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December 30, 2008

Prospectus Today

The OBP Pit

by Joe Sheehan

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I am almost always too optimistic about the Reds.


Predicted Wins vs. Actual

Year    Sheehan   Reality
2008      82         74
2007      72         72
2006      83         80
2005      81         73
2004      80         76

Before I was predicting records, I picked the Reds to win the division in 2003 as well. They went 69-93 and finished last. I suspect that I've been overrating the value of their left-handed power-typically Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr.-while not docking them enough for poor defense, mediocre back-end pitching, and some lineup holes in each season. In any case, I have usually seen them as a .500 team with some upside, and they haven't been relevant in the NL since BP was an entirely free site.

Now, the team's composition has changed considerably over the last calendar year, as some young talents (Jay Bruce, Joey Votto) have earned lineup spots; as Dunn and Griffey have been traded away; as young starters Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez took rotation slots and combined for 63 starts of 3.96 ERA with good peripheral statistics. The 2009 Reds are going to be built . . . well, let's let GM Walt Jocketty tell it.

"With the addition of Willy Taveras and Ramon Hernandez, along with Alex Gonzalez and Brandon Phillips, our defense substantially improves up the middle." (AP)

Well, just two of those are technically additions, and neither is clearly an upgrade. The Reds did sign Willy Taveras to a two-year contract over the weekend, and Taveras should make their center-field defense better by enough to make a difference in the team's run prevention . . . except that his numbers have been lousy the last two seasons in Colorado; a net negative defensive player per the Plus/Minus system, eighth of ten NL qualifiers in Revised Zone Rating last year, and below average in the same stat in '07. Taveras has the skill set of a good center fielder, but he has not performed like one since he was in Houston, so it's a jump to conclude that he'll make a big difference in Cincinnati. Hernandez had lousy defensive numbers the last two seasons in Baltimore, throwing out just 44 of 211 basestealers. Gonzalez was a slightly plus defender at 29 and 30 years old; he'll be 32 and coming off of a season missed to knee surgery. Of Jocketty's four examples, only Brandon Phillips is clearly an asset with a glove on.

What the four players do all have in common isn't helpful:


             Age  OBP/2008  OBP/Career
Hernandez     33   .308      .326
Taveras       27   .308      .331
Gonzalez      32    N/A      .295
Phillips      28   .312      .308

I encourage you to try and construct a lineup with those four players (and a pitcher) that doesn't break down very badly at some point. Acquiring Taveras exacerbates a real problem for this team, something that Jocketty doesn't seem to recognize:

"Willy Taveras fills two significant needs for our ballclub, a speed base-stealing threat at the top of the order, and superior defense in center field."

The second part, as noted, is in question. The first isn't actually a need. It's 2008, nearly 2009, and you can still hold a GM job saying stuff like the above. I do not get it. The most important thing that a leadoff hitter does is not make outs. You need a high-OBP guy in that slot to bat in front of what should be your best hitters in the second and third slots, the players who bat for average and power that will advance the runner around. Basestealing actually matters less for a leadoff hitter, because the cost of an out is high and the value of the marginal base is low given the caliber of batters to follow. This is all basic stuff, Sabermetrics 040 for the kids who didn't pass in high school, and yet Walt Jocketty thinks Willy Taveras and his .331 career OBP-.308 last year, .333 or less in three of four seasons-is a leadoff solution.

The problem with Taveras is that his only skill is speed. He never walks (115 unintentionals in 2,170 PAs, or a bit more than once a week in his career) and he has no power (.054 ISO, and even that is inflated by "leg" extra-base hits), which means he has to bat .320 to be a viable offensive player. He did that once, in '07 with the Rockies. With a career strikeout rate of one every six at-bats or so, he needs to hit .370 on contact, minimum, to be a viable player. Hie career mark is .338. There just aren't enough actual skills here to build a regular baseball player. Taveras can run, and that's just about all he can do. He strikes out too much for a player with no power, and he doesn't walk enough for a player with his batting average. Ichiro Suzuki or Luis Castillo, guys who Taveras might emulate, both do at least one thing better than he does.

Now, in the short term, this could work out well. Taveras' value is in some large part determined by what happens when he puts the ball in play, and the outcomes there can vary a bit. What would make him a contributor, and would make Jocketty look like a genius, is if he could get a slew of bunt singles, find some holes, and accidentally hit .330 in 2009. That's the entire upside, the potential for an on-contact career year that gets Taveras to first base 36 percent of the time.

As much as the Reds needed a center fielder, they needed OBP more. This lineup spot would have been better used on one on the many corner outfielders lurking on the market, leaving Jay Bruce to patrol center field for another season. Adding Taveras to the many low-OBP right-handed batters already in Cincinnati is likely the straw that breaks the offense's back. When Joey Votto hits .304 with 31 homers and 77 RBI next year and gets derided as "unclutch," remember this signing.

The Reds have some upside. Their front four starters match up with any NL team's outside of Chicago and San Francisco, and in Votto and Bruce they have the beginnings of a championship lineup. The hole in left field is apparently going to be filled by Chris Dickerson, but you have to look at Bobby Abreu, or even Adam Dunn, and wonder how cheaply the Reds could get a hitter to bat third who would make a 20- or 30-run difference for them. The Reds are going to have to score in the middle of the lineup, because the Hernandez/Gonzalez/pitcher/Taveras/Phillips stretch is going to be out-tastic, and they certainly have the money on hand for a short-term improvement.

They could also bargain-shop and snag Juan Cruz, who would not cost them their number one pick, but rather their number two, which won't come up until well past the 60th overall selection. That would give them a bat-missing hurler to pair with Jared Burton in front of Francisco Cordero, and perhaps turn the bullpen into a strength. Add in the aforementioned rotation, and you can see where the Reds might, with just a couple of additions, become a player in the soft National League. They would have looked better, however, without adding another OBP sink to a lineup loaded down with them.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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