Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Self-Flagellation of Trades Gone By

Former Red Josh Hamilton became the 16th player
in MLB history to hit four homers in a game this week
It was an interesting week for Cincinnati Reds fans, as the team continues to right the ship from a slow start to the tune of yet another series win over the Milwaukee Brewers. The final game of their 4-2 road trip was a classic pitcher’s duel between two of the premiere pitching talents in the National League in Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto and Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke. Powered by some clutch two-out hitting in the top of the ninth, the Reds squeaked two runs across the plate off closer John Axford in an eventual 2-1 victory. It was the ninth time in ten chances this season that the Reds won the “get away” game to take the final game of the series and push their record in the previous ten games to 7-3.

In spite of the cause for optimism about this current team’s lot, however, social media sites and baseball bloggers everywhere have steered the conversation about the Reds into another, much less productive discussion about a game played in the other league.
Hamilton Goes Ham
Former member of the Reds 2007 club and since-traded slugger Josh Hamilton had a historic evening on May 8th. The outfielder and 2010 American League MVP accomplished a feat that had only been achieved fifteen other times in the history of the sport: cranking four home runs in a game. Along with his fifth hit - a casual double, just for kicks - the four dingers resulted in eight runs batted in and a jaw-dropping, AL-record 18 total bases in the game.
''Obviously it's, other than being in the World Series, the highlight of my big-league career,'' Hamilton said after the game. And just as Rangers fans everywhere were raising a customary ginger ale toast to Hamilton’s remarkable achievement, a multitude of Reds fans fired up their computer to remind the world of the obvious: the Redlegs “lost” the Hamilton trade.

