Thursday, October 26, 2006

Looking Ahead: Cincinnati Reds

2006 W-L Record: 80-82
2006 pW-pL Record: 76-86
Runs Scored: 749 (9th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 801 (10th in NL)
Free Agents: Royce Clayton, Eddie Guardado, Chris Hammond, Scott Hatteberg, Kent Mercker, Scott Schoeneweis, Javier Valentin, David Weathers, Paul Wilson
Pending Options: Rich Aurilia

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Rich Aurilia*
2B -- Ryan Freel
SS -- Brandon Phillips?
3B -- Edwin Encarnacion
LF -- Adam Dunn
CF -- Ken Griffey, Jr.
RF -- Chris Denorfia
C -- Jason LaRue

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Bronson Arroyo
Aaron Harang
Eric Milton
Kyle Lohse?
Elizardo Ramirez/Brandon Claussen/Matt Belisle/???

2007 Proj. Closer: Todd Coffey?

The Good News:
Well, there's not a whole lot for this section, but it's worth pointing out that in 2005, the Reds finished last in the NL in runs allowed with 889, and were next-to-last in 2004 with 907. It may be a relative compliment, but the Reds' pitching is getting better.
The #1 reason for this was the acquisition of Bronson Arroyo. Unless Wily Mo Pena becomes a superstar (which I doubt), this was a good trade for Cincinnati. Arroyo was a quality guy in Boston and should continue to be one in Cincinnati. Getting above-average innings and some strikeouts from anybody is reason for celebration in the Queen City. Don't expect a Cy Young-caliber performance every year, though. Arroyo's 2006 ERA of 3.29 was almost a full run better than his career mark (4.21). He'll probably be better than that, having moved to a bad division in the lesser of the two leagues, but I don't anticipate another season below 3.50.
More promising than Arroyo even was the continued development of Aaron Harang. When the Reds sold off their roster -- including their entire bullpen -- back in 2003, they got pretty much nothing in return; reason enough to fire Jim Bowden the following year. The one worthwhile guy they did get was this man: Aaron Harang. He didn't look like a superstar, but the Reds took him anyway in a deal with Oakland for Jose Guillen.
Harang started out by developing into a decent pitcher, thus isolating himself from the rest of the staff. Since then, he's actually started to become dominant. Would you believe that Harang led the entire league in strikeouts last season, with 216? It is the NL, yes, but he was up against the likes of Oswalt, Carpenter, and Zambrano. He's not as good as those guys, but simply putting himself in the same sentence is great news for the Reds. They've actually got a 1-2 punch of Harang-Arroyo that is -- as of right now -- the best in the NL Central. What a turnaround that is.
There's no good news behind Arroyo and Harang, although there is a prospect that's turning a lot of heads in the minors. Not only will Homer Bailey be only 21 years old next year, but he's already dominated at the Double-A level. Bailey split 2006 between high A-ball and Double-A and impressed at both stops, striking out 154 batters in 138.2 IP (combined). There was some talk of bringing Bailey up mid-season to help the Reds' sagging postseason chances, but the front office wisely decided that they would most likely be shooting themselves in the foot there. I would even venture to say that Bailey should start 2007 at Double-A; he only threw 68 innings there, and while they were good innings, they were the only innings he's ever thrown above A-ball. But no fan cares about patience or the specter of future injury when a guy posts a 1.59 ERA at Double-A; fans are no better than spoiled kids when that happens. "We want him!" "You can get him next year." "But we want him nooooowww! WAAAAAAH!"
Still, if Bailey impresses in Spring Training, he will likely find a spot in the Reds' starting rotation. There certainly isn't anyone better, and he may indeed be ready for the majors. Let's just hope that the scouts and executives exercise more caution and maturity than the fans. Because as good as this guy could be, you don't want to be the one that screws him up.
The back end of the Reds' rotation is sloppy as ever, as I said, but they've actually managed to solidify the bullpen somewhat. David Weathers may not have been the best bang for your buck a bad team like Cincinnati needed, but he's been durable and versatile, filling in as closer in parts of his two seasons in Cincinnati, posting ERAs of 3.94 and 3.54. The Reds probably didn't imagine in the pre-season 2005 that among their recent acquisitions Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz, Kent Mercker, and David Weathers, that Weathers would be the most valuable. Too bad for the Reds the 38-year-old is a free agent.
Of the guys they've still got, their best bet is likely Todd Coffey. The Reds are fond of drafting high school pitchers. That's okay if you know what you're doing. But most of their guys either get injured or don't pan out. The Reds simply have to realize that when you draft an 18-year-old, it's going to take him a little longer than usual. He also has three more years of potential injuries ahead of him, unlike a college draftee. Coffey went through the injuries but, unlike his Cincinnati draft compatriots, survived to make the majors and contribute. The 26-year-old wasn't dominant, but he did manage a 3.58 ERA in 78 innings, with a 27:60 BB:K ratio. He's a valuable bullpen arm who may be turned into a closer out of necessity.
The only other real bright spots in the Cincinnati bullpen are two arms obtained from Washington: Gary Majewski and Bill Bray. Bray is a prospect who should turn in to a solid contributor, whereas Majewski already is a solid contributor, although he was hampered by injuries in 2006. Too bad the Reds had to gut their lineup to get him.
Speaking of the lineup, the Reds are fading fast, but they do have some bright spots. The biggest is easily Adam Dunn, who hit 234/365/490 with 40 HR and 194 strikeouts (1 less than the all-time record he set in 2004). Dunn is the answer to the question "Is it possible to be a good hitter if your batting average is .234?" The answer is yes, but very rarely. You have to draw your walks and hit your homers, and Dunn does both very well. He's a better version of Ron Kittle, although the defense is unfortunately similar. Kittle is, in fact, Dunn's #1 comp. A list of Dunn's top-10 comparables is a Who's Who of 1-year wonders, with the likes of Jim Gentile, Henry Rodriguez, Nate Colbert, John Jaha, and Nick Esasky. That may not bode well for his long-term career, but rest assured that he's going to be slugging for a while yet. Just don't be the one stuck with him when he turns 35.
Other than Dunn, the top contributor is third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. Edwin's defense needs some work, but there's really no reason for the Reds to play anybody else at third base -- not that they have anybody else. Encarnacion started hitting to his potential last year, finishing at 276/359/473. He's erratic, certainly, and no one would mistake him for David Wright. But he's just going to be 24 next year and is a bright spot in the Cincinnati order.
Unfortunately, most of the other bright spots in the order come with several "buts" attached. Thus, we will continue . . .

