Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Problem with Prospects

With Brandon Phillips in a Reds uniform until 2016, the club has a few questions concerning some talented kids down on the farm. The toughest of those questions involve infielders who will soon be knocking on the Reds door. The process of figuring out what you do with your minor league talent is one that every major league club goes through every year, and the same process we saw last year when the Reds decided to part ways with one of their top young players.

Along with Phillips, Joey Votto is also locked into a newly signed long term deal. One that secures the first base position for the Reds until the year 2023. Before Votto's massive contract was signed fans presumed that the Reds were holding on to Yonder Alonso as insurance in case Votto was enticed to a big market after he hit free agency. Last season Alonso was given time in left field, a dual purpose move that was read as an attempt to get him in the lineup any way possible and serve as a chance for Alonso to see major league pitching. That was not the Reds plan. What they were really doing was seeing if Alonso could develop the defense necessary to be their long term solution in left field. You know the rest of the story.

With Phillips extension you can expect to see more of the same. Youngsters are going to come up out of the minors and finally get their shot at the show, but be forced to adapt to a position they're unfamiliar with to see if they can stick.

Billy Hamilton is so fast, he can bend space and time
Twenty-one year old Billy Hamilton is considered to be one of the Reds top prospects and for good reason. The minor league short stop's 2011 season for the Single A Dayton Dragons was electric. Billy hit .278, batting in 50 RBIs and racking up a jaw dropping 103 stolen bases. That's not a typo. His 2011 year had many Reds fans drooling and had some drawing comparisons to the god of stolen bases himself, Rickey Henderson.

Meanwhile in the majors, short stop Zack Cozart's campaign was cut short with a hyper-extended elbow, leaving many to wonder whether his hot start, hitting .324 in 37 plate appearances, was just smoke and mirrors. Cozart's hasn't dissapointed yet this season with 7 hits in 14 plate appearances, two doubles, a triple, and a hitting streak. Of course the sample size is still small, but even members of the non-Cincinnati media are paying attention, with many saying he's the real deal. If Cozart continues his ways, what's the fate of Billy Hamilton? One solution could be moving him to center field, a position currently owned by Drew Stubbs. Stubbs is one of the fastest players in baseball and one hell of a defender but lacks plate discipline and is easily fooled by pitchers. He hit .243 last year, striking out 205 times. The third most in the history of baseball. Don't be surprised to see Hamilton slowly get more starts in center as the season progresses.

Didi could be the real deal. But where does he fit?

Pensacola's Didi Gregorious had a great spring. He had 15 at bats in 20 games, hit .300, only struck out five times and continues to do well down in AA. There was rumor that the Reds were going to begin moving him to second base, but with Phillips locking up the position for the next 6 years, Didi seems like he might be the odd man out if he continues to develop. The 22 year old lefty hitter could be on the fast track to AAA this season and up in the majors in a few years, but the problem is that there's no spot for him to fill in the future. He's got good reflexes, a glove to match and could be projected to play third base in the majors...but there's a problem there also, and it's name is Todd Frazier.

Don't plan on Frazier being in this uniform for long

It's obvious that the Reds believe in Frazier. When spring ended, nearly everyone had Fraizer set in stone as joining the big league club. People were even more convinced after fellow third baseman Juan Francisco was shipped to Atlanta in exchange for relief pitcher JJ Hoover. But because of problems in the pen Frazier was once again starting the season in Louisville. Frazier had a very good spring and looked like he was turning a corner, batting .291 with a .339 OBP and 5 home runs while appearing in more games (27) and getting more at bats (55) than anyone else on the roster, further proof that Frazier has been turning heads in the Reds organization, more so than his demotion to AAA would suggest. Frazier is being groomed to replace veteren Scott Rolen onee he retires. You can expect Frazier to be up with the big league club sooner rather than later. His ability to play both left field and third base will have him seeing plenty of playing time on the field, and his ability to hit off the bench will have him seeing even more at bats once he makes the trip up north.

Neftali Soto had a monstrous 2011, hitting .272 in 102 games with 30 homers, 76 RBIs and was twice named the Southern League player of the week while in AA Carolina. Soto didn't falter when he moved up to play four games in Louisville, getting 7 hits in 17 plate appearances (.412) and driving in four more RBIs. But Soto could see himself having the same fate as Yonder Alonso. The right handed slugger also primarily plays first base, but can also play some third and I wouldn't be surprised to see him shifted over to the hot corner in AAA when Frazier gets promoted. The problem then lies that both positions he plays are already filled on the Reds roster. Soto could make a shift to left field and come up and see some playing time there when rosters expand in September, but the results would most likely be the same as Alonso's. Barring that, his bat makes that experiment worth a shot, even if a short lived MLB calling would only serve as a stage for putting his bat on display in front of other team's scouts.

With three quarters of the major league infield seemingly in place, there's simply not enough room for everyone when they'll be ready to be promoted. Some players could be comfortably moved to a new spot, and others will stammer and fail when fielding new positions. In a market that over values prospects more than ever, Walt is going to make some moves and not all of our talent will be here for long. Some of them will move on to other teams and have great careers, which will be used as ammunition for bashing the front office. Others will be traded for proven players and then fail to develop, allowing some fans to point out the genius of Walt Jocketty. Few will ever wear a Reds uniform for a significant amount of time. The trick is knowing who will develop that you can use and cashing in those you can't while their ceilings are as high as possible..

After signing proven stars and good young players long term, the Reds have sent a message to the rest of baseball: We want a World Series. Making the right decisions regarding prospects is what will put this team over the top. It's going to be a bumpy ride and you'll see many good players leave the organization. But that's the business of baseball. And more importantly, that's the business of contending. There has never been a World Series won without tough decisions being made. 

No comments: