Thursday, January 27, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #11 Ryan LaMarre, of

Ryan LaMarre
Height 6-2, Weight 185, B/T: R/L, DOB: 11/21/1988
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: N/A

His career has barely begun, but Ryan LaMarre is already something of a rarity, as he's the unusual combination of righthanded hitter and lefthanded thrower, but he has an impressive blend of skills and tools that may soon make him noteworthy for his play.

While he hasn't been in the organization for long, LaMarre is already one of my favorite prospects. His natural athleticism and baseball specific skills could make him a very well-rounded player. And, if everything breaks right in his development and all the cosmic tumblers click into place, then he might be a special talent.


The Reds selected LaMarre with the 62nd overall pick in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft as a draft eligible junior out of the University of Michigan. Prior to the draft, he was projected as a late first round pick, so the fact that he was still available to the Reds in the 2nd round represents good value.

LaMarre wasn't drafted out of high school, but blossomed into one of the best amateur players in the country at the University of Michigan. In his collegiate career, LaMarre hit .356 with 20 home runs and drove in 125 runs in 140 games. He was a two-time winner of the Bill Freehan award as the the team's top hitter.

Freshman - .305/.376/.404/.780 with a 25/11 K/BB ratio.
Sophomore - .344/.468/.599/1.067 with a 36/33 K/BB ratio.
Junior - .419/.459/.649/1.108 with a 20/5 K/BB ratio.

As a junior, LaMarre missed some time when he broke his thumb diving for a ball in the outfield, but it wasn't enough to stop him from earning All Big Ten first team honors. In the final analysis, it was a stellar collegiate career.

As for high school days, it's worth noting that LaMarre earned 12 varsity letters for Lumen Christi, four each in football, hockey, and baseball. Maybe it's more common than I think, but I'm not sure I've ever actually heard of someone being a four-year varsity athlete in three separate sports. So, in a bit of understatement, I'll just say that he's a fairly good athlete.


LaMarre wasted little time in signing a professional contract with the Reds and quickly demonstrated the advantages of signing early.

The Reds sent LaMarre to low-A Dayton to start his professional career. For the Dragons, he played 60 games and collected 227 ABs in which he hit .282/.370/.396 with 5 homers, 18 steals in 25 attempts, and a 53/21 K/BB ratio. It wasn't an explosive debut, as his line drive rate was uninspiring at 14% and his stolen base success rate was only 72%. Even so, LaMarre demonstrated the ability to control the strike zone, which portends well for his future, especially with his strong set of tools. However, it is worth noting that his on-base percentage was boosted by a surprising 12 hit-by-pitches. Given his hockey/football background, it's not inconceivable that LaMarre is using the hit-by-pitch as an offensive weapon, a la Craig Biggio.

The Reds then bumped him up to high-A to finish out the season. For the Lynchburg Hillcats, LaMarre hit .222/.276/.407 with 1 homer, 1 steal in 2 attempts, and a 4/2 K/BB ratio. It's such a small sample size that it barely warrants mention, but he hit line drives at only a 9% clip. Even so, reaching high-A in the half season after he signed was a nice achievement for LaMarre and he'll likely return to high-A to start the 2011 season.

By signing early, LaMarre managed to get into 68 games and collect 254 professional At Bats, which is actually a fairly significant amount of experience, especially when compared to 1st round pick and late signer Yasmani Grandal, who only managed to get into 8 professional games in 2010. I'm all for players negotiating a contract number that they feel they deserve, but there is something to be said for signing early and getting your professional career started. If a player is confident in his abilities, then it may make sense to sign quickly and begin the climb to the majors. The quicker the player reaches the majors, the quicker they obtain their 6 seasons of service time and hit free agency.

Jason Varitek was originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 1994 draft, but didn't sign until April 20th, 1995. So, he basically sat out a whole season and someone much smarter than I am calculated that his decision ultimately cost him millions. He may have gotten more money up front in his signing bonus, but he also likely cost himself an MLB season at free agency prices. Obviously, he couldn't have known that he would make it to the majors and have so much success, but holding out for a few hundred thousand more isn't always the best thing for the player.

That certainly won't be the case for LaMarre, who signed early and got the jump on his career. As a result, he put himself in a much better position to start out the 2011 season.


LaMarre starts with a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance, a low back elbow, and a calm demeanor. His hand position is in close to his body and in front of his right shoulder. To transfer his weight to meet the pitch, he uses a fairly high leg kick and a legitimate stride to meet the pitch. As his stride moves his body forward to meet the pitch, he draws his hands back into proper hitting position. He has good hip rotation, which helps power his swing. After he clears his hips, he fires his swing. LaMarre generates good bat speed and gets good extension out and through the ball, but keeps both hands on the bat during his follow-through.

However, his stride and swing both have a bit of length to them. In the professional ranks, he will likely need to tighten up his swing and shorten his path to the ball to reach his ceiling. If he doesn't, then he may be susceptible to hard fastballs in on the hands. He also may need to work on keeping his hands inside the ball, which isn't a type of swing you see all that often in the metal bat college game where pulling the ball is frequently the name of the game.

Overall, LaMarre has good swing mechanics that could enable him to hit for both average and power. He may need a tweak or two, but he has a sound foundation on which to build his offensive game.

In this second clip, LaMarre doesn't exactly flash good swing mechanics, but it does show his good speed out of the batter's box.


Early reports on LaMarre's defensive abilities are positive. He moves well in the outfield and should have the necessary range for all three positions. He also gets good reads off the bat and good jumps on the ball, which when coupled with his speed enables him to cover a lot of ground. His arm strength is only average, but he has good accuracy.

In 2010, LaMarre split time almost equally between centerfield and rightfield. Obviously, his value will be higher if he can stick in center, but his versatility is a plus, especially with Drew Stubbs likely entrenched in center for the foreseeable future. Overall, LaMarre seems a good bet to be able to handle centerfield, which would make him an intriguing talent.

