Thursday, February 24, 2011

2011 Season Pressing Question #2: Scott Rolen

Pressing Question #2: How can the Reds extract maximum value from Scott Rolen and the hot corner?

Dusty Baker must be reading my mind, because today he came out with his plan to get 120 games from Scott Rolen. On first glance, that doesn't seem like much in light of Rolen's stature, but it's probably a fairly realistic goal.

Rolen played in 112 games in 2007, 115 games in 2008, 128 games in 2009, and 133 games in 2010. So, the past two years, he has played in more than 120 games, but he consistently wears down and declines in the second half. Over the past three seasons, he has a .293 batting average with a .850 OPS in the first half, but a .272 batting average and .774 OPS in the second half.

A more limited and better managed workload might enable Rolen to better maintain his performance level over an entire season. Rolen carried the team at times last year and was a key reason for the team's success. However, he'll be 36 this year and relying on him to carry the team is likely a losing strategy, as Rolen will have to fight off Father Time and the injury bug to repeat his success in 2010.

This offseason, I wanted the Reds to find a legitimate cleanup hitter to bump Rolen down to the 6th spot in the order. Such a move would have enabled us to not rely so heavily on Rolen, instead using him in a more complimentary role. Unfortunately, budgetary constraints prevented them from bringing in a cleanup hitter, so Rolen will again be leaned on to produce.

In 2010, Rolen was a 5.0 win player for the Reds, his best mark since his 2006 season with the Cardinals. But, given his age, a repeat performance might not be in the cards. As a result, it will be very important to get quality production from the other 42 games at third base. Who will step up to fill that roll?

It will likely be some unholy combination of Juan Francisco, Miguel Cairo, and Edgar Renteria. In the best case scenario, Juan Francisco justifies the organization's faith in him and becomes an impact hitter at the hot corner. If not, then the organization will be left with two players who join Rolen on the down slope of their careers. The organization's faith in and handling of Francisco has arguably prevented Todd Frazier from being a legitimate option at the hot corner, as he has been used in more of a utility role because Francisco has blocked him at third. So, the team does have quite a bit invested in Francisco. If Rolen back slides and Francisco fails to step up, then the hot corner could be a problem for the Reds in 2011.

Ultimately, the type of production the Reds get out of the hot corner will be a determining factor in the team's performance in 2011.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Joey Votto Contract Extension Revisited

I came across an interesting blurb on the Providence Journal website describing a statement made by Theo Epstein on a sports radio interview. The statement is rather applicable to a Reds offseason that was notable solely for its contract extensions.

Previously, I expressed my disapproval of the Joey Votto's contract extension. I just failed to see any appreciable value in it for the Reds. It makes a lot of sense for Joey Votto, but the Reds failure to buy out even a single free agent year makes it a poor one for the organization. And, interestingly enough, Theo Epstein would seem to agree:

"Our philosophy, which is actually a policy in writing, is if we're going to sign arbitration-eligible players long term, we have to get one free agent year and we have to get an option for the club. Because we're giving the player certainty. We need to be able get some of those prime years back in exchange. That makes it a fair bargain. We got that with (Kevin) Youkilis. We got that with (Dustin) Pedroia. We got that with (Jon) Lester. Those players decided to give us that flexibility in exchange for security. If players don't want to do that, that's fine with us. We'll just treat them accordingly, year to year."

Epstein's opinion is more in line with my feelings on the extension. It's interesting to note that they believe so strongly in the policy that they actually put it in writing. Not sure what type of writing that would be, but I'd love to read it. Now, there are many ways to run an organization and it must be pointed out that the Reds and Red Sox aren't identically situated. Maybe the revenue disparity between Boston and Cincinnati means that the Reds need to use different policies in regard to contract extensions. Maybe there is a rational financial basis for the Reds more heavily weighing the value of payroll savings than do the high revenue Red Sox. Personally, I tend to doubt it. I still don't see the potential cost savings as outweighing the injury/performance risk that the organization incurred.

Any discussion of the best run MLB franchises necessarily includes the Red Sox along with the Twins, Braves, Phillies, and Rays. So, when one of those franchises does something, it's worth taking note. Walt Jocketty has undoubtedly done some real nice things during his tenure as the Cincinnati GM, but I still struggle to see the value to the organization of the Votto extension. The Jay Bruce extension was a very strong move for the organization, but it might have been better for them to go year-to-year with Votto.

2011 Season Pressing Question #1: The Aroldis Decision

Well, time to start looking ahead to the 2011 season. The 2010 season met or exceeded all reasonable expectations and served as a good first step on the road to the promise land. The Reds have enough young talent to take another sizable step on their journey, but most teams that take a significant step forward in one year frequently slide back the next.

To me, it seems that the two World Series contestants, Texas and San Francisco, are ripe for a regression. The Giants did little to nothing this offseason and had a few too many overperformers last year to bank on a repeat performance. And, they simply don't have many young players that they can count on improving in 2011. They are going to need a bounce back from Pablo Sandoval or a Posey-like debut for Brandon Belt. Outside of that, they seem a candidate to slide backwards. As for the Rangers, they landed Adrian Beltre, but lost Cliff Lee. As a result, I'm not convinced that they have the pitching to get back to October. As for Beltre, he might be an upgrade, but they also completely undercut the standing of their team leader, Michael Young, to do so. Who knows how that will impact the chemistry and clubhouse. There are significant questions surrounding both teams.

As for the Reds, what do we make of them after seeing them stand pat? Well, their emerging young talent makes standing pat less detrimental, as several young players are in line for a step forward. Even so, there are a handful of questions that will likely determine the level of success that the Reds are able to achieve this season. And, first on the list is:

1. Whether the Reds can help Aroldis Chapman make the transition from "unbelievable spectacle" to "massively productive" baseball player.

