Thursday, February 27, 2014

A 2014 preseason outlook on the infielders for the Reds

Can Frazier rebound from a "sophomore slump?"
By: Jon Davis
Staff Writer

Today we breakdown the Cincinnati Reds infield group going into the 2014 season. As it has been the last few years the only question is who will be on the Reds bench? The starters are set with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. The only surprise there could come if a surprise Phillips trade surfaces, but I don't expect that to happen.

Looking at the potential bench players the Reds have four guys of note. The two on the 40-man roster are 1B/3B Jack Hannahan and 2B/OF Skip Schumaker. The non roster invitees are 2B/3B Chris Nelson and 2B/SS Ramon Santiago. It appears at first glance that Hannahan and Schumaker are the favorites for the spots given that they are already on the 40-man roster. There does seem to be a hole in that plan though who would be the backup shortstop? Schumaker has never played short in the majors or minors and Hannahan has a grand total of 20 games at short. Chris Nelson has only three games at short in the majors but 532 games in the minors. Which brings us to this years glove first shortstop old guy. In 2012 it was Wilson Valdez, then last year Cesar Izturis and now this year it is Ramon Santiago. One interesting note at least their getting better bats each year, at least if you go by career OPS, Valdez is at .594 then Izturis is .614 and Santiago is at .641.

The real tricky part of trying to figure out who makes this team is Schumaker. Is he the fifth outfielder or sixth infielder? Also maybe the Reds may choose to carry and extra position player. I think the best way to look at this is that there are four bench spots available and three are most likely taken by Heisey, Hannahan and Schumaker. That leaves one spot up for grabs between Nelson, Santiago and the outfield candidates, Bernadina and Bourgeois. So at this point it is anyone's guess what combination will be filling out the Reds bench, well except Jocketty & Price they might have a clue.

Key Losses: Cesar Izturis (Signed with HOU 1/14)

Key Additions: Skip Schumaker (Signed 11/26/13), Chris Nelson (Signed 1/27/14), Ramon Santiago (Signed 1/29/14)

Opening Day Infield:

1B - Joey Votto - After a knee injury hampered him in 2012, Votto last year played in all 162 games. He posted very respectable numbers, hitting .305 with a massive .435 OBP, slugging .491 with a .926 OPS. He scored 101 runs, hit 24 homers and drove in 73 runs. I am not going to go into whether he needs to expand his zone with runners on. I am going to say this, Joey Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball and those 73 RBI's last year seem like an aberration. I am betting some of it had to do with not getting pitches to hit. Last year pitchers would rather challenge Phillips than give Votto anything good to hit. So you could say that the already patient approach by Votto was amplified by not having adequate protection for him in the lineup, as Ludwick and Phillips did not make pitchers want to throw to Joey. That is a problem that seems to have been remedied as Bruce will be hitting behind Votto this year. I expect a big year out of Votto this year, between with the lineup tweek and Votto being a year further away from that knee injury, he will be back closer to his MVP form this year.

2B - Brandon Phillips - Phillips had another very good season just like Votto and just like Votto is taking criticism for something that is being made a bigger deal than it is. Yes Phillips is a low OBP guy but he has always been that. Last year his OBP was .310 down from his career .320. These people aren't taking into consideration that he was hitting in the middle of the lineup and that means drive in runs, he did a great job of that knocking in 103 runs. I feel bad for Phillips, over the last few years he has been bounced up and down the lineup being asked to do different things in different spots. He doesn't complain just goes out there and tries to do what is needed of him on that particular day. Well the good news for Phillips is that it appears he is going to be put in the best situation possible for him this year. He is going to be hitting second right in front of Votto. That should help lead him to having a good year at the plate and as usual he will give the Reds gold glove defense in the field.

SS - Zack Cozart - Well if nothing else you can give Cozart an A for constancy. If you compare 2012 and 2013 you would find not big differences, making it difficult to know what to expect from Cozart this year. He is heading into his age 28 season and while his numbers the last two year haven't been bad, they are still a lot lower than I was expecting from him. This is I think a make or break year for him. Is this the best we are going to get? A good defender with a little pop at the plate? I think a better question is what happened to the guy who stole 30 bases at Louisville in 2010. He has never been caught stealing in the majors but in two years has only attempted four steals?? Well I think only time will tell but it does seem that at worse we can count on him to provide good defense at short, while hitting around .250 with 10-15 homers.

3B - Todd Frazier - Todd Frazier's 2013 can be summed up in two words, Sophomore Slump. In 2013 he had a slash line of .234/.314/.407/.721, while hitting 19 homers and driving in 73 RBI's. It was a far cry from the numbers he put up in 2012. Now 2013 wasn't all bad he did greatly improve his defense, using Fangraphs UZR he went from a 2.1 in 2012 to a 9.7 last year. Another positive was that Frazier lowered his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate. The culprit at least to a certain degree was a large drop in his BABIP going from .316 in 2012 to .269 last year. A decrease that big means he was a little unlucky, if not a lot unlucky. Taking all that into account leads to only one logical conclusion, Frazier is likely to have a bounce back year in 2014.

Expected Bench Players:

1B/3B - Jack Hannahan - What is there to say about Hannahan? The offensive numbers weren't glowing last year but when you spend most of your time pinch hitting it is hard to get into a groove. Barring injury he will serve the same role he did last year backing up Votto and Frazier. He is a good defender and will also be the primary left handed bat off the bench.

2B/OF - Skip Schumaker - Schumaker will be the super utility guy for the Reds this year. He is capable of playing in both the infield and outfield. He is a solid hitter but has little to no power depending on who you ask. A career .285 hitter with a .344 on base percentage. He will go out there and play hard no matter where his plugged in.

2B/SS - Ramon Santiago - As I mentioned before Santiago is just the next in the line of glove first backup shortstops. He is a switch hitter but is slightly better against right handed pitching. He figures to slide into the role vacated by Izturis and will serve mainly as a backup to Cozart. Santiago making the team is by no means a certainty, or a most likely kind of thing either. The Reds could choose to have Schumaker or Hannahan, or even Billy Hamilton serve as the backup shortstop and go with the extra outfielder.

Guys who could see later on in the season: Donald Lutz, Chris Nelson, Neftali Soto, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Wright, Travis Mattair, Argenis Diaz, Kris Negron, Rey Navarro

Group Grade: A-

Final Word: When looking at this group, you have an MVP candidate like leading the way, then you add to that a perennial gold glover and all star who produces very well at the plate and that's a great start. With the expected bounce back from Frazier and steady production from Cozart added in and you have a top notch infield. When all the dust settles I expect Votto and Phillips to be in the conversation for some more hardware and the Reds infield could be one of the best infields in baseball.

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