LaMarre has a nice blend of tools and skills, but he also has something else working in his favor: intangibles. His background in hockey and football gives him an invaluable gamer type mindset which should serve him well in professional baseball. Players with a football background typically have a blue-collar type game. Hockey is a sport that values humility, sacrifice, and putting the team first. These types of intangibles should help LaMarre with the challenges of professional baseball and help his total game be greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Intangibles are important. Whether it's Pete Rose yelling "bunch of losers" at his Big Red Machine teammates to drive them on to victory or Johnny Bench playing through injury to help the team, intangibles are a key part of all great teams. LaMarre may have a few to bring to the table.


The Reds have had a lot of success in drafting University of Michigan Wolverines, including such luminaries as Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, Hal Morris, and others. Hopefully, LeMarre is the next in a long line of Wolverine talent to suit up for the Redlegs. He has an intriguing blend of tools and skills, upside and polish. The fact that he also plays a premier defensive position and plays it well gives him nice total value as a prospect.

LaMarre was actually a player I wanted the Reds to select in the 2010 draft and I was ecstatic to see that they did. I have high hopes for LaMarre and his combination of polish and upside lands him at #11 on the list.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #15 Ismael Guillon, lhp

Ismael Guillon
Height 6-3, Weight 185, B/T: L/L, DOB: 2/13/1992
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: N/A

Well, prospects like Ismael Guillon are the toughest prospects to evaluate, as they don't really have an amateur track record and are so young that they haven't logged appreciable innings at the professional level. Even so, the scouting reports are so strong on him that I simply can't leave him off the list.

Guillon, a native Venezuelan, was one of the top international free agents in 2008. Scouts were split as to whether he profiled best on the mound or as a first baseman/outfielder. Perhaps because he throws from the left side, the Reds viewed him as a better option on the mound.

The Reds moved fast and signed the then 16-year old to a contract worth $600,000. However, the Reds subsequently voided the contract after they discovered an injury during a physical. The organization re-signed him for a lesser amount due to added injury risk and the need for Guillon to rehab the ailment.

2010 Season

Guillon has barely put a toe into the professional baseball waters, but, in 2010, at age 18, he made a solid professional debut in the Rookie Arizona League. He tossed 57.0 innings in which he put up a 3.32 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 3.6 BB/9, 11.5 K/9, and .193 batting average against. Like most power pitchers, he was more of a fly ball pitcher, as evidenced by a 0.75 GB/FB ratio.

Obviously, a stellar performance, but it's against a very inexperienced level of competition and Guillon is considered to be pretty polished for his age. It'll be interesting to see what he can do as he climbs the ladder and faces better competition.

Pitching Mechanics and Arsenal

According to Tony Fossas, who served as a pitching instructor in Arizona, Guillon possesses an 88-92 fastball, a potentially plus change-up, and a work-in-progress curveball.

One of the red flags on Guillon has been his mechanics, including an unusual pitching wrist wrap. There are a few photos of Guillon on that are definitely worth look.

In those photos, you can see a somewhat unusual wrist position, but on the plus side he's got a great stride. The longer the stride, the more power generated by the lower body. And, of course, when the power is generated by the lower body, the arm has to do less work to generate velocity. As a result, pitchers who throw with their entire body should have a reduced risk of injury. Time will tell if his arm action and unorthodox wrist wrap are cause for concern, but he has good size which enables him to throw on a downward plane, allows for additional physical projection, and may help increase his durability.

For now, Guillon is a bit of unknown, but early reports are promising so he lands at #15 on the list.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #16 Neftali Soto, c/inf

Neftali Soto
Height 6-2, Weight 180, B/T: R/R, DOB: 2/28/1989
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #9

Neftali Soto had one of the more interesting years of any Reds prospect, but ultimately it was another somewhat lackluster year from a development point of view. At this point, it is time for the Reds to focus on what Soto does well, rather than what he does poorly. It's clear that Soto isn't going to be an impact defensive player, but he has power that just about rivals anyone in the system and allow him to develop into an impact offensive talent.

Heading into 2011, it would seem wise for the Reds to settle on first base as his long-term position and would be advisable for Soto to start hitting like one.

2010 Season

It was an odd season for Soto, who repeated high-A. Fortunately for him, the Reds changed affiliates from the pitcher's paradise Sarasota to the more hitter friendly Lynchburg.

He flashed the impressive power and hit to the tune of .268/.319/.460/.778 in 522 ABs. He hit 33 doubles, 2 triples, and 21 homers to go along with a 105/32 K/BB ratio. In his second go-around at high-A, Soto boosted his OPS by .136 points. Unfortunately, his line drive rate plummeted from 23% in 2009 down to 12% in 2010.

Oddly enough, Soto was much more productive against righthanders (.827 OPS in 364 ABs) than he was against lefties (.666 OPS in 158 ABs), which is something that should tip back into his favor as his development continues. It's rather rare for hitters to have a reverse platoon split, but players in the lower minors simply don't have much experience against strong lefties. However, it seems likely that the uninspiring performance against southpaws will normalize as he gains more experience. If so, then his overall numbers will also improve.

Overall, it wasn't a bad performance for Soto, as it is 13% easier to hit a double and 9% harder to hit a homer in Lynchburg than the average park. So, Soto certainly earned each and everyone of the 12 homers he hit at home. Of course, power has never been in question for Soto, but the development of his on-base skill still lags dangerously behind.

Since his arrival in the organization, Soto's offensive profile has been that of an early-count type hitter, as both his walk and strikeout rates have been low. Walks and strikeouts both require a hitter to see a significant amount of pitches, so the more pitches a hitter sees the more likely those outcomes become. However, unlike Juan Francisco who piles up the negative late-count outcomes without reaping many of the positive late-count outcomes, Soto manages to avoid both in equal measure.

When he arrived on the scene, I thought Soto had the type of swing that would enable him to hit for both average and power. So, even though the on-base skill was lacking, he still seemed an interesting and potentially productive offensive prospect. However, he has yet to put it together over a long enough stretch to even come close to reaching his ceiling.

