Friday, February 28, 2014

A 2014 preseason outlook on the outfielders for the Reds

A lot rides on this young man
We wrap up our 2014 preseason preview of the Cincinnati Reds with the outfield today. There is a lot of pressure riding on this unit with the departure of Shin-Soo Choo. The outfield will look a bit different in 2014 with Choo gone, injury returnees, and free agent signings. Can they fill the void left by the Korean on-base machine?

Jay Bruce has been the clear stalwart of this outfield group, giving the Reds six solid years from his left arm. A lot will be expected from his likely Opening Day counterparts, Billy Hamilton and Ryan Ludwick, the center fielder and left fielder respectively. Hamilton obviously has blazing speed, but can he get on base enough to utilize it fully? Ludwick is coming back from shoulder injury suffered on Opening Day of 2013. He played in just 38 games at the end of the year, so hopefully with a full bill of health to start 2014, Ludwick can show glimpses of 2012.

Can the Reds outfield handle the pressure?

Here's a brief preview of the Reds projected outfield:

Key Losses: Shin-Soo Choo (FA to Texas), Xavier Paul (FA to Baltimore), Derrick Robinson (FA)

Key Additions (if that's what you want to call them): Skip Schumaker (FA), Jason Bourgeois (FA), Roger Bernadina (FA)

Jay Bruce - Last year was the first in his career that Bruce didn't increase his home run total. He finished with 30 after hitting 34 in 2012, but no worries as he set career highs in games (160), hits (164), doubles (43), runs (89), RBI (109), and WAR (5.1). Bruce is a star and the most-trusted player in the Reds outfield. He'll be counted on to anchor the group and it looks like he's going to have the opportunity to bat cleanup in 2014 behind Joey Votto, especially against right-handed pitchers. He will have the pressure to drive in a ton of runs, specifically in crucial situations. With Hamilton, Brandon Phillips, and Votto hitting in front of him, he should have plenty of chances to grill up some ribeye steaks.

ESPN Projections - .259 AVG, 31 HR, 105 RBI, 89 R

Billy Hamilton - You know the story with Hamilton. He's a speedster. He has the unenviable task of filling the enormous shoes left behind by Choo. We know he should have no problem patrolling center field for the most part as he has natural instincts and the speed to make up for most mistakes. The question will be whether or not he can maximize his potential on the base paths. Last year, in 123 games at Louisville, he managed just a .308 OBP. That number will have to increase in order to keep the team and the fans happy with him as the leadoff hitter. If he gets on base, we know it won't be a problem. He stole 75 bases for the Bats, and then stole another 13 bags in 13 games in a September call-up with the Reds. Can he handle the pressure to reach?

ESPN Projections - .237 AVG, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 47 R, 56 SB

Ryan Ludwick - As mentioned, Ludwick is trying to rebound from a shoulder injury suffered on Opening Day last year. In his 38 games after returning from injury in 2013, he did not perform well at all. He slashed .240/.293/.326 with two homers and 12 RBI. He has stated that he is feeling very well going into this spring and he seems genuinely like a guy who wants to perform up to his contract. He was a huge part of the team in 2012 when Votto went down to injury and if he can return to something resembling that form, it would be a major boost to a team which could struggle to find consistency on offense. Can he deal with the pressure of turning his performance around coming off of a significant injury?

ESPN Projections - .250 AVG, 13 HR, 53, RBI, 36 R

Chris Heisey - If Hamilton is unable to perform, could Heisey be the man to take the reigns in center field? He's been nothing more than the utility outfielder in his time with the Reds and has had flashes of decent playing time mixed in with mediocrity. He makes a great sub and bench bat, but I'm not sure he can handle the everyday job. The only problem is there aren't really many options after Hamilton. The Reds will be fine if Heisey is needed as nothing more than a pinch hitter and defensive replacement, with the occasional spot start. Can he handle the pressure of being a consistent bench player with the shadow of full-time play looming?

ESPN Projections - .245 AVG, 12 HR, 36 RBI, 42 R

Skip Schumaker - Schumaker will almost certainly make the roster due to his versatility, which allows him to play in the infield and at any of the three outfield spots. He's been mentioned as a possible protection plan for Hamilton if he's not able to cut it in center field this summer. Schumaker is not a great defender, but he is adequate and he can handle a bat decently. He owns a career .285/.344/.372 slash line and reached base at a .332 clip last year, so those are promising numbers. If Schumaker ends up playing the majority of time in center field in 2013 I'm assuming I will not be happy with the results. Can he handle the pressure of being the aging, veteran utility man who could be called upon to start at any given moment?

ESPN Projections - .263 AVG, 2 HR, 28 RBI, 31 R

Roger Bernadina - I have listed Bernadina here because I think he will end up being the 25th man on the roster. A lot of fans got quite excited at the initial news of Bernadina's signing and with good reason. He's only one year removed from a 2012 where he hit .291/.372/.405. Expecting him to return to such production is quite the pipe dream though judging from the rest of his career. Who knows though? As J.P. put it, "Hey! It could happen!" Can Bernadina overcome the pressure to perform well enough to earn a spot with the big league club and then stay put?

ESPN Projections - N/A

Guys we could see later in the season: Bourgeois, Donald Lutz, Ryan LaMarre, Yorman Rodriguez, Thomas Neal, Josh Fellhauer, Kris Negron

Group Grade: C

Final Word: I may be selling the group short, but I'm not impressed. I don't have a ton of faith in the possible players as a whole, other than Bruce; however, the talent is there to make this an above average unit. If Hamilton can't cut it as a full-time starter, might he enjoy a stint in Louisville before returning to Cincinnati later in the year to be used as a valuable bench player or even a starter again? I honestly think Hamilton will play just well enough to hang onto his job for the whole season, but he won't win Rookie of the Year or anything. I'm really not sure on Ludwick. His best years are obviously behind him, but if he can show some power and come up with a few timely hits, the Reds will be alright. One thing is for sure. There will be a watchful eye on the Reds outfield all year long, whether they perform well or not.

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