In short, spectacles sell tickets, but production wins ballgames. Aroldis is currently long on the former and short on the latter.

Chapman exploded on the scene with a blazing fastball and a Bugs Bunny slider, which put the Reds on the national radar in a way not seen since the days of Josh Hamilton. The Reds haven't had the kind of sustained success necessary to be consistently relevant to the national discussion, but when a story that transcends the game lands in the Queen city the Reds once again resurface in the national consciousness. Hamilton was just such a story and upon his departure I lamented the loss of both the player and the story, which were inseparable and equally valuable to the organization.

Now, the Reds have another chance, but to fully reap the rewards from the marriage of story and production, they'll have to determine how to properly utilize Chapman. How do they get more from him than the spectacle? How do they get production that effectively advances the team towards the postseason? Aye, there's the rub.

To start, the Reds have decided to use Chapman out of the bullpen in 2011, rather than letting him develop as a starter. Just like everyone else, I find that decision to be a questionable one. I understand that the Reds are closer now to a championship than they have been in decades. So, the desire to have all hands on deck is understandable. At the same time, I think if you have any confidence in Chapman's ability to start, then you have to send him down. Once he becomes entrenched as a reliever, it will become increasingly difficult to shift him back to the starting rotation. A similar situation is happening in Texas with Neftali Feliz, who thus far has been deemed too valuable as a reliever to be switched back to the rotation.

Personally, I am beginning to question whether Chapman can smoothly make the transition to the rotation, so I'm not as opposed to the notion of him as a reliever as I was previously. Still, given the disparity in workload between starting (200 IP) and relieving (60 IP), there is no doubt that starters have a greater ability to make an impact. As a result, Chapman should be given every opportunity to start. Regardless, the Reds have decided that the best way to extract production from Chapman is to use him as a reliever.

To be a productive reliever, Chapman will need to work high leverage innings. He already has the stuff to thrive in such a role, as evidenced by his stellar 12.8 K/9 and his paltry 66.7% contact rate. However, he'll have to continue refining his command, as evidenced by his 3.4 BB/9, First Pitch Strike % of only 57%, and 16.6 pitches per inning. As a pitcher who avoids contact, he'll always be less efficient with his pitches, but a first pitch strike would make him that much tougher, simply by tipping the probability of success in his favor. And, as the Phillies demonstrated in the playoffs, his pitches aren't completely untouchable, so a bit of refinement would serve him well.

Overall, Chapman has the type of stuff to be as effective as Neftali Feliz was last year for the Rangers. And, once he establishes himself, the Reds will have just as much difficulty in switching him back to the rotation. Regardless, the Reds ability to extract production from Chapman will go a long way to determining their success in 2011.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #12 Donnie Joseph, lhp

Donnie Joseph
Height 6-3, Weight 185, B/T: L/L, DOB: 11/1/1987
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #19

The Reds have done a really nice job in the amateur draft over the past few years, which is remarkable considering how awful they used to be in that department. Donnie Joseph was selected with the 88th overall pick in the 2009 draft as a draft eligible junior out of the University of Houston. He has quickly justified the faith of the organization and emerged as a potential impact reliever who can contribute as soon as the 2011 season. Previous incarnations of the front office had a hard enough time finding this type of talent with their first round picks, so the fact that the current front office is landing such talent in the 3rd round is encouraging and the prime reason why the organization has returned to prominence.

2010 Season

Joseph made three stops in 2010. He started out with low-A Dayton, where he made brutally quick work of the competition. He tossed 23.0 truly dominant innings in which he posted a 0.78 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and a 40/7 K/BB ratio to go along with a 1.42 GB/FB ratio. It was a type of dominance not usually seen outside of the video game world. And, it was a legitimate level of dominance, as he posted a 1.08 FIP and a .317 BABIP, so it wasn't a luck driven performance. He gave up a grand total of 2 earned runs before management finally decided he was ready to be promoted.

His next stop was high-A Lynchburg where he tossed 35.0 equally dominant innings in which he posted a 2.31 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and a 56/16 K/BB ratio to go with a 1.40 GB/FB ratio. Once again, his performance was supported by the peripherals, as he posted a 2.42 FIP and a .309 BABIP. Surprisingly, he somehow managed to record an 0-4 record despite his dominant numbers.

His final stop was double-A Carolina where he worked in 7.0 innings and posted a 5.14 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 7/2 K/BB ratio to go with a 6.00 GB/FB ratio. Here, his overall numbers spiked, but his peripherals remained strong. His FIP was 2.22, which was nearly 3 runs lower than his ERA. Clearly, he was a bit unlucky, as his BABIP jumped to .333, so a few more balls in play fell in for hits than was to be expected.

Just to sum it up, Joseph posted a 15.7 K/9 at low-A, a 14.4 K/9 at high-A, and a 9.0 K/9 at double-A. Obviously, that's an extreme level of dominance, but the more advanced double-A hitters managed to slow him down just a bit.

It's worth noting that, as a 22-year old, he had the age versus level advantage against A-ball competition, but his plus slider will likely play just fine against the more advanced competition.

Repertoire and Pitching Mechanics

Joseph features a nice fastball that sits in the 91-93 range with good movement and a plus slider that's a legitimate knockout pitch. In fact, Joseph's slider can hold its own against any pitch in the entire system this side of Aroldis Chapman's fastball. It has such a sharp, nasty bite that it's an effective pitch against both lefties and righties. An impressive fastball/slider combination has been sufficient to carry many a reliever to a job working high leverage MLB innings. And, that should be the case with Joseph in the very near future.

Here's a look at Joseph courtesy of CoreyBrinn on youtube:

As for mechanics, Joseph is the very definition of high effort. From the windup, he holds his hands just below eye level as he peers over the glove to get the sign from the catcher. After he gets his sign, he steps directly towards thirdbase with his right foot, then shifts his left foot down on the rubber. He then brings his leg kick up past parallel while keeping his hands below his chin. His leg kick incorporates some body coil, as he rotates his hips to wrap his leg around his body and build up energy.