Donning the Tools of Ignorance and Defensive Value

In last year's write up, I was skeptical about the rumors circulating that Soto might be tried behind the plate. In 2010, those rumors were proven true. It was a curious decision, but the front office decided to give Soto some work at the catcher position. Given my view of Soto as an offense-first type prospect, it seemed odd to force him to focus on something other than developing his "hit tool."

The obvious rationale was that Reds were trying to drive up his player value by boosting his positional value. However, the real question is whether Soto is the type of player who can handle such a switch.

Catcher is not only the most difficult position on the defensive spectrum, but also the most unique, which raises the question of how the skills required to play the position compare with those required to play the other premier defensive positions. It's clear that the skills that make a player a good shortstop are equally applicable to second base. But, is the skill set of the catcher more comparable to a shortstop? Or, more comparable to skills found at the lower end of the spectrum?


So, can a player like Soto, who is likely best suited for first base, jump from one extreme to another? Or, does catcher require those skills inherent in those positions closest to it on the spectrum?

When I think about players who have successfully transitioned both back behind the plate and away from it, there are three players that come to mind: Brandon Inge, Buster Posey, and Craig Biggio.

Brandon Inge attending Virginia Commonwealth University, where he excelled as both a shortstop and a relief pitcher. The Tigers selected him in the 2nd round of the 1998 draft and immediately shifted him to catcher. While the catching experiment didn't pan out, it wasn't because Inge was a defensive liability. Quite the contrary, Inge was a very strong defensive catcher, but the tools of ignorance simply sapped his offensive production to the point where he wasn't a viable everyday player. The physical demands of the position dragged down his production to the point where the Tigers were forced to move him off the position. When he was moved to the hot corner, his offensive production improved to the point where he was a viable starter.

Next up is Buster Posey. As a freshman at Florida State, Posey was the full-time starter at shortstop and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American. As a sophomore, he was moved behind the plate and the rest is pretty much history. After just one season at the position, Posey was a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award, which is awarded to the best catcher in college baseball. And, of course, he just took home the hardware for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Finally, we have Craig Biggio, who arrived on the scene as a catcher. The Astros were so fond of his bat that they quickly shifted him to second base to save the wear and tear on his body and prolong his career. They feared that they would lose the value of his speed on the bases and his production at the plate far too soon.

These players have several things in common. First, they are all good defensive catchers. Second, they are all good defensive players at premier defensive positions. Inge is not only an exceptional defensive third baseman, but has the athleticism to capably handle the defensive positions higher up on the defensive spectrum. Third, they have good athleticism with strong footwork.

In the end, it does seem like the catcher transition is best handled by those who are coming from the premier defensive positions. Unfortunately, that just isn't the scenario with Neftali Soto.

Overall, Soto played 10 games behind the plate and the results were predictably rather rough. His fielding percentage was a mere .971, he allowed 2 passed balls, and caught only 1 out of 16 basestealers. When he wasn't catching, he played primarily first base. He played 91 games at first, 7 at thirdbase, and 10 behind the plate. So, he spent time at both ends of the defensive spectrum in 2010 and ultimately performed much better at first base.

When all is said and done, Soto projects as an offense-first prospect who is best suited to first base. His footwork isn't impressive and his footspeed is poor. His overall game seems a bit lethargic at times. As a result, he is lacking the quickness needed to move laterally to block balls in the dirt and the footwork to explode out of the crouch and into proper throwing position. In total, his athleticism just isn't strong enough to handle the catcher position.

While the catcher experiment was undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of Soto's year, the more important note is that he went from a full-time third baseman in 2009 to a near full-time first baseman in 2010. Ultimately, that's where he belongs.

Swing Mechanics

Soto has a smooth swing that you don't often associate with righthanded hitters. His pre-pitch setup involves a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and a high back elbow. Soto seems to tinker with his stride (more on that later), but after he strides he fires his hips, which creates significant rotational energy and generates the power in the swing. After he clears his hips, the bat comes around and through the zone. He does a nice job of controlling barrel of the bat and gets good extension in his swing. His slight uppercut creates good loft and carry on the ball.

Below you can see a few photos of Soto at the plate.

Despite the strong hip rotation, Soto maintains good balance throughout the swing. However, Soto seems to experiment with different strides and has yet to lock into a consistent lower body move.

In this first video, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues, Soto uses a higher stride. He lifts his foot up high off the ground and brings it forward to transfer his weight and trigger the swing. These types of higher strides are typically used by hitters as timing mechanisms. The downside is that pitchers can upset that timing with good offspeed pitches, which work to get the hitter out on the front foot too early. Here, however, Soto uses it to great effect in hitting a long homerun.

In this next video, Soto is using an entirely different stride. I'm somewhat hopeful that he was just exaggerating this new stride to correct a perceived problem, because I fail to see how anyone can actually hit using this type of stride.

Anyway, take a quick look at Soto in this video clip courtesy of OPvideoNotOrioles on YouTube:

As you can see, his pre-pitch stance finds his weight significantly out over the front foot. In fact, it's so extreme that he even has a forward lean to his pre-pitch stance. As the pitcher winds and delivers, Soto shifts his weight back to his right foot and strides forward ever so slightly with his left foot. However, his stride is way too early. As a result, he ends up spread out well before the pitch enters the hitting box. You can actually see him waiting on the pitch from his spread out position.

This early stride creates two problems. First, spreading out too early saps the swing of power, as the hips simply cannot rotate effectively to power the swing. The wider the stance, the more difficult it is to get good hip rotation. And, when you factor in how early he spreads out, it is even more difficult to generate good hip action. Second, spreading out makes Soto very susceptible to offspeed pitches and pitches on the outer half. He simply cannot adjust to those pitches, as he has already committed towards the pitcher.

It's somewhat similar to the old axiom about playing first base. You stretch to meet the throw, not before the throw is made, because once you get spread out you simply cannot adjust to go get throws that arrive in an unexpected location.

