Five questions: Cincinnati Reds

The Reds in 2009 corrected a longstanding problem of being a poor to downright awful fielding team by becoming one of the 2-3 best fielding teams in the majors. Unfortunately, that explosion in fielding talent was accompanied by an implosion in hitting talent. As a result, the Reds had their ninth consecutive losing season. Can they avoid a 10th? It probably all comes down to a few key players.

Jay Bruce: Barry Bonds, or Wily Mo Pena?

According to Baseball Reference, Jay Bruce’s most similar batters through age 22 are Barry Bonds and Wily Mo Pena, both with a score of 965. In the case of Bonds, even before the PEDs, we have one of the greatest players ever to play the game. With Pena, we have a player who showed excellent power, but never solved his problems with contact and low walk rates. Which will Bruce be?

Last year, he looked more like Wily Mo. He slugged 22 homers in 387 plate appearances, but hit just .223/.303/.470. Many will point to his low BABIP last year (.221) and say it was all due to bad luck. I’m not so sure. The biggest concern I have is that his line drive rate was also miserably low last year (13 percent, down from 21 percent in 2009). While line drives may be a subjective measure, they are also a stable statistic for hitters. My worry is that it’s part of a failure to wait for good pitches; only 46 percent of Bruce’s pitches were in the strike zone last year, down from 48 percent the year before (the major league average is 51 percent).

On the other hand, there are lots of positive signs that make me want to drink the Jay Bruce Kool-Aid. Bruce’s O-Swing percentage improved by four points last year, indicating that his ability to lay off pitches out of the zone has improved. His strikeout rate was down, and his walk rate was up. His ISO was up 50 points to .246. His fielding seemed improved, receiving strong marks from both the Fans and objective measures like UZR. And, while his monstrous production upon his return from injury in September (.326/.426/.652 in 54 PAs) is probably irrelevant due to the sample size, he talked a lot upon returning about using the time to clear his head after a truly miserable June and July in which he wOBA’d less than .300.

Bruce, a former No. 1 overall prospect, has all the talent in the world. But if the Reds are going to contend, they’re going to have to score runs far more often than they did last year. While the supporting cast is important, there is no bigger key to the Reds’ 2010 chances than the not-yet-23-year-old Jay Bruce.

Here’s what the projections say:
Oliver: .257/.315/.469
CHONE: .286/.351/.539—wow, massive difference!
ZiPS: .251/.315/.459

CHONE is the current “heavyweight” among projection systems. But when it departs so severely from Oliver and ZiPS … well … I’ll just say that I hope it’s right.

Can Drew Stubbs hit major league pitching?

Last year, the Reds gave 95 starts in center field, 81 batting leadoff, to Willy Taveras. He responded by hitting the brilliantly innocuous line of .240/.275/.285, and posting an “MLB leading” mark of -25 wRAA. This year’s apparent starter, former No. 1 draft pick Drew Stubbs, is a brilliant fielder, and seems a good bet to top Taveras’ performance this year (in the good way). The question is by how much.

The story you’ll hear on Stubbs is that he has tremendous athletic tools, but that he has had to shorten his swing so much to cope with severe contact problems that his power is largely unusable in games. Perhaps for this reason, he has rarely shown consistent power in the minors (28 homers in 1,800-plus PAs, and five homers in 556 PAs at Triple-A). So I’m very skeptical of what he did in his last-season call-up, which was to put on a serious power display: eight home runs in just under 200 PAs.

So what should we expect from Stubbs? In the minors, his primary offensive contribution came from patience at the plate: he walked in at least 11 percent of his PAs each year in the minor leagues. While he strikes out enough that he may not be able to carry a high average, he may be able to walk enough to carry a decent OBP. And that would make him a nice asset, because manager Dusty Baker has to hit his center fielder in the leadoff slot in virtually every game.

Here are what the projections think of Stubbs:
Oliver: .225/.295/.326
CHONE: .251/.328/.380
ZiPS: .235/.305/.348

Yikes. Let’s hope he surprises.

Who is the real Homer Bailey?

Bailey has been a frustrating pitcher almost from the first day of his major league debut in 2007. He was largely ineffective, had lost significant velocity, and gained a reputation as an immature and/or difficult-to-coach young pitcher. Over the past offseason, Bailey made some adjustments on his mechanics, hoping to regain some velocity. The gains were almost immediate on that front: After averaging 91-92 the past two seasons, Bailey was throwing 93 in his first May game after getting called up, and from June onward was averaging 94-95. It took more time for the improved velocity to take the form of success on the field, however. Here are his monthly FIP numbers from last season:

May: 8.87 (one start)
June: 6.50
July: 5.36
August: 4.44
September/October: 3.07

Heck of a finish to a season that did not begin well! Over his last nine starts, Bailey posted a 1.70 ERA in 58.3 innings with a 53/24 K/BB ratio and just two home runs allowed—a 3.06 FIP. Yes, it’s a small sample size. And yes, the velocity was there in June and July as well, without the results. But the more I’ve stared at it, the more I’m inclined to believe that his end of season performance foretells good things to come. Is Bailey likely to contend for the Cy Young this year? No. But the Fans think he could post a 3.95 ERA in 174 IP this season. For once, I think they might not be overly optimistic.

