Winter Report Card: Cincinnati Reds
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013.
2013 results: 90-72 (.556), 3rd place NL Central, lost Wild Card Game (Hot Stove Preview)
The theme of the Reds' offseason thus far has been replacing from within. It started when they promoted pitching coach Bryan Price to replace Dusty Baker as manager on the eve of the World Series and has extended it to centerfield, where rookie speedster Billy Hamilton will be asked to replace Shin-Soo Choo, and the rotation, where healthy seasons from fallen ace Johnny Cueto and sophomore Tony Cingrani would render the likely departure of free agent Bronson Arroyo moot.
All three in-house replacements carry risks. Price has never managed before at any level. Hamilton hit just .256/.308/.343 across 547 plate appearances in Triple A last year, his first exposure at that level. Cingrani was sidelined by back problems late last year and failed to surpass his career-high innings total of 146 from 2012. Cueto hasn't gone more than three starts without reinjuring himself since pulling up lame six pitches into his Game 1 start in the 2012 Division Series against the Giants, hitting the disabled list three times last year, all with the same latissimus dorsi strain near his right shoulder.
Given that, Cincinnati didn't have to make things harder on itself by selling low on arguably the most underrated catcher in baseball. That, however, is just what the Reds did when they traded Ryan Hanigan after a season in which he hit .198/.306/.261, though a lot of that was due to bad luck on balls in play (.216 BABIP). Prior to 2013, Hanigan, whom the Rays signed to a bargain three-year, $10.75 million deal, had a career on-base percentage of .370. Behind the plate, he has led the majors in caught stealing percentage each of the last two seasons, nabbing 47 percent of would-be thieves, and is consistently above average in pitch framing, as well. Holmberg, Cincinnati's sole return for Hanigan, is a command-and-control lefty with a plus changeup who saw his strikeout rate plummet at Double A, suggesting he's close to finding his level.
Unfinished business: Replacing Choo
Even if Hamilton does hold his own against major league pitching, he's unlikely to surpass his career minor league line of .280/.350/.378 in his rookie season. Yes, he'll add a ton of value with his legs, but not enough to replace Choo's production. To compare what Choo did in 2013 with what Hamilton is likely to do in 2014, it will help to fold each players' actual and projected stolen bases into their respective batting lines. I do this by adding their number of steals to their total bases and recalculating their slugging percentages, and then by deducting their times caught stealing from their times on base to recalculate their on-base percentages.
Let's assume, again based on his minor league record, that Hamilton steals 100 bases and is caught 20 times. We'll then factor that into his career minor league batting line stretched across the 712 plate appearances Choo made last year. Adding 100 bases to Hamilton's projected total bases brings his slugging up to .456. Subtracting 20 times on base from his on-base percentage drops that mark to .331. That gives us a projected steals-inclusive line of .280/.331/.456 representing the best-case scenario of Hamilton's offensive value in 2014.
Last year, Choo hit .285/.423/.462 in 712 plate appearances but also stole 20 bases himself. Factoring in Choo's steals and times caught stealing (11) we get a line of .285/.414/.480 to the .280/.331/.456 we got for Hamilton above. Choo's 83-point advantage in on-base percentage and 24-point advantage in slugging means he made 59 fewer outs last year than that projected best-case-scenario for Hamilton while achieving 29 more bases (including walks and times hit by pitch).
Maybe Hamilton makes up that difference in centerfield, where Choo was overextended and undermined his offensive contribution. Maybe Hamilton hits closer to his .256/.308/.343 line from Triple A last year. Maybe Hamilton spits the bit and the Reds wind up with Skip Schumaker in center on a regular basis. Maybe with 35-year-old Ryan Ludwick having hit .255/.325/.429 over the last five seasons and having lost most of 2013 to shoulder surgery, Cincinnati could have found a way to upgrade leftfield to take the pressure off Hamilton in center. As it stands, a lot is going to have to go right for the Reds on offense for them to simply make up the ground they lost when Choo signed with the Rangers.
Preliminary grade: D-Cincinnati can be forgiven for not wanting to give Choo the nine-figure contract over seven years that Texas gave him, even if he's likely to prove worthy of the investment. However, the team's failure to make a move to upgrade its offense in the wake of his departure, compounded by the folly of trading Hanigan, could be devastating given the strength of its division and the improvements the Cardinals made this offseason. The Reds' inaction this winter (which extends to their still-unsettled arbitration cases with stars Aroldis Chapman and Homer Bailey, the latter of whom is entering his walk year) leaves their 2014 season heavily dependent on Billy Hamilton's bat and Johnny Cueto's right shoulder. Neither is a particularly strong bet. This is still a good team, but one that has taken a clear step backward this winter.