The above clip is such an extreme example that I'd love to just write it off as some over-exaggerated coaching technique designed to rein in his high leg kick. However, it seems to me that he is doing something similar in the following clip courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues.

Below, he faces Johnny Cueto in a 2009 spring training game and again seems to be using a stride similar to what he used in the clip above. It's tougher to see because the video is taken from behind homeplate, but he again seems to have a forward lean in his pre-pitch stance and a very small, early stride towards the pitcher. Once again, he seems to be spread out way too soon, which robs him of good hip rotation in the swing.

Perhaps most tellingly in the two video clips in which he uses the early stride are the outcomes, as he grounds out weakly to the rightside in both at bats. He spread out too soon, which robbed the swing of the power generated by the lower half. By committing too soon, he is unable to adjust to pitches on the outer half. In the end, he is left with nothing but a weak arm swing that results in weak ground balls and easy outs for the pitcher.

When he hits with that type of stride, he may still be able to pull pitches with authority, but it's difficult to imagine him being able to effectively hit the ball to the opposite field. Obviously, more advanced competition will make it much more difficult for Soto to be a productive hitter while using only half the field. I'm not sure why or how often he is using such a stride, but I would encourage him to scrap it entirely, as it leaves him in poor hitting position and unable to properly adjust to offspeed pitches.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, Soto's future will be determined by his hitting. And, as an offense-first prospect, he's got a lot of work to do as he ascends up the ladder. He's unlikely to ever develop a strong on-base skill, so he'll need to show the ability to hit for average and power if he's going to make it to the majors. If he can't demonstrate those abilities, then his career will likely fizzle out. You can't make a living at the bottom of the defensive spectrum without at least two of the three slash line components.

As his career unfolds, he seems to be following the Juan Francisco career path. Namely, he's sliding down the defensive spectrum and lacking the offensive game to justify a starting job at those positions. But, in fairness, Soto's production hasn't been in the same ballpark as Francisco's. The power is nice, but he simply must be more productive. Soto will need to elevate his offense in 2011, but for now he checks in at #16.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reds Extend Votto. Good idea????

The news of the day is that the Reds have extended the contract of Joey Votto. A cause for celebration? Eh.....I'm not so sure.

Early word is that the Reds signed Joey Votto to a three-year extension worth $38M.

In Major League Baseball, contracts are guaranteed. In essence, unless a player retires or kicks the bucket, he will be entitled to every last dollar under that contract. As a result, MLB contracts are, to a certain extent, risk shifting mechanisms. The longer the contract, the more risk incurred by the franchise. The shorter the contract, the more risk incurred by the player. And, in the case of Joey Votto, who was already under team control for the next three seasons, this contract is largely about managing the risk.

The problem with this contract is that the Reds incurred risk unnecessarily. Even if the Reds had decided to go year-to-year with Votto through the arbitration process, they still had the power to keep Votto in Cincinnati for the next three years. But, by going year-to-year, they would have forced Votto to incur the risk of injury or poor performance. Instead, the three-year extension operates to shift that risk to the organization.

So, what exactly did the Reds get for incurring the extra two seasons of risk? Typically, when an organization buys out the arbitration years of one of its young players, the player agrees to give up a season or two of free agency in exchange for the guaranteed financial security. Under that scenario, the organization agrees to incur the added risk, but receives the benefit of an extra season or two of control over that player. Both sides obtain something of value, as the player gets financial security for life by shifting the risk to the organization, while the organization gets a couple extra seasons of control over that player in exchange for incurring the risk.

So, the question remains, what exactly DID THE REDS GET for taking on the extra two seasons of risk?

Well, they clearly didn't secure any extra years of control over Votto, so the only thing they can hope to have achieved is cost savings. But, realistically, how much cost savings did they get?

John Fay recently reported that Votto was likely to ask for between $8.5-9.5M in arbitration this year with the Reds countering at around $7M.

If we break it down, I think there's a good chance that Votto would win his arbitration case. Let's assume that he asks for $9M. The MLB arbitration process is based in part on the market, which in this case is defined as players eligible for arbitration for the first time. The most obvious comparison for Votto's arbitration case would be Ryan Howard.

In 2008, Ryan Howard won his arbitration case after asking for $10M with the Phillies countering with $7M. While some will argue that Howard was coming off the better season, I think it's clear that Votto was the better player. And, coming off an MVP award, it would be difficult to come up with a compelling case AGAINST Votto's salary demand.

So, if it had gone to arbitration, Votto would likely have earned ~$9M in 2011. Taking that away from the total value of the three-year extension and you have $29M remaining. Basically, Votto would have had to get MORE than $14M in 2012 and $15M in 2013 for the Reds to reap any financial savings on the contract extension.

I just don't see a ton of cost savings here for the Reds. If Votto strings together two more seasons like he had last year, then he would probably receive more through arbitration than he is set to receive under the contract extension. If Votto won $9M in arbitration in 2011, then a repeat performance would reasonably get him a $5M raise. So, the estimated $14M in salary for 2012 under the extension seems pretty reasonable for Votto. And, if he puts together another strong season in 2012, then I could see him earning somewhere in the $17-20M range for his final season, which would be better than the estimated $15M he'll earn under the contract. Of course, that entire scenario comes with the rather large IF regarding Votto's ability to stay healthy and productive over the next two seasons. Forcing him to go through arbitration would have left that rather sizable IF (and the risk that comes with it) resting on Votto's shoulders.

For this deal to make sense, the Reds needed to get an extra season or two of control over Votto. Jocketty should have played hardball with Votto, informing him that if he wants the guaranteed financial security, then he'll have to surrender two years of free agency. In an offseason defined by the length of the contracts being thrown around, it's surprising the Reds couldn't do better here than a three-year extension.

Instead, the Reds took on the risk and got little in return for doing so. They may save a few million on the back end of the deal, but that's only true if Votto continues to be healthy and produce at near MVP levels.

