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.