Sunday, December 28, 2008

Seeing Red in Cincinnati

Reds fans should be irate if catcher Ramon Hernandez and center fielder Willy Taveras end up being the team’s marquee acquisitions this winter. With all due respect to GM Walt Jocketty, who won six division titles, two N.L. Championships and one World Series during a distinguished 13-year reign in St. Louis, Cincinnati has had one of the most disappointing offseasons in all of baseball. After being linked to talents like Pat Burrell, Jeremy Hermida and Jermaine Dye, they’ve had to settle for a beat up, overpriced, soon-to-be 33-year-old catcher in Ramon Hernandez, as well as a punch-and-judy-hitting speedster in Willy Taveras.

Let’s start with the ill-advised Taveras signing. Even if you include his injury-shortened 2007 season, in which he leveraged an aberrational .320 batting average at Coors Light to post career highs in OBP (.367) and SLG (.382), Taveras’ career OPS is a putrid .668 – a full 116 points below the league average of .784 from 2004-08. And this is supposed to be the Reds’ leadoff hitter during the next two seasons?

When examining or evaluating the Reds, it’s vital to realize that the stadium the team plays in, the Great American Ball Park, is one of the smallest in baseball. Therefore, the club doesn’t require a gazelle, like Taveras, to patrol center field and can easily sacrifice some defense by inserting either a power hitter or on-base machine there.

That said, Jocketty had multiple options at his disposal (dependent upon, of course, how much money he was willing to spend). For example, he could have gone big ticket and traded for White Sox right fielder Jermaine Dye then shifted young, power-hitting phenom Jay Bruce into center. Bruce isn’t a burner, but his above average speed and strong arm would make him at least adequate there.

Or Jocketty could have done his shopping in the bargain aisle by inking old friend Jim Edmonds. Though he’s lost several steps in the field and his bat speed isn’t what it once was, Edmonds proved last year with a .256/.369/.568 performance in 250 at bats with the Cubs that he’s far from through. And he’d likely sign for well under half the $8 million he earned in 2008.

If the Reds were to sign Edmonds, it would also have made sense for them to procure the services of Rocco Baldelli. By now, Baldelli’s muscular-related health issues, which prevent him from playing regularly in the field, are well known. However, he would only be expected to serve as a right-handed caddy to Edmonds (who hit just .161 with Chicago against southpaws last season) and would be compensated as such.

A solution to the Reds’ catching “woes” would have been even less complicated. Instead of paying $6 million in 2009 for Hernandez (the Orioles, Hernandez’ former team, are on the hook for $2 million), the club would have been better served by giving the keys to incumbent Ryan Hanigan and signing a seasoned, defense-first free agent, a la Matt Treanor or Chad Moeller, to serve as Hanigan’s backup.

Though Hanigan played just 31 games in the majors last season, he earned rave reviews for his handling of the Reds’ pitching staff and threw out nearly 35% of opposing runners attempting to steal. At the plate, he acquitted himself well by posting a .367 OBP. It’s important to note that Hanigan’s on-base skills are extraordinary for a catcher. In 176 games in Double A and Triple A in 2007-08, Hanigan posted a robust OBP of .389.

With Hanigan earning around the big league minimum and his backup less than $1 million (the Tigers, for example, are paying the recently-signed Treanor $750,000 in 2009), the Reds would have saved over $4.5 million had they not traded for Hernandez. The team then would have had that much more capital at its disposal in its ongoing search for a left fielder and more arms for the bullpen, which earlier this offseason lost the valuable Jeremy Affeldt via free agency to the Giants.

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