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Is it time to bury the Reds for this season?

As of July 29, the Reds and Marlins both have a 52-53 record. Yet the difference in the perception of that record two days before MLB’s July 31 trade deadline is fascinating.

Joe Lucia touched on this earlier in Tuesday’s Dugout Digest. The Marlins are viewed as a sleeper contender, having won eight of their past nine games (after losing six in a row). Miami is now six games behind the first-place Nationals in the NL East and 4.5 games away from the league’s second wild-card bid.

There are even rumblings that the Marlins might be buyers at the trade deadline, showing interest in adding a starting pitcher such as Tommy Milone of the A’s, the D-Backs’ Wade Miley and Ian Kennedy of the Padres.

Contrast that with the Reds, who are also six games out of first place — but trail the Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates in the NL Central — and 4.5 back in the NL wild-card race. Cincinnati has lost nine of its past 10 games and has a 9-14 record thus far in July. The Reds still looked like a playoff contender just a week ago, but this plunge may have killed postseason hopes.

The Reds’ losing skid has also called their trade deadline status into question. In recent days, Cincinnati had been attached to the Phillies’ Marlon Byrd and Alex Rios of the Rangers. The team could arguably use some help at first or second base in the absence of Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. But that buzz is fading as the Reds continue to lose games and slide down the standings.

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Could the Reds end up as sellers before July 31 then? That’s the direction Cincinnati Enquirer beat writer C. Trent Rosecrans believes the team should take from here on out. As he writes, what’s really better for the long-term health of the franchise?

Look at what the market has been for pitching over the past few weeks. The A’s, Angels, Tigers, and Giants have surrendered top prospects in exchange for reinforcing their starting rotations or bullpens.

If Reds general manager Walt Jocketty decided to put Johnny Cueto on the trade block? Would a NL Cy Young Award candidate with an 11-6 record, 2.08 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 155.2 innings (and under contract for next season) make an impact for a playoff contender? Cincinnati could surely get two to three of a team’s top prospects in return, in addition to some major league-ready help.

Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon each have one more year of arbitration eligibility, the kind of lower-cost, club-controlled pitching that teams covet. (Obviously, the Reds could use such assets too, but the potential return for those pitchers outweigh what benefits they could yield this season.) In Simon’s case, Jocketty might also be selling high. Let another team deal with the question of whether or not his success (12-5, 2.86 ERA) is a one-year fluke and the pay raise he’ll get because of it next year.

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Mat Latos is set to be a free agent after the season. Why not get something in return for him, rather than watch him test the market and possibly price himself out of the Reds’ budget for next year?

Perhaps Jocketty could also take this opportunity to shed the remaining $96 million the Reds owe Homer Bailey over the next five years. Getting another team to take on that contract would surely be difficult. But maybe he could convince a team like the Dodgers that Bailey would perform better in a more pitcher-friendly ballpark. Or persuade the Yankees that success at Great American Ball Park could translate well to Yankee Stadium.

And what about relievers? Every contender needs bullpen help, and the Reds have arms to spare. Jonathan Broxton is owed at least $10 million ($11 million, if traded) through next season. Maybe a cheaper alternative like Sam LeCure (signed for next season at $1.85 million) could draw more interest.

Aroldis Chapman is likely viewed as a cornerstone player, but will get expensive over the next two years through arbitration. Why not see what other clubs might be willing to offer in exchange for a left-handed, flamethrowing closer?

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This isn’t an easy decision for the Reds.  If the Marlins feel like they’re in contention at six games back in their division and 4.5 behind in the wild-card race, why can’t Cincinnati make that same argument? Never mind that the Reds’ $112 million payroll is more than twice the $41 million the Marlins are paying their players this year. Miami’s roster is also young and developing, while the Reds have an aging, veteran lineup.

Yet the Brewers look vulnerable and the Cardinals have been anything but consistent. A slump by either of those clubs and a warm streak from the Reds, and the standings could change quickly. However, the Pirates stand in the way as well. And they’re not only playing well, but in position to make a significant trade deadline deal if Pittsburgh’s front office is willing.

The easier decision may just be to maintain the status quo and see where the current roster can go for the rest of the season with the return of Votto and Phillips uncertain. But what would that really accomplish for this year and beyond?

Considering the expectations the Reds carried into this season, slogging through the final two months of the season as a non-contender with key pieces sold off would be a tough sell to ownership and the fans. But the team can sell the future instead. The Reds can still make improvements for next year and beyond without holding an outright fire sale. Not doing so could be a choice Cincinnati ends up regretting.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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