Hamilton hit .292 with 19 HRs and 47 RBI
in 298 at-bats with the Reds in 2007
The Trade
When Hamilton was traded in late 2007, the Reds received pint-sized reliever Danny Herrera and, more notably, starting pitcher Edinson Volquez. Josh was coming off a season where he hit .292 with 19 homers and 47 RBI in 298 at-bats with the Reds. As a “rookie” for the Reds, he led all of the National League with 151,000 write-in votes for the All Star game.  He has arguably been the most dynamic hitting talent in baseball since that fateful December day in 2007, making the All-Star game each of the last four years, securing two Silver Slugger awards in 2008 and 2010 and winning MVP honors in 2010 for both the regular season as a whole and in the AL Championship Series.
At the time of the trade, Volquez was coming off a season in which he won 14 games for the Rangers’ AA and AAA minor league affiliates, posting a 3.67 ERA and holding opponents to a .190 batting average. He was regarded as the third best prospect in the entire Rangers organization by Baseball America and had made marked improvements in his control, leading then GM Wayne Krivsky to believe that, "he was ready to compete and win a job in the rotation in '08."
To Krivsky’s credit, he was right about Volquez in the short term. The pitcher started the 2008 season for the Reds with a 7-1 record and a 1.33 ERA in nine starts. By season’s end, he was 17-6 with the eighth best ERA in the National League (3.21) and was an obvious representative for the National League in the 2008 All-Star Game. Unfortunately, Volquez’s stock began to decline after the 2008 season while Hamilton further entrenched himself as one of the most natural talents in the game. After Tommy John surgery and a suspension for PED use in 2009 and 2010, Volquez’s contributions to the Reds team became increasingly marginal until he was finally packaged as a pot sweetener in the 2012 blockbuster trade that brought Mat Latos over to the Reds. Herrera was a limited contributor in 2009, but eventually waived from the club in 2010.
In light of how the winds of change have blown since “The Trade” it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of baseball insight to say the Reds seemingly got hosed. But judging these exchanges on the plight of a player once they leave an organization is lazy and ignores the most obvious reality of any major sports trade: they happen in the context of the time that they are made.
Accepting Reality without Wallowing
It’s easy to look at box scores around the league and covet having the contributions of the best players in the game wearing your team’s colors. In reality, though, actually attaining and keeping that kind of talent doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Going into 2008, much like 2012, the Reds had one major glaring need to help them compete: starting pitching. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo were the only true anchors in the rotation. Homer Bailey had just arrived to limited success and some kid named Johnny Cueto was on his way up in the minors. A then-ineffective Kyle Lohse (traded at the All-Star break) and a young Matt Belisle were doing the rest of the heavy lifting for the 2007 staff.  If the Reds club had one position of strength to deal from at the time, it was big-hitting outfielders (Griffey, Dunn), especially with a highly-lauded youngster named Jay Bruce knocking on the door for promotion.   
It’s easy to wish the team had a trade “do-over” knowing what we know now about Hamilton and Volquez. But at the time, keeping Hamilton wasn’t an option that was without liability itself. The experts in Cincinnati and Texas likely saw the same raw talent in Josh that Tampa Bay did when they picked him #1 overall in 1999. But merely possessing talent and having it translate on the field are two different things, and other than his one summer in Cincinnati, Josh Hamilton largely didn’t translate his talent.
This reality should come as no surprise to those familiar with the Josh Hamilton substance abuse saga: alcoholism and drug abuse had him banned by MLB in 2003 before spiraling into another few years of self-destructive behavior following that. Sure, MLB gave him another chance at the game after he cleaned up his act, and so did Tampa Bay. But people seem to forget that Hamilton was not an effective player right upon his return in 2006, as he scuffled along in single-A before finally being released and by the Rays and picked up by the Cubs (on behalf of the Reds) in the Rule 5 draft.  
Cincinnati took a gamble on Hamilton managing his demons, and it happened to pan out in 2007. The Reds were the most recent team (before Texas) to have seem him produce at a high level. For that reason, Cincinnati might have a little more egg on their face than Tampa Bay does for releasing him or Chicago does for taking the cash for his pick in the Rule 5 draft. It wasn’t exactly a sure conclusion that a recovering drug addict with a potential injury propensity would continue that level of production long-term, though.
The Reds took another gamble following 2007 in trading Josh away, potentially “selling high” on a nice redemption story for a position they needed much more sorely than power hitting outfielders.
Hamilton’s 2007 season was one of almost unprecedented in how unexpected it was. Players virtually without exception don’t take three years away from the game and come back to produce at the MLB level on more than a “fluke” basis. His dramatic splits against lefties that season (.222/.296/.292 ) may have even given the Reds cause for concern about Josh getting “figured out” by pitchers or managers as he got more plate appearances. The organization took a risk that whatever production Hamilton would continue to bring wasn’t worth the risk of carrying a player who had been kicked out of baseball for drug use already and needed almost constant supervision to manage his addictions. It probably didn’t help that Hamilton’s personality wasn’t generally well-received in the clubhouse to begin with. In the few years since the trade, (other than a two well-documented “minor” Josh Hamilton relapses) the Reds would seemingly have lost that gamble. But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong idea at the time.
Sometimes a trade isn’t necessarily “bad” in its conception, but the results just end up being that way. Josh Hamilton may be the prime example of this reality in modern baseball.
Enough Hypotheticals Already
Beyond Hamilton, Cincinnati fans have been quick to point out that three of the four homerun leaders in the American League right now (Hamilton, Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion) are former Reds. To simply observe this is one thing, but the insinuations that the Reds royally mismanaged their roster in the last few years by letting these guys walk are a little inaccurate. In fact, the Reds had all three of those players on the same roster in 2007, resulting in a ho-hum 72-90 record, mostly due to abysmal pitching.
To suggest that the Reds would have somehow been able to keep even two of those three players without losing some of the other role players on the current team is foolish. Had the Reds seen the promise in Hamilton like so many fans now claim that they did in hindsight, Cueto, Bailey and Votto may well have been traded for Erik Bedard after all, and the conversation could have been about how terrible that trade was. In any event, the team would almost certainly not have had the flexibility to extend Brandon Phillips as they did, who himself arrived from Cleveland via trade for a bucket of baseballs and a bag of sunflower seeds.
Hypothetical assumptions are unproductive in these conversations because we just don’t know how things would have panned out if the path not traveled was taken. Nothing in this game happens without causing some ripples. When one piece moves in a certain direction, the rest of the roster pieces need to shift to accommodate it somehow. Speculating on “what could have been” in baseball is a game best saved for sadists and masochists.
Josh Hamilton has turned into a monster ball player after being passed over by other MLB teams in his career due to the loaded personal history, Reds included.  Teams passed by Pujols more than 400 times before he was selected in the 13th round of the 1999 MLB Draft. Sometimes stories like that develop in baseball. More often than not they don’t.
The goal of managing a baseball team’s roster is to constantly try to strike balance between the parts and pieces of your club to improve on the number of games you won. The Cincinnati Reds made marginal improvements to their record in each of the years following Hamilton’s trade by addressing priority needs the club didn’t have answers for, leading up to the 2010 NL Central Championship.
Could it have happened sooner or with more frequency had Hamilton stayed? We’ll never know. But we can be sure he isn’t coming back, so Reds fans need to move on. Cincinnati has a ball club this year that hasn’t lost a series in the last six and is two games over .500 in the second week of May. It may or may not last all season, but that’s why the play the game. Fans need to shift attention to the present cast of players wearing Cincinnati on their chest and stop harping on the existence of a hypothetical roster that doesn’t exist and never will.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Joey Votto: Setting the Cornerstone