Now, admittedly, there are other factors at work that militate towards signing Votto to an extension that buys out solely his arbitration eligible seasons. First, arbitration is an ugly process. The team is forced to bad mouth the player in order to drive down his cost. And, understandably, that can lead to bad blood between the player and organization. It's not a fun process for either side. Second, a player of Votto's caliber has the ability to establish record breaking awards in every arbitration cycle. If that happened, he would establish a new benchmark for every subsequent arbitration hearing, which is an undesirable result for the other owners as it would operate to drag player salaries higher. Still, while these other factors certainly bear mentioning, I don't see either as a reason not to force Votto to go year-to-year unless he is wiling to forfeit a year or two of free agency.

As for Votto, he did quite well here. He obtained his financial security without having to delay his free agency eligibility. And, judging by the length of the deal, it is now very clear that Votto either wants out of Cincinnati or wants to test the lucrative waters of free agency. Regardless of whether it's the former or the latter, it now seems increasingly unlikely that Votto will spend the bulk of his career in Cincinnati, as the next time his contract is negotiated the Reds will likely be competing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and others.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hot Stove Review: Edgar and Freddie

Well, as we steam towards those magic words that all baseball fans long to hear, "Pitchers and catchers report", it's becoming increasingly likely that the Reds are done with their offseason improvement efforts.

Fortunately (or is it unfortunately?), this should be fairly short.

Edgar Renteria signed a one-year contract worth $2.1M in base salary and an additional $900,000 possible in incentives

I'm not an Edgar Renteria fan, so let's get that out of the way up front. If you asked me to write up a list of shortstop options that I would have pursued this offseason, Edgar wouldn't even have made the list. For the record, Jed Lowrie was the guy I wanted, but his late season offensive production means that the Reds probably waited too long to get him. And, given the Reds reticence to spend (either prospects or money) to acquire impact talent, they were left with their choice of the retreads and stopgaps. So, that constriction is the framework under which this signing must be measured.

Now, all that said and despite all efforts to the contrary, I am having a hard time working up much angst over this signing. Evidently, I've either been placated by the first taste of postseason baseball in years or just started going soft in my old age. Either way, it just doesn't seem like an acquisition to get too riled up over.

I value defense more highly than most, so I view Paul Janish as the clear cut choice to start at shortstop. Of course, that's what I wanted to see last year as well. Obviously, that didn't happen and because it didn't, the Reds really have no choice but to have a legitimate fallback plan for shortstop in place.

Part of the problem with the Reds gifting so much playing time to an underwhelming O-Cab was that Janish was arguably more productive when you factor in both offense and defense. However, the remaining part of the problem with giving so many innings to O-Cab was that it precluded the Reds from getting an extended look at Paul Janish. And, without an extended look, it's damn difficult to properly evaluate Paul Janish.

As I think I wrote in the year-end review of the infielders, Janish had solid overall numbers (.723 OPS), but his splits were volatile and occasionally illogical (.554 OPS at home vs. .858 OPS on the road, .824 OPS during the day vs. .648 OPS at night, etc). Unfortunately, the sample size is just too small to draw any definitive conclusions. If that weren't the case, then the signing of a veteran insurance policy would be much less defensible.

So, the Reds need a fallback option. You could (quite effectively) argue that Zack Cozart would be a sufficient fallback option, but the baseball industrial complex has always preferred its security blankets to have a lot of mileage on them.

Was Edgar the right fall back option? I think it's debatable. The type of production he will provide isn't exactly a mystery. It will be fairly minuscule. He should get a bit of a boost from Great American Ballpark, which is a real tonic for aging righthanded hitters (i.e. Rich Aurilia, Joe Randa, etc), but Edgar will be just a tick above replacement level. As for defense, Edgar will likely be a notch below O-Cab. So, the aggregate production will undoubtedly be uninspiring.

If they were willing to pay that kind of cash, why not just bring back Orlando Cabrera?

The Reds had a $4M mutual option on O-Cab, which cost them $1M to buy him out. So, the total cost of replacing O-Cab with Edgar will be between $3.1M and $4M ($1M buyout of O-Cab + $2.1M base salary with possible $900K in incentives). So, there are two possible outcomes to switching from O-Cab to Edgar.

First, Edgar won't perform well enough to justify enough playing time to reach the incentives, so the Reds will save $900K. Second, Edgar performs well enough to justify the playing time necessary to reach the incentives, so he'll cost exactly the same as O-Cab's $4M but probably provide better production. Either outcome represents an upgrade over O-Cab at his option price.

In essence, by switching from O-Cab to Edgar, the Reds ensured either better production or cost savings. Of course, it's entirely possible the Reds could have brought back O-Cab for less money or found a different veteran option. But, all in all, Edgar seems to fill the role that the Reds covet, that of the "veteran insurance policy", sufficiently, so maybe it IS worth the loss of continuity and intangibles to justify going from O-Cab to Edgar.

Of course, it's still not way I would have gone.

Freddie Lewis signed a one-year, $900,000 base salary with possible incentives

Now, here is a signing I can support, the second cousin of the perennially underrated Matt Lawton. I've been a fan of Fred Lewis for a number of years and I'm glad to see him get an opportunity with the Reds.

Lewis is a good athlete with a nice blend of skills. He has some pop and can swipe some bags. He covers a lot of ground in leftfield and has a patient approach at the plate. He also has a smooth lefthanded swing that should get a nice boost from the Great American Ballpark. All in all, Lewis has a lot of attributes that you look for in a ballplayer.

However, Lewis will likely split the fan base for one simple reason. He just doesn't seem to possess great baseball instincts. For example, despite his good range in the outfield, he is prone to making errors and his routes to the ball aren't always the best. As a result, people who watch him play frequently believe him to be a below average outfielder. Additionally, despite his good speed his stolen base success rate simply isn't that impressive. He gets nabbed more often than one would expect, as evidenced by his 74% career mark. In short, he's just not a very good percentage player.

