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Richard Justice

Market never an obstacle for adept Jocketty

Justice: Market never an obstacle for adept Jocketty

Market never an obstacle for adept Jocketty
And so Reds general manager Walt Jocketty has done it again. Filled a need. Smartly. Efficiently. Finished his offseason checklist. Once more has a team that appears to be as good as almost any.

"This is how we have to do it," he said.

How's that, Walter?

"We don't have the resources to compete for a lot of free agents," he said, "so trades become our free agency."

Actually, that quote is almost a year old. Jocketty said it after trading seven players, including some first-rate prospects, to the Cubs and Padres to get starter Mat Latos and reliever Sean Marshall.

And in 2012, the Reds won the second-most regular-season games in all of baseball (97) with the 17th-highest payroll ($82 million).

Actually, player development is Jocketty's free agency. As long as the Reds draft smartly and continue to produce young players that other teams want, they'll do just fine competing with the big-spending teams.

The Reds, Indians and D-backs made a fascinating nine-player trade Tuesday evening. Every team gave up something of value, but every team ended up with something of value.

Arizona got its shortstop, 22-year-old Didi Gregorius, one of the crown jewels of the Cincinnati system. The Indians got a potential No. 1 starter from the D-backs in 21-year-old Trevor Bauer.

And the Reds got their leadoff hitter from the Indians: Shin-Soo Choo.

As Jocketty accomplished his offseason goals -- signing free-agent reliever Jonathan Broxton, thus allowing Aroldis Chapman to move to the rotation; and re-signing outfielder Ryan Ludwick -- he knew the toughest part of the job remained.

"We still need a leadoff hitter," Jocketty said last week, "and those aren't easy to find."

Boy, did he ever need a leadoff hitter.

Cincinnati leadoff hitters had a .254 on-base percentage in 2012, lowest among 30 Major League clubs.

With all that offensive firepower in the lineup, Jocketty believed he could elevate a mediocre offense -- 669 runs, ninth most in the National League -- into a really good one.

Jocketty talked about perhaps giving his top prospect, Billy Hamilton -- who stole 155 bases in the Minors in 2012 -- a shot at the job in Spring Training. In his heart, he didn't believe Hamilton was ready after playing just 50 games above Class A. From the beginning, it was Choo he had his eye on.

Choo has a career .381 on-base percentage, including .419 when leading off an inning. He has played mostly right field, but Jocketty believes he has the athleticism to replace Drew Stubbs, who went to the Indians, in center.

Choo will not block Hamilton, either. He's 29 years old and headed for free agency after the 2013 season. His agent, Scott Boras, will almost certainly take him to the open market to maximize his value.

That's fine with Jocketty, who hopes that Hamilton, the most exciting prospect the Reds have had in years, will be ready for Opening Day 2014.

Choo made $4.9 million in 2012 and is headed for a large raise via arbitration. But the Indians threw $3.5 million into the trade to help Jocketty cover the costs.

That $3.5 million speaks volumes about how much the Indians wanted Bauer and the other pieces they obtained in the deal. The Indians knew they would not have Choo after the 2013 season, so general manager Chris Antonetti flipped him for Bauer, who has less than a year of Major League experience.

As for Jocketty and the Reds, the heavy lifting is done 112 days before Opening Day. The Reds are attempting to win the NL Central for the third time in four years, which is a nice little run of success.

When Jocketty arrived in Cincinnati five years ago, the Reds had missed the postseason for a dozen consecutive seasons. He built the franchise one brick at a time, just as he did in St. Louis.

Now he has fully restored the Reds. He has done it the old-fashioned way, with scouting and player development and with smart trades. Baseball is better when an iconic franchise like the Reds wins, and thanks to Jocketty, that has again become the norm.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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