As the World Series concludes and MLB officially enters the off-season, the Reds will face several major decisions that will shape how competitive they will be during the 2016 season; most notably who will man SS and LF next season.  With all other positions, assuming health, locked up, the focus will be on these two positions but for entirely different reasons.

The left field position is as wide open as it has been in years and the Reds will need to decide whether they want to fill the gap with internal candidates or free agency; if they choose to go the free agent route, it will likely be an older, established player looking for a one year deal.  Players like Justin Upton, Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes are not only going to be out of the Reds’ price range, I simply don’t see the Reds going for a multi-year deal when Jesse Winker waits in the wings.

Top Free Agent Candidates:         

Rajai Davis: At 35 years old, Davis would be a possibility if the Reds were looking to platoon outfielders in LF next season.  Playing in 112 games for Detroit, Davis can hit at the top or bottom of the order after putting up a line last year of .258/.306/.440 with 18 stolen bases (lowest in nine years).  While Davis wouldn’t be a flashy signing, he would be a solid veteran presence while providing consistent OF defense.

Alex Rios: Also at 35 years old, Rios has seen his power numbers fall off the table the last few seasons, but in hitter friendly GABP, perhaps the Reds feel Rios could find some inflated power numbers.  A slash line of .255/.287/.353 won’t form any lines for season tickets this winter, but Rios has shown a clutch jean in the playoffs and would, like Davis, provide another solid, veteran presence on the roster.

Domonic Brown: The former Phillies uber-prospect was recently released and someone is surely going to take a flyer on this kid.  Still only 28 years old, Brown is going to sign a one year deal somewhere this winter to try to right the ship of his career.  Last season, Brown appeared in only 63 games for the Phillies, hitting only 5 home runs and putting up a line of .228/.284/.349.  Brown will be remembered for what everyone believed to be his breakout season in 2013 when he hit 27 home runs but hasn’t returned to that form since.  Perhaps the Reds can find something in this talented player and allow him to get his career back on track.

Internal Candidates:

Adam Duvall: Acquired for Mike Leake at the trade deadline, Duvall brings one tangible skill to the Reds; power.  Traditionally a first basemen, Duvall hit 5 home runs for the Reds last year in limited playing time in left field.  Duvall isn’t likely to win the starting job, unless he can somehow prove he can increase his batting average and OBP, but is certainly a strong option for the Reds to keep in a platoon situation or as a power source off the bench.

Eugenio Suarez: It would be difficult to find a brighter spot for the Reds last season (Votto aside) than the performance of Suarez at the plate after Cozart’s injury.  He put up a respectable line of .280/.315/.446 while hitting 14 home runs and 48 rbi in only 97 games.  He showed he had plenty of power from the right side and hit all over the lineup.  Because of this offensive production it would be tough to keep him on the bench this season, but do the Reds want to risk a liability on defense playing Suarez in a position he is unfamiliar with?  The only way I see Suarez in LF next season is if the Reds strike out on a FA and trades this off season and the next guy up has a miserable spring.

Jesse Winker:  When the Reds made the decision to trade Leake, Cueto and Byrd last year, I believe it was a signal that the team was willing to rebuild…Jocketty admitted as much in his comments about the team needing to get younger.  Enter Jesse Winker…the top-rated prospect in the Reds system.  Winker, after starting slow last season had a torrid second half finishing the season with a line of .282/.390/.433 with 13 home runs, 55 rbi and walking 74 times in 123 games.  What do the Reds have to lose by playing Winker in LF?  He shows great plate discipline for a 22 year old prospect and his power will only continue to develop.  As he continues to learn and develop he will only become more consistent, hit for average and continue to get on base…something the Reds badly need. Forget spending money on aging players, forget trading young talent for a stop-gap in the outfield…put Jesse in and let him play!

Since I have solved the left field issue for 2016, I might as well take a shot at short stop.  Luckily for the Reds, the debate for who plays short stop is a more enjoyable debate compared to the left field debate since the Reds have two qualified candidates already in the building; Zach Cozart and Eugenio Suarez.

The Verdict: Zach Cozart was off to a great start for the Reds in 2015 before injury ended his season.  In only 53 games for the Reds last year, Cozart had already hit 9 home runs while driving in 28 runs with a line of .258/.310/459.  Many had been waiting for his offense to catch up to his defense and it looked like 2015 was going to be that year for Cozart.  He is without argument the best defensive solution for the Reds at the short stop position and assuming health he likely has an inside track to the starting job next season.  Even with the offensive numbers of Suarez detailed above, those numbers are likely not enough to send Cozart to the bench to start the season…if he is ready to go, Zach Cozart should and will start the season with Todd Frazier manning the left side of the infield.

The Curveball:  What if the Reds wanted both Cozart and Suarez to get major playing time next season, but didn’t want Suarez in left field?  What if Walt Jocketty and the Reds showed some creativity to get their best young talent on the field and build a core that can play together for the next several years?  Well…here is my off-season curveball; the Reds trade Brandon Phillips at the Winter Meetings and plan to play Suarez at second base with Cozart as his double play partner.

Aside from left field and short stop, the Reds biggest area of need is in the bullpen.  As I watch the playoffs, I practically drool over the power arms carrying teams through the playoffs, not just the starters, but the high-octane relievers turning many games into six or seven inning affairs.  Perhaps the Reds, if willing to eat some of BP’s salary can find a taker for Phillips after putting up impressive offensive numbers this season while maintaining his Gold Glove caliber defense.  Could Jocketty get a team looking to win in 2016 to take Phillips in exchange for a back-end bullpen arm; not only helping to solidify the pen but clearing some money off of the books for the next few seasons?  If so, this could go a long way to building a young core of players to carry the Reds through the next few years as they continue to develop their stable of young arms in the rotation.

My Conclusion:  The Reds will leave Goodyear with excitement as young talent takes over the roster; Winker starting in left field, Cozart regaining his hold on short stop and Suarez providing pop from second base…and with a little luck, a few new power arms in the bullpen ahead of the Cuban Missile.