Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wanted: Leftfielder who can "GO GET IT"

While the Reds continue to bandy about the names of potential leftfielders for the 2009 season, I once again ascend to the top of my soap box to advocate for the importance of team defense.

As Rany on the Royals (seriously, if you like good baseball writing, go read this site. And, we can all rejoice that Rob Neyer's ESPN work has been moved out from "behind the wall" again, so everyone can enjoy it free of charge) recently noted, Dayn Perry wrote a book entitled "Winners," in which he looked back on championship MLB teams to try to find similarities. One thing he found was that championship teams frequently have two centerfielders in the starting lineup, usually playing one in leftfield. The most recent example that leaps to mind was the Chicago White Sox playing Scotty Podsednik in left and Aaron Rowand in center in their championship season.

For far too long, the Reds have been hamstrung defensively by the structure of their roster. They had an aging and injury riddled Ken Griffey Jr. in center and the defensively challenged Adam Dunn in left. Injuries made the Griffey contract immovable and Dunn was too valuable offensively and too undervalued by the market to trade. So, we as Reds fans were left, on a nightly basis, to perservere through a defensive spectale that would only be appropriate under the big top. Poor range, misjudged flyballs, and singles turned into extra base hits. Unfortunately, I just don't think a team like the Reds will ever have enough superfluous talent to offset the damage done to their Win/Lose record from having a poor defensive squad.

So, as names like Magglio Ordonez, Juan Rivera, and even Adam Dunn are kicked around, I can't help but hope that the Reds don't repeat the mistakes of the past by locking up a defensively challenged player to a contract that will strip the club of roster flexibility and bring about another circus themed defense.

Personally, I don't think it's a coincidence that the best defensive squads are frequently still playing into October. Defense seems to be perpetually undervalued, perhaps because of the inherent difficulty in measuring it. A homerun is easy to see and appreciate, but tremendous range in the outfield isn't always easy to notice or appreciate. Still, a run saved is worth at least as much as a run scored, a fact I hope the Reds keep that in mind for the future.

Given the importance of having a quality team defense, perhaps the best course of action for the 2009 season is to just promote Drew Stubbs to play centerfield and shift Chris Dickerson over to leftfield. That would give the Reds two gold glove caliber centerfielders in their starting outfield. If those two can save the Reds 20-30-40 runs over the course of a season, then they would add roughly 2-3-4 more wins in the win column with their defense alone. Will they be able to acquire an offensive outfielder who can add that kind of impact with the bat? At what cost?

That said, if the Reds do want to sign an impact bat to play leftfield, then I might be be ok with Milton Bradley. I know Uncle Milty is a bit of a headcase and has significant injury problems, but I have long been a fan of his. I don't think I have ever mentioned him on this blog, but I have been a fan of Bradley's since his stellar 2003 season when he hit .321/.421/.501. I have been hooked ever since, as I tremendous appreciate for guys who can post a 3/4/5 slash line. They are the ultimate hitters, as they have the batting average skills, on base skills, and power to be incredibly well-rounded. That's the type of offensive game Bradley brings to the table. Granted, he benefitted from playing in the Ballpark at Arlington, but Great American Ballpark likely wouldn't suppress his numbers very much.

Unfortunately, I wonder whether the risk/reward balance is in our favor on signing Bradley. I love Milty's game, but there is undeniably a significant amount of risk to him. It's the same problem I had when Gil Meche hit the free agent market. Gil has long been one of my favorite pitchers and over the years I had thought of countless different scenarios for the Reds to acquire him from the Mariners. That said, I'm not sure I would have had the stones to sign him to the type of contract the Royals used to acquire him. The risk/reward balance wasn't great, but it is paying off in a big way for the Royals. Given the risk, you may not find great organizational success by rolling the dice on this type of acquisition very often, but maybe this is a time where it would pay off. Dropping Milton into the cleanup spot of the lineup between Votto and Bruce could a huge impact move on the Reds. As a switch hitter, he would bring much more R/L balance to the lineup and give the Reds the threat they need from the right side. Not to mention, his on base skills rival those of Adam Dunn, which is always a good thing.

Bradley has stated that he wants (and feels he has earned) a multi-year contract. With that in mind, I'd be tempted to offer him a three year deal worth $7-8M annually. That would be an increase in salary and in security for Bradley, but it would still make sense for the Reds, as it isn't high enough to limit the Reds in other areas and as a Type B free agent they wouldn't have to forfeit a draft pick to get him. Not to mention, given Bradley's injury history and volatility, I think most teams would have a hard time justifying signing him for more money or years. The Blue Jays, who are reputed to be interested and also have a DH slot available, may be the exception and could offer him more. If they would, then they can have him. That said, if the Reds actually CAN get him for three years and $24M....

Even with his injury problems, I'd have a hard time turning down 130 games a year from Bradley at $7-8M. If we felt comforable that he could give us that as a full-time leftfielder, then I'd pull the trigger. If we need to bring in a caddy for him as a late inning defensive replacement and a starter when injuries strike, then I'd look at Matt Murton. I still like Murton's game and, whaddaa know, he's probably the best defensive leftfielder in all of baseball. Maybe it always actually DOES come back to defense.

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