Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Post-Chapocalyptic observations and hopes

The Reds day off yesterday provided time for reflection to assess where the team stands with just less than two weeks before Opening Day. Here are a few updated observations -- and hopes -- for the final 10 days of the Reds spring camp.

Infield: Mismanaging the backups
The Reds recently cut top prospects Todd Frazier, Chris Heisey and Zack Cozart. Of the three, Todd Frazier didn't receive nearly enough quality playing time, particularly at second base. The 50 AB and all the starts the Reds have given to Aaron Miles, Miguel Cairo and Chris Burke should have been distributed among our younger players.

The way the club is handling Aaron Miles is particularly frustrating. Miles came to the Reds in the swap-of-bad-contracts that sent Willy Taveras to the Oakland A's. Because Miles' contract was slightly less horrible than Taveras' we had to send Adam Rosales packing, too.

The day the Reds subtracted Taveras and added Miles, Reds GM Walt Jocketty praised the latter, leaving no doubt that he considered the 33-year-old Miles squarely in the Reds' future plans. "I'm happy to be reunited with Aaron, who played a key role in our World Series championship in St. Louis. He's a quality infielder, a quality person and will be an asset to our club."

This spring, despite ample opportunity, including several starts, Miles has exactly the same number of hits as he does errors - one. Not quite the "asset to our club" that Jocketty forecast. Miles' one hit was a bloop single, fisted barely over the head of the Giants third baseman last Saturday. The rest of his AB can be characterized as a series of weak ground balls.

Miles' defense has been unremarkable for the most part except for the one error. In the field, he certainly is less athletic than Drew Sutton or Paul Janish, both of whom have had excellent springs at the plate.

In comparison, the Oakland A's dumped Willy Taveras the day after the trade was completed. They didn't drag him along to their spring camp, wasting valuable playing time and at-bats for other players. No, they admitted, in a way the Reds wouldn't, what that trade was all about.

Given the love Miles has seen from the Reds this spring, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he heads east with the team in April. At least based on current performance, that would be unfortunate, as he surely hasn't earned it. Baker doesn't seem happy about it, but Miles is Jocketty's guy.

Hopes: The Reds quickly end their experiment with Miles (and Cairo and Burke) and give the two backup infielder jobs to Janish and Sutton, both of whom could use more consistent work to get ready for the year.

Outfield: Stubbs has caught Dickerson
Spring training started with Dusty Baker virtually anointing Drew Stubbs as the Reds CF and leadoff hitter. Those plans were called into question a few weeks later as Dickerson exploded out of the gate in Goodyear while Stubbs struggled. Baker even allowed a few days ago that Dickerson had thus far outplayed Stubbs.

Today, against the Giants, for the first time all spring Baker has Dickerson batting leadoff and playing CF with rest of the first team. Homer Bailey, the most important Reds pitcher this year, is starting.

Over the past week or so, Stubbs has dialed up his game. Always a spectacular fielder, as Stubbs has gained major league experience, he has shrugged off problems with "taking charge" that plagued him when he first was called up to the Reds last fall. His spring on-base-percentage is now at .351 (Dickerson is at .400). Stubbs is still striking out at too high a rate for a leadoff hitter, whiffing 11 times in 37 plate appearances.

The Reds now face two squeezes in the outfield. One is for playing time, as four players have had positive springs - Stubbs, Dickerson, Jay Bruce and Jonny Gomes. Gomes has even demonstrated a bit of improved defense.

The second tough decision concerns the last of the five outfield roster slots. Both Laynce Nix and Wladimir Balentien have had productive springs, flashing power and glove. The conventional wisdom is that Nix, as a lefty, has an edge in this battle. But Balentien is out of options, so the Reds would lose him if he doesn't make the 25-man roster.

Top prospect Chris Heisey was cut and sent to the minor league camp. He had shown glimpses of why the Reds and other scouts are so high on him, though.

Hopes: To see Stubbs and Dickerson play side-by-side in the OF, with Dickerson in LF, and equally importantly, Dickerson leading off. Stubbs should bat sixth behind Jay Bruce.

Starting Pitchers: Fifth spot remains uncertain
Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey have all turned in solid springs thus far, ready to head back to Cincinnati assured of the top four spots in the starting rotation. But what of the fifth spot? Who is going to pitch April 11 in Great American Ball Park against the Chicago Cubs?

Just as an answer was forcing itself upon the Reds management, this happened.

Aroldis Chapman's back spasms have thrown the Reds 5th SP slot into turmoil. Matt Maloney seemed to be earning it for a while. But apparently the party line is that he is now being looked at for the bullpen, which is a polite way of saying he will start the year in the minor leagues.

The youthful duo of Travis Wood (LHP) and Mike Leake (RHP) have seemed tied together this spring. Not only have they pitched on the same day, but their performances have paralleled each other, with their last outings in San Francisco bringing expectations back down to the proper place. This Friday may turn out to be particularly important, when both Wood and Leake will pitch on the road against Seattle. Leake will start this time, so he'll face Ichiro, Chone Figgins, etc.

A new name has entered the mix in the press recently, Justin Lehr. This really surprises me as Lehr has been an afterthought in the Reds planning this spring. He hadn't pitched more than two innings at a time prior to Sunday when he faced the Cubs. Lehr's respectable spring ERA and numbers from the game against the Cubs are misleading for two reasons. First, he has been hit pretty hard. Second, against the Cubs he was facing a lineup of AA/AAA players. If he starts for the Reds on April 11, that's a sign the Reds are playing for time, probably to get Aroldis Chapman ready.

Hopes: That Maloney, Wood or Leake will be given the opportunity to take a few big league turns in the rotation. And that Chapman returns to health quickly and is the Reds fifth starter by May 1.

Bullpen: Looks great
The pitchers assigned to the back end of the bullpen -- Coco Cordero, Arthur Rhodes, Nick Massett and Daniel Ray Herrera -- have been fine this spring, particularly Cordero and Rhodes. You can probably count on Micah Owings for one of the two remaining slots, given his unique talent as a pinch hitter. The long relief role is a perfect fit for him.

Hopes: For the continued good health of these pitchers.

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