The Cincinnati Reds should feature a productive offense and a strong defense in 2011, but will Dusty Baker’s lineup construction optimize either asset? Looking at recent history, which includes poor OBP at the top of the order and his best defensive shortstop on the bench, that may not happen without a few helpful suggestions. So Dusty, If you’re reading this,here are four moves to help improve your run production and run prevention alike.
1. Ryan Hanigan should be the primary catcher and hit in the two-hole.
This should not be a difficult decision. Hanigan is better defensively than Ramon Hernandez and he possesses better plate discipline and on-base skills than Baker’s other top-of-the-order options.
Hernandez logged more plate appearances  than Hanigan  last season, but the latter was more productive, hitting .300/405/.429 to Hernandez’s .297/.364/.428. Going forward, the 30-year-old Hanigan should be able to at least approximate his 2010 performance, while the 35-year-old Hernandez, given his age, track record over the past four seasons, and .332 BABIP, is likely to regress. Hanigan, who had a .313 BABIP, has a career .379 OBP in the big leagues — 50 points higher than Hernandez — and at this stage of their careers their power numbers are comparable.
A move from the eight-hole to second in the order may result in Hanigan’s walk rate [13.6] decreasing somewhat, but with a speedy Drew Stubbs on first base [more on that in a minute] and Joey Votto at the plate instead of the pitcher, he will also see more fastballs. That should only help his team-best 20.8 line-drive rate, while his combination of patience and contact skills [10.3 K rate] will aid the running game. Brandon Phillips, who spent time in the two-hole last year when not leading off, had inferior walk [6.7] and K [13.3] rates and is better suited to hit lower in the lineup.
2. Drew Stubbs should be the leadoff hitter.
Yes, the young outfielder struggled when put in this role last season, but unlike Phillips [career .316 OBP], we don’t yet know what he is capable of. We know that in a short sample size as a leadoff hitter, early in his first full season, he wasn‘t impressive. But we also know that he reached base at better than a .390 clip over the last two months and that his on-base numbers in the minor leagues were consistently above average. His 2010 walk rate was a solid 9.4, so he is by no means averse to accepting a free pass.
Stubbs strikes out more than you’d like from a leadoff hitter, but Dusty Baker loves speed at the top of the order — Corey Patterson and Willy Taveras, anyone? — and Stubbs certainly has wheels. He led the team with 30 steals last year and that number should only rise as his on-base skills mature. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see him steal 50 bases as early as this season.
Many Reds fans will look at Stubbs’ 22 home runs, and potential to hit 30-plus, and say that he should hit behind Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen. There is merit to that argument, but given Baker’s limited options — and the fact that starting a game with a 1-0 lead isn’t a bad thing — there really isn’t anyone on the current roster who profiles better as a leadoff hitter. The only one who comes close is the player who should get the lion’s share of time in left field, and no, he isn’t named Gomes.
Gomes is a popular player, he hits for some power and had some timely RBIs last year, but he simply isn’t that good. That isn’t to say he can’t play a valuable role on the 2011 Reds, but it shouldn’t be as the full-time left fielder. Gomes does one thing well — hit left-handed pitching — and everything else below average.
Playing a position that demands offensive production, Gomes hit .266/.327/,431 last year — essentially replacement level — and his splits were striking. He hit .285/.378/.479 against portsiders, but against right-handed slants he went just .257/.301/.408, which is shortstop-hitting-in-the-eight-hole territory [on this team, that would be Paul Janish; more on him soon]. Add in the fact that Gomes is sub-par defensively, and what you have is a situation that screams for a platoon.
The left-handed-swinging Lewis is by no means an impact player, but he counterbalances Gomes’ weaknesses. He plays far better defense, runs well, and doesn’t suck against right-handers. He provides better OBP [.348 over his career], and while he possesses less raw power than Gomes, he did go deep 8 times in 335 at bats against right-handers last summer. Great American Ballpark is friendly to balls driven to right field, so Lewis could reach double digits given the same amount of playing time, putting him on a par with the 12 Gomes hit versus righties. All of that said, Chris Heisey would probably outperform a Lewis-Gomes platoon, but given the unlikelihood of him being given that opportunity, Lew-Go is Baker’s best option in left field.
4. Edgar Renteria should be nothing more than an afterthought.
One year ago, Paul Janish appeared poised to take over the shortstop position, only to see 35-year-old Orlando Cabrera signed to a contract and handed the job. While Janish and his gold-glove-quality defensive skills subsequently languished on the bench, Cabrera’s hack-tastic hitting approach [.303 OBP], minimal power [.354 SLG], and not-what-it-once-was defense added sparse value. Cabrera has since departed and been replaced by another aging shortstop whose best days are long behind him.
It is a well-accepted fact that Janish won’t hit much, but does he really need to at the bottom of the order on a National League club? What he does is play spectacular defense, and a Phillips-Janish keystone combination would be among the best in the game. Run prevention will play a huge role in the team’s chances this season, and Baker will be doing his pitching staff a huge favor if he plays talent ahead of what is left of Renteria.
If Janish gets hurt — or if he hits like Ray Oyler instead of approximating the .260/.338/385 he put up last year — there are better fall-back options than Renteria. Zach Cozart is waiting in the wings, having provided strong defense, 17 home runs, and 30 stolen bases in Triple-A last year, while Chris Valaika is a good young hitter who catches what he gets to. Janish, Cozart and Valaika all have promise, and 37-year-old Miguel Cairo already provides greybeard infield depth, so Renteria should be deemed superfluous. Trust the kids, Dusty.