It may seem hyperbolic to call today a historic day for the rebuilding effort the Reds have been enduring since the mostly dark days of the 2000's. While you hate to jump the gun with labels like that, today's news of a long-term extension with 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto may well be the punctuation mark on what has certainly been the most aggressive off-season in recent team history. At a rumored ten years and $225 million, the deal keeps Votto under team control for the next decade and beats a midnight deadline the first basemen set with the club to resolve an extension before the season. It is the largest deal in Cincinnati sports history, the fourth-largest in MLB history and the largest contract for a non-free agent ever.

There's no question that Joey Votto got paid like most All-Star first basemen this off-season. With a baseball-leading .363 batting average with runners in scoring position over the last three seasons, he was bound to be. There's probably also no question that the Reds would have been outbid had he hit free agency at the conclusion of his previous contract in 2013.

Earlier this Spring, Votto commented on Pujols' move to Los Angeles to Fox's Jon Morosi, remarking "I think Albert might find — not that I know — that St. Louis might have been a good market as far as him being a star." He later added that if he was elected into the Hall of Fame, Votto would like to be next to "The other Reds players [like] Bench and Morgan." With an extension that will keep him in red and white until 2023, he may well have that opportunity now.

Not So "All In" All of a Sudden

Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are about
to spend a lot of time together.
There are obviously implications to be determined by the specific year-by-year breakouts of the extension, but with any deal in that neighborhood, the Reds are committing about a quarter of their payroll for the forseeable future to make it happen. It's a tremendous commitment for a smaller market team like Cincinnati, but there's some immediate things to consider beyond Joey's on-field contributions alone (though most of them are entirely dependent on them).

The news of a Votto extension is staggering on its own, but it's important to think about this deal in the context of the team's last two years. In 2010, the Reds extended Jay Bruce with an Evan Longoria-esque, team-friendly contract extension for six years. Coupled with the four-year extension of Cueto and acquisition of Mat Latos with team control through 2015, Walt Jocketty has taken a two-year "All In" window and blown it wide open.

Complimentary pieces like starter Mike Leake, reliever Sean Marshall and current-reliever-maybe-someday-starter Aroldis Chapman are also controlled comfortably for the next few years. Other regular contributors like Zach Cozart, Devin Mesoraco, Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey are all under extended team control and haven't even hit arbitration yet. In terms of the prospects lost in the Mat Latos trade earlier this off-season, the pieces lost are looking more and more redundant with the extension of Votto by virtue of their positions.

The potentially negative implication is that the team may now lose the payroll flexiblity to extend Brandon Phillips for the multiple years he is likely hoping for. When asked
by Cincinnati's John Fay about this own ongoing contract negotiations and the Votto deal after it surfaced, Phillips replied briefly with, "I just want to play baseball." The Reds and Phillips' agent were reportedly on good terms earlier in the off-season, but it goes without saying that financial circumstances are very different now. 

How The Reds Will Pay for It  

The $225-million question for the Reds is how they'll front the bill for Votto's services. The shock around baseball was Cincinnati's ability to pull the trigger on such a large financial commitment and the risks associated with it. There are a few components to consider in that equation, beyond merely paying the market value at first base set by Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder earlier this winter.