The Bad News:
Perhaps the biggest problem with the trade that lost Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez is that the Reds don't have near the depth it would take to replace them. They don't have another shortstop, and they already traded away their backup right fielder to get Arroyo. So the Reds, who looked to be forming a long-term powerhouse lineup, are now a team with a couple of good guys, a couple old guys, and some failed youngsters. I wish I had faith in GM Wayne Krivsky's ability to tell them apart.
I already mentioned that the Reds had assets in Dunn and Encarnacion. They do have other hopeful players, but they come with a few caveats:
  • Ryan Freel is a good leadoff man who can get on base and then steal them. He's also very versatile on defense. BUT it's unclear if he can keep up the .370+ OBP necessary to compensate for someone with no power and a .270 average. His ability to play hard and with great heart is what makes Cincinnati fans love him nearly as much as managers and GMs love him. But his propensity for running into walls when not absolutely necessary is simply not a good long-term career choice.
  • Ken Griffey, Jr. still has some power BUT that's absolutely it. The man hit .250 last year, and drew 39 walks, his fewest ever for a full season. His defense is becoming abysmal, and he needs to be moved from center field to a position where he's less harmful and less likely to be harmed. But no one in Cincinnati seems to have noticed Griffey's declining defense, whereas everybody and their mother jumped on Bernie Williams the second he slowed down. Part of this is due to injuries, sure, but hey -- do you think he's ever going to stop getting injured? Or that he's going to become more resilient at age 38?
  • Chris Denorfia has a nice set of skills that worked well for him in the minors and has finally got him a semi-regular job in the big leagues BUT he might be stretched in everyday work as a corner outfielder. The best plan would be to move Denorfia to center field, where his offense would be more valuable and his defense an upgrade over Griffey. They could move Griffey to left, Dunn to first, and let Rich Aurilia go wherever it is that players like Rich Aurilia go (I would say Cincinnati, but then he's already here). But that would leave the Reds with a hole in right field. They tried Ryan Freel in the role, but he's much better cast as a second baseman. His offense is a plus there, whereas it's a zero in right. It also keeps him a good distance away from any walls.
    So where can the Reds find a good right fielder? Well, that Kearns fellow in Washington sure looks like he can handle the position . . .
  • Brandon Phillips had a real breakout year at second base for Cincinnati this year and has the former prospect status to back it up BUT it's still doubtful that he's for real. He got off to a hot start, yes, but a 149/204/253 September sent him crashing back to earth (or, more likely, reality). Phillips finished with a batting line of 276/324/427 which is to say that he's a below-average hitter who's lucky to be in Cincinnati (he hit a dreadful 250/293/408 on the road this year). I've heard rumbling that the Reds are planning to move Phillips to shortstop, which is puzzling to me. The Cincinnati Post news article quoted Reds manager Jerry Narron as saying that Phillips was a gold glove-quality second baseman. Apparently, there is some evil twin of Brandon Phillips who shows up and plays good defense for Jerry Narron. Because he sure can't be watching the same guy that I (and the stats -- a dreadful -15 FRAA) are watching. He's not too bad at second, but I truly think he'd be awful at shortstop.
    Are the Reds secretly run by the Barnum & Bailey Circus? Or are they slowly transforming themselves into a sort of baseball version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

