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Votto Return Imminent ... So What Happens Next?

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The Cincinnati Reds are on a rare off-day for August, in the dead-center of a six-game, seven-day road trip.  The first series against the Arizona Diamondbacks went quite well (a three-game series sweep); the second series is yet to be determined, but it comes against the Houston AAAstros / Lastros / “Desperations”.  If ever there’s a good opponent to “ease” your way back into the lineup, the Astros may be the best possible adversary.  Joey Votto may be back on the active roster by Saturday – news that should come as a surprise, finally, to nobody.

Votto has had two rehab games playing up the road in Dayton for the Dayton Dragons high A team (getting only a handful of plate appearances so far), and every sign points to one more game appearance that will come on Friday.  Friday into Saturday matters for a very important timing reason: the Reds can expand the roster on September 1st to the 40-man roster without having to send down anyone or possibly face releasing someone from the active 25-man roster.  Being on the DL through the August 31 deadline matters for Votto and post-season eligibility for any of the current other 25 members since Votto will get an exemption because of his status.  There is truly no advantage to activating Votto any sooner than the Saturday game in Houston.

Anyone with sensibility knows this team gets better with Joey Votto back and active.  One cannot discount the unreal production and win totals the team has achieved, however, even in his absence.  Knowing the production has come from key members whose lineup presence gets affected by a Votto return does present some good challenges in some ways, possibly negative in others.

The obvious role player whose immediate future gets questioned is Todd Frazier.  Frazier filled in admirably at third base for Scott Rolen while Rolen was down earlier in the season but found himself right back on the bench upon Rolen’s return.  Frazier has also filled in admirably at first base for Joey Votto during this extended absence and may once again find himself on the bench with Votto’s return.  Is this the best place for one of the team’s hottest hitters? The obvious answer is: NO WAY.  Frazier needs a place in the lineup, but where is it going to be? Sure, he’ll displace Rolen again occasionally (couple times a week at least), and he’ll probably get first base time again with Votto getting additional rest days in September (likely once a week).  The only other place to give Frazier remaining starts has to almost assuredly come in the outfield corners (left field being the only place he regularly has played, but right field seemingly a realistic option and/or swapping spots with Ryan Ludwick).

The glaringly obvious weak link in the regular lineup right now is the awfully streaky Drew Stubbs.  If it wasn’t for Stubbs and his generally stellar defense (which is almost assuredly benefited by his well-above-average speed), his horrible offensive production would have long taken him from the lineup.  Stubbs’ August offensive numbers paint a grim picture:

Date G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS
8/1-8/29 27 25 117 107 15 20 1 1 1 4 7 0 42 6 1 .187 .243 .243 .486

Odds are somewhere around “slim and none” that Stubbs is going to be leaving this lineup on a regular basis because the only other regular CF getting playing time is Chris Heisey.  All of the fan talk about moving Jay Bruce from RF to CF is almost assuredly NOT going to happen.  Whether it even should happen or not is probably speculative at best, as Bruce hasn’t played there in years (could play and might even do well, but is it worth it?).  Making an argument for the lesser-defensive option of Heisey may leave one wondering (with far more limited offensive data, but data nonetheless) what he has been doing lately:

Date G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS
8/1-8/29 14 8 37 36 6 12 2 0 3 7 0 0 8 1 0 .333 .351 .639 .990

Doesn’t it feel like Heisey might deserve a little more playing time than Stubbs with that comparison?

In any case, what almost certainly needs to happen on a regular basis is a “return” to what used to be a regular Reds lineup with Votto present in it.  Votto gets the 3 hole – no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  Who proceeds him, who follows him – those may be debatable points.  The cleanup, 4 hole batter should rightfully be the guy who has done it far best while Joey has been gone: Ryan Ludwick.  Meaning, the guy who *had* been acting as cleanup (Brandon Phillips) should move on up – leadoff preferably BUT even possibly a 2 hole guy.  Leadoff has been a ridiculous struggle for this team (see my colleague John Heitz’s piece from earlier this week), so BP fills the spot far better than anyone else has even attempted season-to-date.

What should a “typical” lineup look like? Depends if you have more faith in Frazier or Rolen on a daily basis, but, in a Frazier-first scenario … it could be this:

1 Phillips
2 Frazier
3 Votto
4 Ludwick
5 Bruce
6 Stubbs / Heisey
7 Cozart
8 Hanigan

I’m a bigger proponent of Frazier front-loading this lineup than I thought I’d be on this basis:

Date G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS
8/1-8/29 29 28 117 104 19 35 8 1 6 25 11 0 17 2 0 .337 .402 .606 1.007

Can you say “monstrous”?

Votto returning is a good problem to have.  Let’s just keep that Frazier kid in the lineup.

Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @JDRentz.

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