First and foremost, the Reds are continuing to try to generate fan interest after the aforementioned Dark Period prior to Jocketty's arrival. Over the last three seasons, the Reds have built attendance from a meager 21,500 per game in 2009; to 25,400 in 2010; and 27,300 in 2011. This may seem like small potatoes to teams with near or complete sellouts virtually every game of the year, and in a lot of ways it is. The Reds are fairly consistently in the middle to back of the pack in attendance numbers and have been since the early 90's. Still, the trend is swinging in the right direction and another playoff run or two may push home attendance over that elusive 2,500,000 fan mark on the year. The aggressive moves this off-season should hopefully contribute to increased attention around Cincinnati and keep moving the needle on ticket and merchandise sales.

Perhaps the more important consideration, though, is the restructuring of the team's current TV contract, which expires in 2016. While it's difficult to foresee exactly what that financial contribution will be, the last deal was signed when interest in the team was waning in 2008. As it stands, the team only makes $10 million a year, which is grossly out of line with some other recent TV deals, even in semi-comparable market sizes. This likely boon in money will come towards the middle part of Votto's contract and provide the team with some added flexibility.

As is always the case, you try to maximize the opportunities to win in baseball for as long as you possibly can. When other deals come to bear in the latter parts of the Joey Votto contract, opinion around the financial commitment made to him may change. Without question, the Reds have taken on a risk with the 28-year-old Votto, hitching themselves to the first basemen with a contract that takes him even beyond Albert Pujols' playing commitments to the Angels. The team is gambling that the fans will take notice and show up. Joey Votto will try to help the cause

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Utilizing the Utility Guys

It's less than three short weeks until the Reds begin their pursuit of another winning season. While the roster has begun to optimistically take shape for 2012, several minor questions are still being worked out in Arizona, including which utility players will round out the Opening Day 25-man roster. While you could perhaps argue that its a five-man battle for two roster spots between Willie Harris, Wilson Valdez, Paul Janish, Juan Francisco and Todd Frazier, its more realistically a battle of two players for one spot, if anything.

The Outfielders
Chris Heisey stands to play a
large role in the left field platoon

It's generally good practice in the National League to carry a second catcher, second third baseman and reserve utility infielder into the season with you. Without compromising pitching depth, it's tough to have room for more than a fourth outfielder.

Bringing in Willie Harris was a great depth move by Reds GM Walt Jocketty this offseason,  but his toolset (and contract terms by comparison) probably won't be enough to upend also acquired Ryan Ludwick for the fourth outfield spot. Harris will likely see some time with the Major League club at some point or another in the case of injury, but with a minor league deal he will mostly provide organizational security from AAA Louisville and be called on when needed in the outfield.

Harris is a career .240 hitter and doesn't bring much power to the table. He hit .246 with a .668 OPS for the Mets last year in 283 plate appearances. With good plate discipline, he draws a lot of walks which have helped keep his on-base percentage above .340 for the last five years. Even though he will mostly factor into the outfield depth situation, it's worth noting that he is also a capable infielder in a pinch. While Harris was similarly... we'll say "serviceable" to Ludwick on a per at-bat basis last season, he's coming off several seasons in a fairly limited role and a comparable minor league deal with the Mets in 2011.

As I discussed earlier this year upon Ludwick's arrival, he may stand to greatly improve his numbers spending most of his time in Great American Ballpark. Cincinnati's 133 ballpark homerun factor for righties is almost tailor made for Ludwick's tendencies. In the 30 games he's played there in his career, Ludwick has hit nine homeruns, powered 21 runs in, managed a .276 batting average and posted a .921 on-base-plus-slugging. In a lot of ways, though, it's unfair to call the Reds' fourth outfielder a utility contributor, especially when he's a veteran on a Dusty Baker team. When all is said and done, Ryan Ludwick may tip the playing time balance away from Chris Heisey in left field by season's end, for better or worse, based mostly on his veteran status. With both left fielders struggling in Goodyear so far - Heisey has hit .130 with 11 strikeouts while Ludwick has hit .190 with 7 K's - it's hard to make that prediction with total conviction this early on.

“Obviously if one of us is hot, we’ll stick with that guy for a while.” Heisey said about he and Ludwick in left, adding that, "Right now, I don’t think one of us is going to get buried on the bench unless one of us is really struggling.”

