The Reds outfield has probably snuck up you.

Those Sneaky Reds –  Talent From Corner To Corner
by Jim Silva
    The Reds are an old franchise – one of the five oldest continuous franchises in baseball – and unlike the A’s, Braves, Giants and Dodgers, they’ve stayed in their original city the whole time. The Cubs and Braves are older, but the Reds have been around long enough to see every World Series and all the rule changes in the history of baseball. So it must be painful to watch a franchise like that struggle and then enter a rebuilding phase like the current Reds are in. Hey, everyone goes through the ups and downs of building, competing, and rebuilding – yes – but the Reds franchise that has been around for 127 years has won the World Series only five times in their long history and the last time was in 1990. The Cincinnati club has never finished first more than two seasons in a row, including their Big Red Machine teams of the ‘70s. That team finished first six times in a 10 season span and won back to back World Series in 1975 and ‘76. So the peak of the Reds’ franchise history was in the ‘70s and they’ve been good a couple of times since then. But enough history for now – the primary questions are whether or not their current rebuild will result in sustained success, and if they are now close to the peak or still tearing down and building up. We will examine their outfield to see if at least there the Reds are close to a finished product.
    In Billy Hamilton (no, not THAT Billy Hamilton, the Reds have one of the fastest players in the game in the last decade. Hamilton has game-changing speed but runs afoul of the adage, “You can’t steal first base”, because he continues to sport a low on-base percentage hampering his development as a leadoff hitter. While Hamilton has nabbed 217 bases at an 86% clip in his first 1900 or so plate appearances, his career on-base percentage sits below .300. As a leadoff hitter what that means is Hamilton is making a boatload of outs. How fast is Hamilton? He is the fastest player in all of baseball as measured in the Statcast era. He has the fastest double and the fastest triple this season and while a couple center fielders are close, no other position players are in his league. It is difficult to compare him to players from other time periods because nobody tracked their times on the bases. Jim Thorpe was pretty fast – Olympic Gold Medals and junk – and so was Bo Jackson. There have been base-stealers in the past who were way ahead of the rest of the league – Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills – and it would be exciting to line them all up in their prime and have them race, but Hamilton is unusual in that he was already somewhat of a legend before he arrived in the majors after swiping more than 100 bases in a season twice including 155 in 2012.
In spite of his elite speed he is no better than a mediocre contributor on offense including this season where at the halfway point his oWAR is 0.0 – so exactly replacement level – and his career wRC+ is a disappointing and well below league average 70. Hamilton has almost no power, having totaled 15 home runs in the equivalent of three full seasons of plate appearances, so he has to make up for his lack of muscle by getting on base and stealing his way into scoring position. There is almost no reason for pitchers not to pound the strike zone against Hamilton, so they do. He gets about 4% more first pitch strikes than the rest of the league averages and sees slightly more strikes than the average hitter. Hamilton doesn’t draw nearly enough walks (career high of 36 in 2016) and strikes out way too often (career high of 117 in 2014 but on a pace to eclipse that this season).
    With all of that frustrating news about Hamilton’s offense why would the Reds continue to run him out to center field almost everyday? The main reason is actually his defense. Speed certainly can translate into defensive chops because no matter how good your reads are on balls hit to you, if you are slow you aren’t going to chase them down. Hamilton uses his track star-like speed to put up excellent range numbers while playing nearly error-free ball and throwing really well. He isn’t the best centerfielder in baseball but he is near the top season after season. That is why Billy Hamilton continues to notch 2.5-3.0 WAR seasons in spite of his disappointing offensive production. As long as he can do that he is definitely worth the starter’s role. As soon as his wheels slow a bit, and his range decreases to mortal proportions, then he will cease to be the answer, unless he can figure out how to get on base more often. It is already clear that the Reds should stop batting him first so that he can make fewer outs. Hamilton should be near the bottom of the order to keep his excellent defense in the game while limiting the damage that his weak bat does to the offense. And heck – he can still steal bases from the seven or eight hole.
