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Posted: Tuesday November 10, 2009 11:42AM; Updated: Tuesday November 10, 2009 12:50PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

NL Central Hot Stove Preview (cont.)

Cincinnati Reds

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PENDING FREE AGENTS: RHP Kip Wells, 2B Danny Richar.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: C/1B Ramon Hernandez ($2.85/1M club).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 3B Juan Francisco, IF Drew Sutton, SP Sam LeCure, SP Travis Wood, UT Todd Frazier, CF Chris Heisey, RP Enerio Del Rosario, RP Logan Ondrusek.

BUILDING FOR: The winning season that eluded them in 2009.

BIGGEST HOLES: Shortstop, Edinson Volquez's spot in the rotation.

TARGETS: SS Marco Scutaro, SS Miguel Tejada, SS Orlando Cabrera, SP Joel Pineiro, SP Jason Marquis.

BREAKDOWN: A popular preseason sleeper pick, the Reds had a disastrous 2009 season riddled with injuries and poor performances. The most devastating was the torn elbow ligament that put newly-established ace Edinson Volquez on the surgeon's table in August, erasing his 2010 season. With that exception, however, all of the young talent that was in Cincinnati in March is still there, and has been supplemented by the arrival of center fielder Drew Stubbs and the rejuvenation of right-hander Homer Bailey's prospect bonafides as well as the continued progress of the players listed as "on the verge" above. If everything that went wrong for the Reds goes right for them in 2010 (hey, it worked for the Yankees), they'd be a replacement for Volquez away from challenging for the division title. The question is how much is ownership willing to bet on everything coming up roses. Baring a run at Lackey, Pineiro or Marquis would be smart choices given their ground-ball tendencies and the Reds' homer-friendly ballpark. Hernandez's option is cheap, but he'll be 34 in May, and at this point in his career he's no better than Ryan Hanigan, who is earning the major league minimum.

Houston Astros

PENDING FREE AGENTS: CL Jose Valverde, SS Miguel Tejada, RP LaTroy Hawkins, C Chris Coste, CF/1B Darin Erstad, IF Aaron Boone, OF Jason Michaels, SP Mike Hampton, SP Brandon Backe, RP Geoff Geary.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: RP Doug Brocail ($2.85/0.25M club - declined).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SS Tommy Manzella, 3B Chris Johnson, C J.R. Towles.

BUILDING FOR: Giving up on the quick fix and rebuilding in earnest.

BIGGEST HOLES: Catcher, shortstop, closer, back-end of the rotation.

TARGETS: Trade partners for a major rebuild.

BREAKDOWN: Defiant in the face of a 73-win season in 2007, the Astros hired former Phillies general manager Ed Wade and doubled down with Valverde, Kaz Matsui and Tejada, the last of whom cost them several prospects from an already sparse farm system. It nearly worked, they won 86 games and finished four games out of the Wild Card in 2008, but this year they were back down to 74 wins and Valverde and Tejada will now depart as free agents, leaving the Astros with nothing to show for taking the chance. Shocking as it might be to say, the Pirates are ahead of the 'Stros right now because they're already two years into their rebuilding and they have younger and better prospects to build around than Hunter Pence, who will be 27 in April.

Pittsburgh Pirates

PENDING FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

TRADE ACQUISITIONS: 2B Akinori Iwamura (from Rays for RP Jesse Chavez).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 1B Jeff Clement, 3B Neil Walker, 3B Pedro Alvarez, SP Brad Lincoln.

BUILDING FOR: The long-term reestablishment of the franchise.

BIGGEST HOLES: Everywhere but center field and third base.

TARGETS: More trades for prospects, with C Ryan Doumit, SP Paul Maholm, CL Matt Capps, even Iwamura as potential trade chips.

BREAKDOWN: In the 12 months from the 2008 to 2009 trading deadlines, the Pirates traded their entire starting infield from 2008, four starting outfielders, a pair of veteran relievers, and the two young starting pitchers who had breakout seasons for them in 2007. This was less a fire sale than the new administration (installed after the 2007 season) discarding what wasn't working and starting over. The thing is, nothing had worked for the Pirates since Barry Bonds left the team in 1993. The Pirates organization is now flush with prospects, many of them imported via those trades, but the goal line for this rebuilding is still so far away that the organization hasn't even begun to sift out who will play where, with prospects clumping up in center field, third base, and shortstop. That's the main reason they brought in the veteran Iwamura; someone has to play second base. I also suspect the Bucs plan to take advantage of the number of teams that still need keystone help by flipping Iwamura at the trading deadline, if not before. The did well doing so with Freddy Sanchez, landing the Giants' number 2 pitching prospect, righty starter Tim Alderson. Home grown prospects Andrew McCutchen, already established in center field, and Alvarez will give the Bucs a pair of stars in the near term, and Clement and righty starter Ross Ohlendorf will remind fans that the trades did yield useful players, but for now the Pirates' only strategy is to draft and develop, neither of which will make them a significant player in the Hot Stove League.

Follow Cliff Corcoran on twitter at http://twitter.com/CliffCorcoran.

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