The Infielders

Paul Janish likely played his way out of backup shortstop consideration last year, in spite his defensive prowess. The arrival of Wilson Valdez, who can play almost any infield or outfield position and arrives without options should figure to keep Janish off the 25-man as well.

All told, this means it's probably more of a Spring Training battle between Francisco and Frazier for the right to back up superveteran Scott Rolen at third with also-veteran Miguel Cairo. With Rolen's history of injury problems this is a fairly significant role for the  Reds' hopes to contend in 2012 and might represent 200-250 at-bats for the club.
Todd Frazier may give Juan
Francisco a run for his money
backing up Scott Rolen

Francisco arrived to camp later than some of the other "on the bubble" utility players, and reportedly drew some concern from Reds management. While Francisco has performed well enough since then, Frazier earned some brownie points with the club by reporting early and has motored along with a .280 average over 25 plate appearances while leading the club in homeruns (3) and RBI (8). Spring training numbers don't necessarily matter all that much (see: since traded Dave Sappelt, 2012), but there is some potential debate between the two back-up third basemen beyond their performances in half a season in the Cactus League.

Frazier is a more versatile reserve player and can cover all the spots around the horn in the infield, as well as play some corner outfield. Francisco may be able to play beyond first and third, but hasn't gotten any time away from the hot corner this Spring or in most of his Major League appearances to date. In 121 plate appearances last season, Frazier hit .232 but struggled from a below-average .253 batting average on balls put in play. He hit 6 homeruns and had 15 RBIs. Francisco hit .258 in 97 plate appearances for 3 homeruns and 15 RBIs himself. He posted a higher-than-average .318 batting average on balls in play, but given his power tendencies, the free-swinging Francisco will likely always be above league average in this category. Frazier's tools are a little more diversified, so the question is whether his production and versatility combined would trump Francisco's raw power alone, especially with a BABIP more in line with league average and Frazier's body of work in the minors.

The likely trump card in this conversation, barring a trade, is that Juan Francisco is out of minor league options as well. With more power than arguably anyone in the organization, it's unlikely the Reds would be able to retain the young prospect if he was designated for assignment and made it to waivers. While Frazier's stock would probably keep him from clearing waivers in a similar circumstance, the club can still move him freely between the 25-man and 40-man active rosters for now. He's also a right-handed hitter where Francisco hits left-handed. While this may actually have been a boon for Frazier's chances to make the club out of camp a few years ago when the Reds were lefty-heavy, the 2012 club is short on left-handed bats off the bench. For that reason, Todd will probably start the year in Louisville again, patiently waiting for his number to be called.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

2012 Starting Pitching Preview

Spring Has Sprung

The Cincinnati Reds pitchers and catchers have reported to Arizona and the extended baseball season is officially upon us. On the heels of the team's first division title in over a decade in 2010, the Reds contended with injuries and underproduction in 2011, limping to a sub-.500 record and a third place finish in the division. Following an aggressive offseason and some significant power shifts in the rest of the NL Central, the start of Spring Training this year is surrounded by renewed optimism and a few new faces.

Last season, the Reds went to Goodyear feeling particularly good about their starting pitching depth. After injuries to Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, a case of mononucleosis for Bronson Arroyo, and a case of continued unmet potential for the since traded Edinson Volquez, that song quickly became the lullaby that largely put the team's 2011 hopes to bed early. After the busy offseason, the club hopes to have provided depth to not only their rotation, but the larger 25 man roster. It's still early to predict the Opening Day lineup with total certainty in February, but with pitchers and catchers reporting, it seemed like an opportune moment to take preliminary look at your new look Reds pitching staff.

The Rotation

After missing the start of the season with injury, Johnny Cueto was a terrific bright spot for the Reds in his 24 starts last year. Cueto added an extra hitch to a Luis Tiant-like delivery and traded in his marginally higher career strikeout ratio for more groundball inducing strikes, improving his efficiency with the Reds elite defense behind him. Cueto finished the season with a 2.31 ERA and 3.45 FIP, but the .249 batting average on balls hit in play against him will be extremely difficult to replicate, in spite of the Reds defense. Still, in a staff that clearly needed a potential ace to emerge, Cueto took a huge step forward in 2011. A position on top of the rotation will put increased pressure on Johnny's durability and he will need to make more than 24 starts to really set the team over the top in key pitching matchups throughout the season.

