During an otherwise quiet offseason for Cincinnati, two news-worthy headlines have shifted the sands between the bases at Great American Ballpark. Upon the promise of seven years, $130 million dollars, and the warmer pastures of Arlington, the Shin-Soo Choo train has departed for the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse. To quell any doubt, Reds GM Walt Jocketty quickly stepped in today to insure his club’s future, and more importantly, to place the seal of approval on the notion of Billy Hamilton: centerfielder of the future.
The present seems less promising.
To borrow a phrase from Boromir of Lord of the Rings fame, one does not simply replace the production of Choo. Arriving on the back of a deal with Cleveland and Arizona last season, Choo immediately filled a need for the playoff bound Reds; the quintessential leadoff hitter consistently set the table for Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce.
Despite his quiet mannerisms, Choo made a lot of noise with his hitting prowess. Playing in all but eight games, he amassed a triple-slash line of .285/.423/.462, placing him second in the league in on-base percentage behind his own teammate in Votto. This propensity for getting on base led to Choo scoring 107 runs, swiping 20 stolen bases, and compiling an OPS (on-base + slugging) 43% better than league average. All told, his offensive WAR (wins above replacement) was the third best total in baseball.
But even that doesn’t accurately measure his value to the 2013 Reds and their playoff run. In his one-year Cincinnati stint, Choo managed to score 15.33% of all Reds runs. He amassed 30% of the team’s total stolen bases. He drew 19.1% of the team’s walks. And he compiled almost 20% of the entire roster’s WAR total.
Billy Hamilton can cover a ton of ground in centerfield. But he can’t cover the tracks left behind by the Soo-Choo Train.
Jocketty has good reason to support Hamilton as the Reds’ present and future. Just last season, he was universally considered one of the 20 best prospects in baseball, and that was before he resurrected the ghost of Tim Raines in October.
Hamilton’s debut was cause for excitement. In 13 games, he hit an incredible .368/.429/.474, stealing 13 bases, posting an OPS+ of 148, and turning in a WAR of 0.7 that, prorated to 162 games, would produce an 8.7 WAR season. That’s MVP-caliber production.
It’s also the smallest of sample sizes.
Hamilton can’t be asked to reproduce that magical October sprint during the span of a marathon season. His BAbip (batting average on balls-in-play), at a ridiculous .467, is unsustainable, and will undoubtedly fall closer to .300 over a larger body of work. Even with Hamilton’s ability to garner infield hits because of his speed, no one in the history of baseball gets on 50% of the time they put wood to leather.
In the minor leagues, Hamilton had yet to prove himself as a constant on-base threat, despite his elite speed. In 123 games for AAA Louisville, the speedster hit just .256/.308/.343. And though his 75 stolen bases points to a skill beyond Choo’s basepath-savvy, he also tallied no more than six home runs. Choo hit 21 in 2013.
Where Hamilton does provide added value is on defense, and obviously, in his stealing ability. Choo was a net-negative in centerfield, where Hamilton seems poised to flourish with his range. And considering that Hamilton was fearlessly stealing bases off Yadier Molina in the downstretch of last season, it seems unlikely that he will be shy taking extra bases.
But Shin-Soo Choo he is not. Not yet. So if Jocketty and the Reds want to return to the playoffs next season in a competitive division, they must look to other players to fill the gap. Unfortunately, the options are slim.
Who replaces that immense value?
The Reds seem to be banking on Ryan Ludwick to make a triumphant return to left field after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. Such thinking is dangerous considering that Ludwick, already 35 years old, has yet to play in 140 games in a season since 2008.
In 38 games last season, Ludwick struggled to regain his pop, batting .240/.293/.326. The once-slugger clubbed only two home-runs, struck out three-times more than he walked, and was rewarded with a WAR of -0.9. Reds’ brass will be quick to hearken back to 2012, when a Ludwick renaissance took the form of a .275/.346/.531 batting line and 26 home runs.
That production is promising. It’s also unlikely to reemerge this season.
From 2009-2011, over a larger sample of games, when Ludwick was younger, and before his shoulder was surgically repaired, his per-season averages looked like this: .251/.321/.409, with 17 HR and an OPS+ at exactly league-average. You can decide which Ryan Ludwick seems more likely to return in 2014. Either way, the result seems unlikely to feel the void left by Choo’s departure.