    Standing off to Billy Hamilton’s right (from the batter’s perspective) is right-fielder, Scott Schebler. Schebler was a decent prospect with the Dodgers and finally made it to the majors to stay, not long after coming to the Reds in the three-way trade that sent “The Toddfather” to the White Sox. As a baby, Scott would probably belt home runs from his crib into the street, but his ability to get on base has always been just average in part because his game has a lot of swing and miss in it. His minor league slash line is .276/.342/.499, so while his power has drawn attention, his “just average” average and on-base percentage made him expendable to the Dodgers. Schebler slashed .311/.370/.564 in Louisville after the trade and the Reds called him up where he put up a wRC+ of 101 in roughly half a season. In roughly half a season to start 2017, Schebler has  a wRC+ of 120 – so roughly 20% better at creating runs than your average major leaguer. His defensive numbers have been a bit disappointing since he spent a decent amount of time in centerfield in the minors so you would expect a good translation to either corner outfield spot. To be fair, his range numbers have looked good this season as has his arm, but he has booted a few too many balls and that should even out based on his minor league numbers. I would expect defensive metrics to show him to be a slightly above average right fielder in the majors as soon as this season. Schebler looks to be a five or six hole hitter on a decent offensive team – one who can contribute average to good defense in a corner outfield spot – and that has value. While he probably won’t be a star, he certainly could be better than a 2.0 WAR player (already 1.6 this season) and that would make him a keeper on a rebuilding team even when the rebuild is done.
    Left field is the home of Adam Duvall. He didn’t become a starter in the majors until 2016 when he played as a 27 year old. That is a late start for most hitters, but Duvall is Schebler-like in that he hits a lot of home runs but doesn’t hit for a high average or get on base often enough to look like a star. In fact Duvall’s minor league slash line (.268/.338/.503) is almost identical to Schebler’s, making it seem like the Reds have identified an undervalued type of player that they can acquire on the cheap. Duvall hits a bunch of home runs, strikes out too much, and doesn’t quite walk enough but still managed a wRC+ of 104 in his first full season in the majors and 122 so far this season – sound like a familiar pattern? Duvall is most definitely a corner outfielder and actually has good defensive numbers showing good range and a strong arm. While he might not be the natural outfielder that Schebler is, he can play both corner outfield spots decently well and both corner infield spots. Due to small sample size constraints it’s hard to say exactly how good he is on the infield, but it is clear that he is a good left fielder – and a good left fielder who doesn’t create too many outs and is likely to hit 30 bombs a year – 33 last season and 19 in half a season so far. Who doesn’t want that? And if he can be a multi-tool able to shift positions to make the lineup work then he is even more valuable.
    Two of the Reds top 10 prospects, according to Keith Law, are outfielders – Jesse Winker (#2 for the Reds and #49 overall) and Taylor Trammell (#7 for the Reds). Both young outfielders are having excellent campaigns in 2017, Winker at triple-A and Trammell at full season A-ball). Winker is close, but Trammell has the much higher ceiling. Both men could potentially unseat the incumbents when they arrive, although Winker hasn’t demonstrated the power usually associated with a corner outfielder. Winker gets on base, hits for average and slugs in the .450s by hitting doubles and 10+ homers, but doesn’t steal bases because he isn’t the athlete that Trammell is. Taylor Trammell is fast and powerful, and at 19 is already holding his own in full season ball. He steals bases, drives extra-base hits and gets on base at a .360 clip so far in his young career. Both players look to be major league regulars with Trammell the more exciting of the two, while being much further away, and Winker, who is big league ready now, needing to increase his power numbers to have star potential. Both players differ from the incumbents in that they project to hit for average and walk enough to post good on-base numbers. Reds faithful should be excited to see what becomes of these two outfield youngsters.
    On the big league club, Hamilton is clearly the guy who has more star potential (although he is 26, so…) than the other two guys in the outfield, but based on his limited offensive ability and the sneaky goodness of Schebler and Duvall, he might be the worst bet of the three moving forward. The starters in the Reds outfield are all plus defenders and two of the three are already offensive pluses while falling short of star level. Hamilton has the raw talent to be a star for sure but if he can’t get on base then he might just top out as a really good fourth outfielder on a contending team. The youngsters on the way could give the Reds a really nice problem possibly pushing them to trade someone like Joey Votto for pitching and moving Duvall to first to make room. The Reds have a lot of offensive tools in place with more on the way. Their rebuild has worked in the outfield, and with more outfield help on the way it looks like the Reds are moving in the right direction.