Regardless, even with a few missteps and a bit of inefficiency in translating his tools into production, there is more than enough production left to justify his acquisition. In 2010, Lewis hit a respectable .262/.332/.414/.745 with 8 homers and 17 stolen bases for the Blue Jays. And, for his career, his line is .272/.348/.418/.766, so if anything he could do better in Cincinnati. Lewis could very easily become the best leadoff hitter the Reds have had in a number of years. And, the more ducks on the pond for Bruce and Votto, the better.

Overall, Lewis is a very good risk/reward acquisition and one that is MUCH more likely to pay off than Edgar Renteria. There should be very little to prevent Lewis from at least claiming the heavy half of a leftfield platoon with Jonny Gomes. And, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him claim the job outright, though that seems unlikely with Dusty at the helm.

And, for those who want to get to know a little bit about Fred Lewis, I highly recommend this ESPN story about a tragic accident that has shaped his life. It's damn near impossible not to root for him to make good after reading the article.

2011 Top Prospect List: #24 Cody Puckett, 2b

Cody Puckett
Height 5-10, Weight 175, B/T: R/R, DOB: 4/3/1987
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: N/A

Cody Puckett is looking like a nice value acquisition for the Reds. He has good athleticism, which makes him intriguing. His blend of speed and power effectively lifts his prospect ceiling. Despite being a college prospect, he's still rather raw in some aspects of the game, which gives him a lower floor. Ultimately, his future as a prospect will be determined by a battle between his offensive upside and defensive downside.

Collegiate Career and Draft Position

Puckett played three seasons for Cal State Dominguez Hills, showing significant linear improvement with each passing year.

As a freshman, Puckett stepped right into the lineup, playing 47 games and logging 182 ABs. He handled the bat well, posting a .308/.332/.456 slash line with 11 doubles, 2 triples, 4 homeruns, and a 26/8 K/BB ratio. He also swiped 5 bases in 7 attempts. As a freshman, Puckett didn't flash any plus speed, power, or on-base skill, but he certainly held his own.

During his sophomore season, Puckett played in 52 games and collected 214 ABs. During that time, he posted a stellar slash line of .313/.346/.551 with 18 doubles, 0 triples, 11 homeruns, and a 31/11 K/BB ratio. He also swiped 6 bases in 6 attempts. In his second season, the biggest improvement in his game was in the power department.

As a junior, Puckett hit .337/.462/.644 with 11 doubles, 0 triples, 17 homeruns, and a 33/42 K/BB ratio. His production was impressive and another positive is that he avoided any significant platoon split, hitting righthanders at a .335 clip and southpaws at a .341 clip. He also began to effectively utilize his speed, as his stolen base total jumped up to 26 in 29 attempts. He followed up his power improvement as a sophomore with significant improvement in his ability to control the strike zone. As a junior, his walk rate jumped up substantially, which could have been partially attributable to pitchers fearing his more powerful bat, but hindsight reveals it to be legitimate improvement that he carried with him to the professional ranks. Ultimately, his junior year represented a big step forward and one that caught the eye of professional scouts.

At least a pair of those eyes were in the employ of the Reds organization, as they selected Puckett in the 8th round of the 2008 draft with the 239th overall pick. While Puckett played primarily shortstop in college, the Reds felt his range and glove were better suited for a less taxing position.

2010 Season

Puckett spent the 2010 season at two different stops in the minors. He started out and spent the vast majority of his time at high-A Lynchburg. For the Hillcats, the 23-year old Puckett hit to the tune of .277/.350/.493/.843 in 542 plate appearances. He posted a 124/45 K/BB ratio to go along with a robust 40 doubles, 4 triples, and 18 homers. Once again, he flashed good speed and good instincts on the bases, swiping 17 bases in 21 attempts (81% success rate). He lashed linedrives at a rate of 19%, which more than supports his .277 batting average. In fact, he probably deserved a few more hits than he got.

After a stellar season in high-A, the Reds promoted him to double-A for 12 plate appearances. In that short stint, he collected 6 hits and a slash line of .500/.500/.667/1.167. He ripped line drives to the impressive tune of 36%. Obviously, far too small of a sample size to mean much of anything, but it was a nice start that he'll have a chance to build on in 2011.

Overall, it was a nice season for Puckett, as he flashed a well-rounded offensive game defined by a solid blend of power and speed.

Swing Mechanics

Puckett hits from an open, slightly wider than shoulder-width stance with a high back elbow. He holds his hands in front of his right shoulder and fairly far away from his body. There is a school of thought that holds that the farther away from the body a hitter holds his hands, the less control over the bat he may have. So, Puckett's pre-pitch stance doesn't quite have him in proper hitting position, but before the pitch is delivered he gets into good position.

First, his stride operates to close up his stance, as it includes a move in towards homeplate. His stride closes and cocks his hips, which enables him to generate load in the swing. In tandem with his stride, Puckett draws his hands back and in closer to his body, which brings them into proper hitting position and gives him better control over the bat.

When Puckett fires the swing, he doesn't get cheated. He has a compact swing and a direct swing path with a slight uppercut that generates good loft on the ball. And, while he doesn't have a big frame, he generates impressive power for his size with good bat speed. However, the power he generates at times comes at a cost.

Puckett's swing involves strong hand action and upper body rotation. Occasionally, the effort he puts into the swing causes him to spin off the ball, as his shoulder rotation occasionally causes his front shoulder to fly open and his swing to flatten out. When that happens, his front foot also opens up to disperse the rotational momentum.

Due to his smaller size, Puckett lacks much physical projection to his game. However, that shouldn't serve as much of a detriment to his game, as he already generates plus power.

Overall, Puckett has a solid swing that generates plus power. Despite his power swing, he does a nice a job making consistent, hard contact. So far, strikeouts have not been a significant problem, but he'll need to continue making contact against more advanced pitching. Additionally, he controls the strike zone well, as his shorter stature gives him a smaller strike zone to protect.