Once he hits the apex of his pitching motion, which is a high, strong energy position, Joseph gathers himself to drive towards the plate. Not surprisingly, given his power pitcher profile, Joseph takes a rather long stride. In fact, his stride is so long that he never really gets his body out over his stride leg. Unlike fellow long striders Tim Lincecum and Aroldis Chapman, who seem to jump off the rubber to get out over their long strides, Joseph struggles to get out over his stride leg. Instead of finishing out over the top of his stride leg, his momentum rolls over his stride leg and causes him to fall off to the third base side. His momentum causes his left leg to cross over his plant leg on his follow-through. Ordinarily, when a lefthander falls off to the third base side it's because his stride foot lands in a closed off position, which forces a pitcher to throw across his body. However, Joseph doesn't fall off to the third base side because he throws from a closed off position, but rather because of the length of his stride.

Here's a look at Joseph courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on youtube:

Given that Joseph's momentum works around his body and towards third base, it's not surprising that his delivery seems to have a bit of a lean to it. The lean in his delivery gives his arm action the appearance of pulling his pitching arm down and across his body, especially since he throws from a three-quarter arm slot. Given Joseph's arm action, it's easy to see how he gets good movement on his fastball, as it should impart some arm-side run on the ball.

Overall, Joseph has high effort delivery, but produces good results with it. He generates good power for his two pitch mix, which should enable him to work high leverage innings at the highest level.

Final Thoughts

Joseph is a prime example of how plus attributes can drive you up the ladder in a hurry. He may not have a diversified set of skills, but his plus attributes are value drivers. Prospects who have a more well rounded game, but lack plus attributes can frequently wither on the vine. Joseph, on the other hand, is one of the most electric pitchers in the system despite relying solely on a two pitch mix.

Relievers are almost always volatile and Joseph's mechanics may lead to inconsistency at times, but he has an electric arm and could be a factor as soon as 2011. In a season where the Reds are once again seeking the postseason, Joseph could provide a significant boost in the dog days of summer, which is yet another example of the benefits of a strong player development system. For now, Joseph checks in at #12, but he's unlikely to be down on the farm for long.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #21 Junior Arias, ss

Junior Arias
Height 6-2, Weight 187, B/T: R/R, DOB: 1/9/1992
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: NA

The Reds signed Junior Arias as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. He joins a collection of young, Latin American prospects with good upside. The Reds have added significant quality and quantity to the system by improving their international scouting efforts.

Unfortunately, like Ismael Guillon, there really isn't much of a track record to analyze, but the scouting reports on him are simply too strong to justify leaving him off the list entirely. So, this write up will, out of necessity, be a bit shorter and shallower.

2010 Season

Arias made his first appearance in American professional baseball in the Arizona Rookie League. He played in 47 games and garnered 195 ABs. In that time, Arias posted a .287/.336/.482/.819 slash line to go along with 10 doubles, 5 triples, 6 homers, and a 58/12 K/BB ratio. He crushed lefties to the tune of .357/.438/.607/1.045, albeit in a limited sample size of 28 ABs. He also held his own against righties, posting a line of .275/.318/.461/.780 in 167 ABs.

He still has a bit of work to do in his situational hitting, as he OPS'd .958 in 97 ABs with the bases empty, .680 in 98 ABs with runners on base, and .514 in 60 ABs with runners in scoring position. Additionally, there are significant questions about his ability to control the zone, but his power potential is intriguing for a middle infield prospect.

There are a few photos of Junior Arias available on that are definitely worth your time. He has loose, long, athletic build that on first impression reminds me a bit of Alfonso Soriano. The length and follow-through of his swing also bear a resemblance to Soriano.

On the defensive side, early scouting reports are mixed. Generally, his athleticism is promising, but there are questions as to whether he'll be able to stick at shortstop. In the Arizona Rookie League, he made 25 errors in a 180 total chances as a shortstop, which was good for a meager .861 fielding percentage. High error totals are not uncommon at the lower levels, so that in and of itself is not damning, but he'll still need to polish his glove work to avoid a move off the position.

Final Thoughts

The available information on Arias is sparse and the track record is minimal, but the early signs are positive. The biggest question on Arias, as with most of the other Latin American prospects in the system, involves his ability to control the strike zone. For now, his upside is enough to land him at #21 on the list, but he'll need to establish a solid baseline of performance over a larger sample size to remain there for 2012.

Friday, February 11, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #13 Brad Boxberger, rhp

Brad Boxberger
Height 6-2, Weight 200, B/T: R/R, DOB: 5/27/1988
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #13

In a system suddenly running a bit thin in the pitching department, Brad Boxberger grades out as one of the best. He is a polished college pitcher out of a legendary college program (USC). He comes from a baseball bloodlines, as his father Rod went 12-1 with a 2.00 ERA and earned College World Series MVP award for the 1978 national championship USC team. Add in an impressive, albeit inconsistent, repertoire of pitches and all the ingredients needed for an impressive career are present.

Boxberger didn't pitch professionally in 2009, so the 2010 season represented his first taste of full season ball. The Reds sent him to high-A Lynchburg to start off the 2010 season.

2010 Season

In 2010, Boxberger broke quickly out of the gates at high-A Lynchburg. Working almost exclusively as a starter, he tossed 62.0 innings in which he posted a 3.19 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.9 BB/9, 10.2 K/9, and a 1.63 GB/FB. Obviously, it was a stellar performance, as he piled up the strikeouts, limited the walks, and induced ground balls at a high rate. Given his impressive strikeout and walk rates, his WHIP looks surprisingly high, so it's not all that surprising that his hit luck was poor, as evidenced by his .346 BABIP.

