolve be to go much further to achieve a World Series title.
Cincinnati has needs this offseason -- including the leadoff spot, bench and possibly in left field and the closer's role. However, it has spent much of its money on retaining its own nucleus of players, namely Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, back in April.
The Reds have 10 players under contract already who carry a commitment of $61.25 million. While Scott Rolen and his $6.5 million salary come off of the books, escalations in other contracts wipe out that savings.
Votto has, by far, the largest increase -- as he goes from earning $11 million in 2012 to $19 million in '13.
Add to that the nine players eligible for arbitration -- including six for the first time -- and spending freely on free agents becomes quite difficult. One thing that should help toward the bottom line is the Reds drew 2.34 million fans to Great American Ball Park this past season, their highest total since the stadium opened in 2003.
Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.
Free agents: Ludwick, Madson, Rolen, INF Miguel Cairo, RHP Jonathan Broxton and C Dioner Navarro
Mutual options: Ludwick ($5 million, player declined), Madson ($11 million, team declined)
Eligible for arbitration: RHP Homer Bailey (2nd year), Bill Bray (3rd year), OF Chris Heisey (Super Two), RHP Mat Latos (1st year), RHP Mike Leake (1st year), RHP Logan Ondrusek (Super Two), RHP Alfredo Simon (1st year), OF Drew Stubbs (1st year) and INF Wilson Valdez (2nd time)
Non-tender possibilities: Bray, Valdez
Areas of need
Leadoff hitter: The Reds had trouble finding catalysts to get on base for middle-of-the-order guys like Votto and Ludwick, and must do better. The club could take a look at the likes of free agents Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan or Shane Victorino, but it won't be a long look if the prices are too high.
Left fielder: Ludwick declined his $5 million mutual option and is back on the market. Both sides seem interested in his returning, but if there is high demand, it could price him out of reach for the Reds. They would then need another power-hitting run producer of a similar ilk to fill the void.
Closer: The Reds already have one of the best closers in baseball in Aroldis Chapman. But they've long had designs on making him a starter, which was the plan last spring until injuries to Madson and others forced him back to the bullpen. If Chapman is put in the rotation again, the Reds would have to seek another closer -- possibly Broxton, if he's interested in returning.
Bench: Cairo likely won't be back and Valdez might not be either. Neither hit well all season. The Reds will need to bolster their bench players significantly. Todd Frazier, who had a bench role in the postseason, should be moving up to replace Rolen at third base. But a backup third baseman could prove useful, especially if there are days the versatile Frazier is needed elsewhere on the field.
The Reds' payroll has crept up incrementally -- from $76 million in 2010 to around $80 million in '11, to over $87 million in '12. It's highly conceivable for it to inch into the $91-$94 million range for '13.