Thursday, December 5, 2013

2014 Armchair GM Thoughts

Well, I haven't written anything in a little while, so I thought it would be fun to put a toe back in the water before getting into the heavy lifting of prospect write-ups and more heavily analytical posts. In that spirit, here is a fun bit of speculation on something the Reds GM could do to improve the team this offseason.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Reds problem in 2013 was a complete lack of complimentary offensive production. Basically, they were a three hitter offense and one of those three is undoubtedly headed out of town. The problem is that there are few areas where legitimate upgrades can be made, namely catcher, third base, and shortstop.

The Reds may also be facing a rapidly closing window. The team isn't getting any younger and the starting pitchers are only getting closer to free agency. As it stands, Homer Bailey is set to reach free agency after the 2014 season; Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos after the 2015 season.

The question the Reds must answer is whether they are going to make a big push to win a championship in the next couple of seasons or try to be consistently competitive for the next 5 years. If it's the former, then they need to convert the future value of assets into present value. If it's the latter, then the strategy is identifying which assets to keep in the fold and which prospects can be promoted to replace players who are either aged or priced out of the organization.

The decision is complicated by the recent success of the Cardinals and Pirates, who may well have more talent at both the MLB and minor league levels. So, do the Reds go all in now or try to hold the window open for the foreseeable future?

If we want to "win now", then we have two surplus assets that could help us do that: Robert Stephenson and Aroldis Chapman. Stephenson is an asset with purely future value, while Chapman is an asset whose potential is continues to outpace his production. If we want to make a push this year and compete with not just the Cardinals and Pirates, but the AL's best as well, then here are two "win now" moves* I would consider making:

*(These moves are in the broad strokes and may need a tweak or a sweetener added to balance them out)

1) Robert Stephenson to the Mariners for SS Brad Miller and 2b/of Dustin Ackley

Stephenson could be a top five overall prospect in the near future and a legit #1 starter down the road. He's a hefty trade chip. That said, he probably needs at least another full season of development. And, another year in the minors comes with both injury and development risk. If we want to reshape the lineup with an eye towards improvement in 2014, then he may be our best bet.

As for the return, I'm already a huge Brad Miller fan. He has tools, skills, and intangibles and, on some level, the world just seems to make more sense when the Reds have a top drawer shortstop in the starting lineup. The Mariners promoted him midseason and used him as their leadoff hitter and shortstop. Miller has the ability to control the strike zone, hit for average, and hit for respectable power. He's probably average defensively at short, so he'd be a slight downgrade from the above-average glove of Zack Cozart. That said, he also brings top-flight intangibles to the table and could emerge as the leader this team seemed to lack in 2013, as evidenced by his amateur travel team coach Chet Lemon calling him "a coach's dream". Cozart is a 2.0-2.5 win player and I suspect he's reached his ceiling. I could see Brad Miller as a 4.5-5.0 win player at his peak, which could make him a significant upgrade for the Reds over Zach Cozart.

Still, given Stephenson's trade value, I'd also want Dustin Ackley in the deal. Ackley does a lot of things well. He hits line drives, makes contact at a strong clip, draws walks at a respectable rate, and doesn't chase many bad pitches. He's a pure hitter with very good hand-eye coordination, reminding me of Dustin Pedroia in that respect. To date, however, Ackley has been a massive disappointment, but I think he's fixable and I'd roll the dice on being able to do just that. Ackley has a clear swing flaw, he doesn't firm up his front side, instead letting his hips and front knee slide forward, which robs him of the rotational power generated by the hips. His hand-eye coordination is so strong that it actually works against him here, as the weak front side flaw doesn't prevent him from making contact, but does prevent him from driving the ball with authority. Given that the Mariners have been a huge disappointment as of late, they may be willing to turn the page on Ackley.

This deal would give us Miller at shortstop and Ackley in center until Hamilton is ready. Once Hamilton is ready, Ackley could split time in left/center, providing an insurance policy for both Ludwick and Hamilton, and be a backup for Phillips at second and Votto at first. If either the Reds or Ludwick decide not to exercise the mutual option for 2015, then Ackley could take over in left.

If we can unlock Ackley's bat, then this deal would give us two professional, impact hitters atop the lineup and holding down up-the-middle positions. Stephenson is a high price to pay, but these two could provide us with an immediate boost and significantly greater complimentary production.