As a polished college prospect, it wasn't unexpected that Boxberger would thrive in high-A ball, but it was nonetheless reassuring. Even if a prospect is reasonably expected to perform at a certain level, we shouldn't withhold credit from him when he actually does it. Living up to expectations isn't always the easiest thing to do, but Boxberger managed to do just that. Iin the process, he earned a promotion to double-A ball to finish out the year. College pitcher or not, advancing all the way to double-A ball in your first professional season is an accomplishment.

Unfortunately, the wheels completely came off the wagon at double-A. For Carolina, Boxberger switched into a relief role and worked 29.2 innings, posting an alarming 8.49 ERA, 1.92 WHIP, 6.7 BB/9, 12.2 K/9, and 1.05 GB/FB ratio. Even though the sample size is small, the loss of control is somewhat troubling. His walk rate jumped by roughly 4 batters per nine innings. Obviously, double-A hitters are much more advanced, which when coupled with a heavier workload may explain the decline in command. If so, then more experience should largely resolve the problem. On the plus side, his strikeout rate remained gaudy even against more experienced hitters.

Repertoire and Mechanics

Boxberger works with four solid pitches. He throws a 91-93 mph four seam fastball with good movement that touches 94 on occasion, a 78-80 mph curveball, an 82-84 mph slider, and a circle changeup with good late sink. His fastball velocity goes up a tick when he works out of the bullpen, which makes him an intriguing possibility in high leverage innings.

Here is a great look at Boxberger in action during the AFL courtesy of David Pratt on Vimeo:

Bradley Boxberger - Arizona Fall League - 2009 from David Pratt on Vimeo.

As you can see, Boxberger grades out pretty well in pitching mechanics. He is fundamentally sound and fairly conventional, which is never a bad thing in a pitching prospect. To start his delivery, he moves his left foot forward and somewhat towards first base, which operates to unweight his right leg allowing him to rotate his right foot down on the rubber. I'm not entirely sure when pitchers started to forgo an actual step back towards second base with their glove side foot to begin the motion, but I don't see the new trend as being an improvement. I suppose it was done with an eye towards reducing extraneous movement to conserve a pitcher's stamina, but I think the step back makes the motion more fluid and may possibly generate more momentum for the pitch. But, I suppose pitching coaches these days prefer an economy of movement, as the fewer moving parts the fewer chances for the motion to get out of sync.

The defining characteristic of Boxberger's delivery remains his leg kick. He brings his knee up well passed parallel, essentially all the way up to his chest, which helps creates substantial potential energy to impart on the baseball. Additionally, he incorporates significant coil by utilizing a sizable hip rotation. At the apex of his leg kick, the line of his hips almost runs on a line from 3rd to 1st. This high leg kick and significant coil are usually pure positives, as they generate, respectively, potential energy and tension at apex of the delivery. The energy that they generate can then be transferred to the baseball. However, in Boxberger's case, their severity might actually be creating a problem.

The severity of his coil and the height of his leg kick may ultimately help explain his inconsistent command. Due to the height of his leg kick and the severity of his coil, Boxberger is unable to unpack his leg kick quick enough to get into proper throwing position. Simply put, at the apex of his motion, Boxberger has his knee near his chest and such a significant coil that he shows his back to the hitter, which means that he has farther to go to get back into proper throwing position. Since his coil is more significant than typically seen, he has much farther to go to get back in position. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite make it all the way back into good throwing position.

Boxberger's stride foot lands too far to the third base side of the mound, which results in a closed-off throwing position. As a result, Boxberger is forced to throw across his body. This type of issue can frequently cause inconsistency in command. In addition, the closed off throwing position leads to inefficiency in transferring the stored up potential energy to the baseball. His momentum is somewhat checked by the need to throw around his body. Instead of his momentum going straight back and straight through, it instead has to somewhat work around his body. This inefficiency not only leads to inconsistent command, but also less than peak velocity and requires more work to generate the velocity that is created.

Another potential reason for the inconsistent command is his arm slot. Boxberger throws from a high three-quarter arm slot, which when coupled with the need to throw across his body gives him something of a cross-fire delivery. It's difficult to maintain a consistent arm slot and work effectively to both sides of the plate with a cross-fire delivery. Boxberger also has an overall looseness to his arm action, which, at times, can make his cross-fire delivery look like he is slinging the ball.

Odd as it sounds, I wouldn't mind seeing Boxberger reduce his coil. Everything a pitcher does before the apex of his delivery is done with an eye towards building up energy, while everything done after apex is done with an eye towards imparting that stored energy to the baseball. I don't usually advocate that a player reduce the energy he creates before the apex, but Boxberger currently cannot get around fast enough from his coiled position to get back into proper throwing position. If he lessens his coil, then he will have more time for his body to come around and his plant foot to land in proper position. And, if he eliminated his closed off throwing position, then he might see an improvement in control. Additionally, he might also be able to maintain his current velocity, as whatever the new motion would lose in potential energy might be offset by a more efficient transfer of that energy to the baseball. Less energy created, but more efficiently imparted.

One other issue that I see in Boxberger's delivery is the length of his stride. It just seems too short for a pitcher of his stature and stuff. The length of the stride is directly related to the pitcher's ability to accelerate towards homeplate. The forward acceleration of the lower half is transferred to the ball by the pitching arm. Given Boxberger's height and repertoire, he should be more of a power pitcher than he seems to be. Part of that stems from his less than ideal acceleration to the plate. If he lengthened his stride, then he would get a stronger, more aggressive push off the rubber and generate better velocity. Pitchers who fit the "power pitcher" profile traditionally have longer strides. They typically generate velocity with strong lower-half drive. Here is a look at two players who generate very good velocity with strong, aggressive strides:

When you compare the stride angles of Aroldis Chapman and Tim Lincecum with that of Brad Boxberger, you can see how much longer and more aggressive they are with their strides. In fact, they seem to almost jump off the rubber towards the plate, which is part of how they are able to generate upper 90s (or, in Chapman's case, 100s) velocity.