So where do Walt Jocketty and the Reds go from here? They already allowed Xavier Paul to take his talents elsewhere (he of 97 games in 2013: .244/.339/.402), and Derrick Robinson has also yet to secure a deal with the club. With Christmas days away, the Reds’ wishlist seems obvious; they need an outfielder, an on-base threat, maybe some added umph! to take advantage of the short porch at Great American Ballpark.
Unfortunately, winter is here. And when Santa goes to reach into his supply of available outfielders, he’ll find that the cupboard is bare.
The inventory looks something like this:
- Quintin Berry| An interesting option with only 107 games of MLB service, Berry has hit .268/.339/.371 for Detroit and Boston. His power and defense are limited (in small samples), but he has stolen 24 bases.
- Endy Chavez| The 35-year-old, 12-year veteran might not be an injury risk worth taking. He’s hit .268/.290/.353 in the last three years, hitting only 9 HR and scoring only 74 runs in 244 games.
- Chris Coghlan| The former Rookie-of-the-Year might benefit from a change of scenery. In five years in Miami, he’s produced a .270/.337/.390 line with 162-game averages of 9 HR, 11 SB, and 81 runs.
- Nelson Cruz| The biggest name on the outfield market will garner the biggest price tag. Already 33 with a PED suspension on his ledger, I don’t see the Reds paying top dollar for a player that hit .266/.327/.506 in 109 games last season, especially considering that he’d be a redundant lineup piece alongside Jay Bruce.
- Sam Fuld| The 32-year-old former Ray would be the Anti-Choo. He can’t hit (.234/.314/.330 in TB), but his defense in the outfield has earned him a few Web Gems for the mantle.
- Austin Kearns| At 33 and in decline, Kearns, a Kentucky boy and former Red (2002-2006) would be a great story, but hardly much help. He’s 11 years removed from his best season (according to WAR), and has hit .219 over last three seasons.
- Felix Pie| The Dominican is still young, at 28, but he’s a free agent for a reason. After not touching the majors in 2012, Pie hit terribly for Pittsburgh in 2013. His career OBP is under .300, his career WAR is a net-negative, and he’s slow on the bases.
- Juan Pierre| Pierre is 36, and would look at Hamilton’s youth fondly, but the former stolen-base king is still producing, hitting .281/.322/.342 with 60 SB and 95 runs over the last two seasons. He’d be a solid fourth or fifth outfielder.
- Andres Torres| After being on top of the world in 2010 (WS title, 5.1 WAR), Torres has predictably descended, hitting .232/.315/.336 over the last three seasons. The 35 year-old is averaging only 116 games/season over that span.
With the free-agent market producing such lackluster results, Jocketty can’t expect to find an All-Star outfielder beneath his tree on Wednesday morning. And while fans can dream of a top-notch trade acquisition (think Giancarlo Stanton), that isn’t really Jocketty’s style. He builds from within.
But for now, the answer doesn’t lie within. According to Baseball America, three of the top 10 prospects in the Cincinnati system play outfield positions, including Phillip Ervin, Jesse Winker, and Yorman Rodriguez. Ervin and Winker, especially, grade highly.
Don’t expect to see them in 2014, though. Ervin, a 2013 pick, finished last season in Low-A ball, hitting .331/.425/.564 with 34 runs scored and 14 stolen bases in only 46 games. The potential is there, but the Samford product has a ways to go before he gets the call to the big leagues.
Winker also finished 2013 with great numbers, climbing to Low-A with a line of .301/.402/.475, 21 HR, and 103 BB in 174 games. These are the types of numbers the Reds would love to find in a Choo-replacement. But only time (much more of it) will tell if Winker can translate this production as he moves up the ranks.
Rodriguez, on the other hand, has stalled. After 5 years in the system, he still sits no higher than AA, where his reportedly incredible athleticism hasn’t helped him avoid a career OBP of .310, a lack of power, and a strikeout rate three-times greater than his walk rate. If he’s the solution to the Choo-problem, he’s yet to show it.
Which leaves Jocketty in this precarious position. Choo’s absence creates a void that the slight-of-frame Billy Hamilton and all the executive endorsements in southern Ohio can’t fill. And for the first time in Jocketty’s tenure, an easy answer isn’t waiting in Louisville, Pensacola, or the trade market. But he has to get creative. He has to find another threat to hit in front of Joey Votto, to man the outfield grass, to aid in Cincinnati’s quest to stay relevant.
Otherwise, the ticket to a Red October, to the first World Series title since 1990, might have just left on a one-way train to Texas.