The Reds infield is wisely built around Joey Votto. Are the other pieces of the infield worthy?

It’s Not Easy Being Red
by Jim Silva

    The descriptor “long suffering” has been attached to fans of many teams in varied sports. Cubs fans were certainly worthy of that epithet waiting almost 110 years between World Series victories. Cincinnati Reds fans certainly don’t deserve that label although it seems like they have been bad for a while. They last won a World Series in 1990, but before that their last appearance was in 1976 – 41 years ago. Two appearances in 41 years isn’t the worst, but it means you have to be pretty patient if you wear a hat with red “C” on it. They were arguably a dynasty in the ‘70s when they were the “Big Red Machine” and had Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Dave Concepcion, Joe Morgan, George Foster, and Tony Perez. The club made it to the World Series four times between 1970 and 1976 winning twice, so if you are a Reds fan my age (54), then you were trained to expect deep playoff runs almost every season. I know what that’s like because I am an A’s fan and they had similar success in the ‘70s. Simply put we are spoiled. Any run of more than say, five seasons without a trip to the playoffs at the very least, seems endless. I also grew up rooting for the Lakers and Raiders so you can see where my expectations came from. All three of my childhood teams won multiple championships during my formative years and were seemingly always in the mix. More recently though, all three teams have hit extended dry patches. The world has become a dark and disappointing place.
    What I’m getting at is that I understand why Reds fans would be a little on edge these days. Not only has their club missed the post-season for three seasons in a row, but they are still in the midst of a slow motion rebuild, so the playoffs seem like they might be at best a few seasons away – a virtual lifetime for those of us spoiled by success. But rebuilds are exciting in their own right, aren’t they? You know, watching athletic young players full of potential at the start of their careers – getting to see them bud into the core of your next dynasty. Cubs fans know what I’m talking about although there had to be some angst knowing that they might have been watching a rerun of many failed attempts at putting together a team that would finally redeem all that waiting. So is this a rebuild worthy of patient excitement or this just a tear down that ends with a weird house that you can’t sell because the kitchen has ugly formica countertops? Of the 10 players the Reds got in exchange for stars Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto, and Aroldis Chapman, none of the youngsters are in the Reds top 10 prospects list and only three players appear to be major league regulars in 2017 – Brandon Finnegan, Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler – with none of the trio likely to be more than average major leaguers at their peak. That could mean that the Reds botched the trades or alternately that they have drafted so well that their top 10 is stacked with prospects so good that the other guys couldn’t break through the logjam. Let’s look at the infield first since their one remaining star around which the rebuild is happening resides there.
    When you sign a guy to a 10 year contract that pays him $225 million through his age 40 season, you develop expectations. Hopefully your expectations are based on something real instead of just hopes and dreams, otherwise you are going to be even more disappointed than you could be. Note that in almost every case you WILL be disappointed as the player enters the decline phase of his career while you are still paying him to be a superstar. Everyone declines at some point, and nobody is happy paying for a superstar when what you get is a decent player, or a replacement level player (or worse). It’s hard to predict how a player will age. So many factors can contribute to decline including injuries, general fitness, genetics, and probably a bunch of other factors that are impossible to account for. When Joey Votto is your superstar – the guy with the aforementioned contract – then what you want and what you can reasonably expect might just vary. From the outside it seems like madness when I hear all the complaints about Votto from Reds fans. What I hear most often is that he is too passive – he should walk less and drive in more runs. He doesn’t hit enough home runs for someone paid so much. He can’t fly or time travel. I hear you Reds fans. Your dude is not Superman, but is there a team who wouldn’t want him? Nope. He might not be the best first baseman in the majors – certainly not with the glove – but he is the best hitting first baseman in baseball. There are some great hitting first basemen, but nobody produces runs like Votto. Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Adrian Gonzalez, and Freddie Freeman are the other guys at the top of the mountain of guys who play first base and Votto had a higher wRC+ (runs created per plate appearance that is league and park adjusted) last season than any of them. He also has a higher career wRC+ than those guys. How does Votto do it?