While Boxberger might benefit from a longer stride, he likely wouldn't be able to simply lengthen his stride, as the closed off throwing position prohibits it. As a result, he'd have to open up his throwing position before he could appreciably lengthen his stride. It is much more difficult to throw across/around your body if you are fully extended, so many pitchers who work from a closed off position utilize shorter strides. Boxberger fits the bill. He uses a shorter stride in response to his closed off throwing position, which ultimately gives his delivery a more upright look.

Here is another look at Boxberger, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on youtube:

Random Thoughts and Additional Considerations

I'll admit that I don't quite know what to make of Boxberger yet. Is he a starter or a reliever? Does he fit the "power pitcher" profile? Can he be a power pitcher with those mechanics? If not, does his command preclude him from being more of a finesse pitcher? Or, will he be best utilized in short bursts in high leverage innings?

Overall, Boxberger has a lot of what you look for in a pitching prospect. In fact, going down the list, you can tick off the majority of the boxes. So, a lot of the individual pieces are there, he just needs to pull them together and refine them. It'll be interesting to follow his development and see how the Reds minor league staff handle him. In the end, I suspect he has #3 starter ceiling in the rotation or high-leverage inning potential out of the pen.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the 2010 season provided more questions than answers on Brad Boxberger. I knew heading into the season that he was a solid pitching prospect, but the circumstances surrounding his season foreclosed the possibility that it would serve as a meaningful data point. He thrived at a lower level and struggled at a higher one, but he also changed roles in the jump from one level to the next. So, were the struggles the result of the advanced competition, the change in roles, the heavier workload resulting from his first full season in professional ball, or some combination thereof? Unfortunately, the sample size is simply too small for us to draw any definitive conclusions. As a result, the 2011 season will be a return engagement for us to figure out exactly what we have in Brad Boxberger and how he should be properly used.

For now, Boxberger has done enough to warrant his return to the 13th spot on the list. If, in the 2011 season, he performs like he did in the first part of 2010, then he'll likely move up the list. On the other hand, he could easily slid well down the list if he once again pitches like he did in the latter portion of 2010.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

2011 Top Prospect List: #14 Henry Rodriguez, 2b

Henry Rodriguez
Height 5-10, Weight 150, B/T: S/R, DOB: 2/9/1990
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: N/A

Henry Rodriguez is one of many intriguing prospects that the organization has begun to stockpile out of Latin America. The Reds signed Henry as an international free agent out of Venezuela on March 27, 2007. Building a top flight farm system requires an organization to both draft well and sign international talent. The renewed efforts in international scouting have already begun to pay off with the emergence of Johnny Cueto, but the next wave of talent is in the pipeline. Henry Rodriguez is one of the more interesting international signings the organization has made in the past few years.

2010 Season

In 2010, Rodriguez made his first appearance in full season professional ball at the age of 20. He spent almost the entire season at low-A Dayton, where he logged 514 ABs in which he compiled a .307/.337/.473/.810 to go along with 37 doubles, 3 triples, and 14 homeruns. He also posted a 70/22 K/BB ratio and was a legitimate threat on the bases, as evidenced by his 33 stolen bases in 46 attempts. His component stats largely support his production, as he hit line drives at a 19% clip and had a fairly reasonable BABIP of .333. So, he might have been a touch lucky, but by and large he earned what he produced in 2010.

The Reds saw enough to bump Henry up to high-A Lynchburg to finish out the season. For the Hillcats, Rodriguez played in 6 games and logged 24 ABs. A very small sample size, but for the record he hit .250/.250/.250 with 6 singles and 4 strikeouts.

Henry should be heading back to high-A for a return engagement in 2011.

Swing Mechanics

After a bit of a dry-spell, the Reds have found a few switch-hitters of note, including Tucker Barnhart, Yasmani Grandal, and Henry Rodriguez. All three are looking like legitimate MLB prospects and their ability to hit from both sides will add a nice bit of versatility to the lineup.

So, we have to do double-duty on his mechanics, so let's start with Henry's righthanded swing. Despite being a player who is smaller in stature, Henry generates surprisingly good pop. To do so, he uses a lot of lower body action. He starts with a slightly narrower than shoulder-width stance, which gives him a very upright look to his pre-pitch stance. He holds his hands next to his right ear with a high back elbow. As the pitcher gets ready to deliver, Henry picks his foot well up off the ground and uses a long stride towards the mound.

His stride effectively cocks his hips by rotating them inward during his stride. In fact, he almost seems to slightly wrap his front leg around his body when he strides, which really helps him generate power with his hip rotation. In tandem with his stride, he begins to draw his hands back into proper hitting position.

The higher leg kick operates as a timing mechanism, but one of the drawbacks of it is that crafty pitchers can successfully upset his timing with offspeed pitches by getting him out on the front foot too early. When that happens, his bat-speed necessarily slows down, typically resulting in an arm-swing and a weak ground out. Ideally, Henry would be able to generate good power without having to resort to such an active lower half, but in this case the impressive power production may be a fair trade off for a bit of inconsistency. When the timing is right, Henry has a quick bat and a fairly direct path to the ball. He gets good extension out through the ball and generates surprising power for his size.

Here's a look at Rodriguez hitting from the right side, courtesy of coreybrinn on youtube:

From the left side, Henry uses a very different stance. Interestingly enough, very few switch-hitters actually use an identical swing from both sides of the plate. Henry uses a wider than shoulder width stance that is somewhat open before the pitch is delivered. He holds his hands up high, almost over his head, with the barrel of the bat pointed down at the ground.