2) Aroldis Chapman and Zach Cozart to the Padres for 3b Chase Headley and RHP Burch Smith

Chapman is another asset that could be both expendable and valuable. Chapman posted a 1.6 WAR this year, which means that his hype/trade value outpaces his actual value, making him an attractive trade option. The Reds either need to extract more value from Chapman or flip him. The only real way to extract more value from him is to shift him to the rotation, but if that fails then his trade value takes a hit. Frankly, I would much rather deal him and let someone else assume the risk of converting him to the rotation, especially since Chapman himself has expressed a desire to work out of the bullpen.

That said, I would move Chapman to the Padres for Chase Headley and Burch Smith. Headley had a down season last year after a true power breakout season in 2012. So, there is some performance risk in the deal. However, even if the 2012 power isn't sustainable, he posted a .374 OBP in 2011 and a .376 OBP in 2012.  That type of OBP would take the sting out of losing Shin Soo Choo. While Headley's true power remains something of a question, a move from Petco Park to GABP will only help him in that department. And, his OBP would look mighty good in the 2nd spot in the order ahead of Joey Votto, which would also give him better pitches to hit. 

Headley is only under team control for 1 more season, so we would likely be entitled to something more for 3 years of Chapman. I would want RHP Burch Smith, who is rumored to be on the block and who I like quite a bit. Smith has a very good change-up, a low 90s fastball that can touch 95, and good control. He is on a development path to being a solid mid-rotation starter and he would join David Holmberg in improving our pitching depth in the upper levels of the minors. 

Final Thoughts

These two moves give us two potential offensive upgrades (B.Miller over Z.Cozart and C.Headley over T.Frazier), vastly improved MLB depth (D.Ackley and T.Frazier off the bench), and more starting pitching depth in the upper minors (B.Smith). The Reds main problem last year was a top heavy offense, but the team also lacked depth. 

Given the inevitable injuries and the preference of all MLB managers for, as our former peerless leader Dusty Baker said, "having options", this would make us a more balanced and deeper offensive team. Headley in a hitter friendly park and hitting in front of a former MVP could have another breakout season. Miller could hit 20+ homers as soon as next year with a solid slash line. And, I would still have Ackley and Frazier in my plans for the future, as I think both can get back on track and emerge as valuable MLB players, but having them serve as depth on the bench for 2014 wouldn't be the worst idea. 

After those trades, the roster would look something like the following: 

1. B.Miller ss l
2. C.Headley 3b s
3. J.Votto 1b l
4. R.Ludwick lf r
5. J.Bruce rf l
6. B.Phillips 2b r
7. B.Hamilton cf s
8. D.Mesoraco c r

c. B.Pena s
inf T.Frazier r
inf J.Hannahan l
of S.Schumaker l
of/2b D.Ackley l

Obviously, there's no clear back-up shortstop, but I wouldn't be that uncomfortable with going without one on a game-to-game basis. If Miller were to get hurt, then we could call someone up from the minors. Until that time, I wouldn't mind having a more offense heavy bench with a few guys who could handle shortstop in a pinch (Frazier, Phillips, Hannahan). 

And, if Hamilton can handle MLB pitching, then he'd be the leadoff man. If Hamilton is so lost that he needs to back to the minors, then Ackley would take over in centerfield and we could add a true backup shortstop to the bench. Dusty was right, it's good to have options.   

1. M.Latos r
2. H.Bailey r
3. J.Cueto r
4. T.Cingrani l
5. M.Leake r

6. D.Holmberg triple-A lhp
7. B.Smith triple-A rhp

cl J.J. Hoover
rhset J.Broxton
lhset S.Marshall
mr A.Simon
mr L.Ondrusek
mr M.Parra
lr S.LeCure

Obviously, giving up Robert Stephenson wouldn't be popular and for very good reason. He is the Reds best pitching prospect since Homer Bailey and I'm just as high on him as everyone else. But, if we are really trying to go all-in for the next two seasons, then it might be wise to consider moving him. It took Homer Bailey a long time to emerge as a dependable, impact starting pitcher. And, it's unreasonable to expect Stephenson to reach that status within the next 2-3 seasons, or longer. 

If the Reds decide that our window is now, then Stephenson is an asset that simply won't help us. On the other hand, if the Reds aren't going all in for the next two years, then you simply don't move a prospect the caliber of Stephenson, not at any cost. If the organization wants to try to maintain consistent, year-in/year-out success, then Stephenson is exactly the type of player the Reds need in the system. 

Anyway, that's a fun post to get back in the swing of things. I suspect most will be apoplectic at the mere idea of trading Stephenson and Aroldis, but it's something to consider if we think we can win a championship in the near future. That would be a strategy that requires syncing up the present value of our assets. On the other hand, if we aren't going all in, then forget I wrote this. 

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