    Well, Votto has never won a home run title although he has hit 221 home runs in his career and smacked 310 doubles, so power is certainly part of his game (he led the league in slugging once in 2010 at .600) but not all of his game. He has also never won a batting title although his career average sits at .313 which is third for active players. But the reason Reds fans just don’t give Joey “Votto-matic” the love that he deserves is that the one stat he does lead the league in, and lead it often, is on-base percentage, the least sexy stat in baseball. He is the active leader in career OBP by almost 20 points – 20 POINTS! That is domination. Yes, it would be nice if he hit 50 home runs and drove in 140 every year, but Votto is a great hitter and a smart hitter on a team bereft of guys who get on base. So other than driving in ghosts and brownies, for Votto to drive in 100 runs he would have to lay for a better team – ouch. The Reds finished 12th out of 15 NL teams in on-base percentage and that’s with Votto finishing first in the National League at .434. So yeah – he would have to drive himself in which can only be done by hitting home runs – which he does. Could he score 120 runs? Yes, he could on a better team. Bat Votto third on the Red Sox and he scores a lot more runs. Bat him fourth and he drives in more than 100 runs and likely walks a lot less with more home runs because he would have someone batting behind him who would force the pitcher to throw him strikes. Finding someone to get on base in front of Votto and a couple guys to bat behind him so that pitchers can’t pitch around him as often as they do will make sure the Reds get better value out of the rest of Votto’s contract. Is there anyone in the infield who can be that guy?
    Jose Peraza made his Reds’ debut last season and opened some eyes. Peraza is only 22, but seems like he has been around for quite a while because he was playing professional ball as a 17 year old and has been traded twice already. When a youngster gets traded a lot before he even gets to the bigs you can take the glass half full or the glass half empty view – he is loved by many teams who trade for him or he wears out his welcome and gets traded away. Trying to remain glass-neutral, there are reasons to love Peraza and worry about Peraza at the same time. One of the main reasons to love him is his game-disrupting, pitcher-pants-wetting speed. In his first substantial exposure to the majors last season he stole 21 bases in 31 tries. 68% success is not going to be enough going forward, but Peraza is likely to improve as he learns pitcher pick-off moves. In the minors he has swiped 220 bags at an 80% success rate. Get him on base with Billy Hamilton, the Reds speedy centerfielder, and pitchers will probably just cry because someone’s base is going to get stolen and ain’t nobody’s momma gonna stop it!
Peraza can also hit, carrying a .299 career average in the minors. He has walked some, but not enough to be a top shelf leadoff guy. Ah, so that’s one reason to worry – if he doesn’t hit near .300 then his on-base percentage is unlikely to be good enough to be a starter. His minor league on-base percentage is .341 which is just a couple points under what he managed last year for the Reds big club. One concern is that his average rode on the back of an inflated BABIP (batting average on balls in play) which implies that he got lucky. It is hard to sustain a BABIP of .361 (Peraza’s mark last season), so he will likely have to add some walks to his game to maintain a sustainable on-base percentage. One number in his favor is the percentage of line drives that he hit. 27.5% of the balls off his bat last season were line drives where league average is usually around 20%. Line drives turn into hits a lot more often than any other type of ball, so that high BABIP might reflect his true ability. I won’t go too deeply into his defensive numbers yet because with such a small sample size where different metrics disagree on his ability, it is hard to say anything definitive about his ability. We can safely say that he is not currently a defensive star in the middle infield but he should be an adequate second baseman or even a passable shortstop in 2017. It will certainly be exciting for Reds fans to watch Pedraza get 500+ at-bats.