As the pitcher gets ready to deliver the pitch, Henry starts his two part stride. First, he brings his foot in towards the plate to close up his stance, but then moves it forward towards the mound. The first part of the stride looks like a toe-tap before he strides toward the pitcher to effectuate the weight transfer. As his stride is in motion, Henry brings his hands down into hitting position, which necessarily results in the barrel of the bat moving up into a 45-degree angle.

As with his righthanded swing, his stride from the left-side allows him to cock his hips. The first part of his stride closes up his stance and rotates his hips inward, which again allows him to generate power. His swing has a slight uppercut to it, which helps him generate loft on the ball.

Not surprisingly, Henry's swing seems a bit more fluid and natural from the left-side of the plate, but his swing is solid from both sides of the plate. Given his swing mechanics, he should avoid a significant platoon split and remain a viable option from both sides of the plate as he climbs the ladder.

Here's a look at Rodriguez hitting from the left side, again courtesy of coreybrinn on youtube:

Speed, Defense, and Positional Value

In addition to his solid power, Rodriguez also runs well, as evidenced by his 33 stolen bases. He needs to continue to work on reading the pitcher and getting good jumps, but that typically comes with experience and maturity. When that happens, his success rate should improve and make him a more valuable asset on the basepaths. Recent statistical studies reveal that a player needs to be successful around 75% of the time for the extra bases to outweigh the cost of the times he is caught stealing. If the player's success rate falls below that threshold, then he's doing his team more harm than good by trying to steal bases.

Rodriguez's good speed also serves him well in the field, as he possesses good range. He also has solid defensive fundamentals. In 552 chances at Dayton, Henry made 14 errors, which was good for a .975 fielding percentage. Ideally, he can cut down on that number as he climbs the ladder, but it's not too shabby for a young player in his first full season of professional baseball.

All in all, there is good reason to be optimistic about his defensive play, which will only help drive up his prospect value. If you are an above average defensive player at a premier defensive position, then you don't have to provide all that much with the bat to justify your spot on the 25-man roster. And, his early work in the professional ranks support the notion that Rodriguez is already on his way to being an above average defensive second baseman. In fact, if the Reds didn't have so many legitimate options at shortstop, then Rodriguez might have gotten a legitimate look at the 6 position. However, as it stands, he's settling in rather nicely on the other side of the bag.

Final Thoughts

Rodriguez is an interesting prospect with a nice set of tools. His ceiling is somewhat limited by his smaller stature, but he still manages to generate good power. Rodriguez does have one significant drawback that has derailed many a career. The big red flag on Henry is his inability to effectively control the strike zone. That's usually a big minus in my ledger, but for now Rodriguez is showing enough positional value, power potential, speed, and defensive skill to land at #14 on the list. I'd love to see him develop his ability to control the strike zone, but more realistically he should probably focus on becoming an impact early-count hitter with limited strikeouts and walks.

Long, Disturbing Tradition Continues

Recently, there was an article written by Ken Rosenthal that bothered me. And, since it continues to bother me, I now feel the need to get it out of my system. But, if you have no interest in non-Reds issues or those issues that take place outside the chalk lines, then you may want to skip this one and move on to read about Henry Rodriguez. But, now that you have been sufficiently warned, let's sally forth.

First, a little context is required, so we need to take a quick stroll down memory lane. Major League Baseball has a very long history. Almost as long is the history of the baseball media acting as the propaganda arm of the owners.

Back in the good old days of the game, baseball writers almost invariably sided with the owners. There are numerous reasons for the coziness of owners and writers, here are a few that leap to mind:

First, baseball writers were somewhat dependent on owners for access, as technology had not yet opened up the game to the extent it has today.

Second, owners frequently treated baseball writers better than their own players. Baseball owners understand the importance of good press in keeping both the turnstiles spinning and the players under their thumb.

Third, the fact that the origins of baseball largely predated the rise of organized labor meant that the power of the owners vastly outweighed that of the players. So, perhaps it's not surprising that the media naturally favored the owners.

All of this is simply the long way of saying that baseball writers have long been biased towards the owners. If you've been a fan of baseball during any of the collective bargaining sessions, then you are familiar with the old saying that "baseball players are lucky to be making so much money for playing a game." That has long been the talking point used by owners to drive down player salaries. It's a line they have consistently fed to the media, which was only too willing to disseminate it to the fans. And, frankly, it has been very effective for the owners. Ever wonder why fans complain about baseball player salaries, but no one complains about actor or musician salaries? Why do people complain about Jayson Werth's contract, but not about Tom Cruise earning $20M a picture or Barbara Streisand earning millions for performing a mere handful of concerts in Las Vegas?

I would argue that the disparity is largely due to baseball fans having been conditioned by the owners via the media. Fans have been conditioned to view the players as being fortunate to be paid for playing a mere game, rather than as individuals who should be compensated in accordance with the revenue they generate for their employers. In short, throughout the history of the game the owners have consistently and effectively utilized the media to frame the issue for their own benefit.

Even today, after all the gains made by the MLBPA, the media still favors the owners. Perhaps not surprising, given the financial disparity between the two sides. Baseball players may be rich, but owners are wealthy. In the end, MLB owners are still capital, while the MLBPA is still labor. And, in today's day and age, it's not surprising to see the media favor the deeper, frequently corporate, pockets belonging to the owners.

In this article by Ken Rosenthal, the issue isn't between owners and players, but rather between an owner and a fan base. Regardless, Rosenthal wastes little time in writing a one-sided argument in support of the desires of the Oakland A's ownership group.

Here is the complete article:

"A's need to get moving, or else

Free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre was the player the A’s wanted most this offseason. They made him an initial offer of five years, $64 million and later raised their bid to six years, $78.6 million, according to major league sources.

Yet, they never stood a chance.

Beltre, like most star players, wanted no part of Oakland. No part of the Coliseum. No part of a franchise that has ranked in the bottom five in home attendance in each of the past five seasons.