Is Aroldis Chapman the next Randy Johnson?

No. For one thing, Johnson’s slider was probably better than his fastball. Take that, straw man argument!

But will Chapman help the Reds this season? If you believe the hype after his first spring training appearance, you’d expect that he was going to debut in the No. 5 slot in the rotation to begin the year. I’m pretty skeptical of that. The left hander has been brilliant thus far in spring training, allowing just one run (a solo homer to Rickie Weeks) through Wednesday’s game in seven innings with 10 strikeouts and two walks. But as the initial mania about him at the break of camp subsides, more and more Reds brass are speaking up and urging caution. My read on things is that Chapman is almost certainly going to start the season in the minors—perhaps Double-A—and will at least be given the opportunity to struggle there. If he continues to dominate, however, we may see Chapman midseason. Expect the Reds to be cautious with him … as long as owner Bob Castellini doesn’t get impatient.

As for the No. 5 slot in the rotation … it’s an open competition, but here are the contenders in descending order of how likely I think they are to land the job: Matt Maloney, Micah Owings, Justin Lehr, Kip Wells, Travis Wood, Mike Leake, Mike Lincoln. And the last three probably aren’t real contenders.

What’s going on in left field?

The biggest remaining question on the team is what to do with left field. The re-signing of Jonny Gomes partially answered this question, as he seems likely to secure the right-handed-hittting half of the platoon job, at least to start the season. But there’s a huge cast of characters that also would like to be in the picture:

From the right side, Wladimir Balentien, Todd Frazier, Chris Heisey
On the left, Chris Dickerson, Juan Francisco, Josh Anderson, Laynce Nix

Balentien was acquired last year in a small trade and is out of options, so he seems likely to make the team as a reserve power bat off the bench who can play all of the outfield positions (though you can question how well he can handle center). When factoring in offense and defense, I’d rather have Balentien than Gomes. But given that Balentien seems likely to make the team, top prospects Frazier and Heisey seem to be facing a numbers game problem to finding a spot on the roster … although Frazier’s versatility could land him a spot filling in for an injury someone in the infield as the season progresses.

From the left side of the plate, Dickerson almost certainly has the team made, and is the favorite to win the left-handed side of the platoon (and possibly could also steal some starts from Stubbs in center). Dickerson has hit well this spring. But the Reds also seem to like the incomparably free-swinging Juan “El Niño Destructor” Francisco. He has the most extreme combination of low minor league walk rate (4 percent) and high strikeout rate (23 percent) I’ve seen among players who eventually had any level of success in the majors. But the guy has tremendous power.

And then there are the veterans: Anderson and Nix. Anderson seems to me to be a Willy Taveras clone—-good speed, less fielding that you’d expect, and a fairly anemic bat. Nix, on the other hand, was ostensibly the starting left fielder last season. Of all the outfielders, however, these two (Anderson and Nix) have the fewest spring training PAs, leading me to suspect that these guys are competing more for reserve spots than starting jobs.

So, back to the main question: Will this team break the streak of losing seasons? The math says no. But there’s a lot of good, young talent here. They could surprise.

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Comments

  1. jinaz said...

    And….my article is already out of date:
    * Josh Anderson was sent to AAA yesterday. 
    * Per Dusty Baker on Wednesday, Mike Lincoln is officially out of the running for the #5 rotation slot (though I don’t think he was ever really seriously in the running). 
    * Cinci beat writer John Fay gave 70/30 odds that Chapman would start the season in the Reds rotation.  My guess is still that Chapman goes to AA, but I’m less certain about that now than I was earlier this week when I wrote this thing up! smile
    -j

  2. Jeff Knapke said...

    I agree with the conclusions.  There seems to me to be too much optimism surrounding this team.  If these young players can put together full seasons of promise I’ll drink the Kool-Aid, too.  As far as this season, I see a team out of it by the All-Star break where the 3 large contract pitchers hit the market for real.  I hope they get more than they got for Dunn, though.  They should take the draft picks if they can’t get anything better.  Not that I expect good decisions from this franchise.  I expect 75 wins.

  3. jinaz said...

    I should probably have written about Harang & Arroyo too.  I was listening to ESPN’s fantasy focus talking about him this morning, and I had forgotten how many people are down on Harang (two consecutive 6-win seasons, etc).  His peripherals aren’t what they were a few years ago, but he still has a great k/bb ratio and he received the worst run support in the majors last year of any starter.  Apparently Chapman’s going over him in fantasy drafts right now, and I think that’s lunacy.  Harang should make a nice chip at the all-star break for a playoff team. 

    Arroyo, on the other hand, is probably overrated, and probably was lucky last year to post the ERA that he did.  I worry that he’ll regress significantly.

    Cordero still has a few years left on his contract, and I doubt anyone would take him.  He’s still good, but he’s overpaid, and his strikeout rates have been dropping the last several seasons.
    -j

  4. RMR said...

    Great stuff, as always, Justin.  It’s amazing (or maybe not) how out of touch almost every other site is regarding the Reds issues this spring.  You’ve got them nailed.  Nice job.

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