    Rebuilds are tricky and can be frustrating for fans to watch. One area of possible turmoil for the Reds in 2017 is their shortstop position. It is possible that the Reds will trade the incumbent, Zack Cozart, and move Peraza to shortstop because they have a one time top prospect in Dilson Herrera on the 40 man roster. Herrera was picked up from the Mets where he was blocked by Daniel Murphy and then fell into disfavor. One problem with top prospects is that if they don’t meet the club’s expectations they can be seen as failures instead of useful players who aren’t superstars, but we will come back to Herrera in a bit. Zack Cozart is a good shortstop with some power. Sounds good so far, right? Then you add that he has had multiple knee injuries including surgery, doesn’t walk – keeping his career on-base percentage under .300, and will play this season as a 31 year old, and maybe he doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you want to start for your rebuilding team. When you have young options to play the middle of the infield and you aren’t going to make the playoffs, it seems like you should cash in on Cozart’s good glove and 16 home runs last season, and start the young guys. There are always teams looking for a guy to play good shortstop who can catch up to the odd fastball who are willing to give you something for his services. In Cozart’s case the Reds probably can’t get much more than a flawed prospect or a prospect who has a long way to go to get to the majors. If that’s all they get and it clears the way for Herrera and Peraza to get regular playing time and prove definitively that they are or aren’t major league starters then that advances the Reds rebuild and that is a good thing.
    So about Dilson Herrera, he should get the nod to start at second if and only if Peraza gets moved to short after the Reds trade away Cozart. He profiles a bit like Peraza minus the blazing speed but with a bit more power. Herrera is a solid defender at second, but unlike Peraza can’t play shortstop. Herrera has had an excellent spring combining a high average, good plate discipline and doubles power. Yes, it is spring training with the requisite caveats about spring training stats, but Herrera has done exactly what he needed to do to convince the Reds that they should trade Cozart and hand young Dilson the keys to second base – you know, if second base had keys. That said, I would not be surprised to see Cozart start the season proving that he is healthy, although he seems to have done that in spring training. Whatever the Reds do, they need to provide playing time to their two young middle infielders starting now as neither has anything left to prove in the minors.
    The Reds actually have another shortstop in Eugenio Suarez, but he is their starting third baseman. Let me back up a step – Suarez has played shortstop in the past but he really isn’t a major league shortstop. The shift to third base was the right move, and at 25 Suarez might just turn into a solid defender although he isn’t there yet. Last season showed that he can do some things well, like hit the dang ball over the fence, which he did 21 times. That’s two seasons in a row with 21 long balls, so it appears his power is a real thing. Suarez traded some hits for walks making his first full season in the majors look more like his minor league career. Suarez has a career on-base percentage of .361 in the minors with a good number of walks and not a lot of strikeouts to go with it. So Suarez is a good contact hitter who will draw a decent number of walks and hit the ball hard. His average should fall somewhere between his .280 of 2015 and his .248 of 2016. He is only 25 so there might still be some growth in his game. If he hits 20 home runs, hangs onto his walks, and hits in the middle of his batting average numbers then he will be a contributor on offense. He is the closest thing (aside from Votto) to a sure thing manning an infield spot at Great American Ball Park.
    The youth movement for the Reds is here, although only one of their top minor league prospects is an infielder. Nick Senzel was taken with the second overall pick in last year’s draft and he is already ranked somewhere between the 15th and 30th best prospect in all of baseball. The 21 year old third baseman is a polished hitter with no glaring weakness who is likely to rocket through the minors and arrive in Cincy in two years or so if all goes well. He played most of 2016 at high A where he dominated, showing the ability to hit home runs, steal bases, hit for a high average and get on base. He did all this while managing the strike zone reasonably well. He also fielded his position well so Eugenio Suarez should be taking 100 fly balls a day in anticipation of Senzel ascending to the majors and becoming a star.
Cincinnati’s dearth of infield prospects is why it is important for them to see what they have in Peraza and Herrera. That said, don’t be surprised if the Red Stockings make more moves to add a young infielder before the trade deadline. Their infield picture is getting brighter based on players they have now who are clearly developing. Rebuilds aren’t pretty or neat. Teams can’t know how young players will ultimately develop, and major league players aren’t always easy to trade for their perceived value. The Reds have almost completely turned over their roster with a couple holdouts – the main one being Votto. But the Reds have enough quality youth on their infield to at least make this an interesting season for their fans. That might mean that they have to suck it up and get less than they want for Cozart, who  looked like he might turn into a star but ultimately didn’t. If the baseball Gods point at one of the Reds middle infielders and decide that the Reds should receive the top level performance of his projection then that would make up for the poor luck they’ve had with Cozart and it would do a lot to move the needle towards “success” in this latest rebuild of a franchise that is almost 150 years old.