Here is a look at Puckett in action, courtesy of DOAsaturn on youtube:

Defensive Skills and Positional Value

Puckett is a good athlete, but has struggled with his glove work at second base. However, his bat profiles much better at that position, so he'll be given every opportunity to prove his ability to handle the position or play his way off it.

In 2010, Puckett once again spent the vast majority of his time at second base, but did log some time in the outfield. However, during 239 games at second in his minor league career, Puckett grades out as -13 runs below average under the Total Zone fielding metric.

Additionally, he not only struggles to reach balls, but also has difficulty converting those balls he does reach into outs. The strength and bulk that effectively power his swing somewhat work against him in the field, as his actions and hands are stiff and unforgiving. If he can't smooth out his glove work, then he'll have to slide down the defensive spectrum to the hot corner or a corner outfield spot. If that happens, then his bat becomes much less interesting.

Final Thoughts

Puckett's nice collection of tools drive his offensive game, which ultimately drives his overall value as a prospect. He's an offense-first prospect, but ultimately he may have a middle infield bat and a corner position glove, a combination that rarely portends well for the future. Still, if he can make improvements on offense, his bat will play at the offense-first positions, while defensive improvements will make his stay at a premier defensive position much more viable. Regardless, some improvement must be made for him to become a legitimate option as an MLB starter.

If no such improvement is made, then Puckett's future may be that of an offensive minded utility player. A player who, in limited duty, can handle the corner outfield and infield spots. His blend of power and speed is intriguing and gives him a respectable ceiling. Ultimately, he'll go as far as his bat and athleticism will take him. For now, they take him up to #24 on the list.

Friday, January 7, 2011

2010 Review: Relief Pitchers

And, time for quick spin through the bullpen:

Francisco Cordero -- Expectations: Medium, Grade: D+

Unfortunately, the Reds are on the hook for big money to a closer who is heading in the wrong direction. When the Reds signed Coco away from division rival Brewers, they were acquiring the services of an elite, shutdown closer. In each of the three seasons prior to joining the Reds, Coco tossed at least 63 innings, posted K/9 marks of greater than 10.0, and posted BB/9 marks of less than 4.0.

The Reds have gotten a couple of good seasons from Coco, but his performance has undeniably been a notch below where it was before arriving in the Queen City. That wasn't much of a problem in 2008 and 2009, but in 2010 it was alarming.

Coco's strikeout rate has fallen from 12.22 in his final year with the Brewers to 9.98 in 2008 to 7.83 in 2009 and finally to 7.31 in 2010. Those rates are typically more than acceptable, unless they are paired with walk rates of greater than 4.0. If you are going to walk that many, then you need to strikeout hitters at a dominant rate. Since 2002 through 2007, Coco sported a K/BB ratio of 2.37 or higher, with the high water mark being 4.78 in 2007. However, starting in 2008 on forward, he has posted K/BB marks of 2.05, 1.93, and 1.64. Coco's 2010 contact rate also jumped all the way up to 79%, which matched the second worst rate of his career.

Interestingly enough, Coco's problems largely came on the fastball, which simply lost effectiveness. In 2009, Coco's fastball was 8.1 runs above average, but in 2010 Coco's fastball was a mere 0.7 runs above average. The slider was exactly as effective in 2010 as it was in 2009, clocking in at 5.1 runs above average in both years.

Additionally, Dusty was fairly conservative with Coco's usage. The Bill James Handbook includes a stat for relievers called the Leverage Index. In short, a mark of 1.0 is an average leverage index. The higher the index, the more times the reliever is working with the game on the line. The lower the index, the more times the reliever is working in mop-up duty. For 2010, Coco's leverage index was 2.1, which is pretty standard for closers.

However, it's clear that Dusty tried to protect Coco to a certain extent, as Coco only inherited 4 runners the entire season (perhaps not surprisingly, 3 of the those runners came around to score). In comparison, San Francisco Giant closer Brian Wilson was utilized much more aggressively by Bruce Bochy, as he inherited a whopping 30 baserunners and allowed a mere 4 of them to score.

On the season, Coco only had 1 "tough save" opportunity, which is defined as a situation where the reliever enters the game with the tying run on base. And, of course, Coco blew his only "tough save" opportunity. Again, for comparison sake, Brian Wilson had 9 tough save opportunities and converted on 7 of them.

Overall, this declining dominance is not unexpected, as Coco will be 36-years old in early 2011. Unfortunately, that means his days of blowing the doors off the competition in the late innings are likely over.

Nick Masset -- Expectations: Medium, Grade: C

Masset continues to be a very effective member of the Reds bullpen and his acquisition in the Ken Griffey Jr. deal was one of the more unheralded of recent memory. At the time, Griffey had little to no trade value, but GM Walt Jocketty still managed to extract a high leverage reliever from the White Sox for his services. It's a deal that has helped solidify the back end of the bullpen and provided much needed late inning stability.

In 2010, Masset was essentially the same pitcher he was in 2009. He tossed 76.2 innings and posted a 3.40 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 3.9 BB/9, and 10.0 K/9. His walk rate and strikeout rate both increased, but the real difference in his performance came from a regression to the mean of his BABIP (from .250 in 2009 to .303 in 2010). Additionally, and not surprisingly in light of the increase in hit rate, his strand rate dropped from 80.5% in 2009 to 76.0% in 2010. Regardless, he was largely the same pitcher in 2010 as he was in 2009, as his FIP was 3.23 in 2009 and 3.38 in 2010.

On the season, his pitch mix was largely the same, except he threw the curveball 5% more often and the cutter 7.4% less often. Masset also worked heavily in key situations, as his Leverage Index was 1.3. He also inherited 32 runners, only 9 of whom came around to score, and posted an opponent OPS of .643.

In addition to the aforementioned increase in walk rate, Masset threw significantly fewer first pitch strikes (down to 48% in 2010 from 59% in 2009), so the command certainly did falter a bit in 2010.