Beyond Cueto, the Reds needed another bona fide option at the top of their pitching rotation to take the next step as a club. Given the club's payroll limitation, the solution needed to be team controlled, affordable and acquirable through a trade. Enter Mat Latos. In the team's largest deal of the offseason, the Reds parted with several highly touted prospects to land the 24-year old righty from San Diego. A 2.92 ERA pitching, 14 game winning strikeout machine in 2010, Latos had a shaky start to 2011 before drastically improving throughout the year and finishing with a 1.96 ERA through five starts in September. While he is making the transition from pitcher-friendly San Diego to bandbox-resembling Great American Ballpark, Latos is well-fit to make the transition and gives the Reds top of the rotation pitching depth that they simply haven't had in several years.

The order of the rest of the rotation is arguably a little more difficult to predict. Bronson Arroyo apparently contended with the effects of mono for most of the 2011 season and posted his worst ERA since 2001 at 5.07. He still managed to give the Reds around 200 innings, but surrendered a soul-crushing 46 homeruns - more than two per nine innings pitched. Reds fans should take solace in the fact that the 2011 Bad Bronson epidemic was arguably the worst in his career and a performance he probably won't repeat. If the lingering effects of mono kept him from performing up to his career numbers last season, 2012 should (hopefully) be a little easier on the usually reliable veteran. The size of his contract pretty much guarantees that he will likely remain a starter somewhere on the team, but his production and recovery will likely dictate where and to what extent.

Mike Leake had a bumpy sophomore start out of the gate last year with a 5.06 ERA through May and a shoplifting charge  in April. He also spent some time in AAA Louisville for the first time in his career, from May 14th to May 28th. After shaking off the start, he became one of the most productive starters for the team, posting a 3.45 ERA for the remainder of the season. Leake won 12 games and regularly worked five different pitches into his delivery, averaging a respectable 6.33 strikeouts per nine innings and a Great-American-favorable groundball rate near 50%. Leake finished the season with a 2.74 ERA in three September starts and will play a considerable role in the middle of the 2012 rotation.

Homer Bailey enters his sixth season now, and Reds fans everywhere are still waiting for him to have "the year" that he puts it all together. In 22 starts in 2011, Homer won nine games and was one of the only Reds pitchers to have an ERA (4.43) worse than his FIP (4.06). He had two different DL stints with shoulder tendinitis and his durability remains the biggest obstacle to a truly productive full season, much as it has for his whole career. With the departure of Travis Wood, Homer will almost certainly play into the back of the rotation plan. With terrific stuff and moments of brilliance, it's tough to say what the Reds really have in the once "can't miss prospect" given some of Bailey's issues with consistency. With other potential options waiting in the wings and the likely reality that Bailey will spend at least some time on the DL, it will be interesting to see if his role changes throughout the course of the season.


The Reds still have some depth in the minors that will likely be thrown into the mix at some point this season. The most intriguing option is Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. Chapman had an up and down, mostly good campaign in 2011. At one point, he gave up over eight runs and retired just one opposing batter through three games out of the bullpen. After being placed on the DL for issues with his shoulder, he returned to strike out 56 batters in 37 innings with a 2.43 ERA. The Reds have begun to transition Chapman from the bullpen back into the rotation, and after missing Winter Ball with injury, he will likely get his first starts in Spring Training this year. While he will probably begin the season in AAA, he may get the call at one point or another based on his own production or injuries to one of the starters.

Other suitors for some major league exposure are veteran Jeff Francis and super-veteran Brett Tomko who both enter on minor league deals. Francis was a 17 game winner for Colorado in 2007 before injuries derailed his production in 2008 and 2009. Last season, he posted a 4.82 ERA and 6-16 record for the Royals over 31 starts. Tomko debuted with the Reds in 1997 and was one of the players dealt to bring Ken Griffey Jr. to Cincinnati in 2000. With a career 5.99 ERA, his addition was a depth signing and at least provides the Reds with a seasoned professional who could likely be relied on for an occasional emergency start, as needed.