The solution for the A’s is simple — in fact, the simplest of any struggling franchise in the game today. The team needs to move to San Jose, a more populous, prosperous city 40 miles south of Oakland.

“If we want to be successful in the game, we’ve got to take advantage of situations that are right in front of us,” says Scott Boras, the agent for Beltre and several other top players. “And this is one of them.”

Yes, Boras is speaking partly out of self-interest; a stronger A’s franchise would possess greater spending power and help drive the market for his players. But a stronger A’s franchise is in the game’s best interests, too.

No longer would the team be a revenue-sharing recipient. Franchise values would increase as the industry grew more robust. Baseball could move on to other problems.

So, what’s the holdup?

The Giants, of course.

The Giants, who hold territorial rights to San Jose’s home county, Santa Clara, only because the A’s were kind enough to surrender them in the early 1990s, when the San Francisco team was exploring a move to the area.

Appeasing the Giants will not be easy — their owner, Bill Neukom, took over the club in 2008 with the knowledge that San Jose was part of the team’s territory. He understandably does not want to lose sponsorship opportunities or diminish the value of his club in any way.

Well, baseball developed a blueprint for solving such a problem in March 2005, when it reached an agreement to move the Montreal Expos into the Orioles’ territory in Washington, DC. The deal created the Nationals and guaranteed the Orioles at least $130 million a year in revenues and a sale price of at least $360 million.

The A’s/Giants conflict, in some ways, should be easier to resolve — the A’s already exist in the Bay Area, while the Nationals did not exist in Washington. The Orioles/Nationals arrangement also included the formation of a new regional television network. The Giants and A’s already maintain deals with separate Comcast entities.

“The idea that we’re here, sitting on our hands and not letting this franchise get going is detrimental to the game,” says Boras, who grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., near Sacramento.

“A few franchises need to be evaluated and examined. Oakland can immediately improve and become a success if moved to San Jose. You would then have two well-run and successful franchises in the Bay Area.”

Neukom, like Orioles owner Peter Angelos, is an accomplished attorney. Baseball surely would not relish a prolonged, contentious negotiation with the Giants, but if that’s what it takes to fix the A’s, so be it.

Other low-revenue clubs are much more challenged.

Teams such as the Pirates, Royals, Padres and Reds believe that winning will solve their problems. Well, winning didn’t work for the Rays and Indians, who failed to generate appreciable revenue increases during periods of recent success.

Now both clubs are stuck: The Rays can’t get financing for a new ballpark, and the Indians are trapped in a city with a diminishing population and corporate base.

An NBA team can relocate to a city as small as Oklahoma City, but a major league franchise must be in a market strong enough to support 81 home dates.

Name a better possibility in North America than San Jose, where a 32,000-seat park for the A’s is all but ready to go.

“If we had approval from baseball, it would take six to nine months to finish our drawings, then a maximum of two years to build,” A’s owner Lew Wolff says. “So, I would say 30 to 36 months.

“The city has purchased most of the land. We are willing to give the money to buy the rest of it if they don’t happen to have it. As far as financing, it will be done through debt and equity. We’re not waiting for any kind of bond issues or government help, which we can’t get anyway.

“In some ways, that makes it more difficult. But in some ways, it’s simpler. We don’t have to go to anyone.”

Absent public financing, the A’s are confident the ballpark would pass a citywide ballot measure. The team in 2006 struck a 30-year naming-rights deal with Cisco that would provide $4 million annually. Its new multi-year agreement with Comcast SportsNet California also will help with financing, Wolff says.

Commissioner Bud Selig formed a committee in March 2009 to study the A’s ballpark options. Wolff says it is his understanding that the committee’s work is now done. Selig, through a spokesman, declined comment.

Meanwhile, the A’s remain in limbo, plodding along in Oakland. Franchises in baseball’s other two-team markets — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — share the same geographic territory. The Bay Area is different. The population in the Giants’ territory, Wolff says, is twice as large as that in the A’s territory.

“The whole thing is really ludicrous,” Wolff says.

For all their obstacles, the A’s have built an intriguing club, one that might very well contend in 2011.

Their young pitching staff last season led the American League in ERA, and general manager Billy Beane has spent the winter making improvements through trades and modest free-agent signings.

The A’s failure to sign Beltre for the second straight offseason, however, illustrates the difficulty the team faces in landing premier free-agent talent.

A year ago, Beltre spurned a three-year, $24 million offer from the A’s to sign a one-year, $10 million deal with the Red Sox. This time, he went to the Rangers for more money than the A’s offered — five years, $80 million.

His decision could help determine the outcome of the AL West race.

“You talk to players,” Boras says, without referring specifically to Beltre. “It’s not the city. It’s not the team. It’s the ballpark. And there are no fans there.

“When teams recruit against the Oakland A’s, they say, ‘Why do you want to play in an empty park?’ It’s not about the organization. It’s not about ownership. It’s about locale.”

Earlier this offseason, Lance Berkman rejected a two-year offer from the A’s to sign a one-year deal with the Cardinals. When the A’s do land free agents, it’s usually because the players want to be in northern California or lack better options.

True, the A’s signed designated hitter Hideki Matsui and relievers Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes this offseason, but none is an elite talent. The team’s outlay for the three in 2011 will be about $13 million combined.

For Beltre, the A’s were willing to guarantee six years, but at $12.8 million per season, not $16 million. After Beltre signed for that price with the Rangers, the A’s added Balfour and Fuentes, bringing their 2011 payroll to nearly $70 million.

Imagine how much stronger they would be in San Jose.

The three other AL West clubs — the Rangers, Angels and Mariners — play in terrific markets with terrific parks. The proposed 32,000-seat stadium in San Jose would be the smallest in the majors. But the A’s average home attendance would almost double if they filled the park, and premium seating and luxury suites would provide additional revenue.

