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With Bruce out, it’s time for Reds to sell

The situation hardly seemed rosy a week ago. While the standings said the NL Central title was still very much in reach, the Reds mostly sported a lineup with just two above average regulars and a rotation that seemed to be fading quickly after such a promising start. Trades for outfielders or a third baseman were considered, but nothing ever materialized. It looked like the only way the offense was going to become formidable was if Jay Bruce started fulfilling his potential and Edwin Encarnacion returned to previous form after coming back from the DL.

Well, Encarnacion is back now, but Bruce is done for 6-8 weeks after fracturing his wrist in the outfield. Odds are that he’ll return for the final month and maybe a little more, but as poorly as he had been playing with a healthy wrist, it’s doubtful that he’ll emerge as a force prior to 2010.

The Reds might be able to survive if the pitching were still coming through in a big way, but there are few encouraging signs. Aaron Harang was 5-4 with a 3.36 ERA in May 25. He’s 5-9 with a 4.18 ERA now. Johnny Cueto, one of the NL’s top three or four pitchers for the first three months, has struggled in four of his last five appearances, taking his ERA from 2.17 to 3.62. Bronson Arroyo was lit up in three straight outings before shutting out Triple-A Norfolk last time out. There’s still no telling when Edinson Volquez will return from his elbow problems, and Micah Owings is probably the team’s best option to play right field in place of Bruce.

Selling is the best answer. None of the team’s veterans are going to be bargains in upcoming seasons, and there are no stars that would be impossible to replace in free agency. If the Reds have the chance to dump Arroyo’s contract, they should take it. He’ll make $11 million in 2010 and $11 million-$13 million if his 2011 option is picked up ($2 million if not). David Weathers, Arthur Rhodes, Ramon Hernandez and Jonny Gomes could bring in prospects. Perhaps Jerry Hairston Jr. as well, if teams particularly value his versatility.

Harang is probably the best trade chip, even if the midst of a second disappointing season. His K/BB ratio remains quite strong, and while he’s always going to give up homers, his .294 average against this year seems pretty fluky. He’s not cheap, as he’s guaranteed $12.5 million in 2010 and has a $12.75 million club option for 2011 with a $2 million buyout. However, that is the going rate for above average innings-eaters. Ideally, the Reds could get a young shortstop for him. The Angels seem like a pretty good match with Brandon Wood.

The Reds may well hurt their chances in 2010 by moving Harang and others, but they could potentially have as much money to spend in free agency as any club in the NL. Cueto and Volquez still look like potential top-of-the rotation starters, and those two combine with Bruce and Joey Votto to form one of the game’s most talented cores. If Harang and Arroyo were moved, Francisco Cordero, who has a no-trade clause through the end of the year, would be the team’s only player making more than $7 million. They’ll have a ton of flexibility, leaving them with little need to settle for more Hairstons, Taverases and Lincolns when they go shopping this winter. The future still looks pretty bright.