Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The Reds' outfield gamble
By Jim Bowden
Even Shin-Soo Choo himself says he's "uncomfortable" playing center field.
The Cincinnati Reds have been searching for a leadoff hitter since Dusty Baker took over as Reds manager back in 2008. For five years the search proved fruitless. They’ve tried everything and everyone, just look at the list:
The trade left many baseball people puzzled not so much because they gave up two players under team control for years for a player represented by Scott Boras who is headed to free agency next winter, but rather because it raises a very practical question about the Reds' defense. With Bruce in right field and Ryan Ludwick in left field, where would Choo play? Jocketty’s plan would be for Choo -- who has a career .381 OBP -- to hit leadoff and start in center field even though he has played only 10 games there in his eight-year career.
After watching Choo play right field the past two years, it didn’t make any sense. I thought I must be missing something so I called major league scouts who were assigned to evaluate him and the Indians’ major league club. Then I called people in the Indians’ organization -- players, coaches, managers and front-office executives -- to get their opinions.
The consensus among the 15 baseball evaluators in and out of the Indians organization was Choo did play a Gold Glove-caliber right field for the Indians in 2010. Over the past two years, however, he was shaky, very tentative and playing as though he did not want to get hurt. His routes and angles weren’t very good, and he took too long to get rid of the baseball.
Also consider this fact from ESPN Stats & Information: In the divisional era, only once has a player played 100 games in center field after playing 300-plus games in the outfield over the previous four seasons, but 10 or fewer in center. That player was Tim Raines in 1984. In other words, what Choo is trying to do is virtually unprecedented.
Indeed, most of the 15 evaluators said they didn’t think he could play center field, while others called it a “stretch.” It’s possible the Reds are making the right call and these 15 evaluators are wrong, but I doubt that many baseball people would miss on Choo’s defense. Even Choo himself said Monday he is still “uncomfortable” playing center field. Obviously, it’s never a good sign when a player doesn’t feel confident playing the position to which he’s assigned.
Hamilton could steal 100 bases in the major leagues.
Therefore, what do the Reds do if they realize in spring training that Choo can’t be an adequate defensive center fielder?
The answer is simple, and it’s really Jocketty’s only alternative: Move Bruce from right field to center field because he plays at least an average center field. The problem with that is moving a potential Gold Glove right fielder in Bruce and putting him in a position at which he is less proficient. However, if Choo bounces back and can play right field as he did in 2010, this defensive alignment probably will be good enough to win and the offense will enjoy a big improvement from 2012.
The Reds know they are taking a risk here, but their leadoff hitters had a combined .254 OBP in 2012, which was the worst in the majors, and they needed more runners on base in front of Joey Votto, Phillips and Bruce.
The 30-year-old Choo hit .283/.373/.441 with 43 doubles, 16 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 2012, and he should be good for 20 to 25 home runs -- especially in Great American Ball Park. His ability to get on base should be significant enough to make this deal work as long as he’s defensively positioned in the corner.
Of course, there were a lot of center fielders available to the Reds via trade this offseason, such as Denard Span, Ben Revere, Chris Young and Coco Crisp, as well as free agents such as Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton. However, the Reds didn’t want to get tied up with long-term contracts or commitments for center field because they have a special one in the pipeline.
And that’s their real solution -- prospect Billy Hamilton will arrive in Cincinnati some time in 2013. Once he learns how to play center field after converting from shortstop, he’ll be the long-term solution at the leadoff spot and in center field. He has the potential to steal 100 bases at the major league level, and his impressive OBP in the minor leagues is a good trend indicator. There’s little doubt he’s going to hit; he has excellent bat speed and loud contact. Defensively, he should be able to run down fly balls in the gap.
Certainly the Reds took a risk on defense by dealing an above-average center fielder such as Stubbs and a top defensive shortstop such as Gregorius. However, Jocketty shrewdly hedged his bet with having the option of switching Bruce and Choo if Choo cannot play center field, as well Hamilton in his back pocket and a phone call away if this doesn’t work. Jocketty could even trade Ludwick or Choo for a center fielder at the trade deadline. All of these options made acquiring Choo a worthwhile gamble.