I was recently doing some research for an ESPN article using our depth charts, and a few observations came to mind:
1) No one has any idea what to make of Alexander Guerrero;
2) The Astros are actually getting some respect, and the Marlins aren’t; and
3) Wow, would you look at the non-Jay Bruce members of the Cincinnati outfield?
It’s that last part that interests me, because a year ago, the Reds had Ryan Ludwick coming off a very good year in left, Shin-Soo Choo arriving to add some offense in center, and the reliable Bruce in right. If there was a concern, it was how Choo would manage defensively in center, and while he was predictably poor out there, his offense was outstanding enough to make up for it. Despite the fact that Ludwick was injured on Opening Day and lousy when he returned, the Cincinnati outfield as a group was #5 overall in wRC+ and tied for #6 in WAR.
Now? Now, we have the Reds left field situation as being the worst in the bigs. We have the Reds center field collection as being the worst in the bigs. And despite the fact that Bruce is still regarded as a top-ten right fielder, that makes for a pretty terrifying outfield for a team that has won at least 90 games and made the playoffs in three of the last four years, and expects to do so again in 2014.
Some obvious caveats before we continue, of course. When I say “the worst,” it’s mostly for effect, because no one should be putting a lot of stock into the fact that the 1.2 WAR projected out of Cincinnati center fielders is worse than the 1.3 for Seattle or 1.4 for Miami. WAR is not so refined that tenths of a point carry a lot of weight — especially when we’re talking about projections, not events that actually happened — and no one should expect that it is. Even if it did, these projections are based on our depth chart experts, and while we have Billy Hamilton getting nearly 500 plate appearances in center, it’s hardly a guarantee that it actually happens.
But with that all out of the way, those projections pass the sniff test. So far this offseason, the Reds have swapped out former Dodger backup Xavier Paul for former Dodger backup Skip Schumaker, which doesn’t move the needle much, and they’ve gone from Choo to (presumably) Hamilton, which is arguably the biggest drop-off at a single position for any contender in baseball. (Due credit given to the downgrade from Robinson Cano to Brian Roberts and everyone else in New York, of course.) Depending on how optimistic you are or aren’t about Hamilton, that’s potentially a three-to-five win gap right there, enough to knock the Reds right out of October.
It’s exciting to think about Hamilton playing every day and for good reason, if only because that speed is unlike anything we’ve seen in years. If his legend hadn’t already preceded him when he arrived last September, it quickly became clear when he stole his first base off none other than Yadier Molina when everyone in the park knew it was coming. It also makes him somewhat difficult to project, just because there haven’t been many comparable players. The closest in recent years is probably Dee Gordon, another speedster who ultimately couldn’t stick at shortstop, and he flopped badly in Los Angeles.
What’s not arguable about Hamilton is that he had a .308 OBP in Triple-A last year, which matters, and a .284 OBP in 75 winter league plate appearances, which matters less, but isn’t exactly encouraging. If you look at his player page, you’ll see that Steamer and Oliver have big differences of opinion on how well his defense will play, which is understandable since he’s played all of 118 professional games in the outfield. But what they don’t have any difference of opinion on is his offense:
Is that enough if he steals around 70 bases, as each system thinks he will? Maybe so, but it’s worth noting that only five regular big leaguers had a worse wRC+ last year, and four were middle infielders. (The fifth was Ichiro Suzuki, well past his prime.) But what does seem certain is that Hamilton will cost around 100 points of OBP or more from Choo, and while we don’t know what new manager Bryan Price will do with his lineup, the idea of Hamilton and Zack Cozart (.284 OBP, tied for fourth-worst in baseball) batting 1-2 does seem like an especially fantastic way to neuter the run production capabilities of Bruce, Joey Votto, and Brandon Phillips.
While Hamilton is an intriguing young player on the way up, left fielder Ludwick is a formerly interesting player on the way down. His first season with the Reds in 2012 was a success (.373 wOBA, 26 homers), but after separating his shoulder on Opening Day in 2013, he had just a .277 wOBA in 140 plate appearances. It’s fair to not want to put a lot of stock into that line, since he’d missed so much time and was coming off such a serious injury. Then again, he’s turning 36 this July, offers negative value on defense, has been replacement-level or worse in two of the last three years, and has been considerably better than average with the bat once in the last five years.
That’s an extremely difficult player to believe in, and while his $8.5m contract means he’ll be given a chance to play, it’s hard to argue with projections that put him as barely above replacement. There’s an argument to be made that Chris Heisey, who has been worth about a win in each of the last four seasons thanks to a bit of pop and decently regarded defense, is a better player right now, though he’s ideally more of a fourth outfielder.
Either way, the Reds as currently constituted are set up for 2014 with two enormous question marks in what was very recently one of the better outfields in the game. None of this is to say that the Reds have “failed” this winter to date, because it’s not even January yet, and no one expected them to have the financial muscle to match what Texas gave Choo. There’s still six weeks to go before spring training starts, and then six weeks from there until the season starts. Walt Jocketty and friends have time to make a move, and they almost certainly will, because they must.
Now, what that move is remains to be seen. They were reportedly interested in acquiring Brett Gardner from the Yankees, and while the Brandon Phillips-for-Gardner rumor never really made sense, Gardner’s name could come up again. Or they could be an interesting, if rarely discussed, landing spot for Andre Ethier, should the Dodgers eat a considerable amount of money. (Ethier’s 2013 display of not being completely awful in center would at least hedge somewhat against Hamilton, with most of his time coming in left otherwise.) Or check in on San Diego’s outfield surplus and try to shake free a Will Venable or Chris Denorfia from a crowded depth chart, or perhaps the same with Oakland and Coco Crisp, or to snag a Gerardo Parra out of Arizona, or think smaller and look into a Justin Maxwell type.
No matter what, Jocketty needs to find some creativity. As it currently stands, the Reds outfield has fallen from a plus group to a potential anchor in the span of a year, causing a big enough gap that it might single-handedly keep the Reds out of the playoffs in what’s suddenly a very dangerous NL Central.