It’s time. It’s past time.

“In the end, this is hurting baseball,” Boras says. “It’s depriving baseball players and baseball fans of a successful franchise. That’s wrong. We need to correct that.”

The solution is within reach."

In this article, Rosenthal basically frames the issue as follows: "The A's need to move to San Jose in order to survive." A better, more fair statement of the issue would be that "the A's need a new ballpark in order to thrive."

Of course, the restated issue would not operate to completely exonerate the ownership group of their responsibility for the A's financial situation, which seems to be the primary goal of the article. And, to achieve this goal, Rosenthal relies on a number of questionable statements to support his already shaky premise.

I have more than a few problems with his article, but here are a few of the issues that bother me the most:

Issue #1: For some odd reason, Rosenthal goes to player agent Scott Boras for a quote on the Oakland A's situation, even though he readily admits that Boras speaks solely out of self interest.

What insight could Scott Boras possibly have on the viability of baseball markets or the tricky topic of financing a baseball ballpark? None whatsoever. Boras has a significant interest in seeing the construction a new revenue generating ballpark for a previously revenue challenged organization. Of course, Boras doesn't care where that park is constructed, only that it gets done. He simply wants more money for his clients and himself. For him, it doesn't matter if the ballpark is in Oakland, San Jose, or Jupiter, just so long as it increases the revenue of the organization, because both he and his clients will ultimately get a cut of that new and improved revenue stream. However, Rosenthal attempts to use Boras' comments as some type of support for the premise that the A's need to move to San Jose.

Issue #2: Rosenthal includes Lew Wolfe's argument that "the population in the Giants' territory is twice as large as that in the A's territory." This is a completely and intentionally disingenuous statement. Let's get real here, both the Giants and A's draw fans from the same exact area. The extent of the Giants' territorial rights is that the A's cannot construct a ballpark in San Jose. However, while the A's are forbidden from constructing a ballpark in San Jose, there is NOTHING to prevent the A's from drawing fans from all over the San Francisco Bay Area, just as they always have. This is a market that has long supported two MLB franchises and can continue to do so without difficulty in the future.

Here is a look at the attendance figures over the past few decades for A's and Giants:

Decade: Oakland__San Francisco__Difference

In the 1980s, the A's outdrew the Giants by ~2.5M fans. In the 1990s, the Giants outdrew the A's by a paltry ~300K fans. And, of course, in the 2000s, the Giants attendance exploded and they outdrew the A's by ~14M fans. Of course, the discrepancy in the 2000s has nothing to do with Oakland's viability as a baseball marketplace. It has everything to do with the opening of Pac Bell Park in San Francisco prior to the 2000 season.

The only problem with the Oakland market is simply that the A's owners have refused to step up and privately finance a ballpark IN OAKLAND. The truth is that the A's were on the same exact footing as the Giants until the 2000s. At that point, the Giants reaped the benefits from stepping up and privately financing a ballpark. Since that point, the Giants have become the premier organization in the area, just in case last year's World Series championship failed to drive that point home. In short, the Giants demonstrated their loyalty to the fans and their commitment to their market by using their own funds to build a ballpark. The A's have not.

The real problem here is the A's ownership. Here's a fun fact, the A's majority owner, John Fisher, is one of 8 billionaire owners in Major League Baseball. Again, let's repeat that for emphasis, the A's are owned by a billionaire. They could easily finance their own ballpark, which seems to be about as risk-free an investment as an owner could hope to find. Lew Wolff is the face of the ownership group, but Fisher is the majority owner. Regardless, the A's have failed to invest in the community and fan base. Instead of being willing to privately fund a new ballpark in Oakland, the A's have dragged their feet, complained and bashed the Oakland market, and tried to get a ballpark in a location, San Jose, that they know to be off-limits.

I suspect that, if we were to pull back the curtain and see the true motivation of Lew Wolff, then his desire to build a ballpark in San Jose has more to do with the opportunity to develop the real estate surrounding the proposed ballpark site than any alleged weakness in the Oakland market. Given that history has conclusively established that a new ballpark in Oakland would enable the A's to compete on equal footing with the Giants, there must be some other reason for Lew Wolff to be desperately trying to move to an area that he knows is completely off-limits.

Issue #3: Rosenthal writes that "the A's remain in limbo, plodding along in Oakland" without mentioning how the ownership group has intentionally operated to keep itself in limbo. Major League Baseball ballparks are sound investments in their own right, but owners are always looking to extract the most public money, grants of land, and tax breaks from municipalities that they possibly can. Reds fans saw this firsthand with the construction of Great American Ballpark, which was done with significant public money extracted in part with a promise from the owners to increase payroll. Well, we all know how that panned out for the fans.

Even short of financing a new ballpark in Oakland, the ownership group could have invested more heavily in the team and the market. They have chosen not to do that to any appreciable degree and, not surprisingly, the result has been an alienated fan-base and declining attendance. One small example is that the organization has canceled FanFest in favor of a Fan Appreciation Tailgate to be held in the parking lot before an exhibition game on a weekday. The owners have completely scaled down their commitment to the Oakland market, seeming to prefer the use of a scorched earth campaign to ensure that they have no other alternative than to leave town.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I simply expect better out of Ken Rosenthal than this. A national writer should do more than just parrot the self-interested arguments of a baseball ownership group. Major League Baseball works in Oakland. It has for decades and there's no reason it can't continue into the future. For that to happen, the A's simply need to build their own ballpark in Oakland. If the A's actually committed to the market, rather than badmouthing it in an attempt to move to a different city, then baseball in Oakland could flourish again. It's not the market, it's the ballpark. And, the ballpark is something that is well within the control of the A's billionaire ownership group. Of course, you'd never know that from Rosenthal's article, which continues the long, disturbing baseball media tradition of swaying public support in favor of the owners.