The Reds entered the off-season with two possible paths forward:
1. Trade Joey Votto for a bushel of young players and accept a consolidation while breaking in the foundation of their next core group of everyday players.
2. Trade some of those young players for roster upgrades in an effort to win while they have Votto under contract.
They choose the second path, shipping Yonder Alonso and friends to San Diego for Mat Latos, sending Travis Wood to Chicago for Sean Marshall, and then using most of their remaining budget allowance to sign Ryan Madson to a one-year deal to take over as the team’s closer. While Latos offers both present and future value, the other moves only upgrade Cincinnati’s roster for 2012, and next winter, they’ll have a tough time retaining Madson, Marshall, and Brandon Phillips while also paying Votto the significant raise that his contract calls for.
So, the Reds are something close to being all-in on this season. If they win, they might create enough extra revenue to give Votto a long-term mega-contract and keep their franchise player. If they don’t win, however, then they’re going to have a hard time selling Votto on re-signing, and they’ll have to explore moving him before he can leave via free agency. That’s not a good scenario, and so the Reds should be highly motivated to maximize their positive outcomes in 2012.
They’ve done well so far, but while the roster is almost done, they still have a pretty glaring need in the outfield. Their 40-man roster currently only contains four outfielders, and one of those is Denis Phipps, a 26-year-old who spent most of last season at Double-A. Not only do they lack depth behind projected starters Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and Chris Heisey, there’s a good case to be made that they should be looking to get better production in left field than what Heisey could give them.
Heisey has some positive attributes – most notably his power and athleticism, which translates into solid defense in left field – but he’s also got some notable flaws. The most obvious thing holding him back is his contact rate (72.3% for his career), which is among the worst in baseball. The only players who got 500+ plate appearances in the Majors and made contact less often than that last year were Mark Reynolds, Miguel Olivo, Mike Stanton, Ryan Howard, Carlos Pena, Kelly Johnson, and Corey Hart. Now, that seems like a pretty decent list of comparable players, but they all (besides Olivo, who is a catcher) do something Heisey doesn’t do – draw walks.
Heisey has drawn just 31 unintentional walks in 534 big league plate appearances, and he didn’t walk much in the minors either. Heisey’s a swinger who is not overly interested in the free pass, and when you combine that with an inability to put the bat on the ball, you can have some problems at the plate. Heisey’s career .316 OBP shows how this approach can be a real liability, but there might be reasons to believe that he would struggle to post something even that high in a regular role.
Part of Heisey’s ability to hit for power is that his swing is geared to just hit a monstrous amount of fly balls. In fact, only 33.1% of his career balls in play have been hit on the ground, putting him squarely among the most extreme fly-ball hitters in all of baseball. The trade-off for gaining power by upper-cutting everything is that fly balls that don’t go over the wall are usually caught by an outfielder, and so extreme fly-ball hitters usually post a lower than normal batting average on balls in play.
To show the magnitude of this effect, I pulled in the BABIP totals for all qualified batters since 2002, giving us a sample of 552 batters. As a group, these guys posted a .302 BABIP, six points above the league average of .296 over that time frame. However, if we just isolate the lowest decile of players in GB%, we see that these guys posted just a .289 BABIP, thanks in large part to their 33.2% GB%. They traded homers for singles, which isn’t a bad trade-off, but it is a cost associated with that strategy.
Heisey’s career BABIP of .295 might look perfectly normal, but based on his approach at the plate, we should expect him to post a below average BABIP – perhaps something closer to .280 or so. If his BABIP falls, his OBP will sink down to levels that offset a good deal of the value that his glove and power bring to the table. Heisey projects as a really nice fourth outfielder, but with the Reds in full-on win-now mode, they should look to get more than what he’ll offer in left field.
So, what are the options? Heisey’s presence as a right-handed hitter with power (ignore his reverse platoon splits – they’re meaningless in this kind of sample) create a natural opportunity for a platoon in left field, giving the Reds the chance to acquire a guy who can hit RHPs but could use regular days off when a southpaw is on the hill. And, because they are running low on cash after signing Madson, they could use a player who doesn’t come with a big salary.
Lucky for them, that exact player is on the market – the Colorado Rockies have been shopping Seth Smith all winter, and after their signing of Michael Cuddyer, he’s lost his chance to play regularly in Denver. His projected salary of around $2 million via arbitration fits into the Reds’ budget, and Smith could thrive as a platoon player in Cincinnati.
Last year, Smith posted a sad wRC+ of 46 against left-handed pitching, making him about as effective at the plate as Tony Gwynn Jr. Against right-handers, however, Smith’s wRC+ of 130 put him in the same company as guys like Josh Hamilton. It wasn’t a one-year fluke, either – he’s run a 125/47 wRC+ split over his career. He can hit right-handed pitching, but he’s pretty terrible against southpaws.
By platooning Smith and Heisey, the team could maximize the value they get from their new outfield while still allowing Heisey to remain a decent contributor in a limited role. Heisey would also then be freed up to give Stubbs occasional days off in center field, and the Reds would acquire needed depth in the process.
It might cost them a guy like Todd Frazier, but the Reds have committed to trying to win in 2012, and Smith would push them forward in a pretty significant way. They’ve already sacrificed a good deal of future value in an effort to win in 2012, and they shouldn’t undermine those efforts by stopping just short of putting a frontline roster on the field.
Smith needs a new home. The Reds need a left fielder. Strike a deal, boys.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.