Overall, Masset continues to post solid production that will ensure that Dusty leans heavily on him in the future high leverage situations. In fact, he could be next in line for the closer gig if Coco continues his slow fade.

Logan Ondrusek -- Expectations: Low , Grade: B+

Ondrusek quickly established that his breakthrough performance in the minors was no sample size fluke, as he carried his new found success and cutter to the bump in Great American Ballpark. He assumed a hefty workload and was a key member of the relief corps.

Logan tossed a 3.68 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over 58.2 innings. Not bad for a rookie. The strikeout (5.98 K/9) and walk (3.07 BB/9) rates aren't overly strong, but he actually did a nice job of missing bats (77.1% contact rate). The contact he did allow, however, was in the air more often than was expected by his minor league track record. On the season, Ondrusek actually had neutral groundball/flyball tendencies (0.99 GB/FB). His overall performance was aided by a lower than expected BABIP of .249. Overall, it was a nice season for Ondrusek, but he'll need to improve on his peripherals in 2011 if he wants to sustain his level of performance.

Ondrusek also did a very nice job stranding inherited runners. Of the 26 he inherited, only 7 came around to score. His 27% scoring clip was the second best on the team behind only ageless wonder, Arthur Rhodes, at 14%. Unlike Rhodes, however, Ondrusek was not used in high leverage innings (0.9 Leverage Index).

If Ondrusek can improve his peripherals, then he'll likely be spending time in more crucial, high leverage situations in 2011 and beyond. Ondrusek is a prime example of the improving depth and quality of the organization's farm system. As a general rule, the best arms in a farm system are developed as starting pitchers. In the past, the Reds had far fewer quality arms in the system, which resulted in prospects likely better suited to relieving being developed as starters. Given the miscasting of these prospects, the organization struggled to develop starters and relievers. The rebirth of the farm system has allowed the organization to bump quality arms like Ondrusek down into relief roles, where they can develop into assets for the Major League roster.

Arthur Rhodes -- Expectations: Medium, Grade: A

As remarkable as it sounds, Rhodes has posted a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the past three seasons. And, even more remarkably, the last two took place in the hitter's paradise known as Great American Ballpark. In 2010, he managed to be even better.

In 55.0 high leverage innings (1.4 Leverage Index), the 40-year old Rhodes posted a 2.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 50/18 K/BB ratio. Rhodes not only pitched well, but pitched well in crucial situations. He inherited 36 runners and stranded all but 5 of them. So, not only was his own ERA stellar, but he also bailed out other pitchers and helped keep their ERAs low.

Overall, Rhodes outperformed his peripherals, as his FIP of 3.24 was almost a full run higher than his actual ERA. Part of that discrepancy resulted from his .244 BABIP and 83.7% strand rate, which both could conceivably regress in the future.

Ultimately, Rhodes was the most valuable reliever on the roster in 2010. Unfortunately, the Reds let Rhodes get away to the Texas Rangers. After all the cries of poverty coming out of Cincinnati, one wonders if the $2M (possibly $3M if incentives are reached) they spent on Edgar Renteria would have been better used to bring Rhodes back in 2011. If Rhodes was still in the mix, then the Reds might be more willing to develop Aroldis Chapman in the minors as a starter. Art's departure created a hole in the bullpen that had to be filled. Chapman has been tabbed as just the player to do it. Aroldis dominated as a reliever, but the longer he stays in that role, the less likely he'll be moved back to the starting rotation.

The departure of Rhodes means not only the loss of his production, but perhaps also a change in long-term role for Aroldis Chapman. If true, Rhodes's departure could have a long lasting impact on the future of the organization.

Jordan Smith -- Expectations: Low, Grade: B

Smith joined Logan Ondrusek to give the Reds an unexpected tandem of homegrown, young relievers. Smith tossed 42.0 innings, posting 3.86 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 2.36 BB/9, and 5.57 K/9. Similarly to Ondrusek, Smith outperformed his peripherals, as his 4.94 FIP was over a full run higher than his actual ERA. While his BABIP was a respectable .291, his strand rate was likely unsustainable at 83.0%.

Somewhat surprisingly, Smith's heavy groundball tendencies in the minors did not translate to the MLB level, as evidenced by his 1.06 GB/FB ratio. His defining characteristic as a pitcher is his groundball rate, as he has always been a pitch-to-contact type pitcher. And, it's tough to excel in a hitter's ballpark with that type of profile unless you are racking up the groundballs.

Smith inherited 17 runners and allowed 6 of them to come around to score. Smith was used largely in low leverage situations (0.7 Leverage Index) by Dusty Baker and will likely to continue as a long reliever or mop-up man in the future. His lack of overpowering stuff will likely prevent him from becoming a setup man or closer, but if he can rediscover his groundball touch, then he might be the type of pitcher you need in the bullpen to throw a key double-play ball.

Overall, Smith performed well out of the bullpen in 2010, but he'll likely struggle to maintain that success unless he rediscovers the heavy sink on his pitches.

Billy Bray -- Expectations: None, Grade: B

Bray continues to drive fans insane. He demonstrates flashes of brilliance in between very long stints on the disabled list. In 2010, Bray managed to stay on the field long enough to log 28.1 innings in which he posted a 4.13 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 3.18 BB/9, and 9.53 K/9.

Unlike Smith and Ondrusek, Bray's peripherals were superior to his production. His FIP of 3.86 is lower than his ERA. Additionally, his strand rate is surprisingly low at 70.9%, which might regress to higher levels in 2011 if he can actually stay on the field long enough for it to happen.

He was used largely in non-key situations, as his Leverage Index was 0.7. Obviously, his inconsistent health has prevented the Reds from relying on him in any appreciable manner. A healthy Bray would somewhat offset the loss of Arthur Rhodes, but his track record indicates that a full season of production is rather unlikely.

Aroldis Chapman -- Expectations: Medium, Grade: A++

Incredible. Electric. Unbelievable.

The big question on Aroldis is whether the Reds will be able to convert him from mere spectacle into a big time MLB contributor.