In general, the Reds once again have starting pitching depth on paper to start Spring Training. It's always difficult to say exactly who will play where in a Dusty Baker rotation. Beyond preference in splitting up lefties and righties, Dusty has an acknowledged belief in separating pitchers who have similar deliveries or tendencies. This is worth noting, particularly with two finesse pitchers like Arroyo and Leake both seemingly best fit for a spot in the middle of the order. Hopefully this depth on paper won't be put to the test to quite the same extent as 2011.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rounding Out the Outfield

The Reds have signed veteran outfielder Ryan Ludwick to their 2012 efforts with a $2.5 million contract and a nominal mutual option for 2013. The contract has up to $500,000 in performance incentives and affordably adds much-needed depth to the Reds outfield. Ludwick can play either corner outfield spot, giving the Reds the flexibility to slide Chris Heisey to center to spell Drew Stubbs when needed without compromising depth behind Jay Bruce. With less severe lefty-righty hitting splits than the young Heisey, Ludwick adds a more consistent and versatile option to the outfield mix while adding very well-regarded veteran leadership to the clubhouse.

Ludwick spent most of his major league career with the Cardinals and had his career year with them in 2008, batting .299 with 37 homeruns and 113 runs batted in. It goes without saying, though, that hitting in front of Albert Pujols probably benefited the outfielder to a certain extent. Still, Ludwick is a career .261 hitter with power who, other than the last few years, was good for an OPS of at least .775. Sluggers who can power in 100+ or even 75+ RBIs a season don't typically go for $2.5 million, though, and his performance in recent seasons is the biggest factor in his diminished value.

Did Ludwick Lose his Pop?

Ludwick is coming off a few disappointing seasons, where he spent most of his time in San Diego's monstrous Petco Park. During that time, the traditionally slugging Ludwick had some potentially concerning trends with his isolated power numbers, which is a hitter's slugging percentage minus his batting average per at bat. The metric measures the extra base hits that a hitter averages per at bat and is a better measure of a batter's pure power than slugging percentage, which factors singles into the equation. Where Ludwick hovered around a respectable .200 ISO during his time with St. Louis, he never exceeded .135 in San Diego or in his cameo appearance for the Pirates during the second half of last year. The major league average, even taking soft-hitting shortstops into account, has hovered around .150 since 2002.

That decline is certainly not a good power trend to be coming off of. Still, it's difficult to isolate Ludwick's decline strictly to his power all of a sudden being sapped. The righty really didn't change his tendencies as a hitter during the last three years, posting consistent line drive, flyball, strike-out and walk rates even as his power numbers seemingly began to suffer.

A culprit worth noting in this decline was Ludwick's batting average on balls in play, which may be more of a symptom than a driver of his poor statistics in this case. Where the general league average is around .300, Ludwick never managed a BABIP above .277 since leaving Saint Louis, which isn't a fall off the cliff, necessarily, but isn't the norm for a 20% line drive hitter. The big contributor to that discrepancy may lie in what Ludwick does with the other 80% of his batted balls, namely his tendency to hit a lot of flyballs.

Petco Park has some of the deepest outfield dimensions in baseball and in addition to spending most of his last two seasons there, Ludwick spent a lot of time playing division games in also-cavernous Los Angeles and San Francisco. For a flyball hitter in a pitcher's park, good contact hits that may be homeruns in other parks most often turn into deep fly outs. In Petco's case, lefties are much more suppressed than righties like Ludwick on homeruns, but both are suppressed more in San Diego than most parks in the majors. If fewer balls are leaving the park and becoming outs instead, it not only will suppress the traditional average and slugging numbers, but it reduces the hitter's production in the true outcome events that are measured in BABIP.

Locations of all homeruns (blue) and fly outs (orange)
hit in Petco last year, overlayed on Great American Ballpark
Great American Ball Park is the antithesis to Petco and may, in fact, be a better fit for Ludwick's tendencies than even other hitter's parks. While Great American isn't necessarily shallow in left-center or center field where Ludwick hits many of his homeruns, it's much shorter down the line at 328 feet and more friendly in the gap at 379 feet. Great American Ball Park has one of the best homerun park factors for righties in baseball at 133, a pretty large jump from Petco's 95.

To partially illustrate some of these differences, take a look at the image to the right. This park map charts the locations of all homeruns (blue) and fly outs (orange) hit in Petco last season, overlayed against the dimensions of Great American Ballpark. While this doesn't tell the whole picture, it's worth noting that if you similarly chart just Ludwick's homeruns and fly outs from last season, two of his fly outs would have been homeruns in Great American's right field.