That's the Cincinnati lineup, folks, a group who ranked below-average in the NL in run scoring before you take their ballpark into account. Is there any help in the farm system? Well, the only real bright spot is a first baseman named Joey Votto. The first problem is that Votto is a first baseman/DH who's probably a better fit for the latter. The Reds already have a couple of guys like that roaming the outfield in Dunn and Griffey, and it may be truly ugly if they try to add a third. The other problem is that scouts worry that Votto's long swing won't translate well to the majors. That may be true. But it's also true that, at age 22, Votto clobbered Double-A to the tune of 319/408/547 this season. Double-A Chattanooga is a hitter's park, but Votto's offensive skills look sharp across the board. He's got a few "buts" himself, but he may be the best hope for the immediate future. And he might be better (and definitely cheaper) than Rich Aurilia.

As far as the pitching staff goes, I touched on a lot of their shortcomings in the first part of my entry. But there isn't a lot that's awful to say; yes, the back end of their rotation is a mess and their bullpen is very much a work in progress. But it's also true that they're significantly better than they have been in years, and it doesn't appear to be a passing phase. If they hadn't squandered most of their offense, they might have made the postseason. Might have.

Offseason Game Plan:
First take a long, hard look at that 76-86 Pythagorean W-L record. That's how good this club really is. While the NL Central does suck and this club could contend, you can't afford to piss away the future on any more bone-headed trades. The Reds are good enough to play .500 ball if everything goes right, which means that they do have an outside shot at contending in the NL Central.
But be realistic. No matter how much pressure you may be under, don't go out and commit another Eric Milton-esque blunder because you think your team's a lot better than it actually is.
Move Ken Griffey to left, Adam Dunn to first, and Chris Denorfia to center. I'd recommend keeping Brandon Phillips at second base. This means that you need a shortstop and a right fielder . . . wait a minute -- didn't we just have a shortstop and a right fielder? Call Jim Bowden in Washington and see if he'll nullify the Kearns/Lopez deal on account of "diminished capacity."
Seriously, as much as I may have legitimate hope for the Reds, I don't think that Wayne Krivsky is the man to realize their potential. It's rough and probably unfair to judge anyone by their first year on the job, but then few people have made such a mess of things as Krivsky. If he had done absolutely nothing, it would have been better than doing the deal with Washington and trading for every relief pitcher in the Western Hemisphere not in prison. Krivsky is from the "pitching and defense" school in Minnesota and has evidently decided that scoring runs is bad, and we that should get rid of those people.
I only speak partly in jest. Recently, Krivsky was asked to comment on the 2006 season and the progress made by the Reds, and while he gave your boilerplate GM speech about fundamentals, etc., he did specifically state how much he hated strikeouts, and how he wanted to reduce his offense's strikeouts.
He might as well have cut off a horse's head and put it in Adam Dunn's bed. Because Adam is Mr. Strikeout.
While this may be material for a column in and of itself, I'll be brief by saying that everybody gets far, far too bent out of shape about strikeouts. All sorts of research into events and outcomes has shown that strikeouts aren't that much more harmful than regular outs. So if you've got a great hitter who also happens to strike out a lot -- Mr. Dunn -- you just live with it.
I'm very, very afraid that Krivsky is going to screw up the centerpiece of his offense under the delusion that he's actually making his team better. Adam Dunn is no Albert Pujols -- he's not even a Jason Bay -- but he's a good hitter that shouldn't be taken for granted. I don't have any direct evidence, but I just know that Krivsky is going to remake this team into a "pitching-and-defense" squad and pay a gajillion dollars to guys like Juan Pierre and Dave Roberts. He's going to take a team with one strength -- offense -- and systematically get rid of it.
Many people are perfectly aware of the fact that it's no longer 1913. Krivsky -- along with an ever-shrinking but still-vocal horde of baseball beat reporters and TV analysts -- think that all it takes to win is hiring a few slap hitters, pitching to contact, and getting good team chemistry. I'm sorry, folks, but the John McGraw era ended almost a century ago. Baseball is a different game, but I guess there's no convincing them of that. There's really no point in trying to present evidence to someone who is quite clearly not in full command of his senses.
If the Reds can only split 50/50 the bone-headed mistakes with the smart moves, it will be an accomplishment. Because Cincinnati doesn't need another entrant in its revolving door of general managers.

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