What to Actually Expect

It would be foolish to expect a heroic renaissance of epic proportions like the season Ludwick had in 2008, especially in the number of plate appearances he will likely get by comparison. It's hard to weigh the specific causes of some of Ludwick's issues in the last few years, so it's tough to lay his reduced numbers strictly at the feet of Petco's large outfield dimensions. That said, the switch of parks alone should make Ludwick a much more valuable contributor in 2012 considering his low price tag.

If he can hit close to his career average while maintaining a .775+ OPS and an .200+ ISO, Ludwick could easily add one or two wins to the Reds efforts in 2012. It will be interesting to see how time is divided between he, Heisey and Stubbs, though. While it's safe to say Bruce is anchored in right other than a day off here and there, Heisey may see some increased playing time in center based on matchups. It wouldn't be out of the question to see all three of Ludwick, Heisey and Stubbs seeing north of 400 plate apperances in 2012, but as always, player production will tell the tale.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reds Find Their Closer in Madson

The Cincinnati Reds have agreed to add free-agent closer Ryan Madson, answering the closer question raised by Francisco Cordero's departure and providing another shot in the arm to the 2012 roster. After trying to come to an agreement with Cordero over the last few weeks, Reds GM Walt Jocketty gave the closer and his agent a soft deadline to come to a consensus. As of Tuesday, the club was downplaying interest in Madson, but with the closer market relatively dry at this point, the Reds were finally able to come to terms with the righty's agent Scott Boras, ending their pursuit of Cordero.

In 2012, Madson will be due about $6 million by the club, half of what Cordero would have made had the Reds picked up his option for this season. In 2013, there is a mutual option for $11 million, with a $2.5 million buy-out should the Reds decide to go in another direction. It's no small feat to land a one-year deal for a Scott Boras free agent, especially when the player in question was linked to a four-year, $44 million deal with the Phillies earlier this year

The Numbers Don't Lie

In terms of converting saves, Madson was the third most efficient reliever in baseball for the Phillies in 2011, converting 32-34 of his save opportunities as Brad Lidge dealt with injuries for most of the year. He was notably terrific against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .198 batting average and a .506 OPS. Madson maintained a 2.37 ERA and a 9.7 K/9 ratio through his 61 innings, where he induced a ground ball rate just short of 49%. 

Other than a mid-90's fastball, Madson has a deadly change-up in his arsenal as a true put away pitch. He threw the pitch more than half of the time on two-strike counts last year with lethal results. The pitch had the second largest amount of break to the right of change-ups in baseball, was out of the strike zone nearly 75% of the time, but was still swung at more than 65% of the time. Most importantly, the pitch was only put into play about 25% of the time. This is a significant advantage for a righty closer since the change-up is arguably the most effective neutralizing pitch against left-handed hitters, as reflected in Madson's other peripherals.

Bringing the Offseason into Perspective

While debate will almost certainly continue around the number of prospects the Reds parted ways with in the Latos and Marshall trades, it's important to consider their impact on the larger offseason and this deal. If the Reds are particularly committed to winning in the remaining two years of Votto's contract, Madson's addition adds to the number of options the team has to compete with during that time. In addition to having the option of extending Marshall, the Reds now have another bona fide late-inning reliever in Madson under club control to consider going into 2013. The move can also let the team comfortably try Aroldis Chapman as a starter in the minor leagues to finally assess his value in that role in the future.

There's a number of factors that will contribute to the team's decisions beyond the 2012 season, from attendance bumps to (hopefully) playoff revenue. But in the time the team is guaranteed to have with Votto, they have maximized their number of quality options to go forward with, or not. But for this season, the acquisition has arguably given the Reds one of the better bullpens in the National League. Where Cordero was a solid but perhaps declining contributor, the money saved by not extending him brought a combined 4.5 WAR in Madson and Marshall, and gave the team flexibility to consider their options as they go "all in."

Take a look at the numbers of some major relief contributors from 2011 (FanGraphs):

Sean Marshall6657875.
Ryan Madson42326260.29.22.370.32.371.7
Bill Bray5307948.
Nick Masset3617570.17.933.970.643.710.